Q&A: Though her purple hair shows no silver, Dame Edna prepares to retire
Barry Humphries sat at a table overlooking the pool of his Beverly Hills hotel and blew his nose. He had just arrived from his home in London and was suffering with a common cold — something it’s hard to imagine ever getting the better of his imperious (and better known) alter ego, Dame Edna.
But even under the weather, Humphries, an Australian gentleman of prodigious build and even more prodigious wit, couldn’t resist unleashing a fusillade of delicious quips and subversive sallies.
While popular in the U.S., Dame Edna is a household name in much of Britain and large swaths of the Commonwealth. The bossy Melbourne hausfrau with the cat’s-eye glasses and the lavender wig can legitimately claim the queen of England as a fan.
For his service to entertainment in and out of a fuchsia gown, Humphries, the inexhaustible font of Edna’s dictatorial repartee, was made a Commander of the British Empire. A singing comic rooted in music hall tradition, he is also a disciple of Oscar Wilde, issuing satiric paradoxes with the same gusto with which Edna tosses gladioli into her audiences. His comedy is dependably outrageous, occasionally offensive and delivered with the verbal dexterity of a performer who is also an author, avid reader of poetry and collector of rare books.
Now 80, Humphries has decided to bring Dame Edna’s theatrical globe-trotting to an end with “Dame Edna’s Glorious Goodbye: The Farewell Tour,” which opens Wednesday at the Ahmanson Theatre. Humphries isn’t going away exactly. He’s merely making room for his painting (he describes himself as “an extremely good amateur”) and various writing projects — though performing, he insists, is his true métier, leaving hope that perhaps his other characters may get the chance to finally step out of Dame Edna’s shadow.
Is this really Dame Edna’s final tour?
When you challenge an artist about whether or not he’s retiring, the artist will often become a bit evasive. I must say that I can’t keep up touring. I have got to a point in my life, I confess this to you and your many readers shamelessly, when very occasionally I have to get up in the middle of the night, wander around, occasionally visit the bathroom. And in strange hotels, you crash into walls, you trip over suitcases — it can’t go on.
Don’t tell me Dame Edna is starting to show her age?
I haven’t noticed a great deal. Because she has natural purple hair, it’s hard to see the silver threads. We don’t get on very well. Dame Edna is in litigation with me.
Is she a demanding traveling companion?
She travels very lightly. She doesn’t have a large entourage of sycophants — your readers understand these words? I think she travels only with a gynecologist. She likes to be in very good condition for her audiences, and she has an exploratory before every performance. No minders — she’s a black belt. No one will assault her.
She must be very excited to return to L.A.
She has performed successfully for many years in Los Angeles and most recently, of course, at the Ahmanson, which suits her very well. She enjoys seeing her peer group, who always flock. Oddly enough, Dame Edna is not interested in show business. Her friends in Los Angeles are mostly in the world of petroleum. She used to have some acting friends. Sadly, Joan Rivers has passed on. Larry Hagman was a close friend. A number of others.
Where have you performed the show so far?
This farewell tour began about two years ago in Australia. It played the major cities and then toured London and all over England. Prince Charles and all of the royal family came. And now it’s America’s turn. As Edna likes to say, “This is our world premiere after provincial tryouts in London.”
That’s quite an honor for us.
Well, I always like to be in Los Angeles. I’m a fan of the city. A lot of people disparage Los Angeles. A friend of mine from Melbourne who has done quite well in the newspaper business called Rupert Murdoch has described Los Angeles as the cultural capital of the world. The fact is, including you and me, some of the smartest people are here, aren’t they? And you work for one of the few decent newspapers. When you think what’s happened to the press, particularly in Britain.
In addition to being a performer, you are also a painter and a writer — and a great bibliophile. Your house in London, I’m told, is full of books.
I’m afraid so. I’ve only been 24 hours in Los Angeles and I’ve already bought a lot of books at one of the very few remaining booksellers, down on Beverly. It’s called Houle, George Houle, a famous bookseller. I lament the lack of bookshops. People say, “Well, can’t you get it online?” Where’s the fun? You buy one book online, but you walk into a bookstore and you might walk out with six. And you can pick people up in bookshops.
What do you like to read?
Mostly poetry and late 19th century literature and ghost stories.
I must confess that, as a gay person, when I first encountered your comic brilliance, I made the assumption that the man behind the drag act must be gay.
All gay people think that because they want the whole world to be gay, and the less sophisticated colleagues of yours would prefer to think that indeed everyone was gay. I think of myself as an actor. The duty of an actor is to be able to impersonate anything — a child, an old man, a tree, a chair, a woman.
Edna isn’t the only character you’ve created, but she is by far the most popular.
Edna has been the most persistent, and believe me, my dear, I’ve tried to get rid of her many times. Assassination attempts have been made, but like Fidel Castro, who has been given explosive cigars and poison, Edna survives.
What is the secret of her staying power?
She has this tremendous enthusiasm. She’s an authority on everything for the simple reason that she knows nothing about anything.
How did Edna come about?
In Edna I created a satiric portrait of my hometown of Melbourne, a large provincial English city paradoxically in far Southeast Asia. She’s a theatrical figure, related to vaudeville in some respects. She inhabits a world in which there are comparatively few female exponents of comedy. We think of Carol Burnett and [Bette] Midler and Joan Rivers, of course.
Joan Rivers was a big fan of yours, wasn’t she?
I have to thank Joan Rivers for the fact that you and I are sitting here, because I did a show in London sometime in the ‘90s, and it was a terrible disaster. I got it wrong. It was a musical. It had wonderful ideas, but it didn’t work. Joan came and liked it. I rang her and asked her what she thought I should do next, and she told me to come to America. She gave me the name of a theater manager in San Francisco, and I got a two-week engagement that ran for months and transferred to Broadway. I won the Tony, and I have only Joan Rivers to thank. She was a most generous woman. She’s greatly missed, and I’m rather angry about her death.
Did you feel early on that you had to leave Australia to crack the big time?
I was doing quite well in Melbourne in my youth, and something told me that if I stayed I would have become world famous in Melbourne and then I’d be too scared to do anything else. So I decided to go to England and learn more about my job, and I ended up performing in musicals all through the ‘60s.
Do you write all your own material?
I work with a couple of musical people because I like to sing songs. I can’t sing very well, but I sing in a way that people accept. I hope one day you can see one of my shows where I have a range of different characters. When Edna retires they can step into place. There’s Les Patterson, who’s very drunk and very famous for a very large genitalia that’s visible to the audience after a long perusal. He’s an Australian diplomat who has been complained about in Parliament. It was said that I was presenting Australia in an unfavorable light. And then I do a ghost named Sandy. He’s an old suburban fellow, and it was an experiment some many years ago to see how much an audience could take of a monologue with no perceptible jokes
What was the reaction?
Hilarity. It’s all about living in the suburbs in Australia when he was alive. His wife is still alive in some nursing home, so we hear about her activities or lack of them. It’s a sort of Beckett-like character. I’ve played Beckett. I put on in the 1950s the first Australian production of “Waiting for Godot.” I played Estragon. The most interesting conversation I’ve had about Beckett was with a Dublin taxi driver.
Doesn’t surprise me.
I got into trouble in Dublin not long ago. They wanted to give me the James Joyce Award for service to literature. So I went over and gave a talk and in the course of my talk, to a university audience, I said the recent prosperity of Ireland was not a good thing. That prosperity doesn’t suit the Irish. I liked Dublin when the wattage was low and the streets were shabby. They didn’t like it. One of the newspapers published an editorial complaint that I accepted the James Joyce Award and then dissed the Irish for being successful. It’s true of course.
What raises your hackles these days?
My hackles stopped raising. I decided it’s a waste of time. The worst thing you or I or anyone can be is touchy. Never get a reputation for being touchy — “Oh, be careful with him; he gets a bit touchy.”
But nothing sets you off?
I generally get a bit irritated when someone completely misunderstands what I’m doing. This happened, funnily enough, some years ago when Dame Edna was invited by Graydon Carter to write an agony column in Vanity Fair. It was going on fine with people real and imaginary. Dear Dame Edna, I have a problem. Can you help me? So on one occasion someone said — and it was a real question and I think by someone who thought Dame Edna was a real person — I want to learn a foreign language. I’m thinking of Spanish. Is this a good idea? And Edna replied: Why learn Spanish? Who would you talk to? The help? The leaf blower? She said: I’ve heard that there are some Spanish writers like Lorca and Cervantes, but forget about that. If you’re an American and want to learn a language, try English. Now if ever a reply was more clearly satirical, that was. That issue had Salma Hayek on the cover. Beautiful Salma read this and accused Dame Edna of extreme racism. She galvanized a few poor old Spaniards who didn’t even read it and there were threats — Graydon Carter got death threats. He had to publish an apology and an explanation about the nature of satire. He said, you know, it’s the kind of humor that you say the opposite of what you mean. And, in fact, Dame Edna’s answer to this correspondent was a satire on racial bigotry, but Salma didn’t get that. So my column ended. That was one of the things that really got under my skin. Having to explain humor to people — you know you’ll lose when you have to explain a joke.
Have you run into trouble in the past with feminist critics?
Edna couldn’t be more politically incorrect, and I really rub it in on stage. Finally they crumble. After all, Edna has a gay son whom she refuses to acknowledge as a gay son.
How is Kenny these days?
Very well and still designing lovely dresses for Edna.
What can we expect from the new show?
With any luck some new jokes and some jokes that are so old you won’t remember hearing them before. You will see an old actor, a very experienced comic actor, having a good time
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