Rarely Everage: The Lives of Barry Humphries. National Portrait Gallery at Old Parliament House,December 16, 2002 until February 16, 2003.
Dame Edna Everage, wife of Norm Everage (deceased), first took to the stage in high dudgeon. According to her own autobiography My Gorgeous Life, when callow 1950's university student, Barry Humphries, invited her to watch a rehearsal, his portrayal of a housewife was "cynically promoted by a man 'en travestie' [italics] who mocks and denigrates all that we stand for and hold sacred". She had no hesitation in showing him how to do it properly, as she has continued to do ever since.
I seem to pry improperly if I write about Humphries separately from Dame Edna, the megastar I know so well on stage and television. But this excellent exhibition gives us permission to know the man whose remarkable artistic creation she is. If she is "rarely everage", Humphries has never been average.
His mother seems to have been very average, giving away his collection of books on the arts, when he was still in his mid-teens, to the Salvation Army, with the justification in the face of his complaints "But you've already read them!" And how could young Barry not develop a satirical view of life when his parents got him a job with a record company - to prevent him from becoming an actor - just as 78s were being replaced by LPs. Every day he was ordered to destroy - literally smash with a hammer - beautiful but now commercially out-of-date recordings of the classical music he had come to love. With friends like his parents ....
Rather than give you mere highlights of the exhibition - after all if you haven't seen it you surely will by February 16 - there is a story behind the display that people should know. Despite Humphries being mentioned in Hansard back in the 1980s as an unacceptable representative of Australia overseas, the public servants who staff the National Portrait Gallery had no hesitation in selecting him to be the first in a projected series of exhibitions that "explore the biography and the achievements of significant Australians".
Assistant Director Simon Elliott, who took the lead role in negotiating, collecting and designing the exhibition deserves our accolades for showing us not a "still life" portrait but a moving picture of Humphries as a child growing into a theatrical artist of stature.
In creating Bazza McKenzie, Sir Les Paterson, Dame Edna, and many others, but especially the gentle spirit of Alexander Horace 'Sandy' Stone, Humphries has placed Australians in a universal context. The display of paintings, sculpture, photos, costumes, scripts, letters, posters and video elicits Humphries' humanity and intellect. His honorary doctorates from Melbourne and Griffith Universities are thoroughly justified; his Order of Australia makes obvious sense; his Special Tony Award and Critics Award just go without saying.
In his commitment to his art, to the integrity of his characters and the stand they represent in the face of shallow morality, we see Humphries' human understanding. We discover, too, his struggle with the inevitable thoughts of failure, perhaps represented in his battle with alcoholism, and with just the sheer hard work needed to make his creations successful, against all advice: first in home-town Melbourne, then in brash Sydney, then in uncomprehending London, then in absolutely impossible New York, and finally even in conservative middle America. In the US Dame Edna is now well recognised and returns shortly for a second mega-tour.
His work is in the Australian tradition of poets like Henry Lawson and Banjo Paterson, comic performers and writers like Roy Rene ('Mo'), C.J.Dennis, and Steele Rudd before him; while Gary Macdonald and Reg Livermore have followed Humphries's court shoes. Norman Gunston is the closest to Dame Edna, but Macdonald's brushes with depression - and his need to divorce himself from a role played out off the conventional stage - have shown how demanding this work is.
We can now recognise Humphries' standing among serious Australian artists with international reputations. His creative work on stage is parallel to that of icons like Sydney Nolan and Patrick White, or Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri and Emily Kame Kngwarreye, representing quite different aspects of Australian culture over his lifetime. Barry Humphries continues the ratbag tradition. At the age of 68, he describes his hobby as "baiting humourless and self-seeking republicans".
Sandy Stone has been compared with Samuel Beckett's characters who forever are Waiting for Godot. Humphries himself played Estragon in his early days in London. Simon Elliott has displayed Humphries' search: he was never one to just wait. But now I wonder who we must wait for to follow Dame Edna when she at last slips away into Sandy Stone's armchair?
© Frank McKone M.A., F.A.C.E.
Return to Frank McKone'sHome Page