Now, I’ve never particularly been a fan of the most famous Australian woman, Dame Edna Everage, but ever since I borrowed My Life As Me from the Reservoir Library I have been a fan of Barry Humphries. So, during Borders’ going-out-of-business sale I picked up a copy of his unauthorised biography of Dame Edna. The conceit of this glorious satire is that Edna is a real person that Barry didn’t make up and hasn’t been pretending to be since the 1960s. The brilliance is that it’s mostly believable and, having read one of his autobiographies, it’s pretty difficult to know exactly where the truths and lies intersect.
The greatest difficulty of this book is knowing exactly where to put it in the bookcase. It is not strictly fiction. Dame Edna has taken on a life of her own and overshadowed her creator for decades. In some ways you read this truly sensing Humphries is getting his vengeance on a creation that has actually overtaken his life. His other, considerable, talents as an actor and writer have been sadly overlooked by those who dismiss him as “that guy who dresses as Edna”. His prose, which I adored in My Life As Me, is as lively and deft as ever here, and his satirical eye as sharp when applied to himself as any other subject in the book, be it Australia, sexuality, Hollywood agents, or his mother. He skewers the evolution of business-speak and jargon such as “wellness” and “in a very real sense” and changes in fashion, design and gastronomy. He will give glorious details about the canned soup served in Melbourne restaurants in the 1960s, the “continental” addition of cretins (croutons) in later years, and how Enda has “always” favoured semi-dried tomatoes even though their discovery in Australia is newer than parts of her wardrobe. His eye will even give us descriptions of the changing colour palette, from aquamarine to mushroom and soon to be replaced by avocado. His descriptions of Edna’s outfits include the sort of minute details that show the man has spent perhaps a bit too much time thinking about dresses.
This sentence stabs close to the heart of the book’s point: “Safely 13,000 miles away in Melbourne, Edna would never know that I was plagiarising her material in a London nightclub, and like all plagiarists past and present I could always call it an homage, if I was ever found out.” It is not a completely serious attempt by Barry Humphries to divorce himself from the monstrous, profane and much-loved Edna, after all he has mined Edna’s career and family for laughs. There is a grudging recognition, between the entertaining and strident streaks of vitriol, that Humphries has occasionally liked Edna.
Eric Idle, in his wonderful essay on comedy that is disguised as the novel The Road to Mars (fantastic book, by the way: not perfect, but I loved it), explained how comedians could essentially be divided into the categories of the controlling white face versus the chaotic red nose, a concept that dates back to commedia dell’atre. Without getting bogged down in the detail, Barry Humphries is the white face, and Dame Edna is the red nose. She is a clown. Right to the end. Thus, she can say tactless, provocative and, frankly, funny things like “My son Kenny is a poofter, what have I done to deserve this?” She highlights and exploits our prejudices and hypocricies, and has been entertaining and disturbing audiences for decades doing so.
But, reading Handling Edna, it should never be forgotten that Barry Humphries is a clown in his own right. And damn fine one, too.