After more than 60 years in entertainment, Australian housewife turned gigastar Dame Edna Everage is mothballing her frocks and cancelling the weekly supply of gladioli.
At the end of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Prospero, whose “charms are all o’erthrown”, begs applause of the audience in order to set himself free:
“But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands:
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please.”
Barry Humphries dabbled in Shakespeare (he would have made a marvellous Falstaff) and he played Estragon in Australia’s first production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. In 1960 he was cast in the role of the undertaker Mr Sowerberry for the original London stage production of Oliver! and in 1967 he starred as Fagin in the Piccadilly Theatre’s revival, which featured a young Phil Collins as the Artful Dodger. And in 1968 the anarchic Spike Milligan invited him to play Long John Silver in a stage production of Treasure Island. Nearly fifty years of reckless good humour followed.
But now he is retiring, bringing his long theatrical and television career to an end with “Dame Edna’s Glorious Goodbye: The Farewell Tour”. Humphries will devote whatever time he has left to painting (he says he is an extremely good amateur) and writing. Unlike his alter ego, Sir Les Patterson – Australia’s Cultural Attaché to the Court of St James’s – Humphries has a taste for art, poetry and language, nowhere more evident than in his autobiography My Life as Me: A Memoir (2002).
Dame Edna’s “Farewell Tour” has already played the London Palladium and provincial theatres in England and is currently in select venues in the USA and Canada. As Humphries said in an interview with The Huffington Post:
“I have to say goodbye sooner or later. And the name America keeps cropping up in the news. And there are a lot of people in the world who haven’t the faintest idea what it’s like. So in a way, I’m helping to put America on the map and let the world know what a nice place it is, and above all, what lovely people live there.”
In 1982, Humphries was made an Officer of the Order of Australia for services to the theatre and in 2007 a Commander of the Order of the British Empire for services to entertainment. On 7 March 2007 Melbourne renamed a city street Dame Edna Place (formerly Brown Alley off Little Collins Street). It was officially opened by the Lord Mayor of Melbourne. Dame Edna Place can be found opposite Royal Arcade and The Causeway, between Elizabeth Street and Swanston Street. It is a service alley.
Humphries is ambivalent about fame. In his autobiography he writes:
“Having found my way into Madame Tussaud’s, where Dame Edna’s effigy has now reposed since the early eighties, I occasionally experience the nightmare of being melted down. When they first honoured the Dame by placing her on exhibition at that famous attraction, I wondered who had been summarily displaced. Perhaps a whole sixties rock group, a discredited politician or an insufficiently titillating serial killer? If one is reconstituted from the kneecaps of, say, the Pretty Things, Ho Chi Minh or Adolf Eichmann, what similar indignity lies ahead for me? It is a fine thing to be wax, but to wane…?”
The demons that pursued Barry Humphries from Australia to international stardom are still present, but no worries. With a lifetime’s gleefully irreverent humour behind him, Dame Edna need not beg for applause.