Barry Humphries (Dame Edna to You, Possums) Is Dead at 89
Oh, Possums, Dame Edna is no more.
To be unflinchingly precise, Barry Humphries, the Australian-born actor and comic who for almost seven decades brought that divine doyenne of divadom, Dame Edna Everage, to delirious, dotty, disdainful Dadaist life, died on Saturday in Sydney. He was 89.
His death was confirmed by the hospital where he had spent several days after undergoing hip surgery. In a tribute message posted on Twitter, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese of Australia praised Mr. Humphries as “a great wit, satirist, writer and an absolute one-of-kind.”
A stiletto-heeled, stiletto-tongued persona who might well have been the spawn of a ménage à quatre involving Oscar Wilde, Salvador Dalí, Auntie Mame and Miss Piggy, Dame Edna was not so much a character as a cultural phenomenon, a force of nature trafficking in wicked, sequined commentary on the nature of fame.
For generations after the day she first sprang to life on the Melbourne stage, Dame Edna reigned, bewigged, bejeweled and bejowled, one of the longest-lived characters to be channeled by a single performer. She toured worldwide in a series of solo stage shows and was ubiquitous on television in the United States, Britain, Australia and elsewhere.
A master improviser (many of Dame Edna’s most stinging barbs were ad-libbed) with a face like taffy, Mr. Humphries was widely esteemed as one of the world’s foremost theatrical clowns.
“I’ve only seen one man have power over an audience like that,” the theater critic John Lahr told him, after watching Dame Edna night after night in London. “My father.” Mr. Lahr’s father was the great stage and cinematic clown Bert Lahr.
Mr. Humphries conceived Edna in 1955 as Mrs. Norm Everage, typical Australian housewife. “Everage,” after all, is Australian for “average.”
Housewife, Superstar, National Treasure
But Edna soon became a case study in exorbitant amour propre, lampooning suburban pretensions, political correctness and the cult of celebrity, and acquiring a damehood along the way. A “housewife-superstar,” she called herself, upgrading the title in later years to “megastar” and, still later, to “gigastar.”
In Britain, where Mr. Humphries had long made his home, Dame Edna was considered a national treasure, a paragon of performance art long before the term was coined.
In the United States, she starred in a three-episode series, “Dame Edna’s Hollywood,” a mock celebrity talk show broadcast on NBC in the early 1990s, and was a frequent guest on actual talk shows.
She performed several times on Broadway, winning Mr. Humphries a special Tony Award, as well as Drama Desk and Theater World Awards, for “Dame Edna: The Royal Tour,” his 1999 one-person show.
In her stage and TV shows, written largely by Mr. Humphries, Dame Edna typically made her entrance tottering down a grand staircase (Mr. Humphries was more than six feet tall) in a tsunami of sequins, her hair a bouffant violet cloud (she was “a natural wisteria,” she liked to say), her evening gown slit to the thigh to reveal Mr. Humphries’s surprisingly good legs, her body awash in jewels, her eyes agape behind sprawling rhinestone glasses (“face furniture,” she called them).
Addressing the audience, she delivered her signature greeting, “Hellooooo, Possums!”
By turns tender and astringent, Dame Edna called audience members “possums” often. She also called them other things, as when, leaning across the footlights, she would address a woman in the front row in a confiding, carrying voice: “I know, dear. I used to make my own clothes, too.”
Performances concluded with Dame Edna flinging hundreds of gladioli into the crowd, no mean feat aerodynamically. “Wave your gladdies, Possums!” she exhorted audience members who caught them, and the evening would end, to music, with a mass valedictory swaying.
Between the “Hellooooo” and the gladdies, Dame Edna’s audiences were treated to a confessional monologue deliciously akin to finding oneself stranded in a hall of vanity mirrors.
There was commentary on her husband and children (“I made a decision: I put my family last”); her beauty regimen (“Good self-esteem is very important. I look in the mirror and say, ‘Edna, you are gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous’”); and the constellation of luminaries who routinely sought her counsel, among them Queen Elizabeth II and her family. (“I’ve had to change my telephone number several times to stop them ringing me.”)
Dame Edna’s TV shows were often graced by actual celebrity guests, including Zsa Zsa Gabor, Charlton Heston, Sean Connery, Robin Williams and Lauren Bacall.
They came in for no less of a drubbing than the audience did, starting with the inaugural affront, the affixing of immense name tags to their lapels — for eclipsed by the light of gigastardom so close at hand, who among us would not be reduced to anonymity?
“Chuck,” Mr. Heston’s name tag read. Ms. Gabor received two: a “Zsa” for the right shoulder and a “Zsa” for the left.
A few pleasantries were exchanged before Dame Edna moved in for the kill.
“You’ve had nine hits this year,” she purred fawningly at the singer-songwriter Michael Bolton on one of her British TV shows. “On your website.”
Turning to the audience after delivering a particularly poisonous insult, she would ooze, “I mean that in the most caring way.”
Those guests who emerged relatively unscathed had the savvy to take Dame Edna at face value and interact with her as though she were real. The moment he donned those rhinestone glasses, Mr. Humphries often said, Dame Edna became real to him too, an entirely separate law unto herself.
‘I Wish I’d Thought of That’
“I’m, as it were, in the wings, and she’s onstage,” he explained in a 2015 interview with Australian television. “And every now and then she says something extremely funny, and I stand there and think, ‘I wish I’d thought of that.’”
But the truly funny thing, Possums, is that when Mr. Humphries first brought Dame Edna to life, he intended her to last only a week or so. What was more, she was meant to have been played by the distinguished actress Zoe Caldwell.
Mr. Humphries created a string of other characters over the years, notably the boorish, bibulous Australian cultural attaché Sir Les Patterson. But it was Dame Edna, the outlandish aunt who engenders adoration and mortification in equal measure, who captivated the public utterly — despite the fact that in later years, her mortification-inducing lines sometimes landed her, and her creator, in trouble.
So fully did Mr. Humphries animate Edna that he was at continued pains to point out that he was neither a female impersonator in the conventional sense nor a cross-dresser in any sense.
“Mr. Humphries, do you ever have to take your children aside and explain to them why you like to wear women’s clothes?” an American interviewer once asked him.
“If I were an actor playing Hamlet,” he replied, “would I have to take my children aside and say I wasn’t really Danish?’”
By all accounts far more erudite than Dame Edna — he was an accomplished painter, bibliophile and art collector — Mr. Humphries, in a sustained act of self-protection, always spoke of her in the third person.
She did likewise. “My manager,” she disdainfully called him. (She also called Mr. Humphries “a money-grubbing little slug” and accused him of embezzling her fortune. He did, it must be said, cash a great many of her checks.)
But as dismissive of her creator as Dame Edna was, she rallied to his aid when he very likely needed her most: after years of alcoholism culminated in stays in psychiatric hospitals and at least one brush with the law.
‘I Hated Her’
John Barry Humphries was born in Kew, a Melbourne suburb, on Feb. 17, 1934. His father, Eric, was a prosperous builder; his mother, Louisa, was a homemaker.
From his earliest childhood in Camberwell, a more exclusive suburb, he felt oppressed by the bourgeois conformism that enveloped his parents and their circle, and depressed by his mother’s cold suburban propriety.
Dame Edna was a response to those forces.
“I invented Edna because I hated her,” Mr. Humphries was quoted as saying in Mr. Lahr’s book “Dame Edna Everage and the Rise of Western Civilization: Backstage With Barry Humphries” (1992). “I poured out my hatred of the standards of the little people of their generation.”
Dame Edna emerged when the young Mr. Humphries, under the sway of Dadaism, was performing with a repertory company based at the University of Melbourne; he had dropped out of the university two years before.
On long bus tours, he entertained his colleagues with the character of Mrs. Norm Everage — born Edna May Beazley in Wagga Wagga, Australia, sometime in the 1930s — an ordinary housewife who had found sudden acclaim after winning a nationwide competition, the Lovely Mother Quest.
Unthinkable as it seems, Edna was dowdy then, given to mousy brown hair and pillbox hats. But she was already in full command of the arsenal of bourgeois bigotries that would be a hallmark of her later self.
For a revue by the company in December 1955, Mr. Humphries wrote a part for Edna, earmarked for Ms. Caldwell, an Australian contemporary. But when she proved too busy to oblige, he donned a dress and played it himself. After Edna proved a hit with Melbourne audiences, he performed the character elsewhere in the country.
By the end of the 1950s, hoping to make a career as a serious actor, Mr. Humphries had moved to London, where Edna met with little enthusiasm and was largely shelved. (She blamed Mr. Humphries ever after for her lack of early success there.)
Mr. Humphries played Mr. Sowerberry, the undertaker, in the original West End production of the musical “Oliver!” in 1960, and reprised the role when the show came to Broadway in 1963.
But though he worked steadily during the ’60s, he was also in the fierce grip of alcoholism. Stays in psychiatric hospitals, he later said, were of no avail.
His nadir came in 1970, when he awoke in a Melbourne gutter to find himself under arrest.
With a doctor’s help, Mr. Humphries became sober soon afterward; he did not take a drink for the rest of his life. He dusted off Dame Edna and, little by little, de-dowdified her. By the late ’70s, with celebrity culture in full throttle, she had given him international renown and unremitting employment.
Edna did not seduce every critic. Reviewing her first New York stage show, the Off Broadway production “Housewife! Superstar!!,” in The New York Times in 1977, Richard Eder called it “abysmal.”
Nor did Edna’s resolute lack of political correctness always stand her, or Mr. Humphries, in good stead. In February 2003, writing an advice column as Dame Edna in Vanity Fair, he replied to a reader’s query about whether to learn Spanish.
“Who speaks it that you are really desperate to talk to?” Dame Edna’s characteristically caustic response read. “The help? Your leaf blower? Study French or German, where there are at least a few books worth reading, or, if you’re American, try English.”
A public furor ensued, led by the Mexican-born actress Salma Hayek, who appeared on the magazine’s cover that month. Vanity Fair discontinued Dame Edna’s column not long afterward.
In an interview with The Times in 2004, Mr. Humphries was unrepentant.
“The people I offended were minorities with no sense of humor, I fear,” he said. “When you have to explain the nature of satire to somebody, you’re fighting a losing battle.”
Mr. Humphries drew further ire after a 2016 interview with the British newspaper The Telegraph in which he denounced political correctness as a “new puritanism.” In the same interview, he described people who transition from male to female as “mutilated” men, and Caitlyn Jenner in particular as “a publicity-seeking ratbag.”
Sailing Above the Fray
Dame Edna, for her part, appeared to sail imperviously through. She returned to Broadway in 2004 for the well-received show “Dame Edna: Back With a Vengeance” and in 2010 with “All About Me,” a revue that also starred the singer and pianist Michael Feinstein.
As herself — it was she, and not Mr. Humphries, who was credited — Dame Edna played the recurring character Claire Otoms (the name is an anagram for “a sitcom role”), an outré lawyer, on the Fox TV series “Ally McBeal.”
Under his own name, Mr. Humphries appeared as the Great Goblin in “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” (2012); as the voice of Bruce, the great white shark, in “Finding Nemo” (2003); and in other pictures.
Mr. Humphries’s books include the memoirs “More Please” (1992) and “My Life as Me” (2002) and the novel “Women in the Background” (1995). He was named a Commander of the British Empire in 2007.
Dame Edna also wrote several books, among them “Dame Edna’s Bedside Companion” (1983) and the memoir “My Gorgeous Life” (1989).
Mr. Humphries’s first marriage, to Brenda Wright, ended in divorce, as did his second, to Rosalind Tong, and his third, to Diane Millstead. He had two daughters, Tessa and Emily, from his marriage to Ms. Tong, and two sons, Oscar and Rupert, from his marriage to Ms. Millstead.
The Sydney Morning Herald reported that his survivors include his wife of 30 years, Lizzie Spender, the daughter of the British poet Stephen Spender, as well as his children and 10 grandchildren.
Mr. Humphries continued to perform until last year, when he toured Britain (as himself) with a one-man show, “The Man Behind the Mask.” He returned to Australia in December for Christmas.
Dame Edna’s husband, Norm, a chronic invalid “whose prostate,” she often lamented, “has been hanging over me for years,” died long ago. Her survivors include an adored son, Kenny, who designed all her gowns; a less adored son, Bruce; and a despised daughter, the wayward Valmai. (“She steals things. Puts them in her pantyhose. Particularly frozen chickens when she’s in a supermarket.”)
Another daughter, Lois, was abducted as an infant by a “rogue koala,” a subject Dame Edna could bring herself to discuss with interviewers only rarely.
Though the child was never seen again, to the end of her life Dame Edna never gave up hope she would be found.
“I’m looking,” she told NPR in 2015. “Every time I pass a eucalyptus tree I look up.”
Constant Meheut contributed reporting.