Here to take Karl Stead to lunch

C.K. Stead

  • Dame Edna Everage and the Rise of Western Civilisation by John Lahr
    Bloomsbury, 242 pp, £14.99, October 1991, ISBN 0 7475 1021 0

I first saw Barry Humphries on stage in the Phillip Street Theatre in Sydney in 1956 or 57, and got to know him in Auckland in the early Sixties after we had both come back from our first visits to London. Barry’s second wife, Rosalind Tong, a dancer, was an Aucklander. Sometimes Barry would put on a lunch-hour show at the University, which was where I first encountered the then rather down-market but already very funny Edna Everage. There was an evening when Barry and Rosalind took my wife and me to a sort of teen-club under the street where there was a band and dancing. We were all aged about thirty and felt out of place; my inclination was to be inconspicuous, but with Barry Humphries for company it was impossible. The Beatles hadn’t yet begun the fashion that allowed men to grow their hair long; and in Australia and New Zealand the short-back-and-sides was almost a moral obligation, as was the jacket and tie. Barry’s hair was long, partly as a protest (his headmaster in Melbourne was given to saying, ‘Long hair is dirty hair’), and partly because at that time this was the hair that came out from under Edna’s hat. He wore an overcoat and no tie, and looked rather like a tramp, and we hadn’t been long at our table before he had made everyone aware of his presence. When the band began something with a strong beat he suddenly launched himself backwards into the crowd.

His dance was extraordinary, jerky, almost spastic, yet perfectly rhythmical, with something of that physicality with which Dame Edna still reminds her audience that she’s really a big energetic male. Someone shouted angrily at Barry, calling him ‘Jesus’; there was a precarious moment in which the mood might have turned hostile; and then by some magic of facial expression he swung it entirely in his favour. The crowd pressed around him clapping rhythmically and cheering him on, while Barry, still leaning backward in his dance and with the bewildered expression of someone not quite sane, but benign, danced with prodigious vigour. When he sat down I felt as if I’d watched someone go over Niagara Falls in a barrel and survive.

Not long after, I wrote a fantasy called ‘A Fitting Tribute’ about a character I called Julian Harp, who solves the problem of engineless flight. He recognises that when a man lies on his stomach and flaps his arms, the wing-tips point forward instead of back like a bird’s: so he must contrive the means to fly lying on his back, and he succeeds, constructing models, and then his final set of wings, out of the struts of umbrellas which he steals, or has his girlfriend steal, from public places. He takes off from the Auckland domain during a gymkhana, watched by a huge crowd, and vanishes out over the Pacific, never to be seen again. His success in flying is soon hailed around the world, and in his absence, presumed dead, Harp becomes a New Zealand hero. Statues and monuments are erected, works of art commissioned, even a religion founded, around the figure of the first man to fly. The story is told by his girlfriend, who has had a child by him. She knows what he was really like and that the sanitised hero who is becoming a national icon bears no resemblance to the real Julian: but when she tries to tell the true story she’s not believed.

The figure of Julian Harp was modelled on Barry Humphries, and the scene I’ve described in the teen-club occurs in the story, as does Humphries’s remark to me that at night the timber houses of Auckland look like lanterns. The story first appeared in the Kenyon Review in the United States, and soon afterwards was translated into Spanish, where it appeared in Reviste de Occidente, and into Hungarian for an anthology of ‘the world’s best stories’. It seemed to me significant that literary persons in a Fascist and a Communist state of that time should both seize on it. New Zealand and Australia were political democracies: but the sense of moral repression, of the crushing weight of propriety, was extraordinarily strong. Barry Humphries’s outrageousness – his dandyism, his Dadaism, his various stage personae – were all aspects of the one rebellion against that oppression. Whatever he has become since, that is where he begins, and it’s possibly the part of his performance least understood in London, which explains in turn the hard struggle he had to get started there.

My recollection of evenings with the Humphries of those years is of waiting for something to happen. In a public place it was likely to be extravagant and theatrical: but among friends it was something I found more to my timid taste. The conversation would take its course for an hour, two hours, much like any other, though lit up from time to time by Barry’s cleverness and wickedness. But then at some point he would launch into a monologue which gathered up and redistributed the threads of what had been said, turning them into parody, sometimes with an edge of satire or malice, always crazy and brilliant. I could usually see it coming, knew that conversational space had to be made for it, and felt like those sweepers in the game of curling who run in front of the stone as it slides over the ice, brushing a path for it. Once I remember inviting an academic who frustrated all my efforts by rushing blindly in to fill every gap in the talk, so that the monologue never happened. There was also a curve that I suppose must have been related to alcohol. After his star turn Barry always seemed depleted and depressed. This was where Rosalind came into her own, laughing, encouraging, reassuring, re-inflating him.

He was a wonderful, incomparable companion. I was sure he must find me very dull, except that we had literature and language as common ground: but I don’t think I recognised just how powerful and terrible in him was that urge towards the outrageous, that picking at the wound of suburban niceness, until he called on a visit in 1966 carrying his huge compilation Bizarre, inscribed to the Steads in a flourishing hand with the Edna-ish motto: ‘Life is a Melody if you’ll only hum the Tune.’ Helplessly suburban myself, like Edna’s New Zealand bridesmaid Madge Allsop, I found its pictures of deformities, Siamese twins, obesity, bearded women, dwarfs and imbeciles, so disturbing I couldn’t get past them to the highly literary texts. I kept the book hidden. Sometimes I thought of tearing out the inscribed page and throwing the rest away. I didn’t want it seen because I thought anyone who looked inside those covers would think worse of Barry – and indeed Bizarre is the single Humphries ‘performance’ which everyone who writes about him baulks at or stumbles over.

Then for quite a number of years I lost track of him. There was his alcoholism, much talked about since, the break-up of his marriage to Rosalind, but most of all his increasing fame, and my own sense during those years that I was losing touch with what was going on in London.

Some time in the early Eighties came Edna’s first visit to Auckland in her full commercial glory. We were summoned to a dinner party; there were tickets to the show and references from the stage to ‘the little Stead family’; Barry took us to supper afterwards. It seemed that nothing had changed, except that there were now no dips into alcoholic despondency, and in fact no alcohol. I told him how a few years previously I had hesitated outside the Theatre Royal Drury Lane after his show, wondering whether I should ask to see him. He said: ‘I was probably in my dressing-room asking: “Where are all my friends?” ’

John Lahr is not the first writer on Humphries to wonder how it is that Dame Edna contrives to make her victims enjoy being mocked. In the television studio politicians are made to dance like bears and sing like birds. Husky male film stars wear frilly aprons and carry Dame Edna’s drinks tray, or are turned away from her door. The rich and famous are dropped through trap-doors or catapulted out of their chairs. In the stage show, women hand over their shoes, which are held up to ridicule, or are invited up to explain how they come to be dressed as they are. In the Auckland show two women noticed by Edna’s scouts wearing the same dress were persuaded to come on stage together.

Part of the trick, I suppose, is that at close quarters the person inside Edna’s drag is so clearly present – precisely the same person who looks out through Sir Les Patterson’s extravagant make-up. The biggest joke is against himself. In the presence of someone willing to make himself into Edna, or Les, why should we want to preserve our dignity? But there is also, under the clever little stabs of malice, something essentially benign about Barry Humphries. Benign, and observing. Nothing is more flattering than simply to be noticed, and there is never any doubt that his victim, or indeed anyone who sits down and talks to the man, is being closely and particularly observed. There is a narcissistic blindness about many theatrical people which Humphries entirely lacks.

Another essential element in the Humphries magic is language. Bazza MacKenzie’s Australian vernacular is a brilliant invention based closely upon a reality. So are Sandy Stone’s grinding circumlocutions, the most famous of which is: ‘Had a bit of strife parking the vehicle.’ Edna’s genteelisms are also wonderful parodies of something instantly recognisable. Humphries saw Australia more and more clearly by departing from it, returning, departing again. As Clive James wrote in these pages in 1983, ‘if he had not had his Europe, he would never have completed his rediscovery of Australia.’ He represents the dilemma of Australasian and Anglo-African expatriation – the loss and the gain of it. He can only be fully understood at home: but there he’s likely to encounter sullenness and resentment, which is overcome, paradoxically, by the irresistible force of a fame earned where the comprehension of what he is doing must be less than complete.

Humphries is horribly inventive. He loves contrivance and elaboration, and these qualities are apparent in everything from his use of language, to clothing, to stage sets. Working always to the larger scale, his mistakes when they occur are usually gigantic. I remember going to supper at his house in Hampstead in, I think, 1984, and being shown print-outs of the script he was writing for the movie Sir Les Patterson saves the world. It seemed to me a great idea. I imagined (why? I was thinking like Madge again) everything scaled down to the necessities of cinematic realism – a sort of James Bond parody, with Les more modest in scale, less the gross pantomimic archetype he can be on stage. But of course nothing was scaled down, except, according to John Lahr, the size of Sir Les’s ‘trouser snake’, which on stage is 12 inches of padded cotton. The movie was a disaster. There are times when Madge should be permitted a word, and listened to.

On the same visit I was taken up another floor where wife number three, painter Diane Milstead, had her studio. She had been working for a long time (my recollection is two years, but that can hardly be true) on a single large canvas which was mounted on its easel under lights in the middle of a spacious room. It was a conventional seascape, except that in the foreground was the principal subject, a mermaid on a rock. Diane talked about it. I stared at it, and Barry stared at me. It wasn’t just the subject that astonished me, but the fact that she was standing, her bent fish-tail somehow holding her upright. I thought, if Jesus could walk on water, why can’t a mermaid stand on a rock? I managed to say something which was nothing; but what I took away from that moment was the sense of Barry as the detached observer. Something was happening outside himself, which he had possibly anticipated, or even contrived: a critic was confronting a standing mermaid – and he was enjoying the spectacle.

Or that’s how it seemed to me at the time. But it’s sometimes a mistake to attribute everything to the cleverness of a very clever person. Innocence and simplicity are also possible, and Humphries probably has more of both than most of his public would find credible. In a significant exchange with John Lahr at the time when Diane Milstead was making a very public fuss about their divorce, Humphries remarked: ‘I was so much into pleasing. I thought I was entertaining her. Isn’t that my role? There’s a great deal of unlearning to do.’ Maybe he had simply brought his wife someone he knew would find something nice to say about her mermaid.

A week or so later he took me to lunch at his club. People were gathering for the presentation of some theatrical awards. Seeing Barry arrive, members of the press gathered around. Was he here to receive an award? No, he replied sternly, as if he didn’t wish to be pestered: he was here to take Karl Stead to lunch. He made it sound much more important. I could see that although no one had the least idea who Karl Stead was, no one liked to ask, because all were pretending they knew.

Our most recent meeting was backstage in Sydney early last year after a show, which he had also done in Melbourne, consisting (‘self-indulgently,’ the programme said) of the Sandy Stone monologues and nothing else. Some of the scripts date back as far as the 1958 recording, Sandy Agonistes; some are much more recent. Sandy is now dead, but his ghost shuffles on still wearing his dressing-gown and slippers and carrying his hot water bottle. Where Les and Edna are loud, energetic, irrepressible and vulgar, Sandy is painfully slow-spoken, low-key, puzzled, gloom-burdened, and physically so still that the transition from life to death has been accomplished with minimum disturbance. But it is in the character of Sandy that Humphries’s great skill with language, his ear for peculiar turns of speech and his ability to give them a half-turn further into absurdity, is clearest. I treasure especially a set of scripts, Shades of Sandy Stone, privately printed in Edinburgh in 1989, which Barry sent me inscribed ‘For Karl, who was there when the hottie was warm, with the author’s fond regards’.

I suspect that he likes to get back to Sandy Stone because he is still in control of the character. He began by being in control of Edna, but she long ago got away from him, and he is now dragged helplessly in the wake of her success. When they were alternated recently on a South Bank Show it was Edna who was totally confident and at home. By comparison, Humphries seemed charmingly tentative – a man of letters, a writer, a scholar. Edna is all showbiz, and the little housewife he used to keep in her place now puts him in his. On American television Edna has been less than successful because viewers didn’t see a character at all. They saw a big loud overdressed Australian woman, the urban female parallel to Paul Hogan.

Backstage in Sydney was wife four, the lovely Lizzie Spender, and Tessa, one of his daughters by Rosalind. Across the road in the hotel were Oscar and Rupert, his sons by Diane Milstead. Barry was his usual mix of haste and care, charm and dangerous wit.

John Lahr’s book offers a back-stage record of Humphries’s 1989 performances at the Theatre Royal. Drury Lane, which, following his television show The Dame Edna Experience (eight million viewers every Saturday), was bringing in £160,000 a week. Lahr describes in convincing detail the ups and downs of Humphries and his team at work, and from time to time pins the star down long enough to tape reflections and reminiscences. All this is alternated with long loops back in time, giving an overview of Humphries’s life and career. It is a structure that makes for an informative and readable book. Something of the Humphries magic is certainly caught, though much of it eludes Lahr, as it does anyone who tries to write on this subject. The elements that make it up are too various, the balance – linguistic, visual and simply funny – too subtle and precarious ever to be fully caught except in the act.