By: David Sheward
April 22, 2023: The brilliant Barry Humphries, aka Dame Edna Everage, has passed away at 89. I’ve seen all three of her Broadway shows (Dame Edna: The Royal Tour, Dame Edna: Back with a Vengeance, and All About Me co-starring Michael Feinstein) and worked with her when she did a Drama Desk luncheon. It was hilarious. Before the lunch, Barry called me as Dame Edna and asked what the lighting was going to be like. I said it was a restaurant with ordinary natural light. “Well, I’m not going to perform in the dark, darling!,” she intoned. Afterwards, Barry called and apologized for the bizarre behavior of his “client.” It was really as if he were two people.
Born in Melbourne, Australia in 1934, Humphries introduced Edna as an average Aussie housewife in 1955. She became a sensation when she appeared in Australian and British TV in the 1970s. Barry first brought Edna to the US in Housewife! Superstar!, an Off-Broadway solo show in the late 1977. He received a Drama Desk nomination, but the production was not a hit. He returned in 2000 with Dame Edna: The Royal Tour, making her Broadway debut and winning a Drama Desk and a Tony Award. She joked that her first outing received a negative review from the New York Times and she had to wait 25 years for the critic Richard Eder to die before she came back to the States. Her shows consisted of monologues and interacting with audience members. In one particularly funny bit, she would telephone relatives of audience members, no matter the hour. She woke one English gentleman up in the middle of the night (because of the time change.) “I’ll bet who know who this it,” she chirped to the respondent on the other end of the transatlantic call. Then she asked what he was wearing and he replied, “My undershorts.” “Ah, yes, British to the core,” she quipped.
The Dame Edna Experience, a wild spoof of talk shows premiered on British TV, in 1987. Described as “mainly a monologue with interruptions by total strangers,” the show received 4 BAFTA nominations. Guests included Sean Connery, Mel Gibson, Cher, Beatrice Arthur, Joan Rivers, Zsa Zsa Gabor and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. who did Dame Edna’s grocery shopping. Dame Edna later hosted Dame Edna’s Neighborhood Watch, a combination game show/reality TV show with the Dame snooping into contestants’ houses. In 2007, she hosted The Dame Edna Treatment. The premise had her as the proprietor of a celebrity spa where guests received facials, massages, etc.
The Dame also ventured into roles as an actress, playing a client on Ally McBeal and as Mrs. Crummles, opposite Nathan Lane, as the leaders of a troupe of actors in the 2002 film version of Nicholas Nickleby. A piercing creation of a comic genius, Dame Edna was a one-of-a-kind spoof of both celebrity and bourgeois values, grilling big names and poking fun at middle-class values.