The Cathartic Value of Dame Edna’s Extravaganzas of Ego

Audiences were eager to humbly suffer the stinging quips tossed out by the towering figure that was Barry Humphries’s creation.

Ben Brantley was the chief theater critic of The Times for more than 20 years. He wrote more than 2,500 reviews over 27 years beginning in 1993, filing regularly from London as well as New York.

“She was, lest we forget, the original Real Housewife. Or Surreal Housewife, if you prefer. Possessed of few obvious talents and a bottomless sense of entitlement, this expensively upholstered figure was the archetype for the ordinary middle-class matron who blossomed into improbable, overwhelming, gasp-inducing fame.

Her name was Edna Everage (just one vowel away from “average”), and her advent in the mid-20th century anticipated a brash new age of undeserved celebrity. “Oh, my prophetic soul,” she might have said, contemplating the constellation of self-anointed stars who occupy our attention these days. The line comes from “Hamlet.” But Edna was the kind of gal who could convince you that she had coined it all by herself.

Dame Edna, as she became known from the early 1970s, was the inspired alter-ego of the sui generis performer Barry Humphries, who died on Saturday in Sydney, Australia. Humphries was 89. Dame Edna, of course, is immortal.

To become Edna, Humphries would put on a mauve wig, an increasingly rococo pair of eyeglasses and a glittering gown that screeched conspicuous consumption. Yet it would be a mistake to describe Dame Edna primarily as a drag act.

This unfiltered, towering figure — who looked down on the world, in all senses, from a six-foot-plus linebacker’s frame atop stiletto heels — wasn’t a comment on gender. No, Dame Edna was all about blinkered, arrogant class and especially a breed of self-crowned royalty that had become our default deities in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

That would be those who were defined by being famous, whether or not for any discernible reason beyond their willingness to become so. The genius of Humphries’ conceit was to translate the small-minded, unyielding smugness of the middle-class Australian suburbs in which he grew up into the even more invincible complacency of outrageous, drop-dead stardom.

As for the rest of us — and that meant, in addition to us peons, her fellow celebrity chums, including the pope and Queen Elizabeth II — we existed to serve as her mirrors, reflecting her own fabulousness.

During my tenure as a Times theater critic, there were few events I anticipated more avidly than Dame Edna’s extravaganzas of ego, where I would join the throngs of those she called “possums” and “paupers” to worship at her boat-size feet. Like so many of the greatest comics, she surgically tapped into the ruling obsession of her time.

What Lenny Bruce was to the sexual hangups of the late ’50s and early ’60s and what Richard Pryor was to the racial anxieties of the ’70s and ’80s, Dame Edna was to the age of Olympian narcissism. As she said, graciously tossing her signature gladioli into the audience as she was magically lifted into the air at the end of a 1999 performance: “I have to rise above you. It’s the secret of my survival.”

My years of reviewing Edna were years when the most commercially successful shows on Broadway were often those that featured faces found on the covers of People, Vanity Fair and supermarket tabloids. Audiences clamored to see Nicole Kidman in “The Blue Room” or Julia Roberts in “Three Days of Rain” not so much to watch a play as to participate in a sacred pilgrimage to the shrines of NICOLE and JULIA.

Attending a Dame Edna show thus had its own special cathartic value, rooted in the openly sadomasochistic exchange of energy between her and her audience. She took it for granted that we were there because she was of an unapproachably higher order than we were, a holy order. In a riff that led to a reference to Jesus, she backtracked to say of course she wouldn’t compare herself to him, before pausing to add, “Although there are spooky similarities.”

Naturally we humbly suffered the stinging quips she tossed in our direction, collectively and individually. (Pity — and envy — the chosen few she selected for audience participation.) Never mind that when she sang and danced, she sounded like a bullfrog on steroids and moved like a drunken stevedore.

She was protected by her impregnable certainty that whatever she did was utterly beyond reproach. Reviewing her 2004 Broadway show “Dame Edna: Back With a Vengeance!,” I wrote, “Dame Edna, you see, knows better than anyone that fame means never having to say you’re sorry.”

That attitude is less likely to fly in 2023, when being famous seems to mean you’re apologizing all the time. And in writings and interviews in their later years, both Edna and Humphries stumbled with comments that drew outcries from members of the Latino and trans communities and others.

So allow me to return to an earlier moment in this century, when Edna was at the peak of her invulnerability, and I received a letter after raving about one of her shows. “I have to say,” the note read, “I almost deserved it.” It was signed Barry Humphries. Had the signature been Edna Everage there would have been no “almost” about it.”

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