Well, possums! Let us not delay the happy news for a second. The Broadway debut of Dame Edna Everage is a complete triumph. We agree, without hesitation, with her own modest description of herself that she’s probably the most popular and gifted woman in the world today. No “probably” about it. I guarantee you have seen nothing like this peculiar mythic bird of paradise, and no performer has us laughing so much.
Who–or what–is the dame? These are challenging questions, not easily answered. I’m resisting the coy when I say that Dame Edna can’t be pinned down. She’s such an outrageously unique self-invention, she resists classification. She was born in Australia. (But then so were Dame Judith Anderson and Zoë Caldwell.) She is played by a man, Barry Humphries, and, as Dame Edna puts it, “If it wasn’t for him, she wouldn’t be where she is today.” But Mr. Humphries tactfully prefers to take a back seat.
A star in England, Dame Edna may have put Australia on the map. John Osborne of Look Back in Anger , an early fan, wrote admiringly 30 years ago: “Her poetic instinct and genius created something that was not there before. That is to say, Australia.” She says she is a housewife, investigative journalist, social anthropologist, talk show host, swami, children’s book illustrator, spin doctor and icon. She lists her hobbies as counseling royalty, addressing gender issues, redefining cultural strategies and posing for photographs with refugees.
She’s everyone’s wicked aunt, or nurturing mother of our nightmares. Her motto is: “I’m sorry but I care.” We might feel a little uneasy in her company, but she means well. (Don’t all mothers?) I last saw her in London 20 years ago, God love us and save us. Then she was more Auntie Dame Edna; today she’s a granny. And, as Dame Edna would put it: I mean that in the nicest possible way.
Whether aunt, mother or grandmother, Dame Edna was never young. Therefore, she has never aged. Her surreal, glitzy flamboyance and love of her signature gladioli–her “gladdies”–are a neat tribute to Australian kitsch and overdressed, overfriendly suburban housewives everywhere. Her astonishing eyeglasses clearly derive from the half-mask worn by medieval troubadours, but not necessarily.
It’s undeniable that from the gloriously politically incorrect opening moments of Dame Edna: The Royal Tour at the Booth Theater, we’re in the company of a masterly entertainer. Only a master would take such risks–and get away with it. Subtitled “The Show That Listens,” Dame Edna opens with a video of an elderly lady giving instructions in sign language. “To fully appreciate the show,” goes the voice-over, “you must remember to face the stage.” She is anxious to remind us that we are not at home. “You cannot use your remote,” we are told. It’s live!
To remind initiates who Dame Edna is, we’re next shown a montage from her cult British talk show during which she told Richard Gere he was a turn-off, really, and asked Roseanne: “Is there anything you wish you hadn’t eaten?”
And here she is! Dame Edna enters–live!–down the retro-staircase with her gladdies to sing a jolly opening number about being abused by her mother, the lyric of which goes: “She said, Look at me when I’m talking to you!”
“Thank you, darlings,” she adds, greeting us all like old friends. She confides later, “I always say there are no strangers in life. Just friends you haven’t met yet.” Then she adds in her lethally sweet, maternal way: “Isn’t that lovely?”
Dame Edna is the most sincerely insincere person we could ever meet. The cross-dressing theatrical heritage is the proud one of British pantomime in which a man traditionally plays the dame, sometimes known as Widow Twanky. The intimate style is a brilliant echo of the individualism of the lost music hall era–with its improvisatory daring, audience participation, solo bargain with danger, courage, spontaneity, bawdy suggestiveness.
“Every poet would like to convey the pleasures of poetry to a larger audience,” wrote T.S. Eliot, and he should know. “All the better, then, if he could have at least the satisfaction of having a part to play in society as worthy as that of the Music Hall comedian.”
“Feel me! I’m real. Touch me!” she says to the front row, shaking their hands. “What have you been handling? Is it fish?” she asks one. “Is it cheese?” Then she adds philosophically, “Something in between, I’m afraid.”
“Hello, paupers!” she calls to the balcony, throwing them a few gladdies and promising “to glance up there in strict proportion to the amount you’ve paid.” The paupers in the balcony are also known as “the mizzies” (from Les Misérables –miserable, poor people).
She then had a nice little chat with a lady in the audience named Belinda, who told her she has a baby boy named Spike. “Spot,” said Dame Edna. “How lovely!” Belinda–we all learned–had a Filipino babysitter at home. “Yes,” said Dame Edna looking pleased. “One of the biggest advantages of a democracy is you can have a slave class with a clear conscience!”
She’s smart, then, fast and improvisatory. “I wouldn’t insult you with a rehearsed show,” she protests. Her put-downs might level you, but no one seems to mind. “Was she a disappointment to you?” she caringly asks a mother about her daughter seated next to her. “Mine was.”
Dame Edna’s estranged daughter, Valmai, lives with her partner, a retired Czechoslovakian tennis player who breeds pit bulls in Flushing. “The most terrible words a parent can hear: ‘Meet my partner,’” a distressed Dame Edna tells us.
Her son, Kenny, a former Qantas steward, is president worldwide of the Yvonne de Carlo Appreciation Society. “All together now!” she says, encouraging us to join in the rousing song, “Any Friend of Kenny’s Is a Friend of Mine.” We all do join in, too.
Dame Edna’s mother is electronically tagged in a maximum-security twilight home. She told us she’s just been to Australia buffing up her beloved late husband’s obelisk. “He used to like me doing it when he was still alive.”
The autobiographical diversions reveal a loopy dysfunctional family, like the royals. The saucy political incorrectness will disturb only the politically correct. After all, Dame Edna was pretty borderline before P.C. was ever invented. But this is the beautiful, daring thing: The uniqueness of the show resides in the audience.
It really is “the show that listens,” in its own fashion. Dame Edna makes friends with various members of the audience as if the rest of us weren’t there. She actually builds the show around half a dozen of them–willing gulls or wary good sports. There’s danger involved. She’s a cozy confidante, an ironist in sidelong affectionate put-downs. “What kind of home do you have in New Jersey, dear?” she asked the lady in the audience, who paused for thought. “Think back!” Dame Edna commanded.
If it were me, I would run a mile. The sweet, innocent gullibility of the public astonishes, making some of us feel timid. A couple actually had dinner on stage, having been graciously invited up by Dame Edna. They’d told her earlier they were feeling peckish.
“You can’t get this at Annie Get Your Gun ,” Dame Edna said gleefully. You can’t get it anywhere. The image of the couple enjoying dinner, as well as the show, seemed miraculously normal . They even had their photo taken with a beaming Dame Edna–a souvenir. And why not? Why not wave your gladdies? As is her charming custom, she throws the gladdies into the audience. “Come on, possums!” she calls out, encouraging everyone to wave and shake them at the end and sing along with her. “Stick up your gladiolas,” goes the lyric. “And thrust, thrust, thrust!” And everyone joined in, because people are nuts, in the unsafe, irresistibly good company of Dame Edna Everage.
Follow John Heilpern via RSS.