Wednesday, September 15, 2004

How Dame Edna got her mojo

The conventional wisdom behind the late-50s origin, and early development, of the Barry Humphries character Dame Edna Everage has never quite satisfied me. AFAIK, the fullest account here is in John Lahr’s Dame Edna Everage and the rise of Western civilisation, Uni Calif Press 1992 (pp 52, 58-59, 66, 80-84). In executive-summary style, Dame Edna was Humphries’s reaction to the stifling suburban conformity of Melbourne at the time, and more particularly, among a certain (middle) strata of its women-folk.

Such an explanation belies the brazen gaucherie that has been the core of Edna’s character since at least the 1970s – prim and proper she ain’t. Lahr depicts Edna’s transition here – from an unmade-up Humphries dressed as a dowdy matron, to an over-the-top superstar – as essentially seamless. In contrast, I suspect that these two Ednas are actually two quite separate characters; sharing the same name, but not at all the same origin.

What, then is the origin of the brazen Dame Edna? (that is to say, the Dame Edna, unless: (i) you’re interested in what the character was 40 or more years ago, or (ii) like me, you want a more plausible account of where she comes from, and so who she ultimately is).

In an exhibition currently showing in Melbourne*, there is a photograph that provides startling evidence of what I’ll term Dame Edna's “missing link”. The photo, taken by Christopher Humphries, is of Barry Humphries striking a pose in some rather spectacular drag. It was taken on-set at the 1958 television recording of “The Bunyip and the Satellite”, a children’s program that was presumably a close copy of the children’s play of the same name which premiered in Melbourne in December 1957, and toured to Sydney in May 1958.

As you may or may not have guessed, the Barry Humphries-in-drag character was none other than the Bunyip itself (for non-Australian readers, a Bunyip is a figure from Indigenous mythology, of the monster-invented-for-scaring-(and delighting)-children sort). So Dame Edna is a Bunyip!

Supporting evidence for my revolutionary Edna-is-a-Bunyip theory comes from the title card to the above-mentioned photograph. It reads, in part:

Taking the title role in a 1957 children’s musical called “The Bunyip and the Satellite”, the young satirist [Barry Humphries] came on as a “prancing bird-like clown with a falsetto”. Co-writer Peter O’Shaughnessy later said “Barry’s performance was the finest and most touching he has ever given in the theatre”.

Even leaving aside the evidence of the photograph, then, it is plain that the “prancing bird-like clown with a falsetto” Humphries character of 1958 contributes far more to the make-up of the modern Dame Edna than her actual, prim namesake of the day.

Why does this matter now (apart from that sense of a jigsaw puzzle solved, that is)? It matters, I think, because it throws some doubt over Humphries’s sole ownership of the intellectual property in the Edna character.

For what ever reason, Peter O’Shaughnessy in not credited as a co-writer of “The Bunyip and the Satellite” in the index of play paraphernalia in the NLA’s collection (same URL). For the record, the play program (Sydney season) front cover currently on display in Melbourne lists the credits thus:

by Peter O’Shaughnessy and Jeffrey Underhill
with the assistance of Barry Humphries

under the direction of Doris Fitton

O’Shaughnessy’s role in Humphries’s early career is mentioned briefly by Lahr at p. 96 – the pair worked together on a number of revues in the three years to 1959, culminating in a “Testmonial Performance” in February 1959, which also doubled as Humphries’s send-off the England (where he was to remain for the entire 1960s).

I think that the Edna-as-Bunyip lineage also matters because of the Indigenous link with her comic grotesqueness. There has always been something magisterial and yet elemental about her – and now we know why. Edna has very little to do with scorning the suburbs of Melbourne; she comes from a much older artistic tradition. And one day, I hope that this might be properly acknowledged.

* "Making a Song and Dance: The Quest for an Australian Musical"

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