Don’t forget, she was the original Real Housewives. Or surreal housewives, if you will. With few obvious talents but an unending sense of entitlement, the expensively upholstered figure is the archetype of the average middle-class housewife who rises to fame and fame.
Her name was Edna Everage (just one vowel away from “average”), and her mid-20th-century arrival heralded a new era of fame and fortune. “Oh my prophetic soul,” she might say, gazing at the self-styled constellations that occupy our attention these days. The lines are from “Hamlet”. But Edna is the kind of girl who can make you believe it’s all of her own making.
Lady Edna, as she has been known since the early 1970s, was the alter ego of unique performer Barry Humphreys who died Saturday in Sydney, Australia. Humphreys was 89 years old. Of course, Lady Edna is immortal.
To be Edna, Humphreys would don a lavender wig, an increasingly rococo pair of glasses and a shimmering gown that screamed conspicuous consumption. However, it would be a mistake to describe Lady Edna primarily as a drag show.
The unfiltered tallness—looking down on the world in all senses, the frame of a six-foot-plus guard on stilettos—is not a commentary on gender. No, Lady Edna represents the narrow, haughty class, especially the self-proclaimed royalty, that has become our default deity in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
That would be people who are defined as famous, whether or not for any obvious reason beyond their willingness to be famous. Humphreys’ egotistical genius lies in translating the small-minded, unrelenting smugness of his suburban Australian upbringing into the more invincible complacency of outrageous, depraved stardom.
As for the rest of us — which means, besides us peons, her celebrity friends, including the Pope and Queen Elizabeth II — we exist to serve as mirrors for her, reflecting the beauty of herself.
Few events in my tenure as drama critic of the era have been more eagerly awaited by Lady Edna’s self-revelry, where I would join what she called “possums” and “beggars,” Worship at her boat-sized feet. Like many of the greatest cartoonists, she had surgical access to the reigning obsessions of her time.
Lenny Bruce on the Sexual Distress of the Late 50s and Early 60s and Richard Pryor on the Racial Anxiety of the 70s and 80s, Dame Edna ) on the Olympian era of narcissism. As she said, at the end of a performance in 1999, as she magically rose into the air, gracefully tossing her signature gladiolus at the audience: “I have to outrun you. That’s the secret of my survival. “
In the years I reviewed Edna, the most commercially successful Broadway shows tended to be those with faces 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,” less for the theater than for a pilgrimage to Nicole and Julia’s shrine.
Attending Lady Edna’s show, therefore, has its own special cathartic value, rooted in the overt exchange of sadomasochistic energy between her and the audience. She took us there for granted because her rank was much higher than ours, a divine rank. In the riff that leads up to the mention of Jesus, she steps back to say that she certainly doesn’t compare herself to him, before pausing to add, “despite some striking similarities.”
Naturally, we humbly endure the biting sarcasms she throws at us collectively and individually. (It’s a pity—and jealousy—that she chose the few people who engaged the audience.) Never mind that when she sings and dances, she sounds like a bullfrog on steroids and moves like a drunk stevedore.
She is protected by her indestructible certainty that whatever she does is completely blameless. Looking back at her 2004 Broadway performance of “Lady Edna: Returns With a Vengeance!”, I wrote, “Look, Lady Edna, you know better than anyone that being famous means never having to say sorry.”
This attitude is unlikely to prevail in 2023, because being famous seems to mean you’re apologizing all the time. In writing and interviews later in life, both Edna and Humphreys made comments that drew outcry from members of the Latino and trans community, among others.
So allow me to go back to earlier in the century, when Edna was at the height of her invulnerability, and I got a letter after raving about one of her performances. “I have to say,” the note read, “I almost deserve it. ’ The signature was Barry Humphries. If the signature was Edna Everage, there would be no “almost.”