Barry Humphries: The Man Behind the Mask

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Jim Davidson Friday, 25 May 2018
Published in ABR Arts

‘I invented a character called Barry Humphries,’ the program promised. Beyond his characters, he said, the real man had always lurked behind a mask in various interviews. ‘Tonight you’ll see me.’

And there he was, in mauve jacket and polka dot tie, his features sharp, the voice crisper than ever ... but in fact he couldn’t do it. Humphries is too interwoven with his characters: they form a baroque circle of projections of himself. (As he once remarked, Sir Les Paterson is the part of him that kept drinking.) No wonder he revels in being on stage. ‘Alone at last!’ he cries.

Humphries needs that psychic space, not least because his relationship with his mother still seems not quite resolved. Her often disapproving remarks form the spine of the show. Feeling he’s been a little too hard on her, he now emphasises her stylishness, her little benefactions. His less complex father is relegated with an epitaph: ‘He was a great man.’ But while Humphries insists that Edna is not based on Louisa Humphries (and perhaps she wasn’t, in her simpler Moonee Ponds days), that is what she became. The ‘hats and glads’ his mother spoke of were writ large, the act grounded in a child’s naughty imitation.

So what do we learn, now that Humphries stands before his audience unmediated by his characters? Nothing about his early Dada experiments and the deep nihilism that impelled them, gratuitous acts that questioned not social conventions so much as social assumptions. He simply says he was always a provocateur. He does tell us about his early acting with the Melbourne Theatre Company, and how he soon found he was much better at making up lines than remembering them – and in comedy best of all. ‘You must realise’, the director told him, ‘you are naturally ridiculous’. There’s practically nothing about his private life – just a passing reference to a kid, and a wife, when he’s had four of each. And not much beyond the 1990s, and his conquest of America.

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Published in ABR Arts
Jim Davidson

Jim Davidson

Jim Davidson is an historian and biographer, and a former editor of Meanjin. He is the author of A Three-Cornered Life: The historian WK Hancock (2010) and the memoir A Führer for a Father: The domestic face of colonialism (2017). His biographies Lyrebird Rising (of the musical patron Louise Hanson-Dyer) and A Three-Cornered Life (of the historian Keith Hancock) have won major awards. His most recent books are Moments in Time: A Book of Australian Postcards (2016) and A Fuhrer for a Father (2017). He is currently writing a double biography of two literary magazine editors, Clem Christesen of Meanjin and Stephen Murray-Smith of Overland.

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