The latest biography of Barry Humphries
One Man Show: The Stages of Barry Humphries
by Anne Pender
ABC Books, $35 pb, 454 pp, 9780733325915
On those twin Titans of the twentieth-century English stage, John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson, fellow-actor Simon Callow recently reflected: ‘We tell stories about them … because they filtered life through the medium of their souls to create new and rich variations on the human condition: they lived their art to the fullest extent possible. Of whom shall we be telling stories now?’
There is certainly one candidate still among us who could match, even exceed, those qualifications for legendary status. Stories about Barry Humphries and his outrageous pranks started to circulate from his student days in the 1950s and before he ever took to the professional stage. As an actor, he was soon creating, as well as performing, stories of the ‘human condition’ through various characters entirely of his own invention. In a far more concerted – and disconcerting – fashion than other actors, than other producers of stories in whatever genre, Humphries has continued to this day to unsettle any distinctions between his art and his life, his characters and his character, his stories of others and the story of himself.
Patrick White was adverting to this feat, but not registering its full complexity, when he said of Humphries: ‘He is such an actor one can’t decide when acting has stopped.’ Does the acting ever stop as real life takes over, or are the two things inseparably one – if not quite one and the same? Anne Pender dutifully quotes White’s judgement in her new biographical study: this ‘definitive, captivating story of the true Barry Humphries’, as the blurb trumpets it. But in the telling she remains too attached to conventional distinctions between story and truth, acting and reality, the masks and the man. In the way her narrative is structured, there is little sense of the persistent, unnerving concurrence of the life and lives Humphries has fashioned. Can the polished shell of his off-stage persona, ‘the polite, well-dressed man whose home displayed his successes and his good taste’, be so casually split from its most extravagantly vulgar theatrical extrusions, in the shape of Dame Edna and Sir Les? Is it sufficient to regard those roles simply as offering him ‘escape and freedom from himself’?
Without the training of a psychiatrist, perhaps, it is more difficult to answer than to raise such questions, and it may be expecting too much of a workaday biographer to probe the intricacies of these interrelationships too far. But there are less excusable limitations in Pender’s treatment that render highly suspect any claims to definitiveness (a chimerical ambition for biographers anyway, according to one of the best of them, Hermione Lee, in her treatise Biography: A Very Short Introduction, published in 2009).
Humphries turned seventy-six this year. Leaving aside the fact that there still appears to be a lot of life left in him and his creations (even the late Sandy Stone has remained a very articulate ghost), Pender’s book is simply too selective about the story – or stories – so far. The richest detail is reserved for the theatrical productions, as well as certain other public ‘performances’, whether on television or in print. The book’s title and subtitle (taken literally) are more upfront about this than the blurb or the author’s introduction. It is a reasonable enough focus for an academic study, if you are not claiming more, and Pender does offer us some quite evocative recreations of Humphries in these modes. There are some curious imbalances and gaps in her treatment, however. She provides us with extensive, and quite astute, explications of some of his quirkier anthologies: Bizarre (1965), for example, or Barry Humphries’ Treasury of Australian Kitsch (1980). But she all but passes over his two volumes of autobiography, his novel Women in the Background (1995), and the purported memoirs of or by his characters, notably Edna Everage – works in which the relationship between his various personae and their intersecting stories might be most effectively observed.
The ‘back-stories’, the social and political contexts, the intellectual trajectories, the emotional undercurrents (of relationships with professional colleagues and business associates as well as with friends, wives, and family), are patchily plotted. Until more material becomes available in the way of private correspondence, we can’t yet be made party to the most intimate of such details. But there are bountiful sources, in readily accessible published form, to enable Pender to make a better fist of the historical background than is evident from her passing, perfunctory references to ‘the perilous situation between the Soviet bloc and the Western world, a world divided into two’ or ‘the absurd contradictions of the permissive society’ or ‘the rising tension between the monarch [Elizabeth II] and her prime minister [Margaret Thatcher] in a nation undergoing rapid social and economic change’.
More serious is Pender’s lack of rigour in consulting or acknowledging sources with a specific relevance to Humphries and the development of his literary and theatrical talents. Her study, unlike the first book-length work on his career, Peter Coleman’s The Real Barry Humphries (1990), or my chapter on Humphries in Once An Australian: Journeys with Barry Humphries, Clive James, Germaine Greer and Robert Hughes (1997), appears to have made no use of the school or university magazines in which he first came to prominence; and, to judge by her footnotes, the rich manuscript materials relating to his subsequent career that are to be found in the ‘Barry Humphries Collection’ at the Performing Arts Museum in Melbourne have only been spottily mined. This collection doesn’t even rate a mention in her bibliography. In the text or the notes, she nods fitfully to the writings of most of her scholarly predecessors in the field, and good use is made of American critic John Lahr’s anatomies of Edna; but there is no mention anywhere of Tony Moore’s engaging little study, The Barry McKenzie Movies (2005), or of the substantial, if highly idiosyncratic, monograph on Humphries published by the Canadian academic Paul Matthew St Pierre: A Portrait of the Artist as Australian: L’oeuvre Bizarre de Barry Humphries (2004).
‘Has a Canadian ever made you laugh?’ Humphries once quipped. There is an uproarious story in Pender’s biography about a television interview of Dame Edna’s with one of that country’s international stars, the assertively gay pop chanteuse k.d. lang: ‘I make no apologies,’ Edna begins the exchange, ‘for the … coarse terminology that I’m going to use now. When (takes a deep breath) did you first know you were … Canadian?’ It is not for biographers, necessarily, to make you laugh, except, as here, through the voice of their subjects. And they are perfectly entitled to broach negative criticism of those subjects, as Pender unsparingly does of Humphries, for all her general enthusiasm. But a primness of tone seeps through some of her prose, whether in the odd euphemism (‘dog-dirt’) or the repeated charge of ‘crudity’, that betrays a certain lack of empathy with Humphries’ comic agenda – or, conversely, an all-too-ready identification with the more puritanical undercurrents of his sensibility. You can’t help catching the admonitory note of Edna herself in such passages. The photograph of the author at the back of the book might suggest this is a playfully ironic stance – it juxtaposes her image with a bust of Edna – but there is nothing in the text to bear out that suggestion.
Humphries deserves better, and will probably be accorded so in time. The life has to be completed before there can be a complete life. (Even that will never be definitive.) As far as it goes, Pender’s biography is adequate, efficient, informative enough, for all its gaps and superficialities. But it is certainly not in the league of ‘a three-volume job by Michael Holroyd’, such as is yearned for by the cross-dressing actor–hero of Women in the Background. While we are enjoined at the start of that book not to treat it as a roman-à-clef, Holroyd – the reigning, if ailing, king of English biographers – would indeed make a perfect match for Humphries, especially given their shared immersion in stage lore. But sadly his most recent biography (of the Irving and Terry theatrical dynasties) is likely to be his last. And wisely – like Hermione Lee – he has always steered clear of any contemporary biographical subject.
CONTENTS: DECEMBER 2010–JANUARY 2011