Homage to the Clown Barry Humphries

By Ira Seidenstein

May 3, 2023

PHOTO: BARRY HUMPHRIES with Director Ray Lawler who asked Barry to write a sketch for his character he did when the company toured. The first stage performance of Edna Everage was in the Union Theatre’s Revue directed by Lawler

As the old saying goes ‘The king is dead, long live the king’. The clown is dead long live the clown. The last exercise, the penultimate exercise in the chronological template The Four Articulations for Performance is the exercise: Tell A Story of a Clown. There are no instructions. There are hints: the story can be about a real clown that you saw live or on screen, or it can be a story about someone you knew who you considered a type of ‘clown’ including for example a friend or relative or neighbour or oneself, etc. The root of this exercise is from the day I went into a tiny corner shop and saw a magazine with Barry Humphries on the cover. I placed the magazine at the counter. The shopkeeper – as was I about to purchase the magazine – told me how he hated Barry Humphries. I asked had he ever seen him live in the theatre.  The shopkeeper said “No only on tv and that was enough”. Then the shopkeeper began to explain to me what Barry did on the tv show and as the shopkeeper told me he began to laugh more and more. When I left he was smiling and shaking his head and saying how awful the clown, Barry, was.

The surface point of the exercise is two-fold: a) as a society we long ago began to lose our real and natural gift as Humans to tell each other stories – to enact those stories during the telling – to languish in the sharing of true dramas; and, b) to conjure the true spirit of Clowns by telling tales about them and having seen them.

Shakespeare already knew this and taught us as the character Jacques tells “A fool, a fool, I met a fool in the forest…”. Then Jacques tells us as the character and actor pretends to be telling his compadres gathered in the forest:

“The wise man’s folly is anatomised even by the squandering glances of the fool. Invest me in my motley, give me leave to speak my mind, and I will through and through cleanse the foul body of th’ infected world. If they will patiently receive my medicine.”

Barry Humphries’ motley was most often that of his two most famous Clown characters: Dame Edna and Sir Les Patterson.

In 1991 the Son of the Clown Bert Lahr (the Cowardly Lion in the movie The Wizard of Oz) wrote a unique book about clown and about a Clown named Barry or Dame Edna or what you will, as you like it.

“At Dame Edna’s 1981 show, I was blind-sided by one of Dame Edna’s startling observations and fell off my seat laughing. I can’t account for the next two minutes of the show, I was on the floor.” John Lahr

The book’s title is Dame Edna Everage… and The Rise Of Western Civilisation. The book was written from notes Lahr took alongside of Barry during one month backstage and in the stage wings of London’s famous Drury Lane Theatre – known in “The Clown Movement” as the primary stage of the mythical Clown – Joseph Grimaldi whom Charles Dickens admired and wrote about.

Thank you Barry Humphries, even while your mortal coil is awaiting interment I have watched more video clips of you than ever in so compact a time. One evening a few days ago I watched the youtube video “Dame Edna – Back to My Roots”. That was a videoed live performance in Melbourne your hometown, in 2003. It has a short intro by Barry as himself. Then to Sir Les Patterson in the most extreme display of his pointed and crude wit and truth spewing – just as Shakespeare via Jacques says. Sir Les really pointedly wanted to ram home his intolerance of other’s intolerance. He rammed away unrelentingly. Yet, phenomenally Barry a la Sir Les had the most intense direct communication with the audience. That along with many attributes as a performer was Barry’s grand forte. Direct communication with the audience – Clown as its purist, yet in the most grotesque motley.

The specific thrust of his motley was his false phallic apendage referred to endlessly during Sir Les’s appearances. It is the metaphor for complaints about Barry’s art and politics and art-politics. Yet here is a work of art from 1988 from the Australian Indigenous artist known as Jenuarrie. This work is named The Dingo Dancer. Of course I don’t know how to interpret Indigenous Art, yet, this dingo dancer sure seems to be carting about its own phallic apendage.

Jenuarrie was born in Rockhampton as Judith Warrie. She was educated at the Frenchville State School at Rockhampton. Her first introduction to fine art was studying batik with Tom Vudrag. She also studied Melanesian tribal pottery with Lindsay Wilson. She graduated from the Vocational Arts and Crafts Course for Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders at the Cairns College of Technical and Further Education in 1986. In 1987 she was one of the winners of the Lilian Pederson Memorial Prize for drawing and printmaking, held at the Queensland Art Gallery.”

Then Barry did a classy interim character. Then the piece-de-resistance was – Dame Edna. In my tiny Granny Flat …. I was in hysterics laughing, rollicking, tearing. What an extreme and for me very rare experience. Thank you Barry, May You Rest in Peace.

Here is the 2 and 1/2 hours show.

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}


 Subscribe to the ISAAC newsletter to receive updates on Ira's latest blog articles, upcoming international workshops, and more...

Ira Seidenstein