For a once-shy housewife from a suburb of Melbourne, Australia, called Moonee Ponds, there's no doubt that Dame Edna Everage has come a long way. So when the self-confessed megastar recently stepped out with her habitual "Hello, possums!" salutation in front of her hometown crowd nearly half a century after her first appearance onstage, it was hardly surprising that the 2,000-seat State Theatre was packed to the rafters. Throughout the evening, various members of the audience were called up onstage and subjected to a range of Edna's satiric jibes. But for those like Marion--a thin and well-dressed woman forced to wear an ungainly costume and read lines from Edna's new "movie script"--the experience of being part of Edna's show seemed more uplifting than embarrassing, though of course it can be that too.
Though Edna's creator and alter ego, Barry Humphries, may not be a household name internationally, he has in recent weeks received a great deal of attention on his native turf. Australians have grown accustomed to the fact that their actors now strut their stuff on the world stage. But with Humphries, the appreciation is much more than mere gratitude for shining the spotlight on the country's talent pool. Once criticized by some of Australia's more narrow-minded commentators for presenting the country in a negative light (especially through his boorish, beer-swilling character Sir Les Patterson, who has a staunch following in the United Kingdom as well as in Australia), Humphries is now credited in newspaper editorials and other public forums for being not only one of the keenest ongoing observers of Australian life but also the greatest entertainer the country has ever produced.
It's this latter point that quite literally hits home from the third row of his Back to My Roots show. Dame Edna might claim that her one-woman shows are more like a casual tete-a-tete than an actual performance. ("The Americans expect a show, but with you I know I can just have a chat," she confides.) Yet it is Humphries's immense skill as an actor that allows audiences to believe so strongly in the character. Humphries's performance is so convincing that it is easy to forget that Dame Edna is a magnificent if often fearsome creation, one whose scathing satirical range has broadened from the cozy confines of middle-class Melbourne domesticity to target the double standards of the politically correct and pompous the world over.
The origins of Edna's humor can be traced back to her very first appearance in 1956. Melbourne, then a prosperous but insular city dominated by a white Anglo-Saxon establishment, was preparing to host the Olympics, and Humphries decided to lampoon the cultural anxieties of the day in a sketch called "The Migrant Hostess," in which a relatively demure Edna feigned an openness to the possibility of housing a visiting athlete in her family abode--as long as the houseguest in question wasn't actually a foreigner. And therein lies the rub. For if there is one consistent strand to our increasingly global Edna, it has been to create discomfort as well as laughter. While it's fair to say that not everyone gets the joke, if the reception from her hometown crowd at the State Theatre is any indication, this Dame is going to be amusing--and provoking--audiences for some time.