Dame Edna Mouths Off
Barry Humphries—a.k.a. Dame Edna—and pianist Michael Feinstein are headed to Broadway. They talk to Kevin Sessums about Judge Judy, British anarchists, and living next door to George Clooney.
Tonight at the Henry Miller Theatre on Broadway, Dame Edna Everage, Australia's most culturally contagious distaff infection, opens in her newest one-woman show, All About Me. Unfortunately—no, make that fortunately—American song-meister Michael Feinstein is opening his one-man show with the same title at the same theater. That's the evening's set-up and, after a battle of their rapier wits, a rapprochement is forced upon them by an officious female stage manager who, surprisingly, is given the show's eleven-o'clock number, which is a bit of a misnomer since the whole thing—a pastiche of American standards and Australian badinage backed up by an onstage band even brassier than Edna herself—only lasts a breezy 90 minutes with no need for an intermission.
“We don’t have ancestors in Australia. We are either descendants of convicts or tourists.”
A few days ago, I met with Feinstein and Edna's "manager," Barry Humphries, in the bowels of the Henry Miller. (The mind boggles at what Dame Everage would make of that line.) Feinstein was famously mentored by Ira Gershwin after being introduced to the legendary lyricist at his Beverly Hills home by the widow of Oscar Levant, the most mordant of the town's other musical talents. Humphries, less famously, is a self-described "bibliomaniac," with a library of over 30,000 books including, one presumes, the E.M. Forster staple Howards End, in which the author's "only connect" has become literature's most pointed admonition. Connections were certainly made during the ensuing conversation with the two stars.
Barry, you began your artistic endeavors as a young man Down Under as a Dadaist, and now almost 60 years later you are sharing a stage with Michael Feinstein on Broadway. That's quite an artistic arc.
BARRY HUMPHRIES: Yet there is a kind of logic to it, isn’t there? Most radicals end up archconservatives though I don’t consider working with Michael conservative. In a sense it’s rather adventurous. We are totally different in what we do and yet we both have a crowd-pleasing act. We also—more than many people we know in this business—love what we do. I guess there is less a Dadaist flavor to the show we’ve worked out than a piquant one. We’re old friends, you see, but it never crossed our minds that we might do such a thing together. In fact, it hasn’t quite crossed our minds yet.
Michael, Judge Judy married you and your partner, Terrence. Are there any similarities between Judge Judy and Dame Edna?
MICHAEL FEINSTEIN: Never afraid to speak one's mind. We live in a time when people respect individuals who are willing to speak whatever they feel whatever the cost...
BH: Or the political correctness of it. That is now getting to be more and more unusual. I do believe there is one other similarity between Edna and Judge Judy in that Edna is quite possibly Jewish herself. Judge Judy is rather proud to be Jewish. Edna hopes to be. She does remember making manicure appointments when she was 5 and overcooking chicken when she was even younger than that. So there were certain early signs of her Jewishness. But you see in Australia one can shake any family tree and one doesn't know what might fall out. We don't have ancestors in Australia. We are either descendants of convicts or tourists.
I know, Michael, that when you were spending so much time with Ira Gershwin at the beginning of your career you also got to know his next-door neighbor, Rosemary Clooney. Are there any characteristics that she shared with Dame Edna?
MF: I ended up doing over 200 shows with Rosemary Clooney. She was my second mom.
BH: And when I did an experimental show more than a decade ago now in San Francisco, Michael brought Rosemary Clooney to see me.
MF: But as for Rosemary and Edna, in their individual ways they are both earth mothers.
Did you ever meet her nephew George Clooney back then?
MF: Oh, God, yes. George lived at the house in a little maid's room or something.
Did you ever think he'd become such a movie star?
MF: Absolutely not. When I see George now, I still can't reconcile his stardom because of my frame of reference for him. He was the nephew who lived off Rosemary's kitchen in this tiny room that was always like Fibber McGee's closet it was so dreadfully messy. He had a very tense relationship with Rosemary. They didn't really get along. When he started to get roles she was thrilled because she thought he was finally going to make something of himself after all. Don't get me wrong. He's such a nice guy and such a smart one. And I'm mad about his parents. The night Rosemary died I was working in Cincinnati where her brother Nick, George's father, lives. He and his wife were at my concert and I was the one who had to tell them that Rosemary had died.
You've played many more roles, Barry, than Dame Edna. Rupert Murdoch, for instance.
BH: I did play him in a film about the forged Hitler diaries. Murdoch fell for that. He's an old friend from Melbourne. I'm an even closer friend of his 101-year-old mother. She's incredible. It does help, you know, if I am talking to anyone on the New York Post or The Wall Street Journal and I sense they are getting their knives sharpened, I just have to casually mention The Mother. I adore her. She's a matriarch. She's gorgeous. Still quite alert. Writes all her thank you letters in ink. Like Prince Charles.
Do you have any first editions of Herbert Read in your library, Barry?
BH: I do, in fact.
Read was a British anarchist—in the quietest English tradition—as well as an existential poet and art critic who was a great believer in psychoanalysis and whose theory about art was that it was a biological phenomenon. What biological impulses have gone into creating Dame Edna?
BH: Well, for many years I resisted the imputation that Edna was based on my own mother. I have finally crumbled. My mother passed away about 15 years ago and I have begun to see more and more resemblances to her. She is, I dare say now, almost the reincarnation of my mother. My mother, I think, was a frustrated artist of some kind who finally was, in fact, a Melbourne housewife with no other aspiration. A lot of the inferences, of course, converge in Edna. She was at first conceived as a sort of satire on suburban smugness but gradually became more sympathetic. Now, whether Edna is a sympathetic character or not is not for me to judge. But she can say rather sharp things to people and they seem to take them well.
MF: It's because Edna says things that people think but wouldn't say. In fact, Edna says things that Barry wouldn't say.
BH: Wouldn't dream of saying. They wouldn't cross my mind.
Do you have any Oscar Wilde books in your library, Barry? You'd make a great Wilde onstage.
BH: I do. In fact, I have his telephone book. It's hard to believe that the phone existed in the time of Oscar Wilde. But it did. It's a book of the telephone numbers he used. Not that many sadly. There's one for George Bernard Shaw. W.B. Yeats. But not that many.
Do you have any Carson McCullers in your collection?
BH: I do. But not any first editions.
I ask because at the end of All About Me I was not prepared to be reminded of her. But when you turn the M upside down and make the name of the show All About We, I thought of Frankie's line in The Member of the Wedding—"the we of me"—and how that could be a summing up of what you and Michael have accomplished here in your show.
BH: So we have literary resonances on top of everything else.
Ethel Waters became associated with the stage and film productions of The Member of the Wedding. Could Dame Edna be described now as in the Ethel Waters phase of her career? Perhaps she could do a tour Down Under of The Member of the Wedding playing the Ethel Waters part of Bernice. I can hear her now warbling her own rendition of "His Eye Is on the Sparrow."
MF: My great-uncle, Hy Gates, was the property master at the Morosco Theatre and he worked on The Member of the Wedding at the Morosco, which was his favorite show that he ever did. He talked about it all the time. Vincent Price was a great friend of mine. We were introduced by Roddy McDowall. Vincent toured in a play called Mama's Daughters with Ethel Waters and adored her.
Did you ever meet Vincent's wife, Coral Browne?
MF: Of course. What a great woman.
BH: My wife Lizzie wears a fur coat that belonged to Coral Browne. It was given to her by Vincent.
Connections, connections, connections. One final one: Lizzie is the daughter of the great English poet, Stephen Spender. Do you have a favorite Spender poem, Barry?
BH: There's a great later one called "World's Worth." You would have liked Spender. He was very funny but that doesn't really come across in the poems. He quite liked Edna. Loved coming to her shows. You do know that I Am a Camera is really about him. Chris Isherwood was writing about Stephen. So many people think Isherwood himself was the English tutor in the story. But it was Stephen. Everything really does link up in an interesting way, doesn't it?
Kevin Sessums is the author of The New York Times bestseller Mississippi Sissy, a memoir of his childhood. He was executive editor of Andy Warhol's Interview magazine and a contributing editor of Vanity Fair and Allure. He is a contributing editor of Parade. His new memoir, I Left It on Mountain will be published by St. Martins Press.