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  • A Portrait of the Artist as an Australian: L'Oeuvre Bizarre de Barry Humphries
  • Veronica Kelly (bio)
Paul Matthew St Pierre. A Portrait of the Artist as an Australian: L'Oeuvre Bizarre de Barry HumphriesMcGill-Queen's University Press. xxviii, 364. $49.95

This devoted account of the international profile of Barry Humphries since 1952 minutely documents the originality and fecundity - one might say the enormity - of the Melbourne maverick's creations. Paul Matthew St Pierre provides invaluable checklists of Humphries' performances on stage, film, television, and sound recordings; and as an artist, novelist, autobiographer, poet, preface writer, comic book scriptor, and song librettist. While Humphries' performative impact is illuminated, it is rather the literary output of an artist who the author considers 'has always been primarily a writer' which dominates this study.

Despite its textual bent, the book places Humphries within the major twentieth-century performative traditions of Dada and music hall. 1950 s Melbourne Dada saw the youthful Humphries exhibiting a gumboot full [End Page 400] of custard under the title 'Pus in Boots.' Or so runs an item of local folklore, whose absence from St Pierre's account suggests that either he has not encountered documented traces of this 'event' or, more likely, that it exemplifies the superstar attracting the ben trovato of urban legend. St Pierre analyses the prankery, masquerade, kitsch-addiction, and multilingual punning of Humphries' foundational Dadaism. Particularly cogent is the placing of his subject within the practices and ethos of music hall, citing a cohort of inspirations and colleagues including Tommy Trinder, George Robey, Eric Idle, Max Miller, Chaplin, and Cecily Courtneidge.

The author is genuinely admiring of Humphries as an 'Australian, ' while missing some of the cultural and political specificity in which this international career should be read. Exuberant 1970s nationalism both created Les Patterson and ennobled Edna to Dame status: but the lofty personage and social programs of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam (who knighted Dame Edna and sanctified the Yartz in national life) are not examined. St Pierre is unsure in placing Humphries within the specifically Australian traditions of impersonation, physical comedy, and Melbourne-type social satire. Here is a major cultural and performative articulation against which Humphries consciously defines himself while drawing on many of its practices and energies. St Pierre startlingly claims his hero/ine as 'not a political satirist,' but if 'political' is tendentiously restricted to critique from radical or socialist perspectives the description retains some validity. The powerful, the rapacious, the malevolent, and the fanatical are fairly safe from Humphries' attentions. One cannot imagine him, like the brilliant impersonator Max Gillies, donning a fat suit as Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone (in his sketch 'Amanda-tory Detention'), or assuming the role of his turbulent nation's ethical conscience, as Mrs Evita Bezuidenhout (Pieter-Dirk Eys) does for South Africa.

Rather, Humphries' peculiar genius for Theophrastan classification fabulates autonomous personalities who appropriate the limelight from their creator. The audacious social masquerade of Dame Edna (formerly Mrs Norm Everedge of Moonee Ponds), the vulgarian belchings of the Yartz Minister Les Patterson, and the Bakhtinian somatic excesses of the virginal colonial Candide Barry McKenzie, are major creations enduring in print and visual media. Particularly, his masterpiece is Sandy Stone; he of the hottie, dressing-gown, and slippers, whose Beckettian monologues transcend suburban satire to lay bare the poetry and pathos of the human condition. Dame Edna may be the most notorious of Humphries' creations, but in Australia at least, Sandy is the most enduringly beloved. St Pierre devotes him considerable coverage, hailing 'Sandy Agonistes' as 'the greatest Australian poem and song of the twentieth century.'

St Pierre's main interests, as stated, are textual. Humphries is seen as 'a singularly important comic writer, a daring postmodern generic deconstructionist, a Dada prankster in language, and a master of grotesqueries.' [End Page 401] The author's own writing style is rife with translingual puns, Dada etymologies, and neologisms, such that homage frequently collapses into overkill. 'Even the name "Sandy" seems to contain a phonemical death clause, the "Sandy Claus(e)" "sand + die," when in fact it proposes another clause, like a codicil in a will, "sans + die," ("without dying"), or...


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pp. 400-402
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