Reporters who set out to 'interview' or to 'profile' Barry Humphries usually return to their desks not empty-handed but frustrated. They will certainly have a 'story' and they will have been well entertained, but the 'real Barry Humphries' whom they seek will remain as elusive and protean as ever. For Humphries, an encounter with a journalist is always another episode in an unending contest, a game, for which he has developed a new set of rules - the Humphries Doctrine of the Interview. The aim of the interview, he declares, is to shed shadow where once there was light, to obfuscate what was just becoming clear. Or, as he once put it more bluntly, he will not take part in the popular sport of 'perving on the privacy of artists'.
Sometimes he may appear candid and co-operative. 'What is there to say about me?' he will ask in bewilderment. 'I don't smoke. I don't drink. There must be some way you can jazz me up.' At other times he will be ingenuous: 'I am Church of England. I wash my car on Sundays!' Or obscurantist: when asked if comedians tell the truth, he replied: 'No. They distort it to tell a more accurate lie.' Or oracular: 'Being oneself is a form of disguise.' He may assume any of a variety of masks: a monocled Edwardian dandy, a moustached Ronald Colman in yachting gear, a surrealist hidalgo, a gothic student of Prague. The Hollywood biographer Charles Higham, who found Humphries a driven character out of Edgar Allan Poe, was confused by his sudden changes of mood, from relaxed mildness to lethal hatred. One representative journalist, after reporting one of Humphries' disarming performances, concluded that just when you think you may be getting close to the artist, you realize that you are only getting close to the role he is then playing (which may be the role of Barry Humphries in a confidential mood). Another said his trick is to make journalists feel they are in on the joke but in fact they are the joke.
His press conferences are even greater spoofs. At one - a mid-morning champagne brunch to launch a record album The Sound of Edna - Humphries appeared at the podium before the legions of reporters wearing the mask of a seedy, monocled impresario, in a rumpled morning suit and chewing a bent cigar that spilt its ash freely. You must approach Dame Edna in the correct way, he lectured the reporters. Stand back when she enters the room. Curtsy. Do not be pushy. Do not speak until spoken to. Do not try to take her gloved hand unless it is offered first. The squalid impresario then withdrew and almost immediately a frizzy-haired Dame Edna arrived on a Honda motorcycle in punk gear, a tattered black T-shirt beneath a black leather jacket, a razor blade dangling from a chain around her neck. She proceeded to sing: 'S and M Lady':
Shave half your head, paint your legs green.
No one's too old for the S and M scene.
Drive them insane, frighten the vicar,
Swing that chain with the big swastika.
S and M ladies, let 'em all go to Hades.
At another conference, to launch An Evening's Intercourse with Barry Humphries in Sydney, he played host for forty-five minutes to 160 champagne-sipping reporters in his hotel suite. When he withdrew, Dame Edna was discovered in a hot spa and agreed to take questions. One reporter asked: 'What do you think of the new legislation to reform the rape laws?' After a long, fixed stare, Dame Edna pursed her lips, and replied: 'Where do I come in?' to roars of tense laughter. Another reporter turned away, to avoid the grisly sight of his peeking, slavering colleagues. (In any case the one-man show grossed millions of dollars.)
At yet another - for the launching of the show At Least You Can Say You've Seen It in Melbourne - he hired a tram and invited the press on a picnic to celebrate the bursting of the wattle, the Australian harbinger of spring. Each had to wear something as yellow as wattle (or bring an oriental friend) and as the tram weaved through Camberwell Junction yellow drinks were served - pernod, advocaat and sherry. At lunch in the Wattle Park chalet, the journalists were served creamed sweetcorn, curried egg and daffodil-yellow jellied trifle, after which Humphries recited his Betjemanesque 'Wattle Park Blues'.
Back in the wattled thirties
Before the world went dark
They built this noble Chalet
On the crest of Wattle Park...
And so dear friends and strangers
I presume to be your guide,
To the terminus of memory
I have shouted you a ride,
To the place where I, and Cohn,
And a thousand kiddies more
Picnicked underneath the pollen
In the days before the war.
Today the trees seem shorter
And the cable trams have gone,
But they still serve, in the Chalet,
Melbourne's finest buttered scone.
The reporter who tries to break through the fantasy or folderol does not get far. One presenting himself late at what Humphries calls his third act - the one back in the dressing room after the two acts on stage - demanded bluffly: 'When did you first start playing this role?'
'What can you mean?' said Dame Edna, mascara now running down her face. 'When I was born.'
'Well, when did you start to dress up like this?'
'They've sent the wrong man,' Dame Edna sighed loudly, turning away - and the journalist gave up.
On another occasion an Australian reporter interviewing Sir Les Patterson began by quoting with approval his taxi-driver's criticism that Humphries presented only a few characters, unlike another well-known comedian - a television mimic of public figures - with a great repertoire of impersonations. Sir Les replied slowly . . .gradually settling his pay-back: '...Yes, we live in a land where the taxi-driver as drama-critic is an interesting phenomenon . . .You are probably right . . .Brian Humphries really hasn't the talent for impersonations . . .he has to make his characters up, plucks 'em out of his brain . . . performs 'em in London maybe with a team of writers he might be better. I don't know . . .why not go outside, grab a cab and ask that bloke?'
In fact, only one among Humphries' countless interviewers in several countries seems to have been able to lift the mask that Humphries was wearing at that moment, and that was Andy Warhol in very special circumstances: the flop, due largely to the New York Times, of Housewife-Superstar! in New York at Theatre Four, not long after its colossal success in London where half a million people saw the show. Dropping his guard for the moment Humphries said: 'I just couldn't go through a failure at forty-three. I mean why should a person as talented as I have to perform in a deconsecrated church in the heart of Hell's Kitchen and be reviewed by the former foreign correspondent to Madrid?
Why should I go through this?' Then collecting himself again, Humphries offered some advice to the young:
"One must never resent the unfavourable review one might receive; and no matter how disappointed or wounded the artist really feels, he should never display any feelings of animosity or verbalize them to members of the press. This is very bad for the image and may be considered crude or tasteless. I've always had the odd stinking review -everywhere. I'm no exception. But I've never let an unfavourable notice affect me. I read them and forget them. Put them out of my mind for ever. Remember, it's just bad luck if the person who doesn't get you happens to be an influential journalist with five children and a clubfoot."
But this interview remains exceptional, an Andy Warhol rarity.
There is little point in the journalists consulting Barry Humphries' many autobiographical statements. His entries in various editions of Who's Who, for example, are, like his programme notes or Dame Edna's recipes, minor literary genres of their own. They provide some information and hint at more. In various entries he describes his schooling: 'Self-educated, attended Melbourne Grammar School'; his ambition: 'arousing the lions of laughter'; and his profession (or quest): 'profiting from strange concealments'. It is here too that he describes his principal - and renowned - reaction: 'Inventing Australia' an Australia which is as real as James Joyce's Dublin and as much a synecdoche of civilization. But the entries soon become as much a game as his interviews and obfuscate as much as they clarify: in one entry his publications include Les Putaines Sataniques. A consideration of minor Baudelairean book illustrators in Belgium, a study which has eluded collectors and bibliographer, whether Baudelairean or not. In another he nominates as sole relaxation 'listening to early twentieth-century Swedish Chamber Music' - a predilection of which his musical friends had been entirely unaware. In still others he has acknowledged only two marriages when there have been three - now four with the marriage at Spoleto in June 1990 to the writer Lizzie Spender, daughter of the famous poet Sir Stephen Spender.
A more useful approach to the Humphries phenomenon appeared in Gambier, Ohio, in 1964 in a prophetic parable based on the life of Barry Humphries, who was then almost entirely unknown outside Australia. Called 'A Fitting Tribute', and written by a New Zealander, C.K. Stead, who had known Humphries in Auckland, it appeared in Kenyon Review, a journal published by a liberal arts college of Episcopalian disposition. Since one of the parable's themes is the inevitable gulf between the Artist and the uncomprehending State, Community and Press, it quickly enjoyed a certain fame in translation in dictatorships such as Spain and Hungary. But the theme is and is meant to be universal.
The artist in the story, Julian Harp, is easily recognized. In one Humphriesian episode, Julian, a disreputable-looking young man in a tattered, buttoned-up raincoat, takes the narrator to an Auckland disco where the patrons jeer at his clown's appearance and call him Jesus. 'Julian laughed too and clapped in a spastic kind of way and looked all round like a maniac as if he couldn't see who they were jeering at.' Then he stood up and began to jerk and twist and stomp so superbly that the crowd stopped jeering, made a circle around him and began to clap wildly until, exhausted, he could dance no more.
Julian invented a set of characters who regularly wrote letters to the newspapers as part of his 'Subvert the Press' Campaign. His plan was to take over the letters-to-the-editor columns and then bring down the government by using the letter-writers in a co-ordinated attack. He wrote the letters in a sort of daze, as if hearing voices. But gradually the characters took on their own lives. They would no longer agree with each other. Some supported, some opposed the government. Some even began writing letters to his girlfriend, saying he should be hanged or flogged, although one wrote that it was only his mind that was disordered.
The climax of the story is Julian's inspired success in doing what no man had ever done before: flying like a bird using wings of his own invention that were initially propelled by the springs of stolen umbrella struts. When, after months of gruelling training (and public discouragement), he finally took off at a gymkhana sponsored by two charities, the Blind Society and the Crippled Children's Society, he soared across the vast Pacific disappearing over the horizon in the Hauroki Gulf. Even when he tried to come down, he could not: whether it was because of a fault in the wings or because Julian was in a trance or because there was somewhere he wanted to go, 'there was no way to go but higher and further until his energy was used up'.
The final irony is that now that Julian is world-famous and believed to be dead, the State, supported by the press, has taken over his reputation, commissioning statues, odes, paintings and presenting him in a suit and tie as a clean-cut, short-haired National Hero. Those who knew him recognized the falsity of the official legends. They knew him to be an unkempt drifter, a graceful aesthete, some sort of thief and the father of an illegitimate child. But they also knew him to be a man obsessed who worked in 'a daze' and 'a trance'. Yet if they said so, they were treated as liars or madmen and silenced. The public did not want these facts, but it craved a legend, just as the artist did not face the world directly but used invented characters, coded messages and masks. Even the narrator, his companion, collaborator and the mother of his child in the end accepted this: 'Soon I learned to say nothing about Julian. He belongs to the public and the public makes what it likes of him'. Even she did not 'know' him (although she knew more than most) and she could not explain his soaring flight. Her last remarks apply as much to her as to her readers: perhaps if your umbrella was stolen, 'it may mean you contributed a strut to the wings that carried him aloft'.
Unlike Julian Harp, his model, Barry Humphries, is not only alive but enormously popular. He also shows few signs of becoming a National Hero (although he has been honoured by the Queen and his government as well as by his profession). But like Julian Harp, 'he belongs to the public and the public makes what it likes of him', however wrong that may be. His characters also have their own reality like Julian Harp's letter-writers in his 'Subvert the Press' Campaign, and his artistic flights remain as mysterious as Julian's. We can track his career from Melbourne to Megastardom but we know this will only illuminate a strut of 'the wings that carried him aloft'.
Some thirty years ago the present writer attempted to translate Barry Humphries into the language of journalism or daily life. As an assistant on a somewhat pretentious magazine (printed, as Humphries might have said, on butcher's paper), I asked him to elaborate, in an article, his scorn for the insipid philistinism of a newly created, government-funded theatrical entrepreneur. When he delivered his article in his mannered, recondite, decadent prose, I knew it would never be accepted by my comparatively pedestrian publication which insisted on clear, direct, informative and usually short sentences. I rewrote the article in the style of the magazine. Humphries shrugged his acceptance (and sent me a copy of Richard Garnett's Twilight of the Gods with an introduction by T.E. Lawrence). In due course the article appeared. I am still pleased to have helped put on record Humphries' criticism of the Australian stage in that critical, formative period of his career, but I also know that the published article lacks all the intensity, élan, colour and bite of his original. The style is the man. Barry Humphries is his masks.