A Bit of Stick
Early in 1959 in the obscure and now largely lost pages of a Melbourne little magazine, the Contemporary Art Society Broadsheet, an explosive, thirty-five-year-old surrealist painter, Ian Sime, published a polemic, 'Humpf-bumpf', which set the tone for decades of Australian criticism of Barry Humphries by those who believed that they were the targets of his satire. Sime, as confident, eloquent, loquacious and splenetic as many of Humphries' characters, saw himself as a humanist anarchist who spoke for 'the thinking heart', for the 'basic yearning for a universal human community of love', as celebrated, he said, by Marcel Duchamp, Tristan Tzara, Paul Klee, Jean Giono and Roberto Matta! He despised the petty, the prejudiced and the pretentious, and had just returned to Melbourne from northern Australia where he had taught Aboriginal children to write in medieval script so that they might cock a calligraphic snoot, as he put it, at the poisonously racist lower-middle-class incompetents who ran the local government and schools. 'I have returned,' he wrote, 'from a bored exile' to find that his home town, which had once espoused the cause of art and compassion, had enthroned a 'vicious idiocy', that is, a cult of Barry Humphries.
Humphries is no satirist of moral and social evils, Sime argued. His is a sick mind and 'the Humphrey tree has so far borne only the stunted bitter berries of personal vindictiveness', to the embarrassment and discomfort of his audiences. His 'resentful, juvenile gloating over the maimed, the feeble and the moronic is the result of a deep sense of inadequacy comforting itself by the sight of other, more obviously inadequate, human wrecks and accidents.' As for Humphries' hatred of women, his fear of homosexuals, and his 'savage lampooning of an obvious mother image' in Mrs Everage, Sime declared: 'Adolescence is a time of rather turgid emotional stresses and of some attempt to solve the mother-son relationships - of finally severing the cord. But to continue this essentially private and temporary condition into adulthood and public life is both boring and unneccessary. There are good simple cures available today for the emotional and physical acne of puberty - and the public exhibition of self-inflicted sores, is, I have always thought, a sign of backward countries and minds.' Sime concluded his article ominously: To be continued.
In the next issue of the Broadsheet a twenty-one-year-old Tony Morphett, later to become a prominent writer, briskly dismissed Sime's rodomontade. Sime's proclaimed love of humanity was, he wrote, far too broad, and Morphett reserved the right to hate the 'demagogues, bomb-droppers and book-burners'. As for Humphries, his 'big hate' was obviously for 'the lying and the crap and the carry-on' of modern life, and Morphett shared it. In any case, you do not presume to dictate themes to an artist, including a comic artist.
But if Morphett disposed of Sime's polemic, this sort of exchange has continued almost annually in Australia, in almost the same terms, for the past thirty years. Few actors in the history of the theatre have been so repeatedly attacked by commentators as Humphries, and the attacks have grown sharper as his popularity has increased. The argument received its most elaborate expression in the 1980s in a debate between Craig McGregor in the National Times and Hal Colebatch in Quadrant. Craig McGregor - a prize-winning New Journalist, novelist, rock-opera librettist, Bob Dylan scholar, and prolific author of a range of books from This Surfing Life to Up Against the Wall, America - has been a persistent critic of Humphries ever since Humphries' breakthrough in his show Excuse I in 1965 when Neil Singleton joined Edna and Sandy in the Humphreisian family. In that year McGregor found Humphries' satire to be 'rooted in a profound anti-humanism', the final proof of which was the book Bizarre which was an attempt to 'demean ordinary life'.
A few years later he went further: Humphries was 'very sick' with 'a special sort of arrogance'. His Bizarre was merely 'Port Said perviness between hard covers', and Humphries himself, however brilliant, was 'just another clown'. But his principal critique was in 1982 after a visit to a Humphries show at a poker-machine casino on the Gold Coast. There, he reported, was Humphries, still 'cracking his racist jokes, pillorying pinkos, Abos, unionists and of course women'. He continues to turn 'the full and bilious force of his contempt upon the losers and defenceless in society - Abos, Jews, migrants, unionists, feminists, the great mass of common people'. Where is his satire on the Australian (then conservative) Government with its 'tax evasion scandals, questionable take-overs and business manoeuvres, government corruption . . .?' Where are the satires on businessmen? McGregor repeated his earlier view about Humphries' 'profound anti-humanism', but this time he also found him 'profoundly reactionary', with a 'deep and abiding contempt for the human race' and a total hatred of Australia. With his 'constant pillorying of the Left', Humphries 'is habitually on the wrong side' and there is 'the stink' of fear and loathing in his work which evoked the grotesque and despairing cabaret of Berlin as the Nazis began their climb to power. Surprisingly he then concluded: 'as I've said before, just another clown'.
In his counter-blast the poet and novelist Hal Colebatch dealt with McGregor in a greater detail than Morphett could have called on in the 1950s when Humphries was a beginner. It is not the losers, he pointed out, but the winners who receive the full force of Humphries' rage - trendy frauds, wealthy opportunists, men who have 'lost their capacity to see women other than as sexual objects, parents unable to see children other than as ego-symbols and children unable to see parents other than as meal tickets'.
There is nothing scornful of Aborigines or immigrants in Humphries' shows, except in the mouths of characters intended to be 'contemptible, stupid or repulsively unsympathetic', and there is absolutely nothing at all that can be taken to be contemptuous of Jews. Humphries' target, Colebatch argued like Morphett years before, is 'the unformed and unfeeling heart', and his values are not far from those associated with E.M.Forster. Humphries does desire Australia to be a more genuinely civilized society and he 'sees the pretentious trendies who infest its media and educational establishments as betrayers of a great trust, namely, the fostering and transmitting of the best ideas in civilization'. Perhaps Humphries would do well to give more prominence to 'the good, the decent, and the noble', but Colebatch concluded, again like Morphett years before, 'I do not think this is a matter on which one can advise an artist without being foolishly presumptuous'.
There have been other and different complaints about Humphries' art over the years. Early in his career he was often dismissed as a coterie comedian, as too intellectual to be popular, as a flash in the pan. When those criticisms could not be sustained, he was dismissed as dated or anachronistic. Then he was denounced as an unpatriotic scandal: one critic, from the depths of his indignation, thundered that Humphries was no longer an Australian and had become a Londoner! But the perennial attack has been the Sime-McGregor one and the defence a Morphett-Colebatch one, with dozens of participants on both sides. The argument shows no sign of ending; each time one critic points out that Humphries' target is 'the lying and the crap and the carry-on', the unfeeling heart and the unformed mind, another steps forward to declare that Humphries is sick, vindictive, nihilistic and probably fascist. But it may still be possible to add something to this dialogue of the deaf.
Humphries himself will not directly contribute much to these polemics, from which he has sensibly kept his distance: 'So much of what a comedian does is instinct. Intellectualism explains nothing except to the humourless. It's like trying to explain music.' Occasionally, perhaps goaded by some humourless attack, he has remarked that his main target is himself, that his mockery is self-mockery, that humour can never spring out of hatred, and that nothing in the world is worse than an arrogant comedian. Once or twice he has replied to a critic. When reviewing In the Making, a book on Australian artists edited by Craig McGregor, he wrote:
Unhappily I lack Mr McGregor's fabled reticence, but must in all justice acknowledge that this youthful and sincere champion of aquatic recreations (temporarily turned critic) has elsewhere and with obsessional vigour discussed my antics, though to be fair our deft journalist is but a ham-fisted lepidopterist and his wildly thrashing butterfly net has thus far failed to snare this glittering fritillary of the footlights.
He ended the review with a derisive solemnity:
We share the editor's sense of awe and wonderment, for the creative gift is a very mysterious, even suspect phenomenon, particularly to those untouched by it.
On other occasions when a critic offers some faint praise before condemnation (as McGregor did in 1968 when he took time to describe Neil Singleton as a perceptive creation before dismissing Humphries as 'just another clown') Humphries would remark: 'Yes, Martin Agrippa collects Barry Humphries records'.
He prefers to be seen, not as a satirist ('Norm and I adore satire, and yoga', Edna said crushingly at the height of the satire boom in the 1960s), but as an entertainer who has already amused more than two generations, refuting his own cool dictum: 'A generation later, a comic is never funny'. 'Far from wishing to change society,' he once wrote, obviously enjoying his lines, 'I can only hope that my audience will pause, reflect for a moment, and pass on their immutable way, not forgetting, perhaps, to drop a coin in my hat.' But there is far more to it than this - although only the pompous could undervalue the sheer hilarity, zaniness and pathos of his shows or burden them with too much tedious 'relevance' and heavy 'point of view'. Yet many critics have sensed amid the helpless laughter a whiff of sulphur, a hint of Savonarola, an echo of howling rage. Humphries himself has conceded on one occasion, wearing a different mask: 'I have said that I do not wish to edify, that there is no moral purpose in my work. I lie when I say that. There is a moral purpose. I do want to change things.' He wants to give us - and himself - a bit of stick, like his Methodist forefathers in Lancashire. 'That's what they enjoy. You can hear them panting like old Swinburne in the flagellants' brothel: Harder! Harder!' Yet however Swiftian he may be, he stops short of seeing mankind as odious vermin. His world is a chill and suffering one, but not without hope.
Observers have often commented on the mood of Humphries' audiences as they leave the theatre - stunned, bemused, perplexed or disoriented. They certainly do not write about these audiences in the way James Agate wrote about those of Marie Lloyd, the music-hall comedienne who fascinated T.S.Eliot. 'No one left the theatre,' Agate wrote with relief, 'feeling spiritually better. From that blight at least, they were free.' Humphries' audiences, however, are in some sense clearly 'blighted'.
For example, the English reviewer John Elsom regarded Housewife-Superstar! in 1976 as not only brilliant entertainment but as 'good theatre', as life-changing: 'It makes us,' he said, 'think and feel differently afterwards.' Partly this is because Humphries exposes the loudmouths and bullies, the humbugs and racketeers, the sots and pseuds who seem to have the run of the world. He liberates us from our confusion and we see things plainly for once. But there is also something closer to the bone. The Australian critic Katherine Brisbane examined her own response to Isn't It Pathetic At His Age in 1978 in this way: her feelings were, she said, ambivalent. She felt 'exploited' and 'slightly soiled' by the way the characters invited her to laugh callously and to obey absurd calls to wave gladdies. 'And yet ... within that mixture of laughter and revulsion I believe that Humphries has once more placed his finger upon what we still find most disturbing about our apparently liberated society. And it is that moment when the laughter stops that we come to recognize this.'
Humphries invites us to look - with him - into a mirror and we see Caliban. We acknowledge and we give up, however briefly, some of the lies we live by. This may either relieve or unsettle us, or both. Humphries described the audience's reaction in 1962 to Mrs Everage's bigoted barb ('They get all the best places, don't they?') about Roman Catholic building sites: 'You would notice immediately the prejudice flowing out, the feeling of relief like a boil being lanced. I don't think I'll ever get a gag as good as that again.' When the trade union racketeer Lance Boyle first appeared in 1978 in all his left-wing fascism, the audience responded with a shocked sucking-in of air; it was, Humphries said, a strange, new sound, 'like a copy of the Canberra Times going up the chimney'. But it is not a negative or nihilist experience. When Dame Edna calls the shows 'a massage parlour of the human spirit', she is, beneath the several layers of irony, right.
Humphries' passion as an artist (or his Dada daemons) has been from the beginning in the 1950s to loosen the grip on us all (including himself) of diminishing assumptions, to get us to see ourselves and the world in a different way, one closer to the truth. This passion animated his youthful street theatre, the Dada hoaxes, however poorly executed, and it animates the one-man shows in packed theatres today. Humphries does not preach a moral doctrine (Sandy's wheezing of the Lord's Prayer is both less and more) but there is always the will to grasp things 'as they really are', a glimmer of truth that is the beginning of the restoration of civility.
Laughter is inevitable. As Humphries put it: 'If you're on stage and telling the truth - however it may be disguised poetically or comically, however it may verge on caricature or fantasy - if it is fundamentally truthful laughter will be there - it is the noise of recognition.' But not only laughter. There may be something like sobbing: Humphries is always close to sorrow and we all stand with Sandy in the cold and blowy outer. It is Barry Humphries' genius that he can, through laughter and tears, restore to us, if only for a moment, a suggestion of sanity, a hint of hope, a rumour of revival.