I saw Humphries first in 1962, fifty years ago to the week, probably, in the Macquarie Auditorium, and have missed perhaps three of his shows since then. We lived up the road from each other once, for about six months, and saw each other regularly for a while. I remember taking six different girls to one of his shows, in the Elizabethan, I think, and he threw a gladioli at me, saying ‘Here’s yours, Bob, the one with the short stem.’ I’ve spent time backstage with him, drinking champagne while he did not, and at book launchings and gallery openings and a lunch or two. And my wife’s father Jack Brooksbank taught him English style, a gift he was grateful for, at Melbourne Grammar and a pencil sketch he made of him in 1951 he gave to her ten years ago.
And I’ve always thought of him as a visitor from a better dimension generously spending with a lesser order of beings time he could more usefully spend reordering the universe, a feeling those watching Q&A a month ago shared, I think…
And to think this was his last show was upsetting, in the way that Olivier’s last big role on stage, in The Party, which I saw, was upsetting. He is not our Shakespeare but he is our Dickens, a travelling performer of his greatest hits, wrenching tears from his audience amid gales of laughter (in this case Sandy Stone’s little dead daughter June, after which he and Beryl chose to have no more children) and persecuting his audience with his knowledge of their deepest shames (wall colours, hair styles) and most intimate evasions. One he invited onto the stage proved ‘unable to walk’ and Edna, quick as a flash, asked her sternly, ‘And how did you get here? Try, woman, try. Stand up! There could be a miracle!’
Sir Les, a celebrity chef now, again extends the metaphors for sex by about thirty new additions. His brother Gerard, a pederastic priest in an ankle bracelet which rings and flashes when he feels desire, attempts to assault, and pray for, and group hug the various glamorous young people strewn around the stage. Sandy speaks of the drugged humiliations of Beryl, his widow, in her nursing home where she is picking up modern slang (‘Hi, you guys’). And Edna has been through an ashram, has learnt to love herself (‘in fact I adore myself!’), and to disinherit her tattooed and face-studded daughter and her worthless gay son Kenny, and has acquired a Balinese toy-boy fifty years her junior.
And all’s well: the hilarity unbounded, the envelope pushed, as always, the cellophane broken, the waves upon waves of delicious moral shock, the intricate puns, better even than Milligan’s (‘You’re looking at my penis, aren’t you? Well, let me introduce you, here he is, ladies and gentlemen’ pointing at his pianist), as great in his power to outrage correctness as Auberon Waugh, or Patrick Cook, or Jonathan Swifet….
But it’s over. And it’s unbelievable. Three more weeks, or less, and it’s gone.
It can’t be experienced in reproductive television, it is theatre at its most stirring, most transient and soul-embracing. It is like a great unrepeatable football final or a Sutherland mad scene or Paul Simon live with Africans. One of those irreplaceable privileges we have as human beings. And it’s going. And it’s a pity.
Some think that Barry’s politics (Tory, elitist, British, talent-snobbish, borderline homophobic) matter, but they do not. Shakespeare was a monarchist elitist priest-hole Catholic woman-scorning spreader of fatal syphilis, but these things do not matter as much as they should. I have often written that, among Australians, Barry is the only one I can with confidence in any turn of the fashion in any millennium I have been in call a genius, and I do that now.
What a night. I’ll get to the Wednesday matinee if I can. I urge the readership to do likewise. They will be uplifted into their better selves as they never were by religion.
They will understand the meaning of sublime.