If ANZAC Day is secular Australia's one day of "religious observance," Barry Humphries might have been one of our only secular patron saints, embodying the culture's virtues, or at least what we thought were our virtues.
While throwing the Anzacs and Humphries together in one paragraph might seem as surreal as some of his skits, they both speak to powerful currents that shaped modern Australia and now appear to be running out on a strong ebbtide.
War is more likely than at any time since 1939, but polls show fewer Australians than ever would fight to defend their country. And Humphries' quintessential Australian honesty (well, at least we thought it was quintessentially Australian) led to him being virtually cancelled by the Melbourne Comedy Festival, which he co-founded with English comedian Peter Cook.
That Humphries could be out of favour with the in-crowd shows how Australia has changed, and not for the better.
The war shaped Humphries, and it shaped the absurdist drama movement of which he was a leading practitioner.
We think of Humphries as a popular entertainer, which, viewed through contemporary aesthetics, almost disqualifies you from being a serious artist. But he was a serious artist in a dramatic tradition stretching back to Chaucer and Shakespeare.
It encompasses burlesque and arises most directly out of the post-World War I existentialist movement and is in the mainstream of the absurdist movement, which arrived post-World War II.
Both those wars altered the flow of dramatic expression. WWI, with its killing on an industrial scale, eviscerated hope and purpose and the existentialists, like Jean-Paul Sartre, explored a world without hope and without purpose, whose only reality was power.
Absurdism is more forgiving of human nature and more optimistic. It subverts and disrupts reality to understand it better. The mood after WWII was qualitatively different to that after WWI, with a realistic optimism to rebuild a better world and to create new institutions, like the United Nations.
Absurdist theatre drew on this optimism and the coping mechanisms learned through constantly facing physical danger.
Laughing is an antidote to anxiety and depression. It is also a way into a deeper understanding of your situation-the more you understand, and the faster you do, the more likely you are to survive.
Australian Humour in a Nutshell
Humphries was born 16 years after WWI and five years before WWII. As a result, he inherited, or imbibed, some of the characteristics of those who were only a few years older than him.
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