1967: Charles Ludlam and Ridiculous Theater Company
By Nicola Shepheard
In 1967 Charles Ludlam formed the Ridiculous Theater Company with John Vaccaro. Ludlam had a dramatic falling out with Vaccaro during rehearsals for the Ludlam’s second play “Conquest of the Universe” by Vaccaro’s Playhouse of the Ridiculous. Joined by other defectors, Ludlam formed his own troupe and staged the play under a different name: “When Queens Collide”.
Over the next two decades, Ludlam would write, direct and star in 27 more plays, challenging ideas of avant-garde and queer theater and sending far-reaching reverberations through the performing art world. He died of AIDS-related pneumonia on May 28, 1987, aged 44.
“The Mystery of Irma Vep” (1984), a dime novel parody, and “The Artificial Jungle,” (1986), a film noir spoof, were his two biggest popular and critical successes. Writing in the Village Voice, critic Michael Feingold (whom Ludlam had dubbed, after mixed reviews, “Michael Findfault), argued “Irma Vep” epitomized Ludlam’s approach to theater, as “a play that simultaneously provokes terror, laughter, and a grotesque mockery of all gender, literary, and spatial boundaries. It’s impossible to imagine the audience that wouldn’t enjoy it…since neither sex nor splatter gets beyond carefully prim Victorian bounds, though every sort of outrage is adumbrated.”
Audaciously, outrageously intelligent and restlessly inventive, Ludlam was never one for boundaries. His early theater has been described as “controlled anarchy”: a riot of improvisation, elements mined from “high” and “low” culture, cross-dressing, entangling egos and outrageous spectacle. A cult following quickly sprung up.
Ludlam was born April 12, 1943 and raised in Long Island suburbia in a Catholic household before finding a home amidst the countercultural foment and bathhouses of Greenwich Village. He had links to other movements of the day: Warhol’s Factory, the underground film scene, the emergent Off-Off-Broadway scene. But Ludlam’s biographer David Kaufman makes the convincing case that Ludlam was different: where others junked traditions to forge new ground, he strived to re-electrify them with new meaning.
Ludlam distinguished his theater from both realism and what he called “bloodless and wasteful”, purely formal experiments by the minimalist avant-garde. “[W]e adopted a position of deliberate unfashionableness…We affirmed the currently discarded conventions of the theatre…We used the great traditions of the past as our authority to envision a future diametrically opposed to the one our contemporaries were predicting.”
He complained his critics often got the wrong end of the stick. “In the past my work was used by critics as a satyric cudgel to beat the last breath of life out of an expiring narrative-drama tradition. But secretly I reinseminated that tradition. All I ever wanted to do was to make anagrammatic use of the world’s plot matrix.”
Ludlam also drew a clear line between the Theater of the Absurd and the ridiculous. In a 1973 Village Voice interview he argued the former “refused to take anything seriously, sabotaging seriousness. Ridiculous takes everything seriously, searching for its meaning. It’s ecological theater – we take the abandoned refuse, the used images, the shoes from abandoned shoe factories, the clichés, and we search for their true meaning….Instead of negating anything, we try to find its inherent value.”
He resisted pigeon-holing. “One of the problems with accepting a tag like avant-garde or gay theater or neo-post-infra-realism,” he once said, “is that you’re a bit like an Indian on a reservation selling trinkets to the tourists. You have no real interaction with the culture, and whatever impact you may have had on that culture is nullified.”
Ludlam played both male and female leads, and expected his drag-acting to be taken as seriously as his male performances. As a tragic heroine in “Camille”, his adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’s 1852 play (based on Dumas’s novel), Ludlam glammed up but did not try to hide his chest hair or feminize his voice. Just as the hero of his earlier play, Bluebeard, was on a quest to find the “third genital”, Kaufman suggests Ludlam, too, sought a synthesis of the sexes in his self-image.
His most controversial show, a 1985 adaptation of Flaubert’s ”Salammbo,” was panned as lurid and grotesque, or simply unresolved. Ludlam said he was being faithful to the novel.
By his death, Ludlam had won six Obies and an international following. He had acted in other plays, appeared on TV shows “Miami Vice”, “Oh Madeline” and “Tales From the Darkside”, and featured in the film “The Big Easy” (released after his death). He was working on an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus and a dramatization of illusionist Houdini’s life.
His lover of 10-years and co-star, Everett Quinton, took over as artistic director of the Ridiculous Theater Company, but was forced to disband due to financial losses.
New York theater troupe Todo Con Nada, formed in 1988, were among a new generation to continue the riduculous tradition, celebrated in 2000’s RidicuFest.