Charles Ludlam and Black Eyed Susan in Eunuchs of the Forbidden City, 1971. Photo by Leandro Katz
A fine book came out a few years back, 2002 to be exact, about the great American absurdist dramatist, Charles Ludlam. Ridiculous!: The Theatrical Life and Times of Charles Ludlam by David Kaufman is certainly one of the best books I’ve read this decade and I wanted to tell you about it. I feel it’s a book that deserves a far wider audience than it originally got. Even though it tells the story of a very particular person and of a very particular “scene”—in this case Ludlam and his gender-bending Off Off Broadway troupe of drag queens, druggies and bohos—like a biography of say, Andy Warhol, the canvas is so widescreen and cinematic that it tells the tale of an entire era, not just the story of one man and his orbit. Ludlam’s story—which Kaufman spent a decade researching, interviewing over 150 people who knew the playwright—is simultaneously the history of Off Broadway theater in the late ‘60s to the late ‘80s, it’s also the story of pre and post-Stonewall gay life, the anecdotal histories of certain types of “only in NY” culture vultures and media mavens and, of course, the life of the complex and exasperating force of nature that was Charles Ludlam, a self-created character if ever there was one.
Charles Ludlam should in many ways be seen as the American Moliere. He was the proprietor, creative genius, task master and (one of) the star attraction(s) of The Ridiculous Theatrical Company, who called a small theater at One Sheridan Square—at Seventh Ave, where a street sign commemorates Ludlam’s memory—their home for many years. For several years, I lived a block away. I only actually saw two Ludlam shows—The Mystery of Irma Vep (I still have the Showbill) where Ludlam and Everett Quinton played all the characters, male and female, their frenetic costume (and gender) changes part of the play’s berserk charm, and Salammbo, where Ludlam played the high priestess of the Moon, surrounded by muscle men. The play also featured live doves and an extremely obese naked woman—she had to be 400 lbs—with massive breasts and… leprosy. It was absolutely outrageous. Imagine a mutant cross of Shakespeare, early John Waters, Flash Gordon serials and Arsenic and Old Lace and you’ll kind of be in the right ballpark.
A few years later, in 1987, Ludlam was dead of AIDS. When a theatrical company shuts down, theater being what it is, there is usually not much left over to remind us that its performances ever existed. It’s an extremely ephemeral art form. You’d think that there might be some videos of Ludlam and the Ridiculous showing up on YouTube, but so far, nothing. Which is not to say that Ludlam has been forgotten, far from it: His plays are performed with ever increasing regularity on college campuses and several scholarly works have been written about his 29 plays and influence on American culture (Bette Midler and the original cast of SNL, are two examples, according to Kaufman’s book). When Ludlam died, his obituary made it to the front page of the New York Times. Here’s an excerpt from another appreciation from the TImes:
To be Ridiculous is to be a step beyond the Absurd. Ludlam defined his form of theater as an ensemble synthesis of ‘‘wit, parody, vaudeville farce, melodrama and satire,’’ which, in combination, gives ‘‘reckless immediacy to classical stagecraft.’’ That recklessness led some people to misinterpret his work as anarchic. It was spontaneous, but it was also highly structured - and always to specific comic effect. Though Mr. Ludlam was a titanic Fool, he was not foolish. He knew exactly what he was doing, whether the object of his satire was Dumas, du Maurier, the Brontes, Moliere, Shakespeare, soap opera or grandiose opera - or himself.
I first encountered him in performance 17 years ago when he was playing ‘‘Bluebeard’’ far Off Broadway - with a beard like blue Brillo and a diabolical glare in his eye. This was a distillation of every mad-doctor movie ever made. In his role as Bluebeard, he said, ‘‘When I am good, I am very good. When I am bad. . . ,’’ and he paused to consider his history of turpitude. Then he concluded, ‘‘I’m not bad.’’ As hilarious as ‘‘Bluebeard’’ was, it gave no indication of the body of work that was to follow it. Almost every year, sometimes twice a year, there was another Ludlam lunacy on stage. As a critic who reviewed almost all of his plays, I must say that Ludlam was always fun to watch and fun to write about. His flights of fancy could inspire a kind of critical daredevilry, as one tried to capture in words the ephemeral essence of Ridiculous theater.
Looking back on our debt to him, one remembers his rhapsodic, hairy-chested ‘‘Camille’‘; the Grand Guignol vaudeville of ‘‘The Ventriloquist’s Wife,’’ in which he spoke both for himself and for his back-talking dummy, Walter Ego; ‘‘The Enchanted Pig,’’ a helium-high hybrid of ‘‘King Lear’’ and ‘‘Cinderella’‘; ‘‘Le Bourgeois Avant-Garde,’’ a Molieresque send-up of minimalism; ‘‘Galas,’’ with Mr. Ludlam as the title diva. The range ran from ‘‘Corn,’’ a hillbilly musical, to ‘Der Ring Gott Farblonjet,’’ a three-Ring Wagner circus. There were also sideshows - a Punch and Judy puppet theater in which he played all 22 characters, and ‘‘Anti-Galaxie Nebulae,’’ a science fiction serialette.
‘‘The Mystery of Irma Vep’’ (in 1984) was a tour de force, a horror-comedy in which he and his comic partner, Everett Quinton, quick-changed roles in a scintillating send-up of ‘‘Wuthering’’ and other Gothic ‘‘Heights.’’ For Ludlam, ‘‘Irma Vep’’ became a breakthrough of a kind. The first of his plays to demonstrate a broader, popular appeal, it has been staged by other companies, in other countries as well as in America’s regional theaters. Not all of Ludlam was equal, but his batting average was extraordinarily high -as author, director and actor.
His acting was, of course, his most noticeable talent. As a performer, he unfailingly enriched his own work, as he charted a chameleonesque course, specializing in satyrs, caliphs and fakirs - as well as playing the occasional damsel. He was also an expert teacher of theater, as I discovered some years ago when, over a period of several months, I took an acting workshop with him. In these intensive sessions, we studied and practiced physical, visual and verbal comedy. He was most informative about what he did on stage. For example, he thought of his body as a puppet; through his imagination, he pulled his own strings.
My report on Ridiculous Theater
Ridiculous Theatrical Company
Black-Eyed Susan: La Dame aux Ridiculous
Posted by Richard Metzger |