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The Theatrical Life and Times of Charles Ludlam
Charles Ludlam was a man of the theater with the ego of no less
personages than Moliere, Shakespeare and Wilde. As a playwright, director and actor,
he emerged at exactly the right time, the socially turbulent 60s, to break all of the
rules of stage conventions in ways that were not fully appreciated then and still matter
He reveled in bacchanalian theatrics onstage and off, ushering in a new
age of commedia dellarte, with roots in Hollywood idolatry and vaudeville,
sharpening American farce while subverting the legitimate theater in New York and
upstaging the snotty avant-garde too.
David Kaufman, former theater critic for The New York Daily News
and contributor to the New York Times illuminates Ludlam in Ridiculous! The
Theatrical Life and Times of Charles Ludlam. Kaufman rescues a vital
chapter of the American stage for theater historians, students and audiences. He
interweaves Ludlams professional career and personal life with vivid intimacy.
By 1986, at age 44, when Ludlam died of AIDS, he had written 29 plays,
was running and acting in his own company, was a sought after Hollywood character actor
(appearing in movies and on TV), had directed opera and was teaching theater at Yale, was
staging Titus Andronicus for the New York Shakespeare Festival and was writing
perhaps what would have been his best work, Houdini which PBS was slated to
document. His obituary appeared on the front page of the New York Times,
something unheard of for an "underground" artist. Over a thousand people
attended his memorial service.
Ludlam started to break the mold for himself in high school in the
early 60s with his long hair and outrageous costumes that brought him the admiration and
derision of fellow students and faculty. By 15 he was not only starring in school
productions, but also snagging parts in William Hunts Red Barn Theater in
Northport. He was so driven that he asked Hunt what his professional prospects were
for a life in theater and Hunt, his professional mentor, trying to be gentle, was so
pressed by an eager Ludlum that he eventually told him that he was too effeminate and that
it would hinder his career.
After a week of processing this counsel, Ludlam knew unequivocally that
he would have to have his own theater. In 1961, immediately after high school, he
created the Student Repertory Theater in a $25 a month rented out space that had Ludlam
sleeping over, driving his mother crazy, creating a theatrical subculture and dabbling in
legitimate theater, recruiting friends and mounting such ambitious "serious
theater" as ONeill. He also started to come out blatantly, trying to
sleep with close male friends and dashing off to Greenwich Village, Provincetown and
Cherry Grove. At the time he was already so charismatic that he was attractive to
both men and women.
Kaufman wastes no time in getting Ludlam to New York, giving his early
life short shift, which will be a disappointment to biography enthusiasts who crave those
back-story details. In college Ludlam was so dynamic that he was held back from
acting by a faculty who saw him as a threatening influence on their curriculum.
Fortunately, a broadminded professor guided him artistically and, as it turned out,
personally, introducing him to the writings of James Baldwin and encouraging his
friendship with Christopher Scott, a student artist, with whom Ludlam had an affair; they
remained devoted lifelong confidants.
Scott and Ludlam eventually rented an apartment in the "heroin
alley" section of Greenwich Village in the early 60s and Ludlam started to work his
vision for an independent theater. At the same time the burgeoning anti-establishment
theater started to explode in New York, being fed by the Warholian bohemian mold and
having as much to do with sex and experimental drugs as it did with stagecraft. Ludlam
began his professional career with the fringe theatrical troupe called at one point Theater
of the Ridiculous. He picked fights with the directors and eventually became an
indomitable force--whether it was taking over a theater, seducing other actors or
manipulating things in his favor.
By the mid-sixties the idea of what would become The Ridiculous Theatre
Company, headed by Ludlam, started to take shape under the control of warring factions of
the avant-garde, a chaotic environment that Ludlum exploited. At the citys
most subversive theater where Ludlam started acting, writing and directing, the thespian
staged a coup taking most of the troupe with him. Kaufman does a great job separating
the backstage gossip and bed hopping from the main players of New Yorks underground
theater community and paints a Dionysian portrait of the theatrical community at the time.
Kaufman doesnt faun over his subject and he recounts
Ludlams personality problems, drug use, promiscuity and sometime ruthless drive that
got him what he wanted when he wanted it. His initial plays Big Hotel and Turds
in Hell were unqualified hits and his middle of the night performances inviting
free-for-all improvisation onstage became the hottest underground theater scene in New
York. Heralded by Stephan Brecht, Bertolts son, and noticed by important
critics, Ludlam challenged the critics to understand his work, while completely immersed
in adapting his innovations to conventional stagecraft.
Before Fellini, Ludlam wrote and brought to the stage his version of Satyricon
called Turds in Hell which was a hit and created a cult around the company. The New
York Times refused to run an ad for it, but, nonetheless, had to deal with its
success. Despite the auspicious beginnings the company was slated to fold and Ludlam
made a career defining decision, to write and star in a carefully scripted, well rehearsed
play to establish the company for good. Bluebeard accomplished all of that,
as well as bringing Ludlam across the board attention. Everyone from Noel Coward to
Rudolf Nureyev came to see his plays and he also was awarded the Obie award that
From that high point Ludlam realized everything professionally that he
had envisioned, even as his theater life, as well as his personal life, became more
complicated. Ludlam sums up his philosophy, describing acting as "committing
an act of self-destruction, because you are obliterating your own identity to create
another one." As he threw down the gauntlet artistically by going to uncompromised
extremes, writing ferociously and taking his company to Europe, he also became adventurous
as a performer, appearing in films, notably in the infamous gay underground classic Pink
Narcissus and the cult classic The Imposters.
Kaufman does a good job painting the lively social scene in Greenwich
Village in the early 70s and the hedonistic gay nightlife. Ludlam was both a
visionary and ruthless opportunist, but he was always honest professionally and
unapologetically gay in every sense of the word. His long-term relationship with
Everett Quinton, ten years his junior, bloomed; as Ludlams Pygmalion, Quinton
would emerge as a star of the company in such hits as The Mystery of Irma Vep.
The pair had a combustible, passionate union which Kaufman captures, giving his book a
Ludlam hit his highest mark as an actor with his transcendent portrayal
of Dumas Camille, more directly fashioned on George Cukors screen
adaptation staring Greta Garbo. Ludlam wasnt playing the 23-year-old doomed
courtesan en travesti; he was playing her as if she were an older actress portraying an
ingenue. The New York Times cited him as being the best character actor working.
The accuracy and research that went into the detailing of Ludlams
major works such as Der Ring Gott Farlonjet (his take on Wagners Ring
cycle), Stage Blood, and Utopia, Incorporated impresses throughout and
Kaufman keeps the backstage capers on the front burner too. As engrossing as Kaufman
is in chronicling Ludlams life, the passages dealing with Ludlams illness and
death have the tragic sweep of Camille, in addition to being both unsentimental
- Lewis Whittington