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Ludlam, Charles

LUDLAM, Charles

LUDLAM, Charles (b. 12 April 1943;d. 28 May 1987), playwright, director, actor.

Charles Braun Ludlam was born in Floral Park, Long Island. His parents were almost a stereotype of the gay artist's progenitors: a supportive mother and a father who despised his son's love of theater. Ludlam claimed that his love of theater began when he saw a Punch and Judy show at a local fair; his later work certainly seems to be inspired by the artifice and slapstick farce of such traditional theatrical presentations.

After studying drama at Hofstra University, Ludlam moved into Greenwich Village, where he would spend the rest of his life, and became part of the new gay theater and film scene that was flourishing in the mid-1960s. He found his first artistic home at the Playhouse of the Ridiculous, run by playwright Ronald Tavel and director John Vaccaro. The Playhouse group was allied with a number of key figures of the avant-garde. Jack Smith, remembered for his film, Flaming Creatures, was a central figure in the troupe. Some of Andy Warhol's entourage worked with the group and Warhol was a supporter of the "ridiculous" movement. The Playhouse of the Ridiculous went beyond absurdist drama to promote a bawdy theater of nonsense. Drag was central to the group's performances, which were often send-ups of B movies. Though productions began with a script, much of each performance was improvised. This was the middle 1960s and drugs were central to the creation, performance, and reception of the troupe's work. Always ambitious, Ludlam started performing and writing for the company. Eventually Vaccaro saw him as a threat and fired him. Eight of the actors walked out in protest and joined Ludlam's new company, which would become the Ridiculous Theatre Company (1967).

Like his idol, Molière, Ludlam was the producer, director, playwright, and diva of his company from its inception in 1967 until his death. Some performers feuded with the imperious impresario and left the company; however, it remained quite stable over its history. Though on and off welfare himself, Ludlam successfully raised money to keep his company alive. He wrote at least one play a year. The company moved from venue to venue in its early years, usually playing late-night shows, until it found a permanent home in a former nightclub at One Sheridan Square in 1967.

Ludlams's plays were built from trash culture, particularly B movies (such as Conquest of the Universe [1967]) and high art (such as his version of Wagner's ring cycle, Der Ring Gott Farblonjet [1977]). It is difficult to separate the most successful works from Ludlam's famous performances in them: his adaptation of Camille (1973); his version of the life of Maria Callas, Galas: A Modern Tragedy (1983); and the "Victorian penny dreadful," The Mystery of Irma Vep (1984), in which he and Everett Quinton played seven male and female roles. Irma Vep has become a repertory staple in theaters across America.

Ludlam rebelled against all labels. He did not want to be considered avant-garde because he thought many who were so labeled were frauds. He saw his female impersonation as serious acting, not mere drag. Though his work involved parody and farce, he wanted it taken seriously. And though most of his performers were gay, he eschewed labels like "gay theater" or "camp." While his work often mocked gay stereotypes, it also celebrated the glory of being a flaming queen. Since he disdained the mainstream, he was indifferent to a politics that fought for gay men's right to be in the mainstream. These different textures—male-female, character-actor, artifice-reality, pathos-farce—were at the heart of Ludlam's performances. One could say that an awareness of and celebration of the absurdity of these binary oppositions is at the heart of much LGBT art and that Ludlam was one of the most important queer theater artists of his time.

In addition to his work for the Ridiculous Theatre Company, Ludlam acted occasionally on television and in feature film. He taught playwriting at Yale and New York University and guest directed for the Santa Fe Opera. He was preparing to direct Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus in Central Park for the New York Shakespeare Festival when he succumbed to HIV-related infections. Ludlam's death in 1984 merited a front-page story in the New York Times. He was considered a theatrical eminence. The street in front of his theater was renamed Charles Ludlam Lane. For a number of years, the company continued under the direction of Ludlam's lover and protégeé, Everett Quinton, and Ludlam remains an influence on many theatrical figures.


Kaufman, David. Ridiculous! The Theatrical Life and Times of Charles Ludlam. New York: Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, 2002.

Ludlam, Charles. The Complete Plays of Charles Ludlam. New York: Perennial Library, 1989.

——. Ridiculous Theatre: Scourge of Human Folly: The Essays and Opinions of Charles Ludlam. Edited by Steven Samuels. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1992.

John M. Clum

see alsoeichelberger, ethyl; theater and performance.

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