By Ray Schultz
One evening in May 1987, we passed the Ridiculous Theatrical Company on Barrow St. in Greenwich Village and saw flowers piled up on the sidewalk. What was going on?
We found out at the Sheridan Square newsstand. The Times reported—on its front page—that Charles Ludlam, the gentle wit who ran the company, author and star of Bluebeard and Camille, had died of AIDS at age 44.
We gasped. How could it be? So many people died of AIDS in that vile year. And now Ludlam. Greenwich Village would never be the same.
Our only consolation was that Ludam had done a lot in the time he had.
A Long Island kid, Ludlam moved to the city in his 20s and joined John Vaccaro’s Play-House of the Ridiculous. He co-authored two plays with Vaccaro, then left and formed the Ridiculous Theatrical Company.
Blessed with a gift for friendship, Ludlam gathered several talented players around him, including Everett Quinton (who kept the theater going after Ludlam’s death), Black-Eyed Susan, John Brockmeyer, Bill Vehr and Lola Pashilinski. Moving from one theater to another, they did plays like Turds in Hell, Hot Ice, Corn, Caprice and many more.
In Bluebeard, a mad scientist named Bluebeard tries to create a third sex: His failed experiments wander the island. I can still hear the one played by John Brockmeyer pleading, “Mercy, master!”
In Camille, Ludlam played the Greta Garbo role, dressed in a gown with his hairy chest visible, and he went over the top as Camille died of consumption. First he spit up blood (how was a trade secret). Then there was this Villagey double entendre:
Camille (weakly): I’m cold. Throw another faggot on the fire.
Servant: Madame, there are no more faggots.
Camille (with sudden strength): What! Not even on the street?!
What spectacles they were. And when Ludlam wasn’t doing them, he was entertaining kids with Punch and Judy shows and science fiction pieces. Still to come were The Mystery of IrmaVep and Gallas (in which he played Maria Callas in drag).
But let’s turn the clock back—to 1978. That’s when a magazine sent me down to interview Ludlam. At first, I was intimidated by the balding and goateed legend, but he quickly put me at ease with his enthusiasm and charm.
It was a good time for Ludlam. He was rehearsing a new play, Utopia Incorporated, and he had found a theatrical home in the basement theater on Barrow (the former Café Society Downtown nightclub).
“The lobby looks just fantastic,” he said as we sat down. “Did you see the mural? I’m in ecstasy. I’ve never in my life seen anything so fabulous.”
Someone handed around a bottle of corn liquor, and we all had a slug. Apropos of nothing, Ludlam mentioned the Pink Teacup, a soul food restaurant on Bleecker St.
“The waitresses are really outrageous right now,” he said. “They’re all in pink uniforms, and all the teacups are pink.”
I responded that they were vandalized when they tried to open on another block.
“Not every part of the country is as advanced as the West Village,” Ludlam said. “And of the whole West Village, Bleecker Street has to be the fever pitch of civilization.”
Here at the height of his powers is Charles Ludlam.
RS: There’s one thing I don’t get about Utopia Incorporated. If they’ve been cut off in Utopia for thousands of years, how could the hero have been swindled by the outsider’s father?
Ludlam: Right. It’ll all make sense in the end, though. The theory behind it is that there is a matrix of plot types. I no longer tell a story, I tell a type of story. And all things that accrue to that type of story can coexist in it. For instance, there is a type of story that might be roughly called the Enchanted Arcadia or Lost Horizon. The Tempest is that kind of story, The Wizard of Oz, the Time Machine, any going to Mars or any other planet, like Forbidden Planet. Usually, through some kind of natural holocaust or phenomenon, they get stranded in a strange world where time has stopped, or where they’re more advanced than we are, or behind us, or better than us, or worse than us. And they have a series of adventures within that world. Then they have the problem of getting out of there. Often the thing is destroyed in the end, and usually it is ruled by some kind of Wizard who holds some kind of mad power. So I get a plot type, and rather than tell a convincing story, which ties me down to logic, I encrust the plot type with all the possibilities even though they contradict each other.
RS: Do you mean it as a comment on the genre?
Ludlam: In a way, but I want not so much to comment on it as use it to my own advantage as artist. You don’t have to be literal in modern art. The techniques are based on reduction, distortion, rearrangement and collision of aesthetic principles. But modernism has never really been successful in playwriting because people could never get over this hump of the story. If you regard the story the way Picasso regarded the human figure or a bowl of fruit, then you become free.
RS: And this all falls under the heading ridiculous?
Ludlam: The name is sort of a fluke. Someone at a John Vaccaro rehearsal said, ‘This is ridiculous,’ and we just called it that. But I was interested in comedy and getting people to laugh, creating a really rich, baroque experience, a grandiose kind of theater, and to provoke a sort of moldy glamour.
RS: The broad brush…
Ludlam: I don’t really like subtlety. If you do away with subtlety and replace it with complexity, you can get something unbelievably rich and interesting. But we’ve never codified what the Ridiculous is into a theory or a hard cold notion. Like an amoeba, it changes shape and becomes different things. We do grand opera, we do nightclubs, we do variety acts. We tap dance. In one show, we do high tragedy. In Ventriloquist, I saw Susan in half.
RS: What were you trying to do with Der Ring Gott Farblonjet?
Ludlam: I followed the plot of the Wagner ‘Ring’ cycle and distilled it into something you could do in one night. We did a modernist interpretation of it. We had a small orchestra of musicians who played five instruments each. All the Valkyries had horns. The highest moment was the Wedding March, with Black-Eyed Susan as Gertruna, Ethyl Eichelberger as Gunther and John Brockmeyer as Siegfried. They do this wedding procession, and Susan’s dress was all these sheer plastic veils that we painted—you could see through the plastic. She was like walking stark naked to her wedding. And she had this headdress on of twinkling lights and these Nibelungen, these potato people, were carrying her veil, and they were all carrying these swans. When they went off, the procession would run around backstage, and get on the end of the line, so it just kept going on and on. That was the highest ecstasy I’ve ever achieved in the theater.
RS: You’re also played several roles in drag.
Ludlam: I love getting in drag and love people in drag. I like it artistically, but I also like it when people get into drag and walk down the street for the fun of it. I like when they do it on Halloween, and in Mardi Gras. It’s wonderfully festive and liberating. Gender is the one thing you’re born with against your will. You can change your social class, your nationality or your language, but you can’t change your sex. Uh, wait a minute…(laughter). Drag is a way of overcoming that limitation without undergoing surgery.
Art and Commerce
RS: How are you doing financially?
Ludlam: I’ve risen up financially from the pits. I can’t believe that we’re able to make a living for even part of the year. Sometimes people in the company have jobs, and I sometimes teach in college.
RS: You must have had some rough times.
Ludlam: There have been millions of crises. For example, we were stranded in Vienna with no money or bookings.
RS: How you stay alive other than box office admissions?
Ludlam: We have private contributors, and we get Council on the Arts money, and the National Endowment for the Arts. And we save everything because money is so at a premium for us. We have a small studio on 14th St. where we store all our old sets and costumes for future use.
RS: Have you ever been evicted from a theater?
Ludlam: Well, we have had to leave. Sometimes they sell the theater. Sometimes your lease runs out. Sometimes you can’t pay the rent anymore. That happened at the Provincetown Playhouse. We were doing Caprice, and we planned to run it for two months, but the critics hated it so much that the houses were absolutely empty. So we had to stop performing it a month before we thought were going to.
RS: What did they hate about it?
RS: What was the idea behind the play?
Ludlam: It was about a fashion designer who was getting beaten out. His competition would steal his ideas and mass produce them and make money. I think it shocked people because it was racy and gay. I never really had plays with homosexual characters in them before. These characters were all homosexuals. But it was no big pleading for sympathy for homosexuals, or to liberate or hate homosexuals. It’s just that they happened to be in the fashion world, and I thought it made it very appropriate.
RS: Don’t you have a large gay following?
Ludlam: I’m very grateful to the gay audience. They’ve been very supportive over the years. There’s a feeling of comradeship. But we’re far from being exclusively anything. It’s problematical but it’s also a saving grace because the audience isn’t ever one kind of audience. I don’t create by formula. Ultimately, the audience has to come to me on my terms.
RS: How would you respond to the charge that it’s pointless and decadent?
Ludlam: It’s not pointless and decadent. Anyway, who would make that charge of such a hardworking, good-natured group of well-meaning people? Only a terrible spoilsport. Decadence is a kind of a peace-loving aestheticism. Maybe people want (the company) to be decadent, but it’s not—it’s the opposite of decadent. It’s war-like and ascendant and utopian and aggressive. Minimal art is decadent because it doesn’t want to deal with conflicts or ideas.
Family and Friends
RS: What’s your background?
Ludlam: My father is of the Long Island Ludlams, the first settlers of Long Island. His father was a Puritan. My mother’s father was a German-Lutheran. Both grandfathers married Irish Catholic girls and converted to Catholicism, so I was raised Catholic by Puritans. There was absolutely no relief.
RS: Do you still consider yourself a Catholic?
Ludlam: I’m very emotionally involved in the Catholic Church. It has very powerful images. It creeps into everything I do. But it’s a love-hate relationship. I loathe it, but I occasionally have visions like St. John of the Cross or something. I’m probably a saint. That’s why I have to watch my step—you know what happens to saints. But that’s the Catholic thing. I put up plaster-of-Paris religious statutes. I have a Lazarus and a black Madonna.
RS: How did you pull your company together?
Ludlam: We’re all friends. We wanted a very creative life in the theater, without hacking, looking for work all the time or having to put up with compromises. We had this similar viewpoint, we stuck together.
RS: Do the others contribute to the script?
Ludlam: If they weren’t there, there would be no script because I wouldn’t write plays. Their incredible contribution is themselves.
RS: But you’re the final word.
Ludlam: I like to work with people who have lot of ideas: It’s stimulating. But ultimately, one must be a tyrant. I always know exactly how everything should be without thinking about it. I could be completely wrong. but I don’t demand reasons of myself for everything I do. As a result I can just express myself. The other day, I decided that the volcano should destroy Utopia at the end, and Kay-Kay said yes, columns should topple, bits of brick and things should fall on the set. And they figured out how to do it, and there’ll be this maneuvered trap that will drop all this debris on the actors at the end.
RS: It seems that the visual is as important as the dialogue .
Ludlam: I think the visual has equal weight
RS: You write all the jokes, too?
Ludlam: I go to my joke file.
RS: Your joke file?
Ludlam: Yeah. Like Milton Berle, I have a joke file. All comedy writers have one. There’s seven basic types of jokes, and all jokes fit into one of those types. The rest is adapting it to the subject matter, and giving it a new twist and context.
RS: Have you ever tried to make it in the commercial world?
Ludlam: It’s happened a number of times. They wanted me to work on some project, and I’ve always played along because I wanted it to work out. But there seem to be so many obstacles in the way of—I guess they’d call your big break. I’m not patient enough to go through that. I have to be creative right at hand. I need a theater so I can work the minute I get the idea. For ten years, we’ve experimented and tried dozens of theaters, and now we have our own place, and we really want to create a center of excitement here. We have a ten-year lease.
RS: Do you think the company will be around in ten years?
Ludlam: It’s like enough to make you stop smoking and start eating vegetables to last for those ten years.