Ludlam was born in Floral Park, New York, the son of Marjorie (née Braun) and Joseph William Ludlam. He was raised in Greenlawn, New York, on Long Island, and attended Harborfields High School. The fact that he was gay was not a secret.
He performed locally in plays with the Township Theater Group, Huntington's community theater, and worked backstage at the Red Barn Theater, a summer stock company in Northport. While he was in his senior year of high school, he directed, produced and performed in Madman on the Roof by Kan Kikuchi, Theatre of the Soul, their own Readers' Theater adaptation of Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters, as well as plays by August Strindberg and Eugene O'Neill with a group of friends, students from Huntington, Northport, Greenlawn, and Centerport. Their "Students Repertory Theatre" in the loft studio beneath the Posey School of Dance on Northport's Main Street was large enough to seat an audience of 25; their audiences were appreciative and enthusiastic, and the house was sold out for every performance. He received a degree in dramatic literature from Hofstra University in 1964, by which time he had officially come out. (Picture: Everett Quinton)
Ludlam joined John Vaccaro's Play-House of the Ridiculous, and after a falling out, became founder of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company in New York City in 1967. His first plays were inchoate exercises: however, starting with Bluebeard he began to write more structured works, which, though they were pastiches of gothic novels, Lorca, Shakespeare, Wagner, popular culture, old movies, and anything else that might get a laugh, had more serious import. Theater critic Brendan Gill after seeing one of Ludlam's plays famously remarked, "This isn't farce. This isn't absurd. This is absolutely ridiculous!". Ludlam usually appeared in his plays, and was particularly noted for his female roles. He wrote one of the first plays to deal (though tangentially) with HIV infection; he was diagnosed with AIDS in March 1987. He attempted to fight the disease by putting his life-long interest in health foods and macrobiotic diet to use. He died of PCP pneumonia in St. Vincent's Hospital, New York. The street in front of his theatre in Sheridan Square was renamed "Charles Ludlam Lane" in his honor.
Stills from Museum of Wax, 1981-1987, directed by Charles Ludlam. black-and-white, 16 mm film, 21:00 min. Courtesy of the Estate of Charles Ludlam and Queer/Art/Film. (c) The Estate of Charles Ludlam.
Charles Ludlam was an American actor, director, and playwright. His most popular play, and the only one to enter the standard repertory, is The Mystery of Irma Vep, in which two actors manage, through a variety of quick-change techniques, to play seven roles in a send-up of gothic horror novels. The original production featuring Ludlam and his lover Everett Quinton was a tour de force. Quinton, his lover, tried to no avail to keep the company going after Ludlam died in 1987.
Everett Quinton, his lover, tried to no avail to keep the company going after Ludlam died in 1987. "It was a question of money, not the work," he says. "I loved the work. I wish there was a way to get back to do it again. But it was just driving me crazy. It was just a constant drain on my soul. The work stopped being fun. It stopped being about work and started being about drawing crowds. But even if we drew crowds, we still couldn't afford to pay for it. I called it 'running like hell to stay behind.'"
Ludlam taught or staged productions at New York University, Connecticut College for Women, Yale University, and Carnegie Mellon University. He won fellowships from the Guggenheim, Rockefeller and Ford Foundations and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York State Council on the Arts. He won four Obie Awards, the last one 2 weeks before his death, and won the Rosamund Gilder Award for distinguished achievement in the theater in 1986. After his death, "Walter Ego", the ironically named dummy character from Ludlam's play "The Ventriloquist's Wife" was donated to the Vent Haven Museum in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky, where it remains on exhibit today; the puppet was designed and built by actor and noted puppetmaker Alan Semok.
His most popular play, and the only one to enter the standard repertory, is The Mystery of Irma Vep, in which two actors manage, through a variety of quick-change techniques, to play seven roles in a send-up of gothic horror novels. The original production featuring Ludlam and his lover Everett Quinton was a tour de force. In order to ensure cross-dressing, rights to perform the play include a stipulation that the actors must be of the same sex. In 1991, Irma Vep was the most produced play in the United States; and in 2003, it became the longest-running play ever produced in Brazil.
The black-and-white, silent short, Museum of Wax (1981-1987), is the more classically structured of Ludlam's recovered films. Fluently adopting a silent-era cinematic language, the vaudevillian narrative follows an escaped prisoner (Ludlam) who seeks refuge in a Coney Island wax museum. The set-up is a clever ploy to involve the rows of wax puppets (and boxes of celebrity heads) in a whimsical deracination of gender conventions. Ludlam, who was initially noted for his critical use of drag and cross-dressing gestures in underground theater, slips between male and female roles, kissing his female love interest and mothering her just the same. The amorous dynamic between the damsel and her criminal lover gets more complicated after the prisoner's former cell mate (Everett Quinton) seeks similar asylum.
During this time, openly gay artists were writing and presenting their work without the interference of mainstream producers, managers, or curators. This new wave of theater, film, and art emerged in urban areas with thriving lesbian and gay communities. Caffe Cino, a Greenwich Village coffee house founded by Joe Cino, was the first off-off-Broadway theater. Joe Cino began by producing dramatic readings, but soon moved to presenting works by homosexual writers such as Oscar Wilde, Thornton Wilder, William Inge, and Terence Rattigan in ways that brought out their coded subtext. The radicalism of Caffe Cino and other companies that followed—Judson Poets’ Theater, Ridiculous Theater Company in 1964, the Cockettes in San Francisco in 1968, and New York’s Hot Peaches in 1969—was in presenting plays with explicit gay content in an openly gay environment. Major American playwrights such as Robert Patrick, Al Carmines, Lanford Wilson, Tom Eyen, Charles Ludlam, Jean-Claude van Itallie, and William M. Hoffman all emerged from this setting. --Bronski, Michael (2011-05-10). A Queer History of the United States (Revisioning American History) (Kindle Locations 4154-4158). Beacon Press. Kindle Edition.Further Readings:
Ridiculous Theatre: Scourge of Human Folly: The Essays and Opinions of Charles Ludlam
Paperback: 286 pages
Publisher: Theatre Communications Group (January 1, 1993)
Amazon: Ridiculous Theatre: Scourge of Human Folly: The Essays and Opinions of Charles Ludlam
The Complete Plays by Charles Ludlam
Paperback: 905 pages
Publisher: Harpercollins (November 1989)
Amazon: The Complete Plays by Charles Ludlam
As founder of the innovative Ridiculous Theatrical Company, Ludlam stretched the boundaries of stage art, introducing a radical energy and spontaneity to the form. Each of the 30 plays in this collection, many of which are previously unpublished, fascinate the reader with their unyielding originality, frenetic action, controversial and hilarious commentary on everything from history to social mores, vivid characterization, and often absurd stage directions. Both difficult and delightful, Ludlam's written work leaves the reader yearning to see his strange little universes come alive on stage. With Ludlam's brilliant career stopped in mid-stride by his 1987 death from AIDS, these plays are important in preserving and transmitting his odd genius, in validating the positive if sometimes preposterous results of a risk-taking not often seen in contemporary American theatrical productions. - Jean Keleher, Wally Findlay Galleries Lib., Chicago
Ridiculous!: The Theatrical Life and Times of Charles Ludlam by David Kaufman
Hardcover: 450 pages
Publisher: Applause Books; 1ST edition (October 1, 2002)
Amazon: Ridiculous!: The Theatrical Life and Times of Charles Ludlam
From his first unscripted appearance on an Off-Broadway stage in the revolutionary 1960s to the frontpage news of his death from AIDS in 1987 at age 44, Charles Ludlam embodied - and helped to engender - the upheavals of his time. The astonishing life and legacy of this force to be reckoned with are at last revealed in RIDICULOUS!, a literary biography of an American comic genius. After founding the Ridiculous Theatrical Company in 1967, Ludlam sustained an ever-shifting troupe of bohemian players through two decades of perennially daunting circumstances by writing 29 plays - plays that he starred in and directed as well. While Ludlam's work has become increasingly popular at regional theatres, on college campuses, and on stages throughout the world, his gender-bending theories and wide-ranging cultural impact have reached far beyond Bette Midler, the original cast members of Saturday Night Live and the countless other artists he influenced during his abbreviated lifetime. Like his early plays, Ludlam's life was rife with the sex, drugs and creative experimentation that characterized the freewheeling '60s and '70s. Based on a decade of research and interviews with more than 150 people who knew or worked with Ludlam - including all of the major players in his troupe and seven of his lovers - RIDICULOUS! recreates the dramatic life of an inimitable and subversive theatrical master with you-are-there intensity. Winner of the LAMBDA Literary Award for Biography and the Theatre Library Association Award for Outstanding Theatre Book of the Year "David Kaufman makes a persuasive case for Ludlam's being a genius ... As a record of Ludlam's life and the theatrical world in which he was both guru and grandmaster, this book is informed and passionate." - Mel Gussow, The New York Times "A fascinating portrait of an authentic stage genius and the New York avant-garde scene in which he toiled with such demented and dedicated diligence." - Playbill "The phenom who inspired everyone from Bette Midler and Madeline Kahn to Tony Kushner and Paul Rudnick was no box of chocolates - which, as reading experiences go, makes his story all the sweeter." - Vanity Fair "This is one helluva piece of work." - Marilyn Stasio, Variety.com
Charles Ludlam and the Ridiculous Theatrical Company: Critical Analyses of 29 Plays by Rick Roemer
Paperback: 197 pages
Publisher: McFarland (July 13, 2010)
Amazon: Charles Ludlam and the Ridiculous Theatrical Company: Critical Analyses of 29 Plays
In the late 1960s, Charles Ludlam (1943-1987) brought his unique brand of theatre to New York audiences. Based in part on traditional comic characters, his "ridiculous" school included such inspirations as Hollywood B movies, camp, drag, and opera. His shows were also a study in self-collaboration; Ludlam acted as playwright, director, designer, and actor in his own Off Broadway theatre--the Ridiculous Theatrical Company. Critically, Ludlam's works were often overlooked or misunderstood, and since his death The Mystery of Irma Vep is the only one of his 29 plays consistently performed in regional theatres. This work provides an overview of Ludlam's life, explores the theatrical underpinnings of his work and goes on to cover the entire Ludlam canon. The book includes examinations of such plays as Le Bourgeois Avant-Garde, Bluebeard, Galas and Stage Blood. It concludes with a look at Ludlam's work in the 1980s when he focused on presenting new plays, many of them original farces.
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