Charles Ludlam and the Ridiculous

From nyu.edu:
“Founded by Charles Ludlam after his split from John Vaccaro’s Playhouse of the Ridiculous, The Ridiculous Theatrical company transcended transvetite, drag, and gay theatre. It is legend for its mix of theatrical tradition and the avant-garde… and is the brainchild of the genius of Charles Ludlam. Until his death at age 44 of pneumonia as a complication of AIDS, Charles Ludlum maintained utter complete creative control of the company acting as writer and director for nearly every production.

He received six Obies before his death, and even some mainstream success in sitcoms and a movie. But mainstream was never his cup of tea, as is evident by the fact that he refused opportunities to turn his musical Corn into a Broadway production and, later, to move The Mystery of Irma Vep uptown.

At the time he arrived in New York in 1964, the underground theater scene’ mostly homosexual nature liberated his mind on every level. In Bluebeard, his first play, the mad scientist Ludlam played was searching for a “third genital.” In the biography Ridiculous!, David Kaufman suggests that Ludlam was doing the same thing in his own life. He had, for instance, a rule that every play he wrote contain at least one crossdressing/transgender role.

The story of Ludlam’s genius and folly is elequently told in Ridiculous! Creating theater in an environment of competing artists and battling cultural upheaval of the 1960s was not easy to do without failure. It is also the story of a gay man who moved to the Village and participated in all the debauchery that involved: smoking dope, visiting the baths, working on plays while waiting for tricks to come into his room.

Ludlam did not want to be pinned down or labeled as a gay writer or his theater to be labeled as a gay theater. He saw such labels as limiting. He even saw “camp”, the style of comedy he most used to criticize society, as a derogetory term used to describe gay theater when the same style would be termed “biting social satire” in a straight theater.

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.’ ”

The Ridiculous had received funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, as much as $85,000 one year, although that was a high ebb. When it dropped below $30,000 the company was forced to move from its theater where the rent was $5,000 monthly. After a two-year struggle, Quinton decided to throw in the towel. “I just thought, ‘I can’t do this anymore. I have to make some changes, or I’m going to jump out the window.’ It was inevitable that we would fold.”

 

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