“Basically, I think there's a conspiracy against me, to make people think this is all very weird and special.” Charles Ludlam is being somewhat ridiculous -- or rather, Ridiculous, which is what he's famous for. But his paranoia is not entirely unfounded. Despite the fact that the Ridiculous Theatrical Company -- for which he writes, directs, acts and designs costumes -- has been in continuous operation for over a decade and has amassed a large and varied repertory of original plays, the multi-talented Ludlam is rarely
credited with the importance or seriousness of purpose allowed other off-off-Broadway heavyweights like Richard Foreman, Robert Wilson, and Andrei
While a name like the Ridiculous Theatrical Company doesn't conjure up Aristotle and Robert Brustein, Ludlam bristles at the suggestion that his outfit's often outrageous combination of camp and classic comedy is either trivial or a cult commodity. “I don't think that that's borne out when the audience gets into the theater,” he says. “Everyone understands it, and it's better for them than most of the crap they're fed. So the idea that you can't do this sort of thing in, say, Long Island annoys me.” They may be lights years away from national tours of large halls like road companies of
Man of La Mancha, but Ludlam and his cohorts aren't exactly going begging. Slightly over ten years after splitting with Theater of the Ridiculous founding fathers John Vaccaro and Ronald Tavel to form his own troupe, Ludlam has this summer signed a ten-year lease on a theater in Greenwich Village; as a sort of housewarming, he has revived three of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company's past successes, including
Camille -- which features Ludlam's near-legendary comic performance in the title role.
The reopening of the Ridiculous repertory seemed an ideal occasion for exploring Ludlam territory. My only previous encounters of the Ridiculous kind consisted of seeing
Der Ring Gott Farblonjet, Ludlam's comic condensation of Wagner's Ring Cycle, and standing in line behind the director at last year's Obie Awards, when he predicted (accurately) that
Der Ring would earn him an Obie for “designing a show without using one natural fabric.” But on a recent four-day expedition, I managed to take in three major productions
(Stage Blood and The Ventriloquist's Wife, as well as
Camille), Ludlam's delightful Punch and Judy Show, and the first installment of his science-fiction puppet-show/serial
Camille is easily the Ridiculous Theatrical Company's most popular work to date; first mounted in 1973, it has been successfully revived almost every year since. It is also, if not Ludlam's masterpiece, an excellent primer on the best aspects of the Ridiculous style. The story itself is a staple of world theater, and the parody of classic dramatic form has always appealed to Ludlam. In his adaptation, he has been able to fashion a synthesis of the Dumas novel and play, the Garbo film and the Verdi opera. (Ludlam often fills his plays with bits from existing literature, though the sources are usually more arcane -- like Trollope, Huysmans and obscure B-movies. Obviously, the fact that more people recognize pilferings from
Camille accounts for its success and supports Ludlam's contention that his work is accessible to “everyone.”) The old-fashioned tale of the fallen woman torn between true love and fast living also provides occasion for plenty of bawdy jokes, silly wordplay (“Don't be a camp, Olympe”), mock-sentimentality, and
tres gay frivolity. “Throw another faggot on the fire,” croaks bed-ridden Camille to her nanny. “There are no faggots in the house,” sighs Nanny. “What,” cries Camille/Ludlam, peering skeptically into the audience, “no faggots in the house?”
The transvestism in Camille could be said to stem from the classic tradition of boys' playing women, except that Ludlam takes it to the extreme. His whore has not only a heart of gold but a conspicuously hairy chest. However, his characterization does not hinge on camp drag; it exemplifies the Ridiculous Theater's radical vision of sexual confusion and the implicit scrambling of social values. More important, Ludlam's Camille is a bold, brilliant dramatic device. Like the Ballets Trockadero, whose drag dance makes a profound commentary on ballet, sex roles, and the relation of art to life, Ludlam constantly challenges both our belief and our disbelief. If he's serious, why do we laugh? If he's so silly, why are moved? And because the Camille never becomes conclusively male or female, he/she sustains an extraordinary theatricality. Camille is not a figure out of literature, but a magical being who exists only in Ludlam's performance.
“Most theater suffers from literalness,” Ludlam told me one afternoon as we sat in the deserted theater; a few feet away, the stage crew was replacing
Camille's set with that of Stage Blood. “The two great opposing poles right now are avant-garde conceptual theater and the search for the new realism...But they have the same literalness. What's in between is expression, which is what I'm doing. Neither of them will allow expression, because they feel it's not nice to make choices, to prefer one thing to another. When you express yourself, you exercise a preference, and that means something is rejected. And behind simple choice-making looms desire, which is the terrifying thing finally.
“Over the years I've developed a technique so I can do anything I want to do. That's good. But in picking and choosing, one has to find oneself – what do you want? – and then take responsibility for it.”
Ludlam prefers to discuss the Ridiculous Theater as a process (dynamic) rather than as a style (static). “It's not a style – if it were, I would have proven the point already, and it would be a codified thing. It's an ongoing enterprise. In fact, I often try to find the thing people think is most characteristic of me and change that thing.” It's true that since 1970, when he abandoned the sprawling pageantry of early Ridiculous efforts for the well-made form of
Bluebeard (a Frankenstein-like tale of an evil doctor's attempt to create a third sex), Ludlam has served up quite a dramatic smorgasbord. There was
Eunuchs of the Forbidden City, a Brechtian epic based on the reign of Chinese Empress Tsu Hi;
Corn, a country-and-western musical “for the whole family”; the highly-stylized 19th-century
Camille; Hot Ice, a space-age gangster drama inspired by the movie
White Heat but with the gigantic (6'5 ) John D. Brockmeyer in the Jimmy Cagney role;
Caprice, a flashy satire on haute couture featuring Ludlam as Claude Caprice, Avatar of Fashion;
Stage Blood, the saga of an acting troupe touring in Hamlet; and
The Ventriloquist's Wife, a combination nightclub act and psycho-thriller which introduced the dirty-mouthed dummy Walter Ego (“I've got twelve inches but I don't use it as a rule”).
Individually, these pieces seem not to conform to a style -- certainly not the way Richard Foreman's look-alike productions do. But as a whole, the Ridiculous oeuvre bespeaks, if nothing else, a concern with
style-as- substance -- an attribute often linked with a “gay aesthetic” in art (an admittedly slippery concept). Ludlam doesn't like his work to be labeled “gay theater”; because he rarely assigns his characters sexual preference, his plays avoid the confessionalism of
P.S. Your Cat Is Dead, The Shadow Box, A Chorus Line, etc. However, Ludlam agrees that, even without a plethora of gay characters discussing their gayness, the Ridiculous Theater is attuned to a more generally gay sensibility, especially in its use of camp humor and drag duality and in its synthesis of disparate elements.
“We use artifacts that we find to try to make some kind of culture,” the director says. “It's because the gay lifestyle has to be learned somewhere other than in the family unit. We throw our cards in the air and, leaving society's structure as is, form another one outside of it. That's a complicated thing in itself. People who have to deal with that have a different world view. If you have this point of view, you can be very disoriented and miserable or you can use it as a creative tool, and it becomes a tremendous advantage. I think art is a lot about making advantages out of your disadvantages. For instance,” Ludlam goes on, “as a gay person I obviously have feelings for men. If I play Camille, I make something very special and a little hard to understand available, accessible. Ultimately, I think that has more cultural impact than if I proselytized people who are already convinced.”
Does it bother him that some audiences may see his work as a huge in-joke, just trashy camping? “They can see it however they like, just come and see it,” he says, a bit wearily. “I set up my life and my art so that it doesn't have the pretentiousness other art has. There are two ways in this society to do art and justify it -- one is to say it educates the public, and the other is to be high art, which replaces religion. But by doing Ridiculous art, you're claiming to be worse than you are: the classic ruse in comedy. By taking the role of the ne'er-do-well, I don't fall into traps. I can put ideas into the plays, but I don't have to. I can be awful. Through parody, I can use the classics without enslaved by them. And I throw responsibility for valuing things on the audience. Instead of 'I fell asleep but it was opera' or 'It's tedious but it teaches a lesson,' I dare the audience to have an opinion.”
Boston Phoenix, June 1978