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Ridiculous! The Theatrical Life and Times of Charles Ludlam. By David Kaufman. New York: Applause Theatre and Cinema Books, 2002; pp. xiv + 496. $29.95.
According to friends and associates, Charles Ludlam had "an aura of destiny surrounding him" from the beginning of his career (xii). Less than a year after his New York debut as a performer in 1966 with the fledgling Play-House of the Ridiculous as a last minute replacement in The Life of Lady Godiva, he became the company playwright. A few months later, after a row with director John Vaccaro, he walked out of the Play-House with eight other actors to form his own rival troupe: The Ridiculous Theatrical Company. He soon became the most famous and prolific exponent of Theatre of the Ridiculous, an alternative theatre movement that parodied high and low theatrical forms of the past and employed a performance style marked by camp, cheap theatrics, the grotesque, sexual ambiguity, and drag performances. He was the playwright, director, and star of his company in the grand tradition of actor-managers. He wrote twenty-nine plays, won six Obie Awards, and was so highly regarded at the time of his death from AIDS in 1987 that the New York Times ran his obituary on the front page. Yet despite the meteoric rise, his career was full of complications and contradictions, which David Kaufman chronicles in his exhaustive new biography, Ridiculous!
Ludlam's Catholic lower-middle-class suburban upbringing in Long Island was less than happy. "If Jack Kerouac had to live around here, no wonder he went 'on the road,'" he reportedly told his younger brother, Donald (1). He later recalled that the most memorable event of his childhood was a trip to the Mineola Fair when he slipped away from his mother to see the sideshow freaks, an episode that may have influenced his later affinity for the grotesque. He was theatrically ambitious at an early age, directing a production of Strindberg's A Dream Play soon after graduating from high school, but he received little encouragement. He was told by a summer stock director that he would never make it because he was "too effeminate" (14). The faculty at Hofstra University, where he was a speech-drama major, discouraged him from performing. But Ludlam disregarded their advice, and his desire to play leading roles was one of the "primary motivations" in forming his own company (26).
The Ridiculous Theatrical Company began as an itinerant troupe, often performing midnight shows at movie theatres where the actors had to take down the screen to put up their makeshift sets. Ludlam called his early plays "epics," but Kaufman suggests that the term was "something of a euphemism disguising the fact that they were sloppy, unstructured scenarios" (70). They received scant attention from the press, and the company seemed to be going nowhere. But that changed with Ludlam's decision to write a "well-made play." Bluebeard (1970), based on the H. G. Wells novel The Island of Dr. Moreau among other sources, boasted a coherent plot with a beginning, middle, and end, although its opening venue was less than conventional. It was performed on a plank set up on the bar at a sleazy gay club called Christopher's End on the waterfront in the West Village. Kaufman argues that Bluebeard "put the Ridiculous on the mainstream map of New York culture" (110), but his argument relies on a broad definition of mainstream. The mainstream press took notice, to be sure. Yet even after the company moved to its 154-seat permanent home at One Sheridan Square, it remained a decidedly fringe theatre playing to a largely gay audience. The only play of Ludlam's that is frequently staged today is his 1984 confection, The Mystery of Irma Vep.
Ludlam himself was ambivalent about mainstream success, and he resisted all attempts to categorize him. He is often referred to as an avant-garde artist, but he detested the avant-garde. He considered himself to be a theatrical...