Charles Ludlam Essay - Critical Essays


Charles Ludlam made an important contribution to stage comedy and gay and lesbian theater. Several of his thirty plays are thought-provoking entertainments that also happen to extend the boundaries of American theater. His comedy expresses its author’s gay sensibility via gay characters and a style that incorporates drag, satiric excess, and parody. His comedy (known as The Ridiculous) is not simply low or merely saturated with foolish antics. Where the absurdists (such as Beckett, Jean Genet, Ionesco, and Alfred Jarry) sabotage seriousness and get bogged down in a cyclical structure, Ludlam revalues things held in low esteem by society and, by changing their context or scale, gives them new worth.

Ludlam studied the classics closely to understand their structures and techniques so that he could then invent his own through parody. For example, out of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (pr. c. 1600-1601) came Stage Blood; out of La Dame aux camélias (1848; Camille, 1857) by Alexandre Dumas, fils, came Ludlam’s Camille; out of Richard Wagner’s opera tetraology Der Ring des Nibelungen (1848-1876; known as the Ring Cycle) came Der Ring Gott Farblonjet; out of Molière’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (pr. 1670; The Would-Be Gentleman, 1675) came Le Bourgeois Avant-Garde; and out of Euripides’ Mdeia (431 b.c.e.; Medea, 1781) came Ludlam’s Medea. However, Ludlam insisted that he was not pointing a finger at the classics to ridicule them: In fact, he and his fellow players were the buffoons who, nevertheless, were paradoxically serious about their humor. His games with plots were an attempt to realize his notion of an abstract plot or one that is filled with contradictions. This put him in the company of modernists, for it allowed him to experiment freely in order to draw attention to the antinaturalism of his writing. One of his biggest experiments was Reverse Psychology, which synthesized the epic form with the concentric. Although an epic play about a husband and wife, both of whom are psychiatrists who are having affairs with each other’s patients, who happen to be a married couple, this work has a concentric shape that is intensified by the plot device of an experimental drug that makes the characters fall in love with the person to whom they are least attracted.

Ludlam commented on his own links to classicism and modernism by pointing out how he used old things—plot, parody, and sexuality—to find new expressive possibilities and revalue techniques from various periods. He also pointed out that the tradition of plot and the use of incident in classical comedy wasa little alphabet ....

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