Eunuchs of the Forbidden City Essay - Critical Essays

Charles Ludlam

Critical Context

Eunuchs of the Forbidden City was only the fifth (the sixth, Edna Brown, 1964, he destroyed) play Ludlam wrote, preceded by plays that included When Queens Collide, Big Hotel (pr. 1966, pb. 1989), and The Grand Tarot (pr. 1969, pb. 1989). While most of these “chaotic, nonconformist, often all-night affairs,” as Steven Samuels describes them, were epic in style, Eunuchs of the Forbidden City would be the Ridiculous Theatrical Company’s largest production to that date. Ludlam, in “Manifesto,” says:We’d been working on it for a year and a half. We had trouble getting it on [stage] because it had such elaborate mise en scène. We needed a couple of dozen enormous wigs, gongs, music. It’s epic style, and you have to have the palanquins and carts or you can’t do it. It has long tirades like in French classical tragedy. . . . It was the most demanding play we’d done.

The play opened in Germany, so Ludlam and his cast were free from the more conservative opinions of New York City critics. In fact, the German critics found the play quite refreshing. Ludlam noted that the German press gave it a good reception and saw Ludlam’s style as a welcome alternative to then-dominant Living Theater. As Ludlam said, “Europeans appreciated our extensions of tradition—the habit of mining out, redefining and exploiting traditions rather than merely destroying them.”

Most of Ludlam’s subsequent works proved to be equally epic and grand theatrical productions, such as Camille: A Tear-Jerker (pr. 1973, pb. 1989), based on Alexandre Dumas, fils’s La Dame aux camélias (pr., pb. 1852; Camille, 1856), and his tour de force, The Mystery of Irma Vep: A Penny Dreadful (pr. 1984, pb. 1987). Charles Ludlam died at an early age, leaving behind an enormous body of work.