The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Eunuchs of the Forbidden City is a five-act play, set in China around the time of the Boxer Rebellion of 1900. When the curtain opens, Orchid Yehonala is having a bubble bath, attended by a young eunuch named Li Lien Ying. It seems an idyllic moment, but the restful scene is shattered by the arrival of Orchid’s cousin, Sakota (later called Tsu An). Sakota has borne a child to Chien Feng, the emperor of China. Orchid is overjoyed until Sakota tells her cousin that she has borne a girl child and that the emperor is in a deep depression. The Empress Dowager has called for the selection of a new consort for her son in the hope of cheering him up, as well as for the practical purpose of securing the Throne of Heaven for her line of descendants. Sakota informs Orchid that she has submitted her cousin’s name as a potential candidate.

Orchid is overwhelmed by this honor, although she does not feel she has a chance of being chosen because of the multitude of beautiful women from which the emperor has to choose. However, Sakota’s recommendation is not completely benign. If her cousin is chosen and bears the emperor a son, then Orchid can use her influence to make sure that Sakota’s place in the palace will not be lost. As Sakota withdraws, Orchid’s eunuch, Li Lien, helps her prepare. Orchid is amazed by Li Lien’s directions not only about how to make herself beautiful, but also on how to please the emperor. When asked how he has come by such knowledge, the eunuch reveals how much power the seemingly powerless men have.

In due time, the chief eunuch, An Te Hai (played in the play’s debut by Charles Ludlam himself), comes to take Orchid to the Pavilion of Selection. Li Lien teaches his young charge how to bribe officials, knowing that it will come in handy if she is selected. Orchid is brought before the emperor and the Empress...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Eunuchs of the Forbidden City is a typical example of Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatre. Ludlam made his New York stage debut as Peeping Tom in Ronald Tavel’s The Life of Lady Godiva (pr. 1966), which was directed by John Vaccaro at the Play-House of the Ridiculous, so it is not a surprise that his own future works (as well as the name of his own company) were influenced by the farcical works of his first director. In fact, after being summarily fired by Vaccaro during rehearsals for his second play, Conquest of the Universe (pr. 1967), he started his own company, the Ridiculous Theatrical Company, and produced his own version of the play called When Queens Collide (pr. 1967, pb. 1989).

Farce and humor have always been a central aspect of Ludlam’s dramatic devices, often used to reinforce Ludlam’s strict moralist standards and, as Tish Dace notes, to indict “the objects of his ridicule for violating his own humanistic standards.” Farcical humor is the most obvious dramatic device used in Eunuchs of the Forbidden City. Ludlam’s work in this play is no different from some of William Shakespeare’s work. It is bawdy, irreverent, shameless, funny, and full of asides to the audience.

Ludlam’s use of humor helps free the audience’s sense of inhibition, according to Dace, by “moving spectators quickly from incredulity at his daring to joining him in raucous belly laughs. . . .” In doing so, Ludlam “demonstrates outrage at hypocrisy, cruelty, greed, con-games, sycophancy, and other violations of his own moral imperatives.”


(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Dace, Tish. “Ludlam, Charles.” In Contemporary Dramatists. New York: St. James Press, 1972.

Ludlam, Charles. The Complete Plays of Charles Ludlam. New York: Harper & Row, 1989.

Samuels, Steven, ed. Ridiculous Theatre: Scourge of Human Folly—The Essays and Opinions of Charles Ludlam. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1992.