Charles Ludlam

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Charles Ludlam
Born(1943-04-12)April 12, 1943
DiedMay 28, 1987(1987-05-28) (aged 44)
Alma materHofstra University
PartnerEverett Quinton

Charles Braun Ludlam (April 12, 1943 – May 28, 1987) was an American actor, director, and playwright.


Early life[edit]

Ludlam was born in Floral Park, New York, the son of Marjorie (née Braun) and Joseph William Ludlam.[1][2] He was raised in Greenlawn, New York, and attended Harborfields High School. He was openly gay, and performed in plays with the Township Theater Group, a community theatre in Huntington, and worked backstage at the Red Barn Theater, a summer stock theatre in Northport. During his senior year of high school, Ludlam directed, produced, and performed plays with a group of friends, students from Huntington, Northport, Greenlawn, and Centerport. Their "Students Repertory Theatre", housed in the loft studio beneath the Posey School of Dance on Main Street in Northport, seated an audience of 25, and was sold out for every performance.[citation needed] Their repertoire included Kan Kikuchi's Madman on the Roof; Theatre of the Soul; a readers' theatre adaptation of Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology; and plays by August Strindberg and Eugene O'Neill.

He received a degree in dramatic literature from Hofstra University in 1964. At Hofstra, Ludlam met Black-Eyed Susan, whom he cast in one of his college productions. The two became close friends, and Black-Eyed Susan performed in more of Ludlam's plays over the following decades than any other actor, except Ludlam himself.[3]


Ludlam joined John Vaccaro's Play-House of the Ridiculous, and after a falling out, founded his own Ridiculous Theatrical Company in 1967. His first plays were rudimentary exercises; starting with Bluebeard, he began writing more structured plays, which were often pastiches of gothic novels; works by Federico Garcia Lorca, Shakespeare, and Richard Wagner; and popular culture and old movies. These works were humorous but had serious undertones. After seeing one of Ludlam's plays, theater critic Brendan Gill famously remarked, "This isn't farce. This isn't absurd. This is absolutely ridiculous!". Ludlam commented on his own work:

I would say that my work falls into the classical tradition of comedy. Over the years there have been certain traditional approaches to comedy. As a modern artist you have to advance the tradition. I want to work within the tradition so that I don't waste my time trying to establish new conventions. You can be very original within the established conventions.[4]

Ludlam's Bluebeard was produced at La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club, where Vaccaro's company was in residence, in March 1970. Ludlam performed in this production as Khanazar von Bluebeard. Black-Eyed-Susan, Lola Pashalinski, and Mario Montez also performed in this production.[5] In 1976 he appeared in Rosa von Praunheim's New York film Underground and Emigrants.

He taught and/or staged productions at New York University, Connecticut College, Yale University, and Carnegie Mellon University.[citation needed] He won fellowships from the Guggenheim, Rockefeller, and Ford Foundations, and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York State Council on the Arts.[citation needed] He won six Obie Awards over the course of his career, including a Sustained Excellence Obie Award two weeks before his death in 1987,[6] and won the Rosamund Gilder Award for distinguished achievement in the theater in 1986.[citation needed]

Ludlam often appeared in his plays, and was particularly noted for his female roles. He wrote one of the first plays to address, though indirectly, the AIDS epidemic. His most well-known play is The Mystery of Irma Vep, in which two actors play seven roles in a pastiche of gothic horror novels. The original production featured Ludlam and his partner Everett Quinton. Rights to perform the play include a stipulation that the actors must be of the same sex, in order to ensure cross-dressing in the production.[citation needed] In 1991, Irma Vep was the most produced play in the United States;[7] and in 2003, it became the longest-running production ever staged in Brazil.[8][9]

Death and legacy[edit]

Ludlam was diagnosed with AIDS in March 1987. He attempted to fight the disease with his lifelong interest in healthy eating and a macrobiotic diet, but died a month after his AIDS diagnosis, of PCP pneumonia, at St. Vincent's Hospital. His front page obituary in the New York Times[10] was the newspaper's first page 1 obituary to specifically name AIDS as a cause of death (with Ludlam's parents' consent), instead of the AIDS-related illnesses such as pneumonia commonly cited at the time.[11]

The block in front of his Sheridan Square theater was renamed "Charles Ludlam Lane" in his honor.[citation needed]

In 2009, Ludlam was inducted posthumously into the American Theater Hall of Fame.[12]

After his death, Walter Ego, the dummy from Ludlam's 1978 play The Ventriloquist's Wife (designed and built by actor and puppet-maker Alan Semok), was donated to the Vent Haven Museum in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky, where it remains on exhibit.[citation needed]

In his 1987 obituary of Ludlam in Christopher Street, Andrew Holleran wrote,

It would be pointless to subject Ludlam to a dissertation—he was too funny—and yet no one was more grounded in theater's ancient roots than he; like a child running through the contents of his bedroom closet, putting on fake noses, mustaches, pulling out toy airplanes, little plastic gladiators, goldfish bowls, Cleopatra wigs, he always gave the impression of having assembled the particular play from a magic storeroom in which he kept, like some obsessed bag lady, every prop and character that two thousand years of Western History had washed up on the shores of a childhood on Long Island.…Drag is a profound joke—the fundamental homosexual joke, no doubt: the Woman at Bay, Wounded but Triumphant, lascivious or frigid, repressed or mad, rings all the notes, high and low.…Charles Ludlam was the greatest drag I've ever seen. It ceased to be drag, in fact, or acting: it was art.[13]

Selected works[edit]

Plays (as playwright)[edit]

  • Big Hotel (1967)
  • Conquest of the Universe, or When Queens Collide (1968)
  • Turds in Hell (1969) adaptation of Satyricon
  • The Grand Tarot (1969)
  • Bluebeard (1970) adaptation of H. G. Wells's The Island of Dr Moreau
  • Eunuchs of the Forbidden City (1971)
  • Corn (1972)
  • Camille (1973)
  • Hot Ice (1974)
  • Stage Blood (1975) adaptation of Hamlet
  • Tabu Tableaux (1975)
  • Caprice (1976)
  • Jack and the Beanstalk (1976)
  • Der Ring Gott Farblonjet (1977) adaptation of The Ring Cycle
  • The Ventriloquist's Wife (1978)
  • Utopia, Incorporated (1979)
  • The Enchanted Pig (1979)
  • Elephant Woman (1979)
  • A Christmas Carol (1979)
  • Reverse Psychology (1980)
  • Love's Tangled Web (1981)
  • Secret Lives of the Sexists (1982)
  • Exquisite Torture (1982)
  • Le Bourgeois Avant-Garde (1983) adaptation of Molière's Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme
  • Galas (1983) inspired by the life of Maria Callas
  • The Mystery of Irma Vep (1984)
  • How to Write a Play (1984)
  • Salammbo (1985) adaptation of Gustave Flaubert's Salammbo (novel)
  • The Artificial Jungle (1986)

Puppet shows[edit]

  • Professor Bedlam's Educational Punch and Judy Show
  • Anti-Galaxie Nebulae

Plays (as actor)[edit]

Plays (as director)[edit]

Films (as actor)[edit]

  • The Life, Death and Assumption of Lupe Velez by José Rodriguez-Soltero (as The Lesbian) (1966)
  • Underground and Emigrants
  • Reel 6: Charles Ludlam's Grand Tarot (1970)
  • Imposters (1980)
  • Museum of Wax
  • Doomed Love (1983)
  • The Big Easy (1987)
  • Forever, Lulu (1987)
  • She Must Be Seeing Things (1988)

Television (as actor)[edit]


  1. ^ Kaufman, David (February 16, 2003). "Ridiculous!". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved May 16, 2018.
  2. ^ "Charles Ludlam Biography (1943–1987)". Retrieved May 16, 2018.
  3. ^ Simon, Kate. "Black-Eyed Susan". BOMB Magazine. Spring 1988. Retrieved July 26, 2020.
  4. ^ Castle, Ted. "Charles Ludlam and Christopher Scott". BOMB Magazine. Winter 1982. Retrieved July 26, 2020.
  5. ^ La MaMa Archives Digital Collections. "Production: 'Ridiculous Theater Company Presents: Bluebeard' (1970)". Accessed May 16, 2018.
  6. ^ "87 | Obie Awards". Obie Awards. Retrieved May 16, 2018.
  7. ^ "about the rep > past productions > 2003/4 > The Mystery of Irma Vep". Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Archived from the original on November 2, 2004.
  8. ^ Gussow, Mel. "Books of the Times; The Roman-Candle Life of a Downtown Original", The New York Times, January 29, 2003
  9. ^ Scheib, Ronnie. "Irma Vep - She's Back!", Variety, August 21, 2006
  10. ^ Gerard, Jeremy (May 29, 1987). "Charles Ludlum, 44, Avant-Garde Artist of Theater, is Dead". Retrieved April 2, 2023.
  11. ^ Rosenzweig, Leah (November 30, 2018). "Cause of Death: Uncovering the hidden history of AIDS on the New York Times obituary page". Retrieved December 1, 2018.
  12. ^ "". Archived from the original on December 3, 2013. Retrieved September 2, 2012.
  13. ^ Holleran, Andrew, "Tragic Drag" in Ground Zero, 1989 (reissued as Chronicle of a Plague, Revisited: AIDS and Its Aftermath, 2008); originally published in Christopher Street, no. 113, July 1987.

Further reading[edit]

  • Baron, Michael, The Whore of Sheridan Square (a play inspired by the life of Charles Ludlam) in Plays and Playwrights 2006 An Anthology, edited by Martin Denton, 2006. ISBN 0-9670234-7-5
  • Edgecomb, Sean, Charles Ludlam Lives!: Charles Busch, Bradford Louryk, Taylor Mac, and the Queer Legacy of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company, 2017. ISBN 0-472-05355-8
  • Jeffreys, Joe E. "Charles Ludlam," in Noriega and Schildcrout (eds.) 50 Key Figures in Queer US Theatre, pp. 142-145. Routledge, 2022. ISBN 978-1-032-06796-4.
  • Kaufman, David A., Ridiculous!: The Theatrical Life and Times of Charles Ludlam, 2002. ISBN 1-55783-588-8
  • Ludlam, Charles, Ridiculous Theatre: Scourge of Human Folly: The Essays and Opinions of Charles Ludlam, edited by Steven Samuels, 1992. ISBN 1-55936-041-0
  • Ludlam. The Complete Plays of Charles Ludlam, edited by Steven Samuels. ISBN 0-06-055172-0
  • Roemer, Rick, Charles Ludlam and the Ridiculous Theatrical Company: Critical Analyses of 29 Plays by Rick Roemer, 1998. ISBN 0-7864-0340-3
  • Katz, Leandro, Bedlam Days: The Early Plays of Charles Ludlam and The Ridiculous Theatrical Company, ISBN 978-987-24581-3-3

External links[edit]