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BEDLAM DAYS
 
Charles Ludlam
 
 

Charles Ludlam, 1970

 
 
Bluebeard, by Charles Ludlam
The famous seduction of Miss Cubbidge, with Lola Pashalinski
 
 
One midnight in 1968, together with the now famous rock singer David Johansen (NY Dolls, Buster Poindexter), then barely an adolescent who had just bought a ukelele to start his musical career, we attended a performance of Turds In Hell, the genial play by Bill Vehr and Charles Ludlam.
Turds In Hell was being performed in a theatre at the end of 42nd Street, near the Hudson and in the heart of Hell’s Kitchen, one of the most dangerous areas in Manhattan during those days. The place was really a porno cinema during the day, and Charles Ludlam had managed to rent it for very little money to stage his show after the end of the x-rated screenings. The midnight performances of Turds In Hell had already gathered a clandestine fame, and the shows seemed more like pagan masses than theatrical events. That night the small theatre was filled with the most extravagant characters, (ourselves included -- it was the end of the 60s), and we ended up seating on first row.
 
 
Turds in Hell
 
 

Bunny Eisenhower, Lola Pashalinski, Bill Vehr in Turds In Hell by Bill Vehr y Charles Ludlam, 1968

 
 
In the first act, Carla, the Gypsy Woman (interpreted by the Warhol star Mario Montez) finds an abandoned baby on a mountaintop. While she admires the baby’s large pinga in an impeccable Puerto-Rican accent, mysterious hands appear above the set with boxes of Ivory Flakes soap which, sprinkled throughout the scene, simulate the falling of snow. Later on in the play, after we have met the Baron Bubbles in the Bathtub, Saint Obnoxious, Saint Frigid, the Angel Gaybriel, the Devil, the Pope, the Hunchback Pinhead Sex Maniac (the abandoned baby many years later), the Turtle Woman, the Saints, Monks and Whores, in the middle of a storm at sea, mysterious arms with buckets emerge from the sides throwing water to simulate waves razing the deck. Then, after the ship sinks, a curtain made of a large sheet of polyethylene blurrily covers the whole of the stage to mark the beginning of an underwater ballet in which corpulent male dancers wearing ballet shoes, diadems and tutus interpret a hallucinating scene from Swan Lake on stage boards that, after all the soap and water, have become very slippery.
But these anarchic scenographic details are in reality secondary. The play, from its beginning, develops like a spectacular and extraordinary revelation. Composed of phrases from disconcerting literary origins, calculated quotes of Elizabethan theatre, Pirandello, Joyce, classic Hollywood cinema, personal gossip, jokes that only certain members of the audience could understand -- structured like an epic work and interpreted with a comic languor that makes us forget time and space -- Turds In Hell is like a turbulent dream under the influence of a drug probably invented in secret by Jorge Luis Borges and Raymond Roussel.
At the end of the show we went to the dressing rooms to greet the actors; on that night began my friendship with Ludlam and with the central members of his company. Although those friendships have gone beyond Charles’ premature death in 1987 at age 44, my opportunities to perform in, light, film and photograph the work of The Ridiculous Theatrical Company continued only to the end of what Ludlam himself would later call the first of his career’s three periods, which he considered as separate as if they were different professions. The photographs included in the exhibition at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts belong to the first period, which is composed of approximately seven theatrical works produced between 1968 and 1975.
 
 
Eunuchs of the Forbidden City
 
 

Charles Ludlam and Black Eyed Susan in Eunuchs of the Forbidden City byCharles Ludlam, 1971

 
 
In the posthumous publication of The Complete Plays of Charles Ludlam (Harper & Row, 1989) we can value Ludlam’s prolific production in twenty-nine plays. Steve Samuels writes in the introduction: “Even in an important era of experimental theater, Ludlam’s must have seemed supremely experimental. He was simultaneously devoted to the virtuosic use of language and the sheer physicality of stage presentations, energized by the clash of opposing philosophies and divergent acting styles. Tawdry, flamboyant sets and costumes, nudity, and simulated sex were juxtaposed with the words of Wilde, Joyce, Shakespeare, and Baudelaire.”
Supremely is an important word here. Ludlam was not just a product of the sixties, and to compare him with his contemporaries may be an error. His work reflects an artistic erudition that goes beyond the attitudes of that period. And –what a thrill it was!– to see him waste no opportunity to throw knives at the vacant avant-garde postures that surrounded him. In his book of essays Scourge of Human Folly, he intentionally avoids becoming academic, a label that he would have abhorred. Like the great artist that he was, his philosophy and theoretical discourse is mainly manifested through the rich and influential implications of his work as an actor and a playwright.
But the true mystery comes to light most certainly in a brief quote by the New York Daily News critic Don Nelsen -- which appears in the recently published biography Ridiculous! The Theatrical Life and Times of Charles Ludlam by David Kaufman (Applause Books) “Laurence Olivier? Bah. Gielgud, Scofield, Brando and the rest of the so-called elite bag? Twaddle. The most versatile actor in the Western world is a man named Charles Ludlam!”
 
 
Camille
 
 

Robert Reddy, Black Eyed Susan, Bill Vehr, Charles Ludlam, Robert Breers, Stephen Sterne and Lola Pashalinski in"Camille" byCharles Ludlam, 1973

 
 
All of us who got to know Charles, to see him act and direct, must agree: Charles Ludlam, considered by critics as an American Molière, was a genius. I may have seen genial works of art, been near people of enormous talent but, with the exception of Ludlam, I have never known a genius. To see him act was the arrival of the Magi Kings, the epiphany. With eyes like burning embers, Ludlam could simultaneously make us weep and laugh, think and dream; he could evoke the most distant fires, manifest the most complex ideas on the stage with his humor, his language, his audacity, his gestures, his strength and physical agility. Furthermore, Ludlam was a genius who, in his creative generosity, welcomed the more daring and marginalized actors and characters in the art world. Now that his work and his influence are being broadly recognized, we see that the majority of those who followed him in his liberating campaign have also fallen like warriors. Only we, the chaste, the wary, the cautious, have remained. The others, headed by Charles, have gone to entertain the gods.
 
 

Leandro Katz, NY. 2002
From notes for the exhibition Días de Aquelarre (Bedlam Days), Museo de Arte Moderno de Buenos Aires (M.AM.B.A), curated by Laura Buccellato. 2003.
Notes updated for the exhibition Bedlam Days: The Early Plays of Charles Ludlam and The Ridiculous Theatrical Company, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, curated by Barbara Cohenstratyner, January-March, 2005

 
 

Fisuras por donde se cuela la historia - Andrea Giunta

 
 

El Rey Mago - Rosario Blefari

 
 

Public Collections
•The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts - Lincoln Center, Billy Rose Collection
•Robert Wilson and The Watermill Center

Related Bibliography
The Complete Plays by Charles Ludlam - Harper & Row Publishers
Scourge of Human Folly: Essays and Opinions by Charles Ludlam edited by Steven Samuels - Theatre Communications Group
Ridiculous! The Theatrical Life and Times of Charles Ludlam by David Kaufman - Applause Books

 

 
Text and photographs by Leandro Katz©1969-2002
 
 
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