Bill Vehr, Lohr Wilson and Blackeyed Susan in Eunuchs of the Forbidden City. Photo by Leandro Katz.
Charles Ludlam So are we going to sit down, and is the machine on?
Ted Castle It’s running.
Christopher Scott Is this going to be a new wave interview?
TC An old wave one. Anybody want any more tea? Let’s sit down around over there.
CL I think I’ve had enough tea.
TC How old are you, Charles?
CL 30 next year.
TC No, you’re older than that!
CL I’m just 30. I’m frankly 30.
TC You’re older than that, Charles.
CL Do I look older than that to you?
TC It has nothing to do with that.
CL I’m frankly 30. Chris is two years older than I am. He’s 32.
CS That’s okay, that’s my favorite age.
TC Really? 40 is mine.
CS I’m going to be 36, and you’re going to be 38, right?
TC Where are you from?
CL I’m from the West Village.
TC How long have you lived there?
CL Ten years.
TC How do you like it?
CL Love it.
TC How long have you had the theatre at One Sheridan Square?
CL We’re in our third season there.
TC When did you start the Ridiculous Theatrical Company?
CL In about ’67, I think.
TC That was with When Queens Collide?
CL Yeah, when we did When Queens Collide at the Gate Theatre.
TC You did Big Hotel there, too, didn’t you?
CL Yes, and we did Whores of Babylon too. It was quite a season.
TC What did you do last season?
CL Last season we did The Enchanted Pig, The Elephant Woman, A Christmas Carol.
TC Was that a take-off on The Elephant Man?
CL Well, but I did it without ever seeing The Elephant Man. It was an exploitation of the popularity of The Elephant Man. I wanted to use it.
TC Did you ever see The Elephant Man later?
CL I did see it later.
TC Did you see it with David?
CL No, I saw it with Philip Anglim, in the original production, and it was amazing because The Elephant Woman was completely original.
TC She wasn’t ugly?
CL No. She had a penis for a nose. And joke eyeglasses with a penis on them and she was a black girl with a white penis nose.
CS You know they were shocked—both Anglim and Richmond Crinkley who produced The Elephant Man were shocked when they came and saw The Elephant Woman—they thought they were going to see a parody, but it had nothing to do with The Elephant Man. You just took the title!
CL Right. It was also a comment on the idea that everyone was stealing The Elephant Manidea.
TC They were?
CL The Elephant Man was a novel, a book came out about this guy’s life, and so on. I don’t know why I’m promoting their show in this.
TC Let’s skip it.
CS And then this last season we also did Conquest of the Universe.
CL Or, When Queens Collide. Then there was also a West Coast tour that featured Stage Blood, Camille, and Bluebeard.
TC Where did you do that?
CL We did it in Vancouver, Seattle and San Francisco.
TC What’s the best theatre you’ve ever played in, physically.
CL One of the most wonderful ones was the one in Belgrade. A beautiful modern theatre that just had everything. An incredible thing they had was that the roof of the theatre opened up, a circular domed roof, and then stagehands came in and set the lights and went back through the roof and then the roof came down again.
TC When did you do that?
CL ‘71. It’s an avant garde festival they have every year. We did Bluebeard. And we did Bluebeard in Zagreb, too.
TC How many times do you think you’ve done Bluebeard, altogether?
CL Hundreds of times. But Camille more, I think.
CS Camille had her 300th performance last year.
CL By the time we did Camille we were performing more often. In the early days withBluebeard we did at most four performances a week, and with Camille we did an extended run with six a week.
Charles Ludlam and Lohr Wilson in Bluebeard. Photo by Leandro Katz.
TC What are your favorite plays? Name one.
CL Well, I would answer the question, “What kind of work has been on your mind recently?” Well, I’ve been looking at Ibsen.
TC It’s a stupid question. When people ask me what writers I admire I say, “Dead ones.”
CS I always carry an answer to that question around with me.
TC What is it?
CS I say I’m very interested in the late work of Picasso, I think it’s seriously undervalued; I prefer painterly painting to highly detailed painting, I like the Velasquez, Delacroix tradition.
CL 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. For instance, the idea that the theatre has a script. The drama is the art form that I’m interested in. The theatre in and of itself is not that interesting to me. I believe in a living theatrical tradition and I write for the theatre. But within that idea, I think that what happened in the last 10 or 15 years, there tended to be a new Utopianism that was coming about in the ’60s, that was starting to already turn by the ’70s. That idealism led us to believe that there was a new age dawning and that we could perhaps rebuild the entire civilization from the ground up.
TC I remember that very well. I was working with you at that time.
CL The people who seriously pursued enterprises like inventing a new kind of acting, usually ended up defining themselves by what they rejected in order to have a strong position. It’s reductivism, it’s minimalism. I don’t define myself by what I’m against. My work is not defined by what I leave out. In the theatre, say you decide to drop the verbal element, or eliminate the actor, or eliminate scenery, which had already been done much earlier. In modern art there has been a tendency to try to be pure. And each art form wanted to find itself in the modern age because what modernism really is is trying to find a new raison d’être once the old religious ideas were chucked out. And the two basic reasons anybody ever managed to come up with were, in the theatre, that it was a didactic medium whose new secular function is teaching or it replaces religion with intoxication.
TC When did this start.
CL Modernism begins with realism, but you can’t purify realism.
TC I think the modern is that for which we don’t yet have a name, it’s the way we do it.
CS Oh, I don’t think so. I think there are basic axioms of modernism.
CL To me it is the difference between art and art direction. Art is expression and art direction is stylish presentation. The best way to create style is to eliminate one element. It’s the oldest trick in the book. We’ll do it all in black and white. That’s one of the real easy ones. Or eliminate plot. Or anything. And that creates a style. In painting it’s more obvious because we’re so used to it in advertising. For instance, here is a model reclining but they’ve eliminated the background. It’s a blue paper but it’s just blue, she is no place. They eliminate where. Or you could get a style by having nude people doing everyday functions. Or you could eliminate one sex. Or one race.
TC What did you do?
CL I didn’t do that. I see the theatre as a composite art form. It requires collaboration, and interpolation, and I’ve also arrived at a theory of what I’m doing, and that is that there is a pure narrative tradition. The story exists for its own sake because the story is a coded hieroglyph. A pure narrative artist in the film would be Hitchcock.
CS Or Buñuel.
CL In the theatre there is a tradition of plot as a convention and as a hieroglyphic use of incident in the classical comedy. Starting with Molière. Even Shakespeare. Or Italian Commedia del’Arte. The classical tradition of comedy. These events, which are the devices are a little alphabet. It’s a kind of matrix of unseemly incident. Inappropriate, or contrary behavior which the clown exhibits. Things falling out contrary to expectation, or propriety—things going wrong… A playwright said to me recently, “What is your big contribution to the theatre?” A friend of mine. So I said I never threw out the plot. He said, “Neither did I, so what’s so new about your not throwing out the plot?”
TC I think that it’s always an illusion that art is very original.
CL Once the conventions are established, then the variations and the developments are original. But you have to have a very rigid framework. Without that, originality goes unnoticed. It only shows up in a formal structure. In Michelangelo’s Medici chapel it’s all worked out, it’s so perfect. You wonder how anybody could do it. Talk about high tech!
TC Do you think of yourself and/or the theatre, your theatre, as being particularly gay?
CL Sex seems so complicated here, so varied.
CS Well our theatre has to be gay because so many of the principals are gay, but as gays, we’re dealing with the issues of mankind, which is what distinguishes what we do from what gay theatre does.
CL I always assume everyone is straight. It’s more fun that way. If there’s anything I’m doing now that I didn’t do before is that I’m working from life, as you in the visual arts would say. Formerly people would become nervous and say, “You based that on my life, didn’t you?” And I’d say, “No it’s all from Euripides, and Proust and I got this from the Marquis de Sade, its not your life.” Now I want them to think it’s their lives, I want everyone to believe that it’s their life.
TC Tell me about the first theatrical experience you can think of.
CL I did plays in the backyard. In fact, the girl whose backyard it was once wrote me and said that you’re still doing the same thing. We’d put the bed sheet on the clothesline and I would make them say lines. I don’t know where I got the idea to do that, I must have been about seven.
TC Do you remember the first time you were ever in a professional theatre?
CL I saw summer stock productions on Long Island when I was in my early teens. I didn’t get to Broadway until my late teens. I guess the first thing I remember was a Punch & Judy Show.
TC That’s been very important for you, hasn’t it.
CL What has influenced me, for one thing, is that I’m an actor.
TC It’s quite unusual, isn’t it, that playwrights act.
CL Not throughout history. Playwrights generally were actors. Shakespeare. Moliere acted in all his plays. Shakespeare retired from acting. In music there’s the tradition that Bach and Mozart were virtuoso performers who needed material to play so they wrote their own scores. The director as a separate entity started with Stanislavsky at the end of the 19th century. In modern times, we’ve had to deal with something they’ve never dealt with before, which is the long run. If you play it every day, give or take 50 days, you’ve got close to 300 performances a year, even more…
CS 460 performances if there are 8 a week.
CL When the director leaves a show the show goes out of shape. Actors tend to wear out their roles, anyway, like clothes. In theaters where the director appears in the play, then the director keeps that play perfect, if he knows what’s right.
TC Do you think that the actors are in love with the director?
CL I think there is love there, I know that it works for me. But being in love is something that is more like infatuation.
TC In Reverse Psychology, of course, they are supposed to be not in love with you.
CL Yeah, but I get it both ways, because they throw themselves at me because they’re least attracted to me. If I’m willing to put up with the contradiction, I get everything that everyone ever wanted. You really get very close to the people you work with.
Banquet scene in Camille. Photo by Leandro Katz.
TC Do you like all your work equally?
CL I have little plays that I particularly like.
TC Which ones?
CL Often they are the ones that aren’t so popular with other people, though. I love Caprice. I think Der Ring Gott Farblonjet was important. Utopia Incorporated was a watershed for me.
TC What do you mean?
CL I was trying certain experiments for a long time, sort of trying very hard, meeting with success but it was hard-won success. I mean artistically, not box office, God knows, those were the years I ran up those enormous debts. Trying to invent a language of the theatre, I was trying to layer the language so that it wasn’t like everyday speech, it was almost another language, it was a poetic medium.
CS Really coming out of Joyce.
CL It was influenced by Joyce, but I didn’t really invent new words, which he did.
TC When was this?
CL Caprice and in The Ring they abandoned literal speech and went into a completely abstract poetical language. Because it was about the evolution of man and thought, it was also the evolution of language. People had debates, rational discourse, and the medium of speech suffered through vaudeville, German Yiddish, and struggled out through all these different permutations. Then I did The Ventriloquist’s Wife, which was a nightclub act that was really about magic and other skills. Then I did Utopia Incorporated, which was the first new play in the new theatre. I had the idea of writing the entire play in vaudeville gags. And a plot that constantly contradicted itself. With Caprice I was trying to combine five different plots into one play. It was supposed to be a Restoration comedy, basically, it was supposed to be a naughty farce with disturbing ideas being presented, and it met with the fate of plays that do that.Utopia, on the other hand, was going to be corny. It took me years to dig up all the jokes, and arrange them in such a way that they could advance the plot. It was like slavery. And I got it and it bombed. Every line was a joke.
TC I never even heard of it.
CL It recalled the Italian Futurists, but people weren’t ready for it. After that, I did…
CS With Utopia, the audience didn’t understand that these jokes were being used for some higher purpose.
CL They thought these were the best jokes I could think of and that these were new jokes.
TC I love that scene in Reverse Psychology where you and Bill tell these jokes that seem to be old jokes but they’re new. Christopher, I would like to ask if you think that the Ridiculous Theatrical Company can be a commercially viable thing.
CS I think it can undoubtedly be done.
TC It isn’t being done, though, is it, where do you get your money from?
CS We have been getting thirty-five thousand dollars a year from the New York State Council on the Arts and twenty-five thousand from the National Endowment. We hope that the National Endowment money will remain stable, but we can’t be certain. However, Reverse Psychology has done quite well at the box office. I think the theatre can survive.
TC Why can’t it prosper?
CL I think it can.
TC What do you think of theatergoers. They seem to be a particular breed of people to me.
CL It is a breed. There are some people with very broad tastes, and there are some who go to one segment of the theatre only. Broadway benefits from its location. There are the adventurous theatergoers who go to off-Broadway. They tend to be better-educated; it’s an extra-intelligent audience. This builds in commercial limitations. To hold the audience that we have, at that level of intelligence, means sacrificing a much larger public in the name of quality. It’s not without its rewards. There are lots of bright people, and you can’t do a Las Vegas floor show for these people.
TC I don’t think anybody wants to see a Las Vegas floor show. I think it just underestimates the audience.
CL You know the MGM-Grand floor show?
CS David Hockney loves it!
CL It is the greatest show on earth. It is mindless, but it is a spectacle beyond the wildest imaginings of Antonin Artaud, or Bertolt Brecht or Cecil B. DeMille.
TC Better than Busby Berkley?
CL Well, it’s about Busby Berkley. It’s an enshrinement of his memory.
CS The sad thing about Broadway is that you go expecting to see something like that and it’s always so pathetic…
CL Now I feel that there is an entirely new development in my work and it’s what you might call a breakthrough. It’s taking years of technical knowledge and then just going ahead.
TC Why do you think it is that very few other companies have performed your plays?
CL They’re difficult plays, they’re very demanding, many of the roles are difficult to play.
CS Many people have done Bluebeard in college.
CL I spent a lot of years keeping a company together of 8 or 10 people who were skilled in doing this repertoire….
Instead of holding a mirror up to nature, I’m holding up a magnifying glass. And then I focus it on different parts of the society.
TC Do you think your work is epic?
CL I think it is epic. There seem to me to be a lot of problems with epic form. Its diversity doesn’t lend itself to self-expression because when you’re working in something that’s inherently diverse you always have to try and find unity in it. You’re always forced to find relationships among the parts. Whereas if you’re working in a very tight classical form, then you’re searching for diversity. It’s a more expansive way to work. It works in reverse. The epic drains you. It demands because the cumulative effect of the plot doesn’t pay off, as Brecht said. In the epic each scene stands for itself, one scene makes the next scene. The more you invest in the epic, you’re always getting face value back. In the classic tradition you get a cumulative effect, so what happens is that the actors benefit from the narrative energy. In the epic toward the end you really have to bring in variety turns, dog acts, to try to energize the thing. I feel that I did, fortunately without anybody noticing it, synthesize the epic form with the concentric form. Reverse Psychology is a perfect example. There is no way that that isn’t an epic play, yet people perceive it as a structural whole. In the new play, the audience will not be able to recount the plot. It’s like Feydeau; it’s very, very complicated. When you take form that seriously, you don’t have much time for anything else. I feel the same way about Ibsen. I feel a great kinship for Ibsen, though I love Strinberg very much. Because Ibsen renounced verse when he reached 40, and decided to write plays in plain Norwegian. Which was weird. Because in his youth, he was fighting for there to be a Norwegian drama. It was considered vulgar to write in Norwegian. People in Norway only did Danish plays. So he started a little grubby Norwegian theatre on the wrong side of the tracks. Then when the Danes were attacked the Norwegians refused to defend them so he left Norway because of the hypocrisy of the Norwegians loving Danish culture and yet not defending Denmark.
TC Where did he go?
CL He went to Italy, where it is much warmer, and he lived in Italy and later in Switzerland. And of course he was Joyce’s favorite playwright. In fact Joyce wanted to meet Ibsen and Ibsen wouldn’t meet him and Joyce used to stand outside his window and look up.
TC Wouldn’t meet him?
CL Ibsen didn’t like younger artists. He was very jealous of them and Joyce wrote a very provocative letter to Ibsen saying you are an old man, your achievements are behind you, I am the young artist…
TC So Ibsen said fuck you.
CS We need the underground star system, it’s very important.
TC What do you mean?
CL Chris means that instead of just endlessly developing new people, you could just draw on a pool of people who are working in the field.
TC Would you define what you feel your context is, I mean not your historical context, but your modern context.
CL It’s really rugged individualism. Throughout history there have been fanatics. People who do theatre rather than movies or television are usually fanatics who believe in it as an art form. They believe that there is an inherent good in doing this.
TC You’re tripping on the cord, it’s turning the machine off.
CL Well, this machine is turning me off…. The difference between the commercial theatre where you have investors, and the art theatre which is supported by the government is that their money is given with no strings attached. The New York State Council buys performances, services. It’s a good way to do it.
TC I think it’s guaranteed to keep you poor.
CL It’s a question of having working capital. If you take it from investors, you have to answer to their artistic demands. Fortunately, since the government money is being allocated by experts, they only give it to people with high artistic standards. Whereas in the commercial field there are all kinds of cuckoo ways of making money in show business. Doing non-profit is a small way of doing something very fine.
CS The governmental patrons are by far the most enlightened patrons in the performing arts. It’s completely different in the visual arts.
TC Would you be able to play at the New York State Theatre?
CL I don’t think it’s ideally suited for drama. It’s too big.
CS We want to build a theater that’s a Mozartian theater. With tiers of boxes and incredible ornamentation.
CL I do love the window shadows on this wall.
TC It’s painted a color called dusty lilac.