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Wednesday, February 19th, 2003


Ridiculous!: The Theatrical Life and Times of Charles Ludlam

by David Kaufman

The Absurdist

A review by Adrienne Miller

By the time of his death in 1987, Ridiculous Theatrical Company founder Charles Ludlam had become a massive influence to an entire generation of actors, comics and improvisers. In the seventies, for instance, Bette Midler wanted to play the lead in Ludlam's musical Corn (a proposal to which the resolutely forward-thinking Ludlam said No way). Born in Long Island in 1946, Ludlam was a much-loved little boy, raised principally by his mother and two doting aunts. That his life and career seemed in large part a kind of attempt to flee this heavy maternal influence is an irresistible, and obvious, conclusion for any armchair Freudian. In the twenty-nine plays which Ludlam wrote and starred in with his New York company, he often appeared in drag, but he detested the categorization of himself as a "drag performer" he was a prankster, yes, but he saw himself, and rightly, as belonging to the great avant-garde theatrical tradition of Shakespeare, Moliere, Artaud. Writes the author, theater critic David Kaufman: "The notion of being neither male nor female, 'but more than either, and 'greater than both' had before a credo for Ludlam." As a performer, Ludlam made Andy Kaufman look tame. And he was a brilliant playwright (The Mystery of Irma Vep is probably his best-known play), his work outrageous, political, passionate, and humane. This exhaustive, fervent biography portrays Ludlam as someone who doesn't seem all that fun to have known personally, but my guess it that Ludlam wouldn't have cared much about that. The main thing that mattered was his genius, which, as Ludlam would have been the first to tell you, he possessed in spades.

Adrienne Miller is Esquire's literary editor.

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