Somebody had to do it — write a credible and coherent biography from the incredible and often incoherent raw material of Charles Ludlam’s life in the theater. But who would have the stamina for such a job? Ludlam was a comic life-force, and when he died of AIDS in 1987, at the age of 44, he left behind a revolutionary, if sadly unfinished legacy: founder of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company; author of 29 iconoclastic plays; innovative stage director, designer, performer, and teacher; intellectual visionary and guru to the avant-garde. Not to mention role model for drag performers everywhere. This isn’t the kind of legacy, though, that fits neatly into the form of a conventional stage biography, and Kaufman, a former theater critic for the New York Daily News, doesn’t even try to put on that literary straitjacket. Instead, he has written a great, big book of love that will keep Ludlam’s subversive genius alive, inspire legions of future Ludlamites, and bore the pants off casual browsers.
For all the factual and anecdotal detail that the obsessive author crams into his exhaustively researched study (which was 10 years in the making and shows the work), Ludlam is best served by the great, sweeping arc of the book, which observes and interprets his life within the big picture of his times. Kaufman’s account of how the 23-year-old Ludlam joined Ron Tavel and John Vaccaro’s Play-House of the Ridiculous (making his debut as Peeping Tom in the 1966 “Life of Lady Godiva”) is no set piece of a young actor’s coming out, but an introduction to the anarchic comic spirit that galvanized the experimental theater movement during the 1960s. “I knew that this man was willing to do anything for a magical moment onstage,” Tavel said of Ludlam’s outrageously over-the-top Norma Desmond in “Screen Test,” “even to humiliate himself for the theater.”
In the same way, the backstage story of Ludlam’s triumphant portrayal of that tragic ninny, Marguerite Gautier in “Camille,” goes well beyond the production notes for that 1973 masterpiece of mannered art. Kaufman’s analysis of Ludlam’s ground-breaking drag performance places it in the vanguard of all the gender-bending role-playing that flourished in the alternative theater — and among alternative life-stylists outside the theater — in the liberated climate of the 1970s. “I pioneered the idea that female impersonation could be serious acting, an approach to character,” Ludlam said. “I became known as the actor who does real acting in drag.”
Even in the matter of his death, Ludlam anticipated the 1980s zeitgeist by refusing to speak of the disease that would silently wipe out a generation of young gay men.
Although he must have realized that his would be the definitive biography, Kaufman keeps overstating the case for Ludlam’s importance, as if to justify his own work. As a seminal force in the theater, Ludlam doesn’t need the hyperbolic claims (“a genius on a par with Ionesco, Genet, Orton, and Coward”) and cries for attention. And while the detailed dish on his relationships with such stalwarts of the Ridiculous persuasion as Bill Vehr, Everett Quintin, Lola Pashalinski and Black-Eyed Susan is both fun to read and critical to our understanding of how Ludlam’s mind worked, there’s no need for the life histories of everyone he ever tricked with, or for the personality profiles of the three dogs he had when he was 10 years old.
Excesses aside, this is one helluva piece of work.