The Mystery of Irma Vep
By Charles Ludlam
Directed by Les Waters
Main Season · Thrust Stage
April 9–May 23, 2004
Running time: 2 hours, including one 15-minute intermission
This vaudevillian tour-de-force thrust the late writer/director/performer Charles Ludlam and his Ridiculous Theatrical Company into the spotlight after its original 1984 production. Featuring characters such as a sympathetic werewolf, a vampire and an Egyptian mummy, The Mystery of Irma Vep is a comic send-up of Victorian melodrama, Gothic romance and classic horror films. However, Ludlam’s witty literary allusions and subversive political jabs take the play beyond campy slapstick comedy. Conceived as a full-length quick-change show for two actors playing more than 16 roles, The Mystery of Irma Vep is a hilarious parody you have to see to believe!
Charles Ludlam · Playwright
Les Waters · Director
Annie Smart · Scenic & Costume Design
Robert Wierzel · Lighting Design
Peter Golub · Original Music & Sound
Nicole Galland · Dramaturg
Elisa Guthertz · Stage Manager
Amy Potozkin · Casting
Paul Fouquet · Casting
Arnie Burton · Nicodemus Underwood / Lady Enid Hillcrest / Alcazar / Pev Amri
Erik Steele · Jane Twisden / Lord Edgar Hillcrest / An Intruder
??? · Irma Vep
Prologue: from the Artistic Director
Charles Ludlam was a bit mad; mad in that wildly inventive, courageous way that leads one either to genius or ineptitude. Fortunately, his path was sustained by a theatrical career highlighted by playing great female roles in drag. They say we’re all put on the planet for a reason, although many of us never quite discover the right one. Mr. Ludlam had no such problem.
When I was still quite young I had the great fortune of seeing him perform the title role in Camille. To my very inexperienced eyes, the entire evening was a bit of a shock; who was this man, so fully unafraid of the histrionics of high French drama and so devilishly willing to hurl himself into the campy, comedic reality embodied in his impersonation of a woman? On the one hand, he wept openly; on the other hand, the weeping went on for what seemed like a good 20 minutes…As the play unfolded I found myself experiencing something new—I was actually drawn into the tragedy and enlivened by the comedy. It was exhilarating. I remember the evening with that vividness that comes with becoming aware of a new set of possibilities for the very first time.
The company founded by Mr. Ludlam, fittingly named the Ridiculous Theatrical Company, could not flourish after his passing. The identity of the organization was too bound up in the singularity of his personality. But the texts he developed remain, the best of which, to my mind, is the play you are seeing tonight. Rather than just a vehicle to showcase Mr. Ludlam’s talents, the play has a larger purpose: a relentless pursuit of sending up the legacy of Victorian England. This particular universe careens on the brink of spinning out of control (always the sign of an artist in great control). The result is a deconstruction of the world through explosive mischief. Never a bad thing.
For this joy ride through the world of “low art” we have solicited the formidable talents of Arnie Burton and Erik Steele under the ever-able guidance of our own Les Waters.
Let the games begin…
Charles Ludlam and the Ridiculous
He was compared to Molière, Shakespeare and Aristophanes; he was championed by cultural greats including Andy Warhol, Rudolf Nureyev, Leonard Bernstein, Christopher Isherwood and Fran Lebowitz; when he died of complications from AIDS in 1987, his obituary appeared on the front page of the New York Times; over a thousand people attended his memorial service. And yet Charles Ludlam was an “underground” artist whose aesthetic was about tearing down the cultural elite and mainstream society in general. He was wickedly talented at it, and they loved him for it.
Born on Long Island in 1943, by the time he was fifteen Ludlam was already sporting long hair and outrageous costumes to school, which brought him local notoriety, as well as roles at the Red Barn Theatre in Northport. After his mentor there, William Hunt, gently warned him that he might be too effeminate to make a living as an actor, Ludlam decided he would simply have to create his own theatre. So he did, as soon as he graduated from high school. In 1961 the Student Repertory Theatre opened in a 25-dollar-a-month space; Ludlam recruited friends and neighbors to create “serious” theatre such as O’Neill.
Over the next few years, the forces that would shape his artistic life came into focus: He came out; he moved to Greenwich Village; he attended Hofstra University, where the faculty’s refusal to let him act only furthered his “outsider” identity and tendency to defy the theatrical mainstream. He was in the right place at the right time: It was the ‘60s and Warhol had laid down the template for Bohemianism. In fact a group of actors and avant-garde artists with Warhol associations began the Play-House of the Ridiculous and Ludlam joined them early on. He quickly became a diva among them, both in talent and in temperament. A master manipulator, he exploited the chaotic environment of warring factions within the “scene” there, picked fights with the directors and quit the company, taking with him many of the major talents, to begin the Ridiculous Theatrical Company. It quickly became the most successful and subversive avant-garde theatre group in New York.
The plays were performed downtown, usually in the middle of the night; both audience and cast were frequently stoned. At a time when most avant-garde performers wanted to alienate their audiences to make a polemical point, RTC was popular in part because Ludlam loved to please the crowds. His aesthetic was Camp, and early on he had a natural genius for parody. Through the rest of the ‘60s and throughout the ‘70s, the Ridiculous Theatrical Company produced 29 Ludlam works, most of which he starred in. After the astonishing success of Turds In Hell (his version of the Satyricon), Ludlam turned H.G. Well’s Island of Dr. Moreau into Bluebeard in 1970 (for which he won his first Obie Award); five years later Hamlet became Stage Blood, and two years after that, The Ring Cycle was staged as Der Ring Gott Farblonjet. In between, he adapted A Christmas Carol, Molière’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (as Le Bourgeois Avant-Garde) and many others, perhaps most famously, in 1973, Camille, in which he played the title role magnificently. Dressed in drag that clearly revealed his chest hair throughout, he brought the critics to tears and made the entire audience forget he was a man; it won him his third Obie Award.
In counterpoint to his brilliant professional life, Ludlam’s personal life was more complicated, with emotionally turbulent relationships and constant scrambling for financial survival. Despite this, Ludlam desperately desired to be in a lasting relationship. At 32, he finally found it with Everett Quinton.
Quinton was 10 years his junior. They fell in love and stayed together for the rest of Ludlam’s life. Ludlam invited Quinton to join the Ridiculous, although he had virtually no acting experience. A number of the other actors were put out by this and over the course of a few years, the timbre of the RTC changed entirely; as Quinton became the co-star of Ludlam’s life, he also became the co-star of the troupe. Believing that Quinton had untapped star-power, and wanting an opportunity to be with him as much as possible, Ludlam decided to write a two-person show for the two of them. The result brought them both national acclaim, and added Ludlam to the canon of literary greats (see “The birth of Irma Vep” below).
Ludlam only had a few years to enjoy the sensational stardom he achieved with Irma Vep. Although he told nobody but Quinton, he was ill; in late April 1987 while editing his film The Sorrows of Dolores, he was admitted to St. Vincent’s for pneumonia. He remained there until his death the night of May 27. His mind and personality were unaffected by his illness until hours before his death, and for much of that month his private room was the center of a quiet but continuous party. Although a lapsed Catholic, he dictated every detail of what was to be a Catholic funeral service. Several weeks later, at a memorial service, he was eulogized by a variety of celebrities whose milieus he had mocked for decades.
The birth of Irma Vep
In The Mystery of Irma Vep, his 25th play, Ludlam managed to parody at least a dozen literary and cinematic paragons, including Joyce, Wilde, Poe and Ibsen (the play steals its opening lines directly from Ghosts), classic horror movies, Gaslight, Wuthering Heights, Gothic novels and the movie Rebecca, which provides the basic plot points. Ludlam struggled with the ending, rewriting it throughout previews; it did not reach its final form until days before the critics arrived. There were several serious problems with the set, which required postponing previews, and many of Ludlam’s supporters doubted Quinton’s abilities. But The Mystery of Irma Vep was a smash hit, bringing Ludlam financial security for the first time in his life, and international fame. The play was given glowing reviews by every major paper; Clive Barnes told his readers not to read his review, just to buy tickets. It appeared on both the New York Times and TIME magazine’s “Best of the Year” lists. During its run, it became a coveted honor to be allowed to watch it from backstage (to see the quick-changes in action). Producers wanted to transfer it to Broadway, but Ludlam balked; he did not trust producers. He was even hesitant to license it for production in regional theatres; once he was coaxed into it, however, it was extremely popular not only across America but throughout the world; in 1991 it was the most-produced play in America and after eight years it recently became the longest-running play in the history of Brazil.
Thoughts on Camp
We are now in the Age of Irony (possibly the declining years of it), where cynicism is so commonplace that anything not-cynical seems almost naïve and quaint.
Except for Camp. Camp continues it time-honored ability to simultaneously amuse, titillate and discomfit us. Camp is a form of humor, of theatricality, of sensibility. It is defined not by content but by style. It used to be defined, in a way, by time: we used to need a little distance from things to handle them deftly with both detachment and affection, hence the frequent association of “Camp” with early movies and their stars. But in our postmodern era, such distance is built in to the sensibility of the culture, and so Queer Eye for the Straight Guy (for example) can be both earnest and campy in the same instant.
In 1961, Susan Sontag wrote a controversial essay called “Notes on Camp” in which she lists 58 characteristics of the genre, only three of which even refer to homosexuality; today, Camp is associated almost entirely with “gay humor.” Sontag considered its subversiveness apolitical; it is now considered intrinsically political. Sontag also felt that “pure” Camp was unintended, naturally occurring, without the intention to be Campy—she includes Mozart, Pope, rococo architecture, Tennyson; Camp today is nothing if not self-consciously Camp. Despite these differences time has wrought, Sontag’s 58 markers are generally still applicable. But as she herself wrote, “It’s embarrassing to be solemn and treatise-like about Camp. One runs the risk of having, oneself, produced a very inferior piece of Camp.” We’ve chosen not to run that risk; we’re letting the experts speak for themselves.
Ludlam on Ludlam
“Ridiculous is a very much more respectable word than our critics are aware. It’s a sensibility.”
“I like the old conventions of the theatre. Everyone has to reinvent them for their own purposes, but I like them. I think they are great and that they should be used…Many conventions of the theatre are outdated or fall into disuse. In some periods certain conventions are more taken for granted than in others. In a sense there’s a cultural recycling program going on here: like an archeologist, I unearth these often defunct or forgotten theatrical techniques, and through my own research and by working practically in the theatre, I try to find out how they worked when they were living things, to bring them to life again…”
“The reference isn’t just a reference. It’s a literary fragment with an intrinsic value. Does it have to come with credentials? You hear the line, the quote, and it was originally written by John Donne, William Shakespeare, William Melville or somebody else. Is it these credentials that give it value?
I don’t care whether the audience knows who originally wrote it. I just want them to hear it now. Maybe they give me credit for writing Shakespeare. That’s lucky for me. The audience doesn’t need to know where the line comes from to get its effect.
I deliberately call attention to the sources as an aesthetic effect, rather than hiding them, which is the strategy of other playwrights. I try to get an allusive quality. People will hear the echo of other work. It might be a refutation of that work or it might be a drawing on that work, but it’s an echo. The play becomes bigger that way. You don’t need to know any references, but it you do it helps.”
“Picasso said, ‘No artist is a bastard. We all have forebears, and we build on the work of others.’ I don’t believe anybody is totally original. It’s a fantasy idea. We’re able to reuse things without being slaves to them, by using parody, reinvesting them with new meaning.”
“I call my work Ridiculous because the only ideas that interest me are paradoxes. (No, I’m not serious. I’m anti-serious.) It is this state of conscious-mess that I play with at every point of the plot: the seeming impossibility of resolution.”
“I had been struggling for a long time with the structure of plays. It hadn’t been a terrible trouble, but I had given a tremendous amount of thought to this.
My problem had been to go beyond the circular, cyclical structure of the Absurdists, which represented a morbid philosophical position they have come to: they couldn’t go forward, they couldn’t go backward, and they couldn’t remain where they were. They were sort of stuck. That was the only way they could structure those plays. They always went back to the beginning at the very end—or vice versa. I tried to break out of the structure of the Theatre of the Absurd, where the end is in the beginning.
The Theatre of the Absurd refused to take things seriously, sabotaging seriousness. Our slant was actually to take things very seriously, especially focusing on those things held in low esteem by society and revaluing them, giving them new meaning, new worth, by changing their context.
Even in high school I had rejected Beckett and Genet. I was looking for more arcane, more exotic material. Beckett and Genet were so minimal! There wasn’t that richness of possibilities. They were already a generation past—they were twenty years before. To me, doing them was just admitting defeat. Even today, when I admire them as artists, I feel the same way.”
“The Ridiculous Theatrical Company is an ensemble repertory theatre working in the modernist tradition. Our productions are avant-garde in the sense that we are interested both in exploring uncharted territory and in perpetuating or reviving theatrical conventions and techniques which we feel have been unwisely abandoned by our peers. In the latter sense our work is traditional, because we consider the history of theatre an invaluable resource, which in this age of stultifying conventionalism on the one hand and narrowly based minimalism on the other is being worn thin by the commercial establishment and ceremoniously discarded by its radical counterpart. We believe that tradition has in the past been inspired and, indeed, can only be reinpisred through the artful expression and evocation of newly evolved thoughts and feelings within the fabric of the original plays which draw liberally from the history of the theatre in its vast entirety.”
Excerpted from Ridiculous Theater: Scourge of Human Folly, The Essays and Opinions of Charles Ludlam, edited by Steven Samuels.