I am building here on the work of Helene Foley (2004) as well as my earlier work on the male actor of female roles in antiquity (1998). In the latter article, I hypothesized many positions from which to interpret the convention; but in my focus on gender I did not devote much time to sexuality. In writing this essay, I have reexamined my preconceptions, taking this as an opportunity to raise some questions about the interrelationships of camp, cross-dressing, and politics in the performance of Medea by male actors in modernity. While focusing on the Ridiculous Theatrical Company of Charles Ludlam, I will try to put Ludlam in a larger theoretical context.
Let me start by sketching some of the possible meanings or significances of the male actor playing a female role. (1) On the level of the ancient convention, we can see that the male actor could easily indicate tragedy's relevance to Dionysus, through his characterization as a long-haired and effeminate deity (Bacchae), and one worshipped with transvestite ceremonies at the Oschophoria (Seaford 1981; Segal 1982; Henrichs 1982, 158-9). (2) More than that, the ancient cross-dressed actor can be taken as art emblem for the artifice of the form; he makes clear the constructedness of the signs that the audience is perceiving (on theatrical transvestism, see Garber 1992, 40; Duncan 2006, on Agathon; cf. Dollimore 1990, 483 and Herrmann 1989, 141).
Feminism has contributed a great deal to our understanding of tragedy. In looking at the ancient actor, there are two main lines of interpretation available. One extreme position is that articulated early on by Sue-Ellen Case. Focusing on the male-dominated aspects of the tragic genre and its association with the city, she points out that the maleness of the actors stresses that association. As a result, she argues that tragedy can tell us nothing about women: "'Woman' was played by male actors in drag, while actual women were banned from the stage. ... The classical plays and theatrical conventions can now be regarded as allies in the project of suppressing actual women and replacing them with the masks of patriarchal production" (Case 1988, 7; Case 1985; cf. Ferris 1989, 30). Richard Seaford (1994, 258-75) goes so far as to speculate that the original move to exclude women was intentional--"muscling them out" of what would have been a traditional religious role for them.
A second position, based on the "love-affair" that "the critical left" has been having with gender ambiguity (Epstein and Straub 1991, 7), would take tragedy as a critique of gender. For instance, Marjorie Garber (1992, 10) finds one of the most important aspects of cross-dressing ... the way in which it offers a challenge to easy notions of binarity, putting into question the categories of 'female' and 'male,' whether they are considered essential or constructed, biological or cultural." In this view, the masculinity of the actor of female roles could constitute a challenge to the fixity of gender and sex. But if in antiquity, for instance, the male actor took over a public role traditional for women in earlier ritual, it would not challenge the fixity of female gender, only male gender; the convention thus gives men access to the feminine, while denying women access to masculinity. Clearly, we cannot generalize about a single meaning. While clarifying her earlier position on gender as performance, Judith Butler (1993, 125) said: "I want to underscore that there is no necessary relation between drag and subversion, and that drag may well be used in the service of both the denaturalization and re-idealization of hyperbolic heterosexual gender norms." Ancient and modern, public theater of Athens versus off-off Broadway--these different sites change the meaning of the cross-dressed actor. And to make a necessary distinction brought up by the Butler passage cited here: not every male actor of female roles is in drag.
In looking at the male actor in antiquity, I did not think about him historically as a potential lover/beloved of boys/men, nor did I think about possible sexual positionalities for the audience at the ancient performance. Was desire circulating from different spots in the theater? How was the gaze refracted differently from different positions? My own view changed when I shifted my attention from the theater of Dionysus in Athens to the second level, that of modern performance and particularly the Ridiculous Theatrical Company, which found its home on Sheridan Square in Greenwich Village in Manhattan. Writing about the male actor in antiquity or even ancient sexuality is obviously very different from writing about this subject, and taking it on from where I stand is complicated. Although one could actually have seen Ludlam's plays and while their original performance context is not so different from the present-day U.S., I was never in the audience for a live performance of one of these plays. That was the case in part because I did not live in New York during the years when he was active, but also because he was very much of a cult phenomenon (though Ludlam would have objected to this characterization, since he argued that Broadway was more of a cult [1992, 200]), and I might not have been aware of his productions or gone to the theater in any case. Although Ludlam did get reviews in major papers, he still tended to attract a largely gay male audience. (3) As a result, my exposure to these performances is mainly through the scripts, reviews, and other secondary materials. (4) Thus, I am not an insider in this case, any more than I am to ancient performances.
My acquaintance with Ludlam in fact came through my teaching. I found his work when I was looking for texts to teach in a course on the liberation movements of the 1960s, in which we included the somewhat later gay liberation movement; as a classicist, I was excited when I realized that Ludlam had done a version of Medea because it seemed to make it possible to connect two parts of my life that are often kept quite separate (classical scholar and political progressive). It also gave a slant to my perspective on Ludlam, which fit in well with the original panel and the three-year colloquium of which it was a part.
Theater has been in many ways a queer space and has long had a reputation for welcoming or promoting sexual deviance (Ludlam 1992, 230). (5) Ludlam acknowledges that element, saying "Gay people have always found a refuge in the arts, and the Ridiculous theatre is notable for admitting it. The people in it--and it is a very sophisticated theatre, culturally--never dream of hiding anything about themselves that they feel is honest and true and the best part of themselves. Nothing is concealed in the Ridiculous" (Ludlam 1992, 228). Ludlam's narrative of his life is a classic of at least one of the queer uses of theater; he was the youth who never fit in, but who found a place for himself in the theater (Kaufman 2002, 12, 22-5). In a long piece on his group in The New Yorker, Ludlam said, somewhat disingenuously perhaps, "God, if I hadn't discovered theater early on, I would almost certainly have become a juvenile delinquent" (Tompkins 1976, 64; Ludlam 1992, 9). Furthermore, although he had had a theater group even as a teenager (Kaufman 2002, 23-5), his first theater at One Sheridan Square was, coincidentally, around the corner from the Stonewall Bar, the site of the 1969 uprising led by drag queens resisting police harassment, an event often taken to have initiated the gay liberation movement. (6) On the basis of the time and place and Ludlam's own homosexuality, I assumed that he was doing gay theater, and by that I meant political theater.
What exactly is political theater, or gay political theater? Most of the I 960s-1970s liberation movements had related art forms (Black Power and the Black Arts Movement, for instance, or women's liberation and the explosion of women's writing) to uncover or recover lost voices, to express a newly emerging point of view. On one level, that is what Ludlam was doing. As Everett Quinton, Ludlam's lover and artistic partner, put it., "Charles Ludlam wrote Camille for himself to play the title role from a gay man's point of view in the early 1970s, at the height of gay liberation. All his plays have the politics of oppression as a major theme" (Quinton 1994, 151). He put sexuality (his own and that of his characters) into the public sphere, and that was daring and political in those clays. At a time when gay identity politics was emerging and basing itself on coming out, however, Ludlam balked at simple identifications. lie energetically resisted the label of gay theater, crossing out the word "gay" and putting an exclamation mark beside it in the margins of a draft of the New Yorker piece. If 'to be out of the closet' was taken to be essential to the success of gay liberation politics, what did it mean if a theater practitioner resisted the label? His position could have been seen as problematic, as he realized at the time, because it could be seen as a denial of the fact that he was gay; he never did deny his sexuality--he simply refused to stage what he called propaganda plays on gay themes.
Ludlam's motives were not entirely lofty, either; he feared ghettoization in part for the loss of box office that would result from it. Nonetheless, he also had artistic concerns; like black writers active in the wake of black power movements who did not want always, or only, to write about racism (e.g., Rita Dove), he also criticized what he took to he the limiting aspects of the definition of gay theater:
Gay theater is really a political movement to show that gay people can be admirable, responsible members of the community. It shows their problems. I don't do that.... My theater does use certain elements of this deviant, deserted point of view to interpret the world, but it's not gay writing about [being] gay. Because I am homosexual, it becomes significant to homosexuals on that level, I suppose... . Maybe depicting them [gays] as dangerous characters would be more interesting. Maybe we're not as housebroken as those plays want to make it seem. (Yoffee I985, 12)
Ludlam was not at all assimilationist, and he marks out the later fissures in the movement, for instance on the proper role for drag queens in gay pride demonstrations. Ludlam accepted the idea that he did queer theater. He simply did not want acceptance in the mainstream, which he assumed gay theater did; he wanted something bawdier in the theater than "la Coste shorts and pleats" or whatever uniform was in style for the respectable gay man (Ludlam 1992, 228). In part, Ludlam was trying to put the sex back in homosexuality.(7)
The Ridiculous was a queer space where many (but not all) of the female roles were played in drag or by female impersonators. It was not a specifically male homosexual space, as Ludlam pointed out in an interview with Gautam Dasgupta (1978, 75). As I remarked above, early feminist critics often saw drag as a denigration of women. In that interview, Dasgupta (1978, 74) said: "Your productions are indeed comic and lively, but some women find them deliberately caustic and painful in the way their gender is treated on stage." Ludlam was aware of this possible interpretation, but he found that identification with sexism "shallow" (Ludlam 1992, 43). First stating that the idea of women as "sacred" would have to go if women were to be human (Ludlam 1992, 232), he claimed that his plays were respectful of women: "Women fare very well in my plays--they come out on top--but what people are disturbed by is female impersonation. They see something that is humorous; they don't understand what it means to play a woman. ... Taboo ... takes a lot of courage to open yourself up to those feelings. ... Women ... feel that they get a fair shake" in his work (Dasgupta 1978, 74).
In fact, Ludlam would say that the disdain for drag is related to sexism, and the taboo on men taking on the feminine. In part, he was drawing on a tradition of defining male homosexuality as inversion; though not a transvestite or a 'queen' himself, Ludlam felt that he was androgynous and had a complicated relationship to the female roles that he created and played (Camille, Galas [aka Callas] most notably). He quipped: "I always feel like a lesbian in drag. I am never content," noting that "I always played women who wished they were men" (Ludlam 1992, 21). Gender identity is thus rendered shifty and complex. The use of drag was important for him for its theatricality--because "theatricality is the hall-mark of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company" (Ludlam 1992, 21 ). Nonetheless, his plays were not drag shows, he insisted, and the cross-dressing was not the point. He objected to the camp label, asserting that "we were nothing more than, nothing less than, nothing other than three actors trying to portray three characters in a play" (Ludlam 1992, 40); whatever the costume, he was trying to portray the character.
Given his anti-naturalist bent, it makes sense that Ludlam did not strive for a realistic female impersonation. He played Camille with his chest hair popping up out of his low-cut gown, so that the illusion was never complete; he was using drag as a way of changing the aesthetic, interrupting the realistic illusion of modern theater. Gender and genre are intertwined in his project. Theater
is evoking reality by showing us what isn't real. If a man can put on makeup, false eyelashes and mascara, all the artifices of being a woman, then obviously all those things are not part of being a woman. So something is created in that negative space, and that's where the mystery of reality is evoked. (Ludlam 1992, 96; cf. Dasgupta 1978, 79)
Drag was everywhere, even in commercial cinema, but in his vision the Ridiculous Company was doing something different. Every person in the company played transvestite roles at one time or another, expanding on the role of fantasy and imagination in everyday non-theatrical sexuality. Actors and characters are free to experiment and try things out, and perhaps the same could be said for the audience; in this way, cross-dressing was part of a liberatory politics. More queer than gay, the Ridiculous worked in a way that encouraged playfulness, entertaining "the idea that strict biological/social sexual division may be a cruel joke that nature/society is playing on humanity" (Argelander 1974, 86).
The Ridiculous mocked the oppressors (Quinton 1994), but also the serious theater tradition. Yet the parody was not simply a matter of laughing at these things. David Kaufman cites a conversation Ludlam had with director Leon Katz:
He was paying homage with affection to things that were the reverse of what accepted opinion suggested they should be.... He was mistaken for being deliberately camp, kitsch, and so on, which was absolutely not the case.... [He would] always be in despair because they just didn't get it. It wasn't gotten because it was too similar to what was normally understood to be camp or drag. His work was similar, but wasn't the same at all, and its implications were really the opposite (Kaufman 2002, 277)
What is camp? It is a term that is very difficult to define. According to Ludlam (1992, 225), it is an attitude, not a thing, a way of valuing what is generally devalued and mocking what society values (this was true in terms of both aesthetics and sexuality). As Ludlam was aware, however, being called 'mere' camp was an insult and vaguely homophobic: 'Anything with such a bad reputation as 'camp' has to have a power and be important. But 'camp' is really a sexist term used against homosexual artists to imply their work is not good because it's Gay. If heterosexuals do the same thing it's biting social satire. But if homosexuals do it, it's dismissed as 'camp.'" (8)
Definitions of such terms are not static, and this word like so many has evolved; nonetheless there remains a significant overlap between ridiculous and camp. This was a comic troupe; the members made fun of the serious and accepted the "risks of appearing ridiculous." Paradoxically, Ludlam (1992, 115) claimed that "The outward appearance is Ridiculous but the intention is serious." Through the camp aesthetic, the Ridiculous mocked not only sexual codes but also older theatrical codes. He was critical of the avant-garde movement, however, insofar as it was anti-formalist and academic; he instead embraced the old and disreputable theater conventions believing that "Tradition is not a stale thing that holds you back--it's a profound thing that feeds you" (Topor 1974, 6). Ludlam actually did not want to continue to perform in unusual locations (in bars and movie theaters), a mark of the avant-garde and off-off Broadway at the time, but a source of difficulty for him. He talked about his embrace of the conventional, which he found liberating (Ludlam 1992, 103). Although the Ridiculous was at first nomadic, playing often after the last picture show at movie theaters, Ludlam formed a repertory company and searched for a theater of his own; in fact, as he lay dying, he actually negotiated an extended lease for the theater.
As parody and camp, his work challenged the dominant order of sex/ gender, but it was not gay theater per se, as I have said: it did not make a specific political point in the way that I had naively thought it would. Ludlam says it over and over again, once putting it this way: "We're involved in a certain kind of consciousness that does not permit codifying a specific philosophy and proselytizing it" (Argelander 1974, 86). The plays developed from the actors' sensibilities and philosophy (the plays emerged collaboratively) but did not "give people 'messages" (Argelander 1974, 86). Gregory Bredbeck makes a distinction between the gay cause, as articulated in manifestoes of the Gay Liberation Front, and the identity politics that soon followed. He associates Ludlam with the "lost meanings of gay" (I 996, 73) remarking that this comes close to later queer theory (1996, 81 note 28).
The words 'avant-garde,' 'camp,' 'drag,' 'queer,' and 'gay' have all been used to describe the Ridiculous theater, but Ludlam objected to being categorized. Although he asserted that for him to play the diva "validates the homosexual" (1992, 44), which seems a kind of message, he also avoided fixed roles:
For us I think it wasn't so much that we took on wrong roles because of sexual identification, but that we refused to take on any role--we wouldn't be one or the other sex because we saw that it was artificial; because we didn't make the clear conventional identification (Ludlam 1992, 45)
His partner, Everett Quinton, was more overtly political, recognizing that he was actively trying "to convince himself that he was the equal of anyone" (1994, 153). Ludlam's suggestion of the term 'queer' (1992, 230) is based on the idea that gay had already become too limiting; he preferred queer because it was "a little-more of a splash of cold water. There is more room for more people in the queer category"
What then can we say about his Medea? He wrote the play in 1984, but it was not staged until 1987, after his death. Did he turn to Medea with a political intention? Was it simply a return to the theater tradition--time to do a Greek tragedy? How did it nourish him? Literally, it never fed him, though he did write the play for food in a way. Ludlam completed his Medea in two days to satisfy a contractual obligation to NYSCA (thus putting it on the economic level of theater in his essay on "The Seven Levels of the Theatre" [Ludlam 1992, 155]). Compared to his other cross-dressed parts, Maria Callas and Camille, the play is quite restrained, slight almost, following the Euripidean plot faithfully, but cutting mercilessly. Ludlam (1992, 136) said that he planned to do more female roles ("even though [or perhaps because] it gets more and more taboo"), observing that gender is a prison, and he felt a female inside of him. In drag performance, he got the chance to impersonate a woman--though not to be one. He was more androgynous than anything. It makes sense that he would turn to Medea; it is one of the great female roles, like his Camille and Galas/Callas. But he never performed it, allegedly because he could not bear the fact that she kills her children. Though a cross-dressed Medea would seem to be the perfect example of a man with a woman inside playing a woman with a man inside, after Ludlam's death, when the Ridiculous put it on, she was not always played by a man (as I had assumed she would be). In fact, in the taped performance that I saw, she was played by Black-Eyed Susan, the one straight woman in the Ridiculous Company; the Nurse was played in drag by Everett Quinton. On alternate nights, Quinton played Medea in Kabuki style makeup and a very large wig. The two, the Nurse and Medea, are necessary to one another (Quinton 1994, 151).
The camp sensibility can be seen in Ludlam's abbreviated version of the Nurse's opening speech: she says, "For it is no ordinary woman lamenting within the house" (Ludlam 1989, 802). Such a line would get laughs, especially when Quinton was playing Medea. The metatheatrical aspect of camp is represented in the comment that "there's no use standing there gawking! I see a crowd is already gathering! Go and watch, if you wish. You won't shame her! She'll play out her tragedy in public if need be!" (1989, 802). There is potential contemporary political significance in her lines, "We don't accept our fate so easily where I come from, nor do we consider it an advantage to be in the majority." The Greeks are identified with boring normativity: "You Greeks are idiots with your fatalism and your democracy! You institutionalize your mediocrity and make a virtue of it!" (1989, 802). Medea's 'barbarian otherness' becomes an allusion to sexual deviance in Ludlam's context.
Ludlam stresses what is implicit in Euripides: she kills the children because they stand for her tie to Jason. Euripides' subtle early allusion to the children is made explicit when Medea says, "I hate you children! Children of a hateful mother! And I hate your father!" (1989, 802) She looks at them and sees Jason in their eyes (1989, 808), and her blood is mixed with his as long as they live. In short, in killing them she is killing everything that had anything to do with her life with Jason. Although she is avowedly jealous of Kreusa (named here, though not in Euripides), she kills the children "because I hated you more than I loved them, and I wanted to make you suffer" (1989, 812). Ludlam minimizes the children's already limited reality in Euripides; they are represented by 1950s-style baby dolls moved about by the Chorus, dressed in pink and blue. In this way, they become an emblem of traditional gender roles; they have no reality and are simply an extension of the two 'parents.' Ludlam interrupts any possibility of audience identification, and in keeping with this aim, the scene between Medea and the children is abbreviated. In what might be a reference to Seneca's Medea, who announces "I am Medea" (928), she asks, "Am I a bitch lapping at her pups? Or am Medea, Princess of Colchis?" (1989, 810).
Human feeling appears in the exaggeratedly feminine Chorus, but they simultaneously undermine feeling by using the elevated rhetoric of antiquity. The Nurse, too, who replaced the messenger in the version I saw, expresses human fears. She reaches pathetically toward the doors of the house to stop Medea, but cannot reach the children. We are encouraged to mock the Nurse and Chorus, who are costumed and made up to be slightly 'ridiculous,' and to admire the histrionic and sadistic Medea. In Ludlam's version, she thinks she hears the sounds of the princess's pain (1989, 809), and then we hear the gory and detailed description from the Messenger as well. Her pleasure is more overt in Ludlam, though it is present in Euripides as well.
Ludlam also exaggerates Euripides in presenting Medea's womanly behavior as an act. When Kreon expresses his anxiety about her cleverness, she says that she wishes she knew how "to play dumb, to ... be stupid"; she then fools Kreon with just such an act (1989, 804). She puts Kreon's foot on her head and says, "Have you ever seen anything more docile?" Her performativity is further emphasized as the Nurse tries to keep her from "making a scene," and Kreon accuses her of disgusting display. Medea later renounces her performance with the King, saying "I degraded myself before you. I kissed your foot. I stuck out my tongue and licked between your toes, like a mutt! Like a bitch!" (1 989, 805). While Ludlam remains fairly close to the basic elements of Euripides' text here, he also provides a parody of supposedly appropriate feminine servility. In the Euripidean version, read with a modern sensibility, there is abundant potential for irony; Ludlam makes that explicit. The abjection of the drag queen within gay and lesbian culture may be spoofed here as well. Medea is a misfit; she repeatedly refers to herself as a barbarian and underlines her intelligence in a majority rules (i.e., mediocre) society. In the cross-dressed version, the performance of femininity would be even more obvious.
In an interview, Ludlam once said that it was not easy to play a woman, and that he assumed it was not easy for a woman to play a woman either (Tompkins 1976, 92). His Medea comes out of the tradition about femininity as a role that goes back to Joan Riviere's classic article on feminine masquerade (1929) and Simone de Beauvoir's famous statement in The Second Sex that one is not born but becomes a woman. This woman knows how to put on femininity, and can use the gender norms to take advantage of men. In the version I saw, Medea was costumed in a black cocktail dress; her very dark hair had a pronounced widow's peak; not only does she call herself a spider (the black widow?), but her gestures repeatedly emphasize the web that she is spinning (1989, 805). She is the femme fatale of old movies. Although the Euripidean text makes specific references to women's nature, the Ludlam imitation of the imitation goes further in destabilizing that notion of nature. When you hear Medea's voice take on the stereotypical woman's tones to convince Chorus or Kreon, when she talks baby talk to seduce Jason, you are aware that it is an act; in a cross-dressed version you might be more aware that you are hearing a man impersonating a woman, or a drag queen playing a woman. The actor might or might not identify with Medea.
There are other points where Ludlam challenges assumptions of gender. It is significant that Quinton and Black-Eyed Susan share the roles of Nurse and Medea. The servant and the master, the caretaker and the diva, they need one another; they are flip sides of the same coin (Quinton 1994, 15 I ). The presence of the Nurse makes possible Medea's theatrics, allowing her to be a drama 'queen,' playing to a 'straight woman.' At one point, Medea says to the Nurse, "This you will do if you love me, if you are truly a woman" (1989, 808), which gets a big laugh especially when Everett Quinton is the Nurse. Who is the 'real' or physiological woman? The Nurse is a man in drag but played as a stereotypical woman, while Medea was enacted by a biological woman but played as a fake. The analysis of sexual politics may lie in an interpretation of Jason as well. Ludlam suggests that in looking for a younger woman, Jason is looking for someone with a boyish body, with slim hips and no breasts. Is he a gay Jason (as he was in Fisher's Medea the Musical, where he was costumed to look like a boyish Roman warrior and lounged about half naked), who wishes to have children without women?
Gay theater does not simply depend on thematic material or content; it is also about the relationship to the audience. On one level, in the 1970s, it was liberatory simply to have spaces like Ludlam's theater where sexual diversity was visible (on WOW caf, see Davy 1989; 1994, 130). 'There was a community-building aspect; his plays got their start in gay bars. On another level, camp can be political in that it can create a virtual community since it requires an audience (it is a relationship to an object, not the object itself) and privileges those who 'get it.' Ludlam's Medea got a lot of laughs, though actual infanticide is hardly funny In an appeal to a savvy audience, Ludlam has Medea quote Sappho, "Twilight brings the bird to the nest and the child to the arms of its mother. So said Sappho. How would she know?" (1989, 808), and then give a knowing glance at the audience. The use of slang punctures the high style of tragedy throughout this pared down version. From the tape, it was hard for me to figure out what all the jokes were, and I might not have gotten them in any case if they depended on being part of the in-group. The Ridiculous is making fun at the same time that it revels in the ancient play--which it stages replete with the dragon drawn chariot escape of Medea. What links the appearance of Everett Quinton as the Nurse, and his gestures indicating that Medea is acting like a drama queen, the gay appearing characters (Kreon and Aigeus were kings of a queenly demeanor), the in-group references? Is it not audience members' ability to laugh at themselves in laughing at Medea?
In the face of the AIDS epidemic and his own (then unacknowledged) illness, Ludlam wrote an overtly gay-themed Salammbo, in which he claimed he would "put the sex back in homosexuality," and resist the pressure to appear safe and assimilationist in the face of the epidemic. He never wrote anything more overt about the disease, but the use of bodybuilders in Salammbo might make it his "AIDS play" (Kaufman 2002, 405), though he denied it, saying that "it had nothing to do with that. But it was about the official religion, which was a state religion, a fascist state that stated, All who touch the veil must die!" (Ludlam 1992, 247). Ludlam objected to the hypocritical notion that straight people were monogamous or only had reproductive sex, that only gay men were "promiscuous." "Even in the period of so-called 'promiscuity' ... they all went out and fooled around and came back. This is something that heterosexuals do, too. Heterosexuals gave up the right to moralize when they accepted the pill and abortion" (Ludlam 1992, 248). He did call Salammbo "one for the boy's," saying "that we gays have been through enough in the last couple of years. We are going to give them a little something" (Ludlam 1992, 133).
Ludlam was very guarded about his own illness (Kaufman 2002, 440-4), but he died in 1987 of complications from pneumonia brought on by AIDS. His legacy lives on in those who imitate or develop from his style (e.g., Bradford Louryk [Edgecomb 2008; Foley 2004]) and in the work of activists like Greg Bordowitz (1993). In Bordowitz's performance-activist work on AIDS, he looks for a "queer structure of feeling" and finds it in the ridiculous, "a set of cultural strategies of survival for queers. It is marked by an appreciation for the ridiculous, and it values masquerade. Mockery is its form; posing is its strategy" (Bordowitz 1993, 211; cf. Marranca and Dasgupta 1998, viii ix, on expansion of ridiculous sensibility).
Ludlam respected theater traditions, and cross-dressing was one of them: "But to play a role, comedic or serious, of the opposite sex, that's different. It's more Oriental, it's more in the tradition of the Kabuki or the Elizabethan Theatre" (Ludlam 1992, 137). At around the same time that Ludlam was active, mainstage theaters saw Ninagawa's Medea, which used a very famous cross-dressed Kabuki actor of female roles, Tokus-aburo Arashi (onnagata) as Medea; the costume was replete with artificial breasts, and the face was made up to look masklike. The elaborate robe with breasts was removed on stage, and the actor was left in a close-fitting red robe that went over his head. The doll-like appearance of the children and the obvious female impersonation did not detract at all from an emotional response for me; in fact, even though I watched it on a tiny TV, it was one of the most moving Medeas I have seen. The ritual staging transcended realism, digging more deeply into the size and stature of the character. Although the conventional costuming and presentation could have drawn attention to the imitative nature of gender, the performance did not play with sexuality, did not play to predominantly queer audiences, and therefore did not have the effect of contributing to revaluing a subculture. That is the work that Ludlam's great transvestite roles performed.
Let me close with a question: Why would Medea be an attractive role for a queer or camp perspective? There are many answers: She is the transgressive woman, she is the man inside the woman's body, and her story gives the lie to the gender story--of the woman as victim. Played in drag, the part can show the hard work that goes into creating a woman, who is not a work of nature. But one last question: Is this camp liberating? Or liberating for women? Ludlam might say that that is the wrong question--he would have us ask whether it makes the audience conscious of other sexual possibilities than gay/straight, male/female.
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(1.) I will be citing my article (Rabinowitz 1998) as well as my Greek Tragedy (2008) in some of what follows on the ancient. convention.
(2.) Zeitlin (1985) pays close attention to the role of the feminine in the characterization of Dionysus and the significance of tragedy as a whole.
(3.) The question of the audience and whether the theater could pay the bills is a refrain through Ludlam's collected essays and opinions. Ludlam did not. want a specialized audience, and he wrestled with the fact. that the Ridiculous might not. have been particularly shocking to most of the audiences they attracted (Ludlam 1992, 20, 25, esp. 185-6). About another theater, he says: "The performers came out onstage and confronted the audience with lines like, 'You--with your button-down collars and your business suits--you ought to be ...' Yet there was nobody in the theatre to whom that applied!" Ludlam wanted to get people thinking, and as he said, "You can't do that. by just going onstage and repeating the same old catch phrases" (Ludlam 1992, 244). Later on, he attracted much larger audiences and funding (Brecht 1978, 86). Ludlam was aware of a tension in keeping the original audience and attracting a larger one: "lb hold the audience that we have, at that level of intelligence, means sacrificing a much larger public in the name of quality" (1992, 186); their mission was perhaps contradictory "to become America's great popular comic theatre" and "an instrument for social change" (1992, 35), since social change is not usually either popular or comic.
(4.) Jose Munoz (1999, ix), writing from a very different perspective, expresses a similar regret.
(5.) Stefan Brecht published Queer Theatre in 1978; he probably coined the phrase, though his definition is debatable: "Queer theatre is derisive low comedy and burlesque.... Its sense of tragedy tho' perhaps arising from self pity, is a touching inconsistency Since the queer artist, having no justification for it, cannot allow himself the disfigurement of care, his art is entirely dependent on energy" (1978, 9). Munoz (1999, x xii) objects strenuously and points out that if Brecht had not focused on white performers, he might have arrived at a different definition. 1 am indebted to both of these writers for their work on the queer theater scene, and I would question Brecht's analysis of the apolitical nature of Ludlam, on the basis of what Ludlam himself has written. On the importance of location, see Ludlam 1992, 186 and Bredbeck 1996, 64-5.
(6.) Ot the relationship between Ludlam's theater and gay liberation, see Bredbeck 1996.
(7.) Ludlam was countering assimilationist models of gay masculinity. Nonetheless, to have an avowedly sexual theater, at a time when AIDS was decimating the gay male community presents a different problem. Ludlam would never address AIDS directly and concretely (1992, 247), though he died in 1987 of complications from the virus.
(8.) Kaufman 2002, 435, citing Rob Baker, "Bernigni and Ludlam: Classy Clowns," Women's Wear Daily, 22 September 1986.
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|Title Annotation:||Charles Ludlam|
|Author:||Rabinowitz, Nancy Sorkin|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2011|
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