'Charles Ludlam was the king -- and sometimes queen -- of downtown theater.'

Charles Ludlam (1943-1987)
Recorded by Jackie Beat
Story by Karen Eyres
Photo courtesy of the New York Public Library, Billy Rose Theater Collection

Charles Ludlam was the king — and sometimes queen — of downtown theater. As founder of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company in New York City, Ludlam was an actor, drag artist, writer and director – and one of the most prolific artists on the off-Broadway scene in the 1970s and ’80s.

I’m Jackie Beat, and I want to say right here and right now that drag artists and writers such as myself would not exist were it not for Charles Ludlam.

For nearly 20 years, Ludlam drew dedicated fans to a small basement theater in Greenwich Village for parodies that included Bluebeard, Reverse Psychology, and the Maria Callas spoof Galas. Although Ludlam’s plays were characterized by cross-dressing, free use of double-entendre and comic exaggeration, he resisted attempts to categorize his work as camp. He explained it this way:

”If people take the time to come here more than once, they see I don’t have an ax to grind – even though I do have a mission. That mission is to have a theater that can offer possibilities that aren’t being explored elsewhere.”

The Ridiculous Theatrical Company toured extensively in the U.S. and Europe, and Ludlam received a Drama Desk award and six Village Voice Obie awards. He made forays beyond his own company, as well.

In 1984, he played the title role in the American Ibsen Theater production of Hedda Gabler; and in 1985, he staged the American premiere of The English Cat by Hans Werner Henze for the Santa Fe Opera. Ludlam received fellowships from the Guggenheim, Ford and Rockefeller foundations and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

In early 1987, Ludlam was retained by producer Joseph Papp to direct the production of William Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus for the New York Shakespeare Festival in Central Park. But in March of that year, Ludlam was diagnosed with AIDS and, a month later, he was admitted to St. Vincent’s Hospital.

Ludlam called Papp from his hospital bed to say he couldn’t direct Titus for him. Papp promised to reserve the play for him, perhaps for next season, in a space at the Public Theater. Ludlam’s condition quickly worsened, and he died on May 28, 1987. He was 44 years old.

His obituary appeared on the front page of The New York Times, the first obituary that directly named AIDS as the cause of death. His sixth Obie award, the Sustained Excellence Award, was presented two weeks before his death.

In 2009, Ludlam was posthumously inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame. The street in front of his theater in Sheridan Square was renamed Charles Ludlam Lane.