Audrey Zielenbach is the Artistic Content Curator for Gulfshore Playhouse.
Art is the window through which we can see the past. From art we are able to see beyond what happened; we can see how what happened affected the people who experienced it. Artistic movements are interlinked through time, each one building off that which preceded it but re-contextualized for the current time. While you might not see an immediate link between the AIDs epidemic of the 1980s and the 19th-century Gothic genre, Charles Ludlam certainly did.
The “Theatre of the Ridiculous” movement emerged in the 1960s in New York City. It was subversive, seeking to break from the dominant theatrical trend of strict realism and naturalistic style, taking inspiration from the 1950s movement, the Theatre of the Absurd. “Ridiculous” plays were often pop culture parodies used as vehicles for social commentary. The productions blended drag style with avant garde theatre, often using cross-gender casting and even featuring non-professional actors like drag queens and other “street stars.”
Not only was Theatre of the Ridiculous subversive as a theatrical style, its mere existence was a revolutionary, subversive act. In the 1960s, the Gay Liberation movement began in earnest. In the 1970s, it was illegal to cross-dress in public so, during performances, someone would stand on the street outside the venue to keep an eye out for police.
Charles Ludlam, born in 1943 in New York, was a performer and playwright for the Play-House of the Ridiculous before founding his own ensemble, The Ridiculous Theatrical Company. Ludlam believed that the theatre was a refuge for LGBT people and homosexual themes were important in his work. Ludlam captured the spirit of drag in that his plays offered performers the opportunity to express themselves away from the pressures of societal conventions.
When Charles Ludlam wrote The Mystery of Irma Vep in 1984, the AIDs epidemic was ravaging the gay community. Ludlam would die just five years later due to complications from AIDs. It was during this time, when hundreds of people were inexplicably dying horrible deaths, that Ludlam invoked the penny dreadful of the Gothic era, a staple of 19th century English literature, and their fascination with the spooky and the supernatural.
Gothic fiction was immensely popular in 19th century England, giving monsters like Frankenstein and Dracula a permanent place in our cultural imagination. Although on the surface these are merely pulp horror stories, they were also a vehicle for social commentary, much like “Ridiculous” plays a century later.
The monsters of Gothic fiction embodied cultural and psychological characteristics society found difficult to acknowledge or accept. While monsters often serve as the villains of the story, they also embodied the very human emotions of feeling misunderstood, unloved, and isolated.
Ludlam wrote of the play, “Take things very seriously, especially focusing on those things held in low esteem by society and revealing them, giving them new meaning, new worth, by changing their context.” Perhaps Charles Ludlam saw the similarities when he wrote The Mystery of Irma Vep – a community isolated and misunderstood, vilified by a society that didn’t want to acknowledge or accept them.
While Gothic literature might be best known as a horror genre, it is also a romantic one. Ludlam wrote and performed the play alongside his life partner, Everett Quinton, two people whose love prevailed in the face of a horrible crisis.
As Ludlam stated, re-contextualizing familiar themes and stories gives them new life and new meaning, reminding us that while the world changes around us, we are still connected to people who lived decades and centuries before us.