The Theatre of the Ridiculous is a theatrical genre that began as an American movement in New York in 1965 with the beginnings of "The Play-House of the Ridiculous" and the spin-off group formed in 1967 "The Ridiculous Theatrical Company".
"The Theatre of the Ridiculous" made a break with the dominant trends in theatre of naturalistic acting and realistic settings. It employed a very broad acting style, often with surrealistic stage settings and props, frequently making a conscious effort at being shocking or disturbing. "Ridiculous" theatre brought some elements of queer/camp performance to avant-garde theater. Cross-gender casting was common, with players often recruited from non-professional sources, such as drag queens or other "street stars".
The scenarios used in "Ridiculous" plays were often parodies or re-workings of pop-culture fiction, used as vehicles for social commentary or humor. Improvisation played a large role in the often chaotic Ridiculous productions, where the script was treated as just a starting point.
The phrase "The Theatre of the Ridiculous" was created by the author Ronald Tavel to describe some of his works, which were later recognized as the beginning of the genre. In a reference to Martin Esslin's concept of a Theatre of the Absurd, in 1965 Tavel promoted the first "Ridiculous" performances with the one-line manifesto: "We have passed beyond the absurd: our position is absolutely preposterous."
Some more prominent productions from this movement are:The Life of Lady Godiva
Conquest of the Universe
When Queens Collide
The Theatre of the Ridiculous became a strong influence on 1970s culture. Elements of it can been seen in glam rock, disco, and most directly in the Rocky Horror sub-culture. Since then, the genre has broken out into more mainstream theatrical productions, such as Bat Boy, Urinetown, and Reefer Madness.
The Play-House of the Ridiculous was an underground theater group founded in New York in the mid-1960s, with John Vaccaro as director, originally producing some works written by Ronald Tavel. They began with Shower and The Life of Juanita Castro, which were originally film scenarios intended for Warhol's Factory. When these were rejected by The Factory, Tavel resolved to have them performed as plays, putting them together on a double-bill, under the heading of "Theater of the Ridiculous".
The next production directed by Vaccaro, and the first official production of the Play-House) was in 1967: The Life of Lady Godiva also written by Ronald Tavel. Charles Ludlam – who became a major figure in the "Ridiculous" movement – acted in the play as a last minute replacement.
Vaccaro then produced a play with Ludlam that Ludlam had written earlier: Big Hotel, opening in an East Village loft in February 1967. David Kaufman, discussing Big Hotel, has said: "Various features of Ludlam's 28 subsequent works figure prominently in his first play. His predilection for collage - folding in cultural references, both popular and obscure - is especially pronounced. Characters include Mata Hari, Trilby, Svengali and Santa Claus, and Ludlam acknowledged no fewer than 40 sources for Big Hotel - everything from ads and Hollywood films to literary classics, textbooks and essays."
Ludlam wrote a second play for the Play-House, Conquest of the Universe, but during production he had a falling-out with Vaccaro. Ludlam left to form his own company The Ridiculous Theatrical Group, taking many of the other actors with him Vaccaro held the rights to Conquest of the Universe, and was able to perform it first, legally delaying the production of Ludlam's competing version (When Queens Collide) for several months.
Vaccaro's Conquest of the Universe was performed at the Bouwerie Lane Theatre with many members of Andy Warhol's Factory: Mary Woronov, Taylor Mead, Ondine and Ultra Violet.
In some respects, the productions of the Play-House and the Ridiculous Theatre had very similar approaches to gay themes, in that both employed cross-gender casting, often recruiting drag-queens as actors.
But one view of the Vaccaro's Play-House is that they were reluctant to address queer themes directly. Ludlam's productions were more daring in this respect, according to Charles Ludlam: "I felt John [Vaccaro] was too conservative. He didn't want homosexuality or nudity onstage because he was afraid of being arrested. I wanted to commit an outrage. For me, nothing was too far out." A contrary assessment is that Ludlam's version of The Ridiculous was too close to conventional comedy, and that Vacarro's work was more challenging, with more emphasis on social commentary. Leee Black Childers was quoted to this effect in Please Kill Me:
In my opinion, John Vaccaro was more important than Charles Ludlam, because Ludlam followed theatrical traditions and used a lot of drag. People felt very comfortable with Charles Ludlam. Everyone's attitude going to see Charles's plays was that they were going to see a really funny, irreverent, slapstick drag show. They never felt embarrassed.
But John Vaccaro was way past that. Way, way past that. John Vaccaro was dangerous. John Vaccaro could be very embarrassing on many levels. He used thalidomide babies and Siamese triplets joined together at the asshole. One actor had this huge papier-mache prop of a big cock coming out of his shorts, down to his knees. He also couldn't control his bowel movements, so shit was dripping down his legs the whole time and everyone loved it. People loved this kind of visually confrontational theater.
Vaccaro and Ludlam did have different attitudes toward homosexuality and the theater. Ludlam talked about how the theatre had always been a refuge for queers, and makes it clear that gay themes are important in his work. For Vaccaro, homosexuality was just another element among others that he would use -- he distinguished between "theater people" and gay people using the theater for camp/drag performances.
However, Ludlam did have objections to being identified solely as a queer, female impersonator who produced works that were merely "camp". Morris Meyer comments on Ludlam's ambivalence, discussing an interview he conducted with Charles Ludlam: "during a subsequent run of Camille in 1974, he argued emphatically two seemingly contradictory positions for his production. He maintained that his rendering of Camille is not an expression of homosexuality and, at the same time, that it represents a form of coming out."
Still, there's no question that cross-gender performance was central to Ludlam's work. Ludlam discussed his role as the Emerald Empress in Bill Vehr's Whores of Babylon:
Bill wrote this line in Whores of Babylon in which his character said to mine, "How well I understand that struggle in you between the warrior artist and the woman" – this was a wonderful self-revelation – and my line, he wrote, was "The woman? Don't you know there are a thousand women in me and I'm tormented by each one in turn?
The Theatre of the Ridiculous was the beginning of a new style in theatrical production, a deviation from the then dominant "naturalistic" style. Scott Miller cites the Play-House as a key source of "a performance style that only recently is becoming mainstream, a style described by Bat Boy's original director and co-author Keythe Farley as 'the height of expression, the depth of sincerity,' a kind of outrageous but utterly truthful acting." Taylor Mac also credits it as one of his professional influences.
The Theatre of the Ridiculous was a main point of contact between the underground, campy, queer sub-culture and the styles that dominated much of the 1970s: glam rock, disco and the Rocky Horror cult.
Concerning 1970s fashion, Leee Childers has said:
... John Vaccaro used tons of glitter, that was his trademark. Everyone wore glitter. The whole cast was always covered in glitter.
People had been wearing glitter for a long time and the drag queens were wearing it on the street, but I think "glitter' really took off when John Vaccaro went shopping for costume material and he came across this little place in Chinatown that was having a big clearance sale on their glitter. He bought it all – giant shopping-bag-size bags of glitter in all colors.
John brought it back to the theater and encouraged everyone to use as much of it as they possibly could, anywhere they could possibly put it. Of course their faces were covered with glitter, their hair was full of glitter, the actors who played the Moon Reindeer had their entire bodies covered in green glitter. Baby Betty, who was playing a thalidomide baby, had glitter coming out of her pussy – so it was because of John Vaccaro that glitter became synonymous with outrageousness.
Vaccaro's Play-House productions are a connection between Warhol's Factory and the punk culture that developed in New York in the mid-1970s: Patti Smith performed in a play written by Jackie Curtis called Femme Fatale; according to Jayne County, also known as Wayne County: "... Actually, it was simulation of shooting up speed while shrieking, 'Brian Jones is dead!' That was Patti Smith's big moment on the New York underground stage."
Lou Reed has attributed the origins of the Rocky Horror phenomenon to the Theatre of the Ridiculous.
John Vaccaro was by all accounts a brilliantly creative person. Charles Ludlam has written: "John [Vaccaro] has great instinct and is a brilliant actor. He gave me freedom. He allowed me to flip out all I wanted onstage. He never felt that I was too pasty, corny, mannered, campy. He let me do anything I wanted." But Vaccaro was also a very difficult person to work with: In addition to the famous occasion where he kicked Charles Ludlam out of the production of a play that Ludlam had written, there was another occasion where he literally kicked Jackie Curtis out of a production of a play that Curtis had written (Heaven Grand In Amber Orbit).
Charles Ludlam goes on to write: "He is very primitive and very difficult for most actors to work with, because he's sort of savage. He gets you into doing things by rote. He criticizes ideas without giving any suggestions for improvments [sic], and then makes you do it over and over again. It's psychological torture." Similarly, Leee Childers has commented: "John Vaccaro was a very difficult man to work with because he used anger to draw a performance out of a person."
John Vaccaro died at the age of 86 on August 7, 2016.