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Conquest of the Ridiculous: Ronald Tavel, John Vaccaro and Charles Ludlam
by Gary Comenas (November 2008/revised 2009/2014)

According to Ronald Tavel, the first production of the Theatre of the Ridiculous was the 1965 presentation at the Coda Gallery in New York of two one-act plays - Shower and The Life of Juanita Castro - which Tavel had originally written as scripts for Andy Warhol's films of the same names. (Shower was originally intended to star Edie Sedgwick but she refused to participate.) As stated on Tavel's website, "When his [Tavel's] first professional stage production, the two one-act plays, Shower and The Life of Juanita Castro, were getting set to premiere on July 29, 1965 at the Coda Gallery on East 10th Street near Fourth Avenue in New York, Tavel felt the need for an overall title for the evening, since American audiences then tended to prefer a single experience as opposed to unrelated short pieces. He immediately decided that the name, The Theatre of The Ridiculous, would suit these one-acts and wrote a one-line manifesto for the program to justify his choice: 'We have passed beyond the absurd: our position is absolutely preposterous.'" Tavel had first come up with the term "ridiculous" while studying the Theatre of the Absurd in college. John Vaccaro, however, who directed Shower, said that the term originated with his friend, the actress Yvette Hawkins, who used it to describe a rehearsal of the play. (SB220)

1965: Ronald Tavel's Shower and The Life of Juanita Castro

The play versions of Shower and The Life of Juanita Castro were directed by John Vaccaro with a budget of twenty dollars. (SB219) Tavel had first asked Jerry Benjamin (who had co-directed Andy Warhol's film Soap Opera) to direct but Benjamin was unable to do it and recommended Vaccaro. (SB219) Although Vaccaro had previously acted with the American Theater for Poets (aka the New York Poets' Theater) he had never directed before. (SB219) Vaccaro later recalled his reaction when he first read Shower and The Life Juanita Castro: "I read them and my friends read them, and they said: DON'T do these! They're HORRIBLE! And they were. Precisely why I wanted to do them." (SB219)

juanita castro ad

Village Voice ad for the performances at the Coda Gallery (Courtesy of Thomas Kiedrowski)

The performances of Tavel's one-acts (directed by Vaccaro) took place at the Coda Gallery in New York over two weekends beginning July 29th. (SB223) In September 1965, they opened at a commercial venue - the St. Marks Playhouse on 2nd Avenue.

juanita castro adspaceJuanita Castro ad

Two ads for the performances at the St. Marks Playhouse: Left from the Village Voice/Right from the New York Times (Courtesy of Thomas Kiedrowski)

1966: Ronald Tavel's The Life of Lady Godiva, Screen Test and Indira Gandhi's Daring Device

Some writers attribute the beginning of the Theatre (or Play-House) of the Ridiculous to the staging of Tavel's second production, The Life of Lady Godiva in April 1966. The above ads for the 1965 productions of Shower and The Life of Juanita Castro did not carry the moniker, Theatre or Play-House of the Ridiculous and the program for the April 1966 production of The Life of Lady Godiva noted that the play was "the first in a series of plays to be presented by the Play-House of the Ridiculous Repertory Club. Among them will be a revival of Shower and The Life of Juanita Castro and new productions including Boy on a Straight-Back Chair, Screentest, and Indira Gandhi's Daring Device."

The Life of Lady Godiva was performed in a venue that was first called the Theatre of the Ridiculous, then changed to the Play-House of the Ridiculous. The written version of the play indicates that it was first performed on April 21, 1966 at the 17th Street Studio in New York. The venue was a second floor loft (1st floor by European standards) at either 12 or 13 West 17th Street in New York. (Tavel recalled it as being at no. 13 whereas Stephen J. Bottoms indicated the address was no. 12 in his book Playing Underground: A Critical History of the 1960s Off-Off Broadway Movement.) Tavel changed the name of the venue from the Theatre of the Ridiculous to the Play-House of the Ridiculous after "the city objected to a space more than three steps above the pavement being called a Theater." (TR) The cast of The Life of Lady Godiva, included the director John Vaccaro as Mother Superviva, Charles Ludlum as "Tom" (aka "Peeping Tom") (GG258) and Mario Montez in the Nuns' Chorus, with costumes by Jack Smith. The program noted "Grateful acknowledgment to Panna Grady." (It was at Panna Grady's apartment in the Dakota building in Manhattan that Warhol filmed Lupe with Edie Sedgwick in December 1965.) The stage manager or "regisseur" for the production was Ronald Tavel's brother, Harvey Tavel, who also appeared in some of Warhol's films, including The Life of Juanita Castro, Hedy and Horse - all scripted by Ronald Tavel.

In the autumn of 1966, the group presented two more Tavel plays - Screen Test (based on Warhol's film Screen Test #2 written by Tavel) and Indira Gandhi's Daring Device. (TR/GG258) In 1967, Device would generate considerable controversy after performances at Columbia and Rutgers universities. Although some writers credit Ludlam with performing his first drag role in Screen Test, the flyer below lists drag actor Mario Montez in that production - playing the same role he played in Warhol's film Screen Test No. 2.

gandhi ad

Village Voice ad for Indira Gandhi's Daring Device and Screen Test (Courtesy of Thomas Kiedrowski)

After the autumn 1966 production of Device and Screen Test, Tavel suggested to Vaccaro that he (Vaccaro) should direct Tavel's full-length epic, Gorilla Queen, but Vaccaro declined. Vaccaro thought that Tavel's approximately seventy page play should be cut by about two-thirds, later complaining that it was "an insult to the people in the group." (SB228)


Ronald Tavel's Kitchenette
The Life of Juanita Castro (revival) and Gorilla Queen
Controversy over Tavel's Indira Gandhi's Daring Device
John Vaccaro's productions of Charles Ludlam's Big Hotel and Conquest of the Universe

Instead of Gorilla Queen, the Play-House presented Tavel's one-act Kitchenette with a revival of Juanita Castro in January/February 1967. Tavel's written version of Kitchenette indicates that it was first performed on January 6, 1967 at the Play-House of the Ridiculous with a cast that included Mary Woronov as "Jo." Instead of Vaccaro, the production was directed by Ronald Tavel's brother, Harvey, who also played the part of the "Filmmaker." The production resulted in the first Obie Award for the Play-House when Eddie McCarty won a "Distinguished Performance" award for his role in Kitchenette. (VV) Vaccaro had meanwhile turned his attention to Big Hotel - a play written by Charles Ludlam which ran at the Play-House of the Ridiculous in February 1967. Big Hotel was the last production at the Play-House's 17th Street venue. (SB230)

gorilla queen adspaceGorilla Queen

Left: Village Voice ad for Gorilla Queen/Right: New York Times ad for Gorilla Queen (April 25, 1967) (Courtesy of Thomas Kiedrowski)

After the run of Kitchenette and Juanita Castro and after Vaccaro rejected Gorilla Queen, Ronald Tavel left the group, taking Gorilla to the Judson Memorial Church (the Judson Poets' Theater) where it was performed as the Judson's Easter 1967 production before going on to play at a commercial venue, the Martinique Theater. According to Thomas Kiedrowski of The Andy Warhol Sites Tour, "There was a casting call in the Voice at the Judson for Jan 26th and 30th specifically for Gorilla Queen. It previewed at the church on March 10th and ran through til April Fools Day. The ad reads 'Judson Poets Theatre Presents Gorilla Queen; by Ronald Tavel; directed by Lawrence Kornfeld; set by Jerry Joyner; costumes by Linda Sampson; music by Robert Cosmos Savage.' When the play moved to the Martinique Theatre, it previewed Friday Apr 7th. Music was now by Robert Cosmos Savage and Al Carmines; lighting by Johnny P Dodd and heading the ad was Paul Libin presents Gorilla Queen. The ad ran til May 25th when the Obie's were presented. Ronald was in attendance. John Dodd won for best lighting and Eddie McCarthy won an award for acting in Kitchenette."

Dan Sullivan gave Gorilla Queen a good review in the March 20, 1967 issue of The New York Times under the heading, "Gorilla Queen Not Even Absurd/It's Ridiculous - What Does It Mean? Who Knows?"

From Dan Sullivan's review:

"The Theater of the Absurd? Ancient history. The new thing off-Off Broadway is the Theater of the Ridiculous. The founder of the movement is a young playwright named Ronald Tavel, whose works include The Life of Lady Godiva, Tarzan of the Flicks and Indira Gandhi's Daring Device. Having missed these plays but admired the titles, this theatergoer dropped in on Mr. Tavel's new drama, Gorilla Queen, the other night at the Judson Poets Theater. It was a memorable experience. Just what Mr. Tavel is getting at in Gorilla Queen is hard to say (nothing, maybe?) but it's great fun to see him go about it.

...Gorilla Queen is the avant-garde's Hellzapoppin - outrageous nonsense that impresses you with its energy even when you are doubting its sanity. What's under the surface? A native theatrical shrewdness on Mr. Tavel's part, first of all, that tells him how to extend nonsense for nearly three hours without getting stale... Mr. Tavel also has an enormous gusto for camp, of which Gorilla Queen may be taken as a kind of apotheosis.

...Gorilla Queen may be nothing more than a gigantic put-on, but who can object to being put-on when it is done with the verve shown here? The show will continue through April Fool's Day at 55 Washington Square South."

Gorilla Queen was also mentioned in an article on the Judson Memorial Church and St. Mark's in-the-Bouwerie published in The New York Times on Sunday, March 26, 1967 under the title "In the Parish Hall, the Hippies Go Ape." The article noted that "...everyone who knows the Judson knows that there is a style and that certain playwrights write plays that lend themselves to it remarkably well. The newest member of the family is Ronald Tavel, who is currently represented at the theater by Gorilla Queen. Tavel is Andy Warhol's erstwhile script writer - 'I'm suing Andy now' - and is also a refugee from the Playhouse of the Ridiculous, recently shut down because of a bizarre international incident created by his last play, Indira Gandhi's Daring Device. (Tavel's social zeal about the population problem had gotten all mixed up in sexual metaphor and the Indian consulate was not amused.)"

The controversy concerning Indira Gandhi's Daring Device was detailed in another article published in the Times in late March 1967 under the heading "Foreign Minister Tells Indians U.S. Was Warned About Play."

From the article:

"NEW DELHI, India, March 28 - Foreign Minister M.C. Chagla said today that the United States had been warned that 'Indo-American relations were bound to suffer' if there were further stagings of a play that portrays Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and other Indian leaders.The play, which has received considerable publicity in the Indian press is called Indira Gandhi's Daring Device. It was first staged at an avant-garde club in Greenwich Village - 'New York's exclusive colony of bearded artists and articulate beatniks,' as the pro-Communist weekly Blitz described it...

Mr. Chagla told the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of the Indian Parliament, that the Indian Consulate General in New York had twice complained to city officials about the play. The Indian Embassy in Washington then discussed the matter with the State Department...

Indira Gandhi's Daring Device, by Ronald Tavel, was performed for three months last fall at the Playhouse of the Ridiculous, 13 West 17th Street. Mr Tavel said yesterday that no complaints had been received until the productions at Columbia and Rutgers.

'The play was a comedy was meant to entertain and not offend,' Mr. Tavel said. 'Since it has been found offensive there will be no further performances of it. I would like not to hear anything more about it.'

He added, 'I didn't write it the way it was performed and I couldn't stop it. I was advised that if I withdrew the play it would seem as if a foreign power was interfering with American freedom of speech.'"

During the same year that Gorilla Queen was presented, John Vaccaro turned his attention to another play by Charles Ludlam who had written Big Hotel. The play was titled Conquest of the Universe, with a descriptive subtitle - "When Queens Collide." Arguments broke out between Ludlam and Vaccaro during the play's rehearsals and Ludlam left the company and went on to found the Ridiculous Theatrical Company. (SB232) According to Ronald Tavel, "Vaccaro turned to the actor Charles Ludlam for a playwright, and when these two quarreled, Ludlam withdrew and formed a group called the Gloxina. Dissatisfied with that name and at an imaginary loss, Ludlam returned to the Tavel label, Ridiculous. He renamed his group Ridiculous Theatrical Company, apparently never seeing the self-deprecation in using the technical noun as an adjective."

Vaccaro staged his version of Conquest in November 1967 at the Bouwerie Lane Theatre. Ludlam presented his version of Conquest in January 1968 (with the title When Queens Collide) at the Gate Theatre - a cinema which Ludlam used for late-night performances of the play. (See below.) In Ludlam's production, Oscar Castillo played the part of Tamberlaine, Lars Preece was Alice, Matthew Cummings played Zabina and Jason Martin was Ebea. It was, however, Vaccaro's earlier November 1967 production of Conquest that received the most attention from the critics. The cast included many of Warhol's stars including Mary Woronov (as Tamberlaine), Taylor Mead, Ondine and Ultra Violet.
(SB232/DK/See here.)

Conquest of the Universe

Marcel Duchamp, Ultra Violet and Taylor Mead backstage during John Vaccaro's production of Conquest of the Universe

From Playing Underground: A Critical History of the 1960s Off-Off-Broadway Movement by Stephen J. Bottoms:

"Vaccaro's emphasis in Conquest was, as ever, on personality rather than text: 'Our actors are acting themselves as well as their roles,' read the Play-House's press release; 'the real person more interesting than the plot.' Taylor Mead, for example, appeared simply as himself, an unscripted 'Guest Star.' Yet it was Mary Woronov's towering self-performance as a drag Tamberlaine in military fatigues that stole the show. Woronov has written that acting for the Ridiculous allowed her a productive outlet for a dark, violent streak within her own personality - a side of herself that she named 'Violet' and which she sought to suppress in everyday life. In Conquest of the Universe, however, 'Violet' was allowed to play with a vengeance, thanks to 'our homicidal genius of a director... Every night he hissed in my ear, 'Do anything you like to them, I want fear in their eyes.' (SB233)

1968: Charles Ludlam's When Queens Collide and Ronald Tavel's Arenas of Lutecia

In 1968 Charles Ludlum presented his version of Conquest of the Universe under the name of When Queens Collide. The name change was for legal reasons, according to the East Village Other:

Allan Edwards ("Theatre," East Village Other, 5 January 1968, p. 13):

"Ludlam's BIG HOTEL happens Saturday nights at littered, sleezy and appropriate Tambellini's Gate Theatre (2nd Avenue near 10th Street) after the evening's films are over at 12. His other, CONQUEST OF THE UNIVERSE, is perpetrated there every Friday at midnight under the assumed name of WHEN QUEENS COLLIDE. The belligerants of both productions are called Ridiculous Theatrical Company, and that is the same company which has earned such an evil reputation of dramaturgical labor pains for the neo-Renaissance of Theatre (remember INDIRA GHANDI'S DARING DEVICE).

Once there was only one Ridiculous company, but that was before the wheel-deal power games of an entrepreneur named Chamberlain and a director named Vaccaro forced Ludlam and most of the original company underground. Ludlam didn't read the contract's fine print. Threats of legal injunction prevent the Gate's CONQUEST from using that name or from opening before Vaccaro's anathema Bouwerie Lane production - legally but not morally underwritten by chartered 'Playhouse of the Ridiculous.' All this has happened... Worse and worse! The fitting critics of Established Media refuse to come to the Gate after hours: 'Ludlam had his chance at Bouwerie Lane,' they screech, yet they ingratiatingly serve notice to every bit of Neil Simon's Broadway garbage."

Also, in 1968, Ronald Tavel presented another play, Arenas of Lutecia at the Judson - his first at the venue since the run of Gorilla Queen (which had opened on March 10, 1967). Arenas of Lutecia was performed nightly except for Wednesday and Thursday. A review of the show by Walter Kerr appeared in the December 1, 1968 issue of The New York Times:

Ronald Tavel

Photograph of Frank Dudley (L), Mary Woronov and Ronald Tavel that appeared with Walter Kerr's review in The New York Times (Photo: Henri Dauman/Courtesy of Thomas Kiedrowski)

Walter Kerr:

"Because I'd missed an earlier camp epic by Ronald Tavel called Gorilla Queen, because I am fond of put-ons and put-downs when they really work, and because Mr. Tavel is sufficiently highly regarded in some quarters to have had another new play accepted for production at the American Place Theater soon, I recently journeyed to the Judson Poets Theater, which is situated in a choir loft that shakes whenever the actors do, to see a romantic tragedy called Arenas of Lutetia... The language is either pop art ('pop art is flop art' one of the more intransigent chorus girls keeps saying), or insufficiently imitated Joyce or 100 per cent pure minstrel show, you can take your pick." (WK)

Kerr's not very favourable review spurred a reader of the Times - "Gino Rizzo" - to complain about Kerr's negative comments in a letter to the editor which appeared in the January 5, 1969 issue of the newspaper with another photo of Tavel.

To The Editor:

"Ronald Tavel's Arenas of Lutetia... is too important a play to be dismissed with a couple of unfavourable reviews (see Walter Kerr, The Times, Dec. 1, and Julius Novick, Village Voice, Dec 5)... Perhaps the right place to start is that which usually comes last in a review: the play's language, and more specifically, Tavel's penchant for penning so many puns... I said 'perhaps' because one doesn't know what's right and what's left any more, let alone the answer to the question of 'what's real and what's illusion,' which struck Mr. Kerr particularly when handsome actress Mary Woronov handed out some of her breasts in the form of an appetizing if indigestible breast-plate.. Analysing Tavel's earlier play, Gorilla Queen, Leslie Epstein ("Beyond the Baroque," TriQuarterly, spring 1968), perceptively observed that 'there is nothing witty in [Tavel's puns], nor, probably, was any wit intended. What is intended is, on the one hand, the destruction of language, its reduction to nonsense rhyme and monosyllable, and on the other its sexualization, and through that, the eroticization of all thought'... As everyone ought to know by now, Ronald Tavel was, with actor-director John Vaccaro, the founder of the Play-house (!) of the Ridiculous, which has already made theater history and is, with the Living Theater, the most remarkable new form the American theater has produced in these last few years. It is only legitimate to hope that the forthcoming production of Boy on the Straight-Back Chair at the American Place Theater may enable us - and Mr. Kerr - to see (and hear) the full extent of Mr. Tavel's worth as a playwright." (GR)

1969: Ronald Tavel's Boy on the Straight-back Chair and John Vacarro's production of Cockstrong

Tavel's play, Boy on the Straight-back Chair, which ran at the American Place Theater (located at St. Clements Church, 423 West 46th Street) from February 14 to March 22, 1969 won Tavel an Obie Award. However, even that production did not escape problems. A short article in The New York Times noted, "John Hancock has resigned as director of the American Place Theater's production of Ronald Tavel's play, Boy on the Straight-back Chair. He was replaced by Lee Von Rhau. Previews are being given, but no date has been announced for the premiere. Mr. Hancock said that he resigned because the author's latest changes 'were more than mere revisions.' He went on to say: 'The changes alter the essential nature of the play where it no longer is the one I agreed to direct. the revisions almost double the length of the performance.'"

Boy on a Straight back chair

Ronald Tavel and two actresses from the American Place Theater's production of Boy on the Straight-back Chair (Katherine Squire is the actress on the right)

By the time that Tavel won his Obie for Boy on the Straight-back Chair, the term "Ridiculous" for a theatrical company had been completely usurped by Charles Ludlam and John Vaccaro. Both won Special Citation Obie Awards in 1970 (for the '69-70 season) - Ludlam for the Ridiculous Theatrical Company and John Vaccaro for the Theatre of the Ridiculous. By that time however, Vaccaro was directing plays at La Mama including productions of Cockstrong (starring Warhol star Jackie Curtis) in June 1969 and March 1970 and a production of Son of Cockstrong in February 1970. In 1973 Tavel won another Obie for the 1972-73 season - a "Distinguished Play" award for Bigfoot, presented by the Theatre Genesis at St. Mark's Church in-the-Bouwerie from November 2 - 26, 1972. (infoplease)

Ronald Tavel, John Vaccaro and Charles Ludlam all laid claim to the "Ridiculous" label. As noted earlier, Tavel recalled coming up with the term first, while still in college. John Vaccaro claimed that the term originated with the actress Yvette Hawkins, who used it to describe a rehearsal of Shower - a play written by Tavel. (SB220) Ludlam on the other hand simply named his new company the Ridiculous Theatrical Company after splitting with Vaccaro. But as the first plays presented at the Play-House of the Ridiculous were written by Tavel and as it was Tavel who gave the plays to Vaccaro to direct in the first place, it's clear that he played the key role in founding the "Ridiculous." Of the three claimants to the "Ridiculous" label he was certainly the most prolific, writing more than 40 stage plays and film scripts and two novels before his death in March 2009.

Gary Comenas
November 2008/2009

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