Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





James Wilson

Subject Categories

Theatre History


Downtown, Performance, Queer, Theatre


This dissertation is a comprehensive study of the artists associated with the Theatre of the Ridiculous. The discussion begins with Charles Ludlam, the most famous practitioner of the form and then extends to artists with whom he collaborated, including Jack Smith, the Play-House of the Ridiculous, Ethyl Eichelberger, and Charles Busch. The argument traces the overlapping aesthetic qualities of all of these theatre practitioners; they all shared a reverence for popular culture of the twentieth century; they all blended references from high and low culture in their dramaturgy; and they all created performances that took a unique approach to cross-dressed performance. The objective of this project is to "map" the Theatre of the Ridiculous in order to display that it was a coherent and cohesive theatrical movement that contained a radical, queer quality.

To do this, this dissertation engages Ludlam as a kind of apotheosis of Ridiculous play making, displaying how his works exemplified all three of these key aesthetic elements. Then, the discussion turns to Ludlam's inspiration, experimental artist Jack Smith, who was preoccupied to the point of obsession with twentieth-century cinema. I then look at the Play-House of the Ridiculous, headed by director John Vaccaro and playwrights Ronald Tavel and Kenneth Bernard, as the site for the genesis of Ridiculous Theatre. Here, I highlight a preoccupation with textual collaging, or remixing, in playwriting, especially insofar as it valued popular references alongside of or even over highbrow ones. I then study gender performance in the Ridiculous, looking at the mashed up performances of Ethyl Eichelberger, which create identities that defy gender categorization. Finally, I consider the legacy of the Ridiculous, tracing both direct inheritors of the form as well as those whose more contemporary work appears to be influenced by it.