The Relevance of Charles Ludlam’s The Mystery of Irma Vep

by Philip Cuomo

What is the value of understanding the context within which a play was written or conceived?

The Mystery of Irma Vep: A Penny Dreadful written by Charles Ludlam in 1984 is a creation of its time and place. The beauty of the ridiculous action is that it withstands the test of time for both its entertainment value and its relevancy.

“Irma Vep, relevant?” you ask. “Well, yes,” I say. “A social comment” in the ridiculous and melodramatic action celebrated for years for making people laugh. Understanding New York City and the audience of Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatre Company makes the comments and relevance clearer.

When I began this project I assumed camp, cross-dressing, and the trappings of the Ridiculous Theatre Company were one place in which Ludlam and his life partner, Everett Quinton, could freely be themselves. It is a tenant of camp and drag that one is given the opportunity to be more of one’s self away from the roles forced on people by social norms and mores. It is my experience that the ferocious energy necessary to sustain the style of any play leaves the participant raw and exposed. Camp requires heightened energy and extreme commitment. I naively thought Ludlam simply found a world in which he could be himself.

The truth is that in the 1970s when the Ridiculous Theatre Company was making a name for itself, it was illegal to cross-dress in public. Ellen Stewart, who ran La Mamma and championed Ludlam’s company, would stand on the sidewalk of East Fourth Street during productions to keep an eye out for the police. And so just the creation of the play itself was a subversive act and hence a social comment.

Ludlam wrote, “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.”

With Irma Vep he gives new meaning to the performance style of camp. He also does this for the literary form the Penny Dreadful, which was a 19th-century serial similar to the work that Charles Dickens was doing. A Dickens serial would cost a shilling, but a Penny Dreadful would cost simply a penny. The market for such works was working-class adolescent boys; a group who had very little money but enough to pay for some type of entertainment. Hence the Penny Dreadfuls were stories about vampires, werewolves, mummies, and rich and exotic places—entertainments held in low esteem by society and high culture.

By the time Luldlam wrote The Mystery of Irma Vep in 1984 the AIDS Epidemic had hit in full force. There existed in the gay community an unknown horror that was sucking the life out of its community members. People were dying gothic and horrific deaths. Ludlam chose a particular style (the Penny Dreadful that was held in low-esteem) in order to tell a story about unexplainable, sudden, and horrific deaths. And within this structure, he explored death and fear and hope and companionship and love—and he gave the form new meaning and relevance.

BY 1984, Ludlam had been working in his unique and entertaining style for years, cultivating an audience and delivering entertainment that was driven by his personal life. The Mystery of Irma Vep was written for him and his life partner Quinton to perform. Their intimate relationship in the face of the AIDS epidemic (where so many people lost friends, family, and loved ones) is one layer in the fantastic quick-changes of characters that makes up the story.

The sad truth is that Charles died in 1989 from complications related to AIDS. Decades before he and the love of his life, Everett, could be married and face the future and the unknown together in a public embrace. Today that basic human right is now given to many people and the fears and frightening moments that life may reveal are now shared intimately and openly regardless of sexual orientation.

The Ghost of Sean and the Lock-in Weekend

by Third Rail Mentee, Emily Eisele

Back in September of this year, over our first weekend intensive for the Third Rail Mentorship Program (which we later dubbed “Lock-in Weekend”), the Third Rail Mentees were tasked with creating a three-act play about identity in the 21st century.

During one of our sleep-deprived brainstorming sessions, someone introduced the idea of “The Lost Boy Generation.” It seemed obvious to us that the only way to explore this concept was to have all 14 mentees embody Peter Pan-esque Lost Boys and go off gallivanting on adventures throughout the building.

The building was mostly deserted at this point early in the morning, so we had free rein on our expedition to make silly, bold, physically adventurous choices. At one point, mentee Sean Grosshans disappeared for several minutes, and when he finally reappeared we realized he must be a ghost. An elaborate game of hide-and-seek ensued with our phantom friend, with cries of “Ghost of Sean! Ghost of Sean!” heard around every corner. Later on, we discovered a large wheeled trash bin and some rope. With the help of another mentee, Matt Sunderland (who was wearing a costume attached to “horse”), we fashioned the bin into a usable chariot, which we rode valiantly throughout the second floor of the building.

What did I learn from this unique orientation? I learned that I was going to spend the next year working with a group of hilarious, passionate, resourceful artists who wanted to be there as much as I did.

Emily Eisele is one of this season’s Third Rail Mentees. These ambitious, talented, disciplined emerging theater artists come to Third Rail to gain a broader scope of what it is to be an artist of the theatre.

Third Rail: Loose in London Returns

March 8-15, 2015
We're heading back to Theatreland and we want you with us!

Our annual Third Rail: Loose In London Tour has quickly become one of our most successful and popular programs, and we’re pleased to announce dates and registration for our 2015 excursion. If history is any  indication, this trip will fill up very quickly and, as always, space will be limited to a maximum of 20 participants in order to make the trip as intimate and personal an experience as possible.

The tour is catered toward the restless “theatre junkies” out there (you know who you are); the ones who need a fix of new plays, major revivals, performances that make you sweaty and nervous (in all the best ways), and experiences to make your heart pound and your breath quicken. We’re ready to be your theatre pusher, your peddler, your candy man. We’ll finalize the details of the itinerary in December, but to whet your appetite, here’s a little taste of what we’re considering:

The World Premiere of David Hare‘s newest play; a controversial new collaboration by the Royal Court and Headlong; the newest offering at the Donmar Warehouse; and performances by James McAvoy, Rufus Sewell, and a host of other heavy hitters of the British stage.

No matter the plays, you can rest assured we’ll line up a wide variety of experiences that will give you plenty to enjoy and even more to talk about.

Remember: space is limited to the first 20 patrons; so don’t miss out on this incredible opportunity to join Artistic Director Scott Yarbrough and Company Member Maureen Porter for this one-of-a-kind


Registration Deadline: December 30, 2014

For travel information contact Gregg Macy at 503-451-3281

For information about plays and itinerary contact Scott Yarbrough at

Understanding the Mystery of Irma Vep

by Director Philip Cuomo

Third Rail Core Company member Philip Cuomo gives us some insights into directing the very funny and challenging The Mystery of Irma Vep by Charles Ludlam. Be sure to bring the whole family to this hilarious, quick-change romp of a play, December 5, 2014 – January 10, 2015. 

Welcome to The Mystery of Irma Vep.  Playwright Charles Ludlam refers to his play as a Penny Dreadful, which (according to our crack dramaturgical team) is a 19th-century British publication that featured lurid serial stories, each part costing a penny—as opposed to Dickens’ work that cost a shilling. Charles (I feel like he wouldn’t mind me calling him by his first name) used a vast array of elements that would attract readers of Popular (with a capitol P) culture in the 19th century: monsters, mummies, vampires, werewolves, etc.  The play embraces the romantic, the gothic, the melodramatic and, most fully, the ridiculous. In fact, Charles named the theatre company that he founded and ran for 20 years The Ridiculous Theatre Company.  (For more insight into Charles and his company, check out the article on the next page.)

In Irma Vep, Charles writes one opulent detail on top of another all in service of celebrating the form of the Penny Dreadful; all to delight and entertain today’s audience.  His advice on how to do this?  “Take things very seriously, especially focusing on those things held in low esteem by society and revealing them, giving them new meaning, new worth…”

Wonderful!  To be given permission to take monsters, mummies, werewolves, and vampires so seriously and to revel in their magic. To work on moments requiring outlandish commitment, revealing how dangerous, scary, and dramatic living and loving truly are, and how we must pursue our need for love and so live boldly and shamelessly.  Amazing!

Producing Irma Vep is a magnificent opportunity for Third Rail to ply our craft to the fullest, to embrace high-wire derring-do, and stretch our imaginations in order to create Charles’ amazing, ridiculous world.  No matter how serious or ridiculous, Charles has written a sensational entertainment that we have the pleasure to share with you, sharing the same space and breathing the same air so that together we can manifest wonder and mystery. What a gift.