The Mystery of Irma Vep Study Guide

The Mystery of Irma Vep is a comedic quick-change romp written by Charles Ludlam in 1984. Ludlam is an oft-overlooked, but highly influential theatre artist who helped define performance in the American theatre, especially within the gay community. Ludlam’s theatrical style focused on spectacle and entertainment, rather than the gritty, thick realism of his contemporaries.

Embracing the ridiculous allowed Charles Ludlam to realize a wildly successful creative life, in which he wrote 29 plays (producing, directing and starring in most of them); had the lead roles in such plays as Bluebeard, Hedda Gabler and Camille; received fellowships from the Guggenheim, Rockefeller and Ford Foundations; and was awarded six Obies. He also taught at Yale, New York University and Carnegie Mellon and appeared in films and even a sitcom. Ludlam accomplished all of this in only 44 years. He died of AIDS in 1987.

Penny Dreadful
Ludlam created The Ridiculous Theater in 1967 and it became the center for avant-garde gay theater in New York. Initially his plays avoided logic, characterization and plot, focusing primarily on spectacle. While his plays became more structured over the years, they continued to reflect Ludlam’s love of artifice and theatricality, as well as the commingling of high and low culture that marked all his work. Ludlam saw his dedication to theatricality as a return to a tradition that preceded the naturalist and minimalist theater that he deplored. He wanted the Ridiculous Theater Company to explore “uncharted territory” and at the same time to revive theatrical conventions that he believed had been “unwisely abandoned” by his peers.

A “penny dreadful” was a nineteenth century type of British fiction publication that featured lurid serial stories appearing in parts over a number of weeks, each part costing a penny (as opposed to Charles Dickens’ work that cost a shilling). Printed on a cheap, pulp paper, the penny dreadfuls were aimed at working class adolescents.


Ridiculous Theater,
Scourge of Human Folly
by Charles Ludlum

Aim: To get beyond nihilism by revaluing combat.

Axioms to a theater for ridicule:

  1. You are a living mockery of your own ideals. If not, you have set your ideals too low.
  2. The things one takes seriously are one’s weaknesses.
  3. Just as many people who claim belief in God disprove it with their every act, so too there are those whose every deed, though they say there is no God, is an act of faith.
  4. Evolution is a conscious process.
  5. Bathos is that which is intended to be sorrowful but because of the extremity of its expression becomes comic. Pathos is that which is meant to be comic but because of the extremity of its expression becomes sorrowful. Some things which seem to be opposites are actually different degrees of the same thing.
  6. The comic hero thrives on his vices. The tragic hero is destroyed by his virtue. Moral paradox is the crux of drama.
  7. The theater is a humble materialist enterprise which seeks to produce riches of the imagination, not the other way around. The theater is an event not an object. Theater workers need not blush and conceal their desperate struggle to pay the landlords their rents. Theater without the stink of art.

Instructions for Use:

This is farce not Sunday school. Illustrate hedonistic calculus. Test out a dangerous idea, a theme that threatens to destroy one’s whole value system. Treat the material in a madly farcical manner without losing the seriousness of the theme. Show how paradoxes arrest the mind. Scare yourself a bit along the way.

In The Mystery of Irma Vep: A Penny Dreadful, his most successful play, Ludlam turned his love of artifice and theatricality into a tour de force. The play, first performed in 1984 by Ludlam and his partner, Everett Quinton, demands virtuosic timing from its cast of two actors who perform eight different characters (who themselves are often not what they seem) and make at least 35 costume changes. To ensure cross-dressing, the rights to perform the play include a stipulation that the actors must be of the same sex. A parody of gothic horror stories, Irma Vep does not just rely on men in drag for its humor. In addition to the many quick changes of costumes and characters, the play dazzles us with its far-reaching and often unlikely references to such topics as the liturgical calendar and Egyptology as well as quotations from Francois Villon, Shakespeare, Joyce, Wuthering Heights and Rebecca. The play’s popularity is widespread and enduring. In 1991, Irma Vep was the most produced play in the US. In 2003, it became the longest-running play ever produced in Brazil.

In Irma Vep, Ludlam quote from many famous sources, including Macbeth, Midsummer Night’s Dream, Ulysses, Wuthering Heights and Medea. Can you find others?

The story of Irma Vep revolves around the events occurring at Mandacrest Estate, the home of renowned Egyptologist Lord Edgar and his new wife Lady Enid. Edgar is still reeling from the tragic and mysterious deaths of his first wife, Lady Irma, and his son. While Edgar is out hunting the wolf that has been terrorizing his sheep, Lady Enid is assaulted by a strange and mysterious creature. The quest to find the creature leads Edgar to Egypt and back, and the absurd story that unfolds involves vampires, werewolves, mummies, more quick changes and confused identities than can be counted, and at least one dulcimer song.

In our production of this piece, we have been gifted with two actors more than up to the intellectual and physical rigors of the piece, and a director with one of the best eyes for physical comedy in Portland. Isaac Lamb and Leif Norby play all eight characters, and Philip Cuomo leads them through the process. Philip believes that understanding the context with which Ludlam wrote the piece helps to provide a clearer understanding of it’s intention:

The Mystery of Irma Vep 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. “A social comment” in the ridiculous and melodramatic action celebrated for years for making people laugh. “Well, yes.” I say. Understanding New York City and the audience of Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatre Company makes the comments and relevance very clear. By 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 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 Everett Quinton to perform in. Their intimate relationship is one layer in the fantastic quick changes of characters. Yes there is Enid and Nicodemus but there is also Charles. Jane and Lord Edgar but of course there is Everett.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 afforded to all people and the fears and frightening moments that life may reveal are now shared intimately and openly regardless of sexual orientation.

We hope this information will help you keep from getting caught with your pants down while watching the performance, but most importantly, have fun, enjoy yourself. It’s what’s Ludlam would have wanted.

Possible Discussion Questions
  • Ludlam claimed that his work fell into the classical tradition of comedy, but that as a modern artist he was advancing the tradition. How did he advance or subvert classical traditions of comedy in Irma Vep?
  • Many fans consider Irma Vep to be a love letter to the theater. In what ways is this true or false?
  • What is the effect of Ludlam’s incorporation of so many literary allusions? Why did he include them?
  • Ludlam remarked that “the whole keynote of the Ridiculous [Theater] and camp is a rigorous revaluing of everything.” In what ways is this true of Irma Vep? What is being revalued and why?