Today is the birthday of one of America’s greatest drag performers and playwrights, Charles Busch (b. 1954). While Busch was inspired by Charles Ludlam and his Ridiculous Theatrical Company in his early years, and had the opportunity to perform there, exposure to the work of both artists shows the unique niche Busch has carved out for himself. Ludlam was very much about theatre history, dramaturgy. Busch is much more about translating the cinematic experience to the stage. His knowledge of old movies from the classic Hollywood studio era is encyclopedic and most of his plays are loving manifestations of that childhood obsession. The two artists overlap in their interests; it’s really a question of emphasis on both their parts, Ludlam towards theatre, Busch towards movies.
Busch delights in recapitulating the arch, steam-roller like technique of Hollywood’s grand dames, especially the likes of Joan Crawford, Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyck. His atomic unit is the line reading — he can slay an audience on a line containing zero humorous content just in HOW he says it. I think he is so hysterical that I’ll often regurgitate his line readings immediately afterwards like an impressionable child, because they are so irresistibly funny. He is also influential, I think, in being sort of “post-camp”. He is not coming from a place of making fun of how terrible these old movies are, but how GREAT they are. His first major hit was the Cecil B. DeMille flavored Vampire Lesbians of Sodom (1984). When I moved here in ’87/ ’88 his big hit of the moment was Psycho Beach Party, later made into a film in 2000.
After innumerable campy scripts for the stage and screen, he had a Broadway smash success with the relatively mainstream comedy The Tale of the Allergists Wife (2000), which is not only an excellent play but an inspiration I should think to just about every off-off-Broadway playwright that it’s possible to get to There from Here. In recent years I’ve been fortunate enough to watch his work up close in a couple of workshops at Theater for the New City. See my reviews here for The Divine Sister and Judith of Bethuliah.
Here’s a hysterical clip from The Divine Sister with Jennifer Van Dyke: