There was a time when high culture was high, low culture was low, and never the ‘twain should meet. The middle-class intellectuals who attended plays by Shakespeare and Chekhov likely returned home to listen to Beethoven and Bach, later retiring to bed with a good, fat novel by George Eliot or Leo Tolstoy. The popular was an anathema, an insult to refined sensibilities.
Of course, this barrier was toppled decades ago, and it is no longer an elitist faux pas to enjoy both the Bard and the Billboard 500. What to do, then, with Charles Ludlam’s manic and monotonous Conquest of the Universe, or When Queens Collide, a radical 1967 play in which the plot of Marlow’s Tamburlaine has been mashed up with a variety “low” and “high” texts, from the Shakespeare canon to B movies and smutty mass market paperbacks? This inexhaustible playwright was no doubt unsettling and illuminating in his own time—“Suffering Sappho!” once character cries out, in possibly the first and only combination of Greek poetry and the Looney Tunes—but the radical has a tendency to become stale once it is absorbed by the mainstream.
The plot—and the word is used loosely here—centers on Tamberlaine (Grant Neale), the King of Earth, who, like his Marlovian counterpart, spends most of the play conquering empires and enslaving their leaders, though this time the stage is galactic rather than global. Mars, Venus, and Saturn all fall, but not before its rulers are sodomized by the insatiable Tamberlaine. At the beginning of the play, his chorus of Fire Women sing, “If you will not pet my fish / I’ll have to beat my meat.” Near the end, Tamberlaine will accuse his pregnant wife of infidelity, parodying Shakespearean accenting when saying, “Puta, I have not this twelvemonth fuckéd thee.” In between, Ludlam stuffs all manner of double entendres and wild sexual miming.
The puerility here serves a political point: it is an attack on a stuffy conception of theater that demands the “classics” should be free of all bodily or low-brow concerns. But the problem is that contemporary audiences already know this. Only a month ago, Richard III was leading the audience of BAM in the collective shaming of Buckingham: “You look like shit!” the business-suit crowd shouted with gleeful abandon, “Have you eaten any pussy today?” In this theatrical context, what is Conquest of the Universe protesting? At best, it is an historical curiosity, as Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company is clamoring at the door of a culture whose guardians have already let them in. In 2017, this play commits a sin far worse than muddying the good names of our respected dramatists—it is boring.