Watch exclusive film clips of Conquest of the Universe by John Vaccaro featuring a cast of Warhol luminaries, including Ultra Violet, Ondine, Taylor Mead, Beverly Grant, and Mary Woronov – and help us solve a mystery!
At a dinner given by Mayo Thompson I ended up sitting next to Mary Woronov. They both live in a tiny, insane, storybook bungalow court, a sanctuary hidden behind a gate on a dirty street in Koreatown.
I knew who she was, of course. I was a huge fan, especially of her brutal performance in Chelsea Girls. She was a woman who didn’t need stilettos to dominatrix your ass, all she needed was to stare you in the face.
I played it cool. Oh, sure I knew who she was, I’m a Warhol fanatic. She was a generous and funny conversationalist who asked me what I did for a living. I explained clumsily that I was an archivist. I worked with collections of personal papers. “Ah,” she said, “the Getty wants mine, for free!” disgusted.
I too was disgusted. This woman was a cultural icon. I asked, “so what kind of stuff have you got?”
“Not much, magazines, blah blah . . . and this film reel of Conquest of the Universe, filmed by Jack Smith.”
Coughing, but still cool, “oh, ah, that might be valuable. I could maybe help you find a place for it. I’ll ask my film archivist friends.”
She was into it. It had been sitting in a drawer of her kitchen for years.
I was unfamiliar with the Theatre of the Ridiculous, but this was the stunning second act of Mary’s career. The movement’s influence is profound but unacknowledged, the ripples in the water having practically erased it somewhere between Rocky Horror and ‘80s Club Kids. Mary was the ultimate star of this universe, a brilliant and fearless queen among queens.
The term “Theatre of the Ridiculous,” often credited to Ronald Tavel, was coined to describe his early one act plays such as Shower and The Life of Lady Godiva. The latter was directed by John Vaccaro and performed by the Play-House of the Ridiculous, the theater group founded by Tavel. It was also the acting debut of playwright Charles Ludlam.
Once friends, likely lovers and collaborators, Vaccaro and Charles Ludlam fell out over one of their most absurd creations, Conquest of the Universe. The play was written by Ludlam and set to be directed by Vaccaro at the Play-House. No one knows exactly what caused the break. David Kauffman’s biography, Ridiculous! The Theatrical Life and Times of Charles Ludlam, quotes several sources who cumulatively chalk it up to ego on both sides.
During rehearsals Ludlam split taking half the troupe under the name Ridiculous Theatrical Group, and almost concurrently staging his own version, When Queens Collide. Vaccaro soldiered on with a cast of Warhol luminaries, Ultra Violet, Ondine, Taylor Mead, Beverly Grant, and Mary Woronov. It debuted at the Bowerie Lane Theatre in November of 1967.
As you can see from the clips (below), it was beyond surreal. Ludlam biographer Kauffman described it as, “performed by people on drugs, for people on drugs.” Woronov plays emperor Tamburlaine (from the Christopher Marlowe play), walking another cast member like a dog. She dominates the stage with her towering energy alone.
Nowadays Mary bemoans the fact that more people don’t know about the Theatre of the Ridiculous. Warhol, through no fault of his own, gets all the glory and eclipses Tavel’s contributions. While both Ludlam’s and Vaccaro’s papers are at NYU, no new scholarly work has been embarked upon that I am aware of.
And so we come to the credits. Mary stated to me definitively that it was shot by Jack Smith. If I could verify that claim, the film could be incredibly important in light of Smith’s recent reemergence. Thus, I embarked on a year-long quest, writing to Smith scholars and film scholars and archivists and professors. All dismissed the claim out of hand. Many were very kind in doing so, many never answered the email.
How does Mary know this was shot by Jack Smith? She says John Vaccaro himself handed her the can of film saying, “Jack Smith shot this.” She says Smith was present during rehearsals, he was a friend. He was certainly gadfly-ing about at the time, and had worked and bickered with all parties involved. Though some say he sided with Ludlam during the split, I have found no written evidence of this. Does a scholar by way of study know more than a person who was there? Or is a witnesses’ account of the facts compromised because of age?
The film is a valuable piece of history no matter what. A rare capture of a moment that combined avant-garde theatre, LGBT art and community, the ‘60s, and these indelible personalities. I have great respect for all the scholars and professors, but what if? What if Jack Smith did shoot it?
All you aficionados and witnesses out there, Mary donated the reel to the Anthology Film Archives where it resides now. Check it out. Tell me, if not Jack Smith, then who?
Conquest of the Universe clips – Courtesy of Mary Woronov