‘Ruthless!’ and Camp: Of Artifice and Exaggeration

Elliott Folds
2 min readMay 18, 2023

The following mini-essay was published in the program for Out Front Theatre Company’s 2023 production of Joel Paley and Marvin Laird’s musical Ruthless! (directed by Paul Conroy; produced in partnership with Georgia State University’s Department of Film, Media & Theatre; May 4th to May 20th, 2023, Atlanta, GA).

Blake Fountain, Max Walls, and Anna Dvorak in Out Front Theatre Company’s production of RUTHLESS! (Sydney Lee Photography)

With its broad sense of humor, over-the-top characters, and pulpy storyline, Ruthless! is often described as campy. But what exactly is camp? It’s a notoriously tricky concept to define, but feminist scholar Susan Sontag succinctly nails in the introduction to her seminal 1964 essay “Notes on ‘Camp’” — the essence of camp “is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration” (1). This love of artifice and exaggeration is at the heart of the musical.

Judy and Tina Denmark bear more resemblance to characters from classic films and musicals than they do human beings, mirroring Sontag’s argument that “Camp sees everything in quotation marks… It is the farthest extension, in sensibility, of the metaphor of life as theater” (4). This also means camp is right at home in a literal theatrical setting: as dramaturg Quinn North writes, camp as a dramatic convention “works on the basis of total commitment to the realism of the ridiculous.”

If the artifice of theatre is a natural fit for camp, exaggeration makes camp the domain of drag. In Ruthless!, the role of Sylvia St. Croix has traditionally been performed in drag (and in this production, Miss Thorn is also performed in drag). As queer scholar Enrique Zhang writes, “Even in drag, [camp is] still a spectrum… It’s still an aesthetic that’s embracing this over-the-top vision of femininity that isn’t truly grounded in what actual women are like.” This extends to a non-drag role like Judy Denmark, which is a form of exaggerated gender performance not far removed from drag.

Crucially, this artifice and exaggeration comes free of judgment. As Sontag writes, at its best, camp “a kind of love, love for human nature” (13). While Sontag herself might not have been convinced by intentional camp, Ruthless! has been committed to the central tenets of self-aware camp since its 1992 premiere. The musical — like camp itself — is an enigmatic, queer celebration of the weirdest, messiest parts of being human.

–Elliott Folds, dramaturg

Quinn North, “Beyond Parody and Camp: A Closer Look at OCTA’s Ruthless!,” Olathe Civic Theatre Association, 2017, https://olathetheatre.org/beyond-parody-and-camp-a-slightly-closer-look-at-octas-ruthless-by-quinn-north-dramaturg/.
Erika W. Smith, “Ahead of the Met Gala, Remember: ‘You Can’t Have Camp Without Queer,’” Refinery29, 2019, https://www.refinery29.com/en-gb/2019/05/231566/camp-fashion-gay-culture-drag-lgbtq-history/.
Susan Sontag, “Notes on ‘Camp,’ 1964.



Elliott Folds

Atlanta-based freelance actor, dramaturg, and musician. Sometimes I watch movies. Hoping to use this as a place where my dramaturgical notes can live.