Murder Most Queer

Murder Most Queer: The Homicidal Homosexual in the American Theater. By Jordan Schildcrout. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2014. Pp. 268.

Jordan Schildcrout’s Murder Most Queer: The Homicidal Homosexual in the American Theater should be used in classrooms as a prototypical example of the fundamental yet often disputed and underacknowledged interrelationship of theatre studies and the broader fields of performance studies and critical theory. Applying principles of queer theory to an in-depth, extensive case study of the figure of the LGBT murderer in American theatre, Schildcrout skewers the concept of “queer villainy,” in which violent (i.e., murderous) transgressions of social order are linked with nonviolent ones (i.e., queerness) in theatrical and other cultural representations, while eschewing the tendency on the part of critics to categorize such characters as either “positive” or “negative,” with no room for dynamism or the value of using said representations to plumb the messier side of human nature. In this vein, he notes, “Plays with homicidal homosexuals often defy easy categorization since they incorporate the realistic and the fantastic, the optimistic and the nihilistic, the reactionary and the progressive, the serious and the frivolous” (267). Accordingly, he addresses the topic from several angles, positing that 1) the queer, like the dramatic villain, is larger than life and exposes the socially transgressive underbelly of human desire, and is thus uniquely worth of artistic rendering and critical analysis; and 2) the figure of the “homicidal homosexual” onstage can be read, in various contexts (depending on, among other factors, who is in the audience, who is on stage, who controls the production financially, and the broader sociopolitical climate), as an attempt to: instigate social action, catalyze expressions of empathy, expose the evils of homophobia and queer criminalization, wrestle with societal ethical “demons,” temporarily switch the usual roles of victim and perpetrator in carnivalesque fashion, examine the pleasure innate to forms of “deviance,” and/or cathartize the justified rage that results from long-term oppression and communal trauma.

Arranged in chronological order, Murder Most Queer’s chapters each explore both a particular conceptual aspect of theatrical representations of “the homicidal homosexual”—a term Schildcrout cherry-picked precisely because of its clinical and pathologizing historical overtones—and a specific play or group of plays. This arrangement lends itself to a kind of precise yet expansive clarity that is reproduced by Schildcrout’s tone, which is at once accessible and critical. Schildcrout begins by examining the potential threat of gay love as opposed to mere same-sex sexual activity in his account of Mae West’s ill-fated 1927 play The Drag, and in Chapter 2 he juxtaposes public perceptions of real-life gay murderers with their theatrical counterparts, using Patrick Hamilton’s The Rope (later titled Rope’s End for its American production) as a case study. In Chapter 3 he reflects on the potentially violent implications of the necessity of queer closetedness alongside Ira Levin’s Deathtrap. Schildcrout unearths the woefully undertheorized figure of the lesbian killer in the next chapter while he explores the figure of the “good girl” and the complex dynamics, including misogyny both subtle and overt, within the 1960s/1970s queer theatre community. Chapter 5 unpacks the connections between camp, drag, queerness, and opera through readings of Chay Yew’s Porcelain and Terrence McNally’s Lisbon Traviata. He ties metaphysical notions of suffering to theatrical representations of queerness, drawing from theoretical notions of queer-as-universal-scapegoat, in Chapter 6, and finally makes a compelling case, paired with discussions of Joyce Carol Oates’ Zombie and Dennis Cooper’s Jerk, for the urgency of the connection between notions of queerness as embodied evil and the frequent recurrence of the figure of the gay murderer in American drama. Each chapter also examines cultural history alongside theatrical chronology; for example, the complex figure of the “fairy,” particularly in 1920s New York, plays a key role in the first chapter, while the “gay liberation” movement of the 1960s and 1970s are fundamental to his readings of the plays in the second and third chapters. Jeffrey Dahmer figures prominently in his reading of Oates’ play about a fey, frustrated serial killer of young boys. Perhaps most notable is his chapter on lesbian killers, as he examines in some depth the nuanced implications, and theatrical effectiveness, of seeing queer bodies in variously gendered romantic, social, violent, criminal, and sexual configurations and associations on stage in productions such as those mounted by the Five Lesbian Brothers, Holly Hughes, and Split Britches. This approach is deliberate and effective, as Schildcrout couches each of his theatrical analyses in a deep contextualization involving genre, sociopolitical climate, and the internal dynamics of queer culture at the time.

Schildcrout’s text also exemplifies the efficacy of mirroring the principles of the theory with which one is wrestling in one’s own writing. He faces the daunting task of unpacking the complex figure to which he introduces us, and making the case for the theatricalized “homicidal homosexual” as valuable and rich with potential, if also deeply problematic. To do so, Schildcrout draws from Lee Edelman’s influential text No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive, arguing that representations are only worthy and both culturally and artistically genuine if they are also positive, life-affirming, and imbued with messages of “hope” and “optimism.” He also draws heavily from Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s multilayered and rhizomatic approach to the definition and dissemination of concepts of queerness, the closet, and violence, all of which are reflected by and through Schildcrout’s own writing. Schildcrout’s aim, he claims, is neither to pass judgment on the figure of the homicidal homosexual in American theatre, nor to unqualifiedly redeem it. Rather, he states: “Instead of sentencing these characters to the prison of negative representation, Murder Most Queer analyzes the meanings in their acts of murder, confronting the real fears and desires condensed in those dramatic acts and recognizing the potential value—and even pleasure—of violence in the theater” (3). In his historical, theatrical, cultural, and critical analysis of “homicidal homosexuals,” Schildcrout achieves that analytic goal.

Laura Dorwart
Antioch University Los Angeles

The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 28, Number 1 (Winter 2016)

ISNN 2376-4236
©2016 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center

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