Murder Most Queer: The Homicidal Homosexual in the American Theater by Jordan Schildcrout (review)
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Murder Most Queer: The Homicidal Homosexual in the American Theater. By Schildcrout, Jordan. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2014. Cloth $75.00, Paper $34.50, Ebook $34.50. 246 pages.

At the outset of Murder Most Queer, Jordan Schildcrout notes the prevalence of the criminalized, murderous, queer villain in our contemporary media. From the atrocities of Jeffrey Dahmer to the crimes passionels of Andrew Cunanan to the so-called man-hating, lesbian serial killer Aileen Wournos, newsmedia have obsessed over—and in some cases exaggerated—gay and lesbian murderers and their crimes. Schildcrout begins with these sensationalized real-life queer killers as a way of describing how the image of the homicidal homosexual has been appropriated and mobilized within mainstream culture as both a symbol for the culture’s strongest taboos—against violence and deviant sex—and as a justification for real-world violence against queer bodies. But, as Schildcrout aptly puts it, “Hollywood cinema is not the only cultural venue, and this particular scenario for the homicidal homosexual is not the only script” (3). Murder Most Queer is not a book about the queer killers that television newsmedia and big-studio movies show us, but about ways that playwrights and theatre audiences have defended and castigated, loved and reviled, and identified and disidentified with the homicidal homosexual onstage in the United States. It is Schildcrout’s contention that representations of [End Page 187] queer killers have a great deal to teach us about ourselves as audience members, both straight and queer. Although he very wisely avoids making arguments about which representations are “good for the gays” or “bad for the gays” (10), as an organization such as the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation might do, he argues “that plays with homicidal homosexuals should not be dismissed simply as negative representations, and even plays that may be homophobic demand closer analysis for the ways in which they construct queer villainy” (15). Schildcrout offers many—often resistant—readings that counter constructions of the queer as villain, demonstrating just how intriguing a fictional queer murderer can be.

Murder Most Queer’s first chapter analyzes one of the first plays in the United States with a gay character; it also, “not coincidentally, is America’s first play with a homicidal homosexual” (13). Mae West’s The Drag was subtitled “a homosexual comedy,” and, as its title implies, it has a drag ball at its center, but it is also a melodramatic murder mystery (complete with gay killer) that is aimed at a straight audience. In Schildcrout’s reading, The Drag is not a homosexual comedy but a heterosexual one, and he demonstrates how the play is fundamentally interested in heteronormativity and the removal of queerness from bourgeois life in the United States. More importantly, however, Schildcrout examines the play for what it might say about how queerness is understood vis-à-vis the closet. He argues that The Drag conflates confessing to murder and confessing to homosexuality, and that the play figures the closet—that is, lying about homosexuality—and not homosexuality per se as the villain of the play and, by extension, the enemy of bourgeois society. This type of reading is typical of Murder Most Queer’s structure; the author avoids simplified readings of the queer killers he describes, opting instead for nuanced, generous readings of potentially homophobic portrayals that offer much more for students of gay and lesbian theatre.

Chapter two treats dramatic representations of the famous Leopold and Loeb murders in Chicago in 1924 such as Rope, Compulsion, and Never the Sinner. And chapter three tells the story of “one of the most commercially successful plays ever written about same-sex lovers,” Ira Levin’s Deathtrap, a comedy-mystery in which closeted homosexuality holds the key to the mystery’s solution (59). Deathtrap has long been vilified for its homophobic portrayals, but here Schildcrout provocatively argues—as he does with the Leopold and Loeb plays—for its inclusion in the canon of gay and lesbian drama. He offers eleven possible readings more multifaceted than simple denunciation or easy rejection of these portrayals. These identificatory possibilities range from the rejection of the criminality but...