- Murder Most Queer: The Homicidal Homosexual in The American Theater by Jordan Schildcrout
In the early years of what was then called gay and lesbian studies, there were landmark analyses of homosexual stereotypes in film by Vito Russo, Richard Dyer, and others. At the same time, Kaier Curtin, Nicholas DeJongh, Alan Sinfield, and I began investigations of representations of gay men onstage, both by heterosexual writers for predominantly straight audiences and by gay writers who tried to deconstruct the stereotypes. One of the most common of those stereotypes was what Jordan Schildcrout calls “the homicidal homosexual”—the gay man who would not only infect society by sexually corrupting other men, but would take his perversion to violent levels by killing innocent people. Since homosexuality and homicide were linked in the homophobic imagination, the move from sexual perversion to murder was an easy one. Schildcrout’s intriguing though frustrating book Murder Most Queer moves from early mainstream depictions of the gay killer, who represents “the sexual aggressor, duplicitous traitor, diseased corrupter, and evil destroyer of all that is good” (2) to queer playwrights’ revision of the killer into a character who enacts “trenchant fantasies of empowerment, replacing the shame and stigma of the abject with the defiance and freedom of the outlaw” (4). While I accept Schildcrout’s descriptions of dramatic representations of the old killer stereotypes, he does not convince me that later queer-penned works offer “fantasies of empowerment.”
The first three chapters of the book, covering familiar ground, center on depictions of the homicidal homosexual that can be read as both mainstream and transgressive. Schildcrout’s opening chapter, one of the book’s strongest, centers on Mae West’s 1927 play The Drag, which was banned before it reached New York. West’s play is a hodgepodge of camp comedy, drag show, sentimental melodrama, and serious discussion of the medical and legal status of homosexuals. David, West’s murdering protagonist—a gay version of the murderous jilted lover of romantic melodrama—simultaneously confesses to murder and his love for the man he murdered. According to Schildcrout, David is empowered by his murder and his confession of love. David literally “gets away with murder” because the judge wants to avoid the potential scandal (David’s lover and victim was the judge’s caddish son). As David’s sexuality and crime were silenced by a judge, so was West’s play by the censors.
The second chapter offers analyses of dramatic treatments of the real-life murderers, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, from Patrick Hamilton’s 1929 play Rope and Meyer Levin’s 1957 work Compulsion to works by gay playwrights that present fantasy versions of the two murderers as “romantic lovers with whom the audience is encouraged to identify” (50). Following this, Schildcrout looks at Ira Levin’s 1978 hit thriller Deathtrap, which the author sees [End Page 140] as “locating the source of villainy not in the queer characters’ sexual orientation but in the closet that confines them” (65).
The second half of the book deals with queer murderers created by gay playwrights. The strongest chapters offer extended analyses of five plays written while AIDS was ravaging the gay community: Terrence McNally’s The Lisbon Traviata, Chay Yew’s Porcelain, Nicky Silver’s Pterodactyls, George C. Wolfe’s The Colored Museum, and Craig Lucas’s The Dying Gaul. Schildcrout could have looked deeper into the implications of queer playwrights’ fascination with gay murderers during the worst years of the epidemic. He also includes a survey of killers flamboyantly depicted in the camp extravaganzas of Charles Ludlam, Charles Busch, and Richard O’Brien. The book ends with a survey of gay-created theatre works about serial killers, ending with an analysis of Christopher Durang’s hilarious satire of the insatiable contemporary hunger for depictions of violence, Betty’s Summer Vacation. There is a helpful list of plays with homicidal gay characters and a useful bibliography.
Schildcrout concludes his study by asserting that “[t]he...