Most recently, John Clum, author of seminal books in the field such as Acting Gay and Something For the Boys, reviewed MMQ for Theatre Journal. Although he praised the book as “well written” and “insightful,” he also asked questions about the perspectives and arguments expressed in the book. Clum raises significant issues about homophobia and representation, so I’ve written this blog entry to respond to some of his questions and concerns.
FANTASIES OF EMPOWERMENT
In the introduction to MMQ, I write:
Far from being simple reiterations of a homophobic archetype, these homicidal homosexuals are complex and challenging characters who enact trenchant fantasies of empowerment, replacing the shame and stigma of the abject with the defiance and freedom of the outlaw, giving voice to rage and resistance, even to vengeance.
Clum is skeptical of this argument and asks, “Are the murderers he discusses really empowered by their crimes? I would suggest that in most of the plays he discusses they are left isolated and miserable as the curtain falls.” Clum is correct, but I believe we are expressing different understandings of the phrase “fantasies of empowerment.”
MMQ does not argue that murderous characters achieve romance and happiness (or whatever the opposites of isolation and misery might be) through the act of murder. These queer characters, and perhaps queer audiences, can fantasize about achieving power through physical violence, but such power is rarely ameliorative. One might find pleasure in fantasies of empowerment, but a fantasy can be a delusion, and power can do terrible things.
My arguments about power grow organically from the plays themselves, in which characters often describe their murderous actions in terms of power, usually in contrast to the oppression they experience as members of a stigmatized minority. A clear articulation of this theme comes from Miss Roj, the snap queen in George C. Wolfe’s The Colored Museum.
Snapping comes from another galaxy, as do all snap queens. That’s right. I ain’t just your regular oppressed American Negro. I am an extraterrestrial. And I ain’t talkin’ none of that shit you seen in the movies! I have real power.
Miss Roj’s “real power” enables her to give a heart attack to a racist, homophobic bully; she literally snaps her oppressor to death. When Robert in Craig Lucas’s The Dying Gaul murders, he expresses his dominance and announces, “And this time I’m god.” Joyce Carol Oates, whose portrait of a killer based on Jeffrey Dahmer (Zombie) was staged by Bill Connington, states that the serial killer “exerts control over the dead body as, he believes, he could never exert control over the living.”
I do not suggest (nor do these plays suggest) that committing murder is the way to escape isolation and misery. Characters might imagine murder as a form of power that will help them combat their victimization in a homophobic society, but I argue that these violent acts are also emblematic manifestations of the very dread, abandonment, and criminalization that they hope to overcome.
Many plays invite the audience to share this fantasy of empowerment—but also to have a critical perspective on it. MMQ argues that an audience member can do both at the same time. Fictional murders can be simultaneously attractive and repulsive, and this duality is part of what makes the plays such rich sites of interpretation.
HOMOPHOBIA IS A FACT OF LIFE
Clum criticizes MMQ by suggesting that the book has not properly recognized violence against queer people: “[M]any of the works he discusses were written and performed when homophobia was a fact of life for gay men. Gay men were far more likely to be killed than to kill.”
Again, Clum is correct, but the book is not blind to these facts. In every chapter I outline how homophobic forces of particular eras inform theatrical representations of homicidal homosexuals. A scan of the book’s index will show entries for AIDS, bias crimes, censorship, civil rights, the closet, the Cold War, Jerry Falwell, heterosexism, internalized homophobia, etc.
Indeed, one of my arguments is that the queer person, recognizing their victimization in a homophobic world, might want to create fictional narratives in which they invert the social order, imagining themselves as aggressors rather than victims. In the introduction, I write:
[T]he prevalence of violent bias crimes against LGBT people can burden queer people with the fearful passivity of victimization. By romanticizing criminal transgression, LGBT artists can exchange the role of victim for the empowering fantasy of the queer killer, combating violent persecution with violent action and replacing shame with a defiant pride.
The footnote in this passage includes statistics on hate crimes against LGBT people. By examining plays with queer killers, MMQ does not negate homophobia. On the contrary, it attempts to show how these plays grow out of—and often confront and subvert—homophobia.
In MMQ, I offer an interpretation of Ira Levin’s Deathtrap, one of the most commercially successful plays ever written about same-sex lovers, which positions the closet, rather than homosexuality itself, as the “deathtrap.” Clum isn’t convinced and asks: “Did the predominantly heterosexual audiences really read it as an indictment of the closet?”
I imagine most audiences did not read the play this way, but my goal is not to put forth the obvious or generally accepted reading. Rather, the role of the scholar or critic can be to challenge the common understanding of a play and offer a resistant reading that goes against the dominant interpretation.
The resistant reading is not a radical invention on my part, and I follow in the footsteps of many queer theatre and film scholars (including D. A. Miller and Stacy Wolf) who participate in this practice. Miller can find the gay fantasy in Gypsy and Wolf can point out the lesbian dynamic in Wicked without claiming that most audiences read those shows in those ways. Here’s how I explain the interpretive practice in my book:
A play, then, does not have a single secured meaning determined by the author, but rather is a site of many potential meanings. Additionally, while performances may address spectators as a group, individual audience members can view the same performance but find different ideas, emotions, and meanings. Authorial intentions and social conventions may urge the audience member toward a dominant reading, that is, a reading based on the assumption of shared social values and acceptance of dominant ideology as expressed through narrative conventions. Yet resistant readings can run rampant in the theater, especially among queer audience members who refuse to submit to “normal” social structures and interpretive practices. Thus my task here is not to determine the “correct” reaction to a play but to explore, through a close analysis of texts and contexts, possible reactions, interpretations, and experiences that I hope will make the plays more interesting, exciting, and challenging. My goal is not to reduce these plays but to enlarge them.
Of course I could be criticized for creating a resistant reading that strays too far from the text and defies all reason. Is it wrong to think that queer audiences might find significance, value, or pleasure in a play like Deathtrap? Recent revivals in Los Angeles (staged by the LA Gay & Lesbian Center) and London (starring out gay actors Simon Russell Beale and Jonathan Groff) suggest to me that I am not alone in my queer perspective on this play.
Clum seems to accuse me of creating a straw man argument when he notes my intention to “exonerate” plays with homicidal homosexuals and asks “But who is attacking them? Exactly what is the author arguing here?”
In the introduction to MMQ, I explain how the gay liberation movement protested “negative representations” in films with queer killers, including Cruising, Silence of the Lambs, and Basic Instinct. It’s true that GLAAD, to the best of my knowledge, never organized a protest against a play. But theatre critics, in both the mainstream and gay press, did complain about “negative representations” in plays with queer killers, and I cite many examples of such reviews throughout the book.
In particular, Deathtrap, The Lisbon Traviata, The Law of Remains, and The Secretaries were criticized for being exploitative, excessive, too angry, too bloody. In one of the most forthright examples, I discuss how Chris Jones of the Chicago Tribune responded to Jim Grimsley’s Fascination by declaring a moratorium on representations of serial killers and expressing offense that a gay theatre company (About Face) would be so “irresponsible” as to stage a play that included the stereotype of the gay murderer.
Many of the plays I discuss in MMQ were critically lauded. But I do not believe I am creating a straw man argument when I note a strain within the LGBT rights movement and the critical establishment that prefers “positive representations.” Many other scholars and activists have noted this strain and identified it as part of the larger ideology of homonormativity. I position plays with homicidal homosexuals as challenges to this preference for positive or normative representations.
A COMMON RARITY
Clum offers two key reasons why Murder Most Queer should have been a different book, or perhaps not been a book at all. In the first paragraph of his review, Clum notes that the homicidal homosexual was “one of the most common of those stereotypes” analyzed by scholars in the early years of LGBT studies. But later he writes, “The fact that the author talks about so few plays is evidence that the homicidal homosexual onstage is a rarity.”
The implication seems to be that the homicidal homosexual is a “common” stereotype in American culture but a “rarity” in the American theatre, and therefore not worthy of a book-length examination. Even if we accept that this character is not seen as often in theatre as in film or television, it wouldn’t negate the unique artistic and cultural significance of homicidal homosexuals in the American theatre.
But is the theatrical iteration of this archetype so rare? An appendix in MMQ, which Clum generously describes as “helpful,” contains 81 examples of plays with queer killers. These 81 plays were written between 1927 and 2014; on this blog, I’ve written about a half dozen other examples that have been produced since MMQ was published. Although the term “rarity” is subjective, I would argue that it should not be applied in this case.
Clum then suggests that it would be more worthwhile to write about movies, since many of the plays I discuss “are better known from their film versions.” If we were to follow this argument to its logical conclusion, we’d have to give up theatre scholarship altogether and write about, say, cat videos, which have been seen by a greater number of people than any play.
I do include some commentary on the movie versions of certain plays (Rope, Compulsion, Deathtrap), but most of the plays I write about—some widely seen and others not—are wildly, beautifully theatrical, and therefore resist cinematic adaptation. While also examining examples of popular theatre, MMQ argues for the significance of lesser-known plays that might speak primarily to queer audiences, allowing us as a community to reimagine the vilifying archetype of the homicidal homosexual, outside of so-called “mainstream” culture.
I feel the need to correct another assumption evident in Clum’s assessment of Murder Most Queer. His review begins by positioning the book within the lineage of compendiums of representations of gay men in film and theatre, written by gay men, including himself. I recognize and respect Clum’s position as one of the first scholars to focus on gay theatre. Indeed, I cite three of his books in Murder Most Queer.
But this genealogy ignores other direct influences on my work, particularly Lynda Hart’s groundbreaking Fatal Women: Lesbian Sexuality and the Mark of Aggression. My theoretical and methodological approaches are deeply informed by the work of Jill Dolan, Eve Sedgwick, and Alisa Solomon. I was fortunate enough to study with all of these women, and their influence (and citations of their work) can be found throughout MMQ.
Clum’s review might lead the reader to believe that the book focuses exclusively on murderous gay male characters, when in fact MMQ looks at bisexual, lesbian, and transgender characters as related but distinct subjects, each with their own particular position on the cultural landscape. True, my research found a preponderance of gay male characters within the field of queer killers. But that does not mean that only the gay male characters should be recognized, just as not only gay male scholars should be recognized, within the work.
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Although John Clum and I have never met, we belong to the same community of theatre scholars, and I believe he chose to review Murder Most Queer because he cares deeply about theatre that reflects queer lives and experiences. I share that concern, and therefore I’m grateful for his critique, which gives me an opportunity to refine and clarify my work as a scholar. MMQ came from my need to explore a dark and complicated subject, and I value exchanges that bring further illumination.