Lethal Performances

Women Who Kill in Modern American Drama

by Ottilie P. Klein (Author)
©2017 Thesis 346 Pages


This book provides an in-depth analysis of representations of female murderers in modern American drama. Paying close attention to the plays’ plot, form, and style, the study seeks to come to terms with the dramatic and cultural function of this phenomenon. Given the rarity of female murder in real life, the popularity and prevalence of this theme in culture is striking and unsettling at the same time. After all, a woman who kills not only violates against basic social rules, but also upsets gender norms. This potential to break with an ideology that rests on hierarchically structured gender binaries equips the figure of the female murderer with the power to symbolically ‘kill’ established views about gender and sexuality. It is this ideologically disruptive potential that makes the female murderer a fascinating object of study, as her cultural figuration may provide information about the meaning assigned to women at a certain historical moment.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • 1. Introduction
  • 2. Women and Crime, or: Why Sexual Difference Matters
  • 3. Murder Most Foul: Killing the Angel in the House
  • 3.1 True Women Don’t Kill
  • 3.1.1 “Nothing here but kitchen things”: Unweaving a Woman’s Murder Plot in Susan Glaspell’s Trifles
  • 3.1.2 “She’s guilty – not medicine!”: Women’s Deadly Sexuality in Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra
  • 3.2 New Women Who Kill
  • 3.2.1 “You think I can’t smash anything?”: Murder on The Verge of Sanity in Susan Glaspell’s Most Controversial Play
  • 3.2.2 “I put him out of the way – yes”: Machines, Murder, and Modernity in Sophie Treadwell’s Machinal
  • 4. Murder Most Rare: A Search for Traces in Postwar American Culture
  • 4.1 Of Mercy Killings and Deceiving Appearances: Containing Women’s Lethal Threat in Postwar American Drama
  • 4.2 “You can’t kiss away a Murder!”: Postwar America, Fatal Women, and the Politics of Sexual Containment
  • 5. Murder Most Fair: Female Murder as a Catalyst for Social Change
  • 5.1 Sisters Without Mercy
  • 5.1.1 “What do you think you’re doing?”: Interracial Murder in LeRoi Jones’s Dutchman
  • 5.1.2 “What is viciousness?”: Complicity in Murder in Maria Irene Fornes’s The Conduct of Life
  • 5.2 Sisters in Crime
  • 5.2.1 “Cause I – I wanted to live!”: Beating the Bully with Bullets in Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart
  • 5.2.2 “They don’t even look like maids anymore”: Murdering the Mistresses in Wendy Kesselman’s My Sister in This House
  • 6. Conclusion
  • 7. Works Cited
  • 8. Index

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1. Introduction

Narratives of women who kill have long resonated in Western cultural history: Medea, Clytemnestra, and Electra revel in murderous revenge in Greek tragedy. The apocryphal Judith decapitates Holophernes in his sleep in order to save Israel, and William Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth plots the murder of King Duncan and eventually kills herself. Today, murderous women continue to be a persistent and compelling motif in literature and popular culture. The heroine in Quentin Tarantino’s 2003 film Kill Bill fearlessly takes up a fight with an army of martial arts warriors and triumphantly slices up each one of them before moving on to her next murder spree. Rihanna’s music video “Bitch Better Have My Money” (2015), which shows a group of women torturing and killing an accountant and his wife, created a scandal on account of its gory content while recent true crime TV documentaries such as Deadly Women and Wives with Knives sensationally nurture fantasies of female murder.

What makes the figure of the female murderer so fascinating is her ideologically disruptive power. Women who kill not only violate against basic social rules, but also attack an ideology that defines women as life givers and as ‘the weaker sex’ (rather than homicidal agents)—an ideology that is seemingly confirmed by the fact that real-life women engage in homicidal action to a considerably lesser extent than men.1 Radically upsetting gender norms, the figure of the female killer is politically charged because of her sex. And since her murderous action always also symbolically bears the potential to ‘kill’ established views and beliefs about gender, narratives of female murder2 bear ideologically disruptive potential. Having said this, the politically charged nature of this figure may also be used to reinforce ← 9 | 10 → dominant gender norms. By framing her murderous action within dualistic paradigms (i.e. Madonna/whore, mad/bad) that mark the female murderer an aberration and, thus, contain her doubly lethal power, narratives may feature female murder to restore and reinforce a gender ideology that is firmly grounded in gender stereotypes. This book, which is the first full-length study that examines female murder in modern American drama, demonstrates that narratives of female murder may also contest such dichotomous conceptualizations. In so-called ‘lethal performances,’ I argue, the ideologically disruptive potential of the female murderer takes full effect, as it not only remains ‘uncontained’ on the level of dramatic plot, but also performs a symbolic murderous act by dismantling and attacking dominant ideological constructions.

Although female murderers abound in literature, this cultural phenomenon has not been adequately explored. In the Anglo-American context, very few monographs deal with literary representations of women who kill3 and only a handful of anthologies dedicate work to the cultural and social phenomenon of female murder.4 The lack of scholarship on female ← 10 | 11 → murderers in drama is particularly startling. The theater, after all, offers a hospitable home for a politically charged figure like the female killer. Literary critic Lynda Hart points out that “[a]s a form, the drama is more public and social than the other literary arts” and has therefore time and again served as “a highly subversive, politicized environment” (“Performing Feminism” 2). The immediacy of performed drama with the embodiment of a female murderer on the stage underlines the confrontational potential of this figure, both in terms of dramatic action and political effect. Conflict, an elementary feature of drama, typically underlies murderous action and the very finality of murder is a forceful textual strategy to end a play or to bring about a structural or content-related turning point in the plot. As a literary genre that is conventionally written for the performance in a public space (i.e. a theater), drama is in constant dialogue with the culture from which it emerges. Hence, the cultural context of a play of female murder is of particular interest, as the woman who kills may operate as a dramatic tool to reinforce or question gender-related mechanisms of social control on the stage. It is precisely this potential to comment on social issues that makes the dramatic figure of the female murderer politically pertinent.

As one of the few monographs that maps out the political nature of cultural narratives of female murder, Jennifer Jones’s Medea’s Daughters (2003) presents an important contribution to the exploration of this cultural phenomenon.5 Surveying the social and cultural interpretations of real-life ← 11 | 12 → trials of women accused of murder, Jones finds that dramatic narratives of female crime “have been used to contain and control cultural anxiety evoked by the disturbing figure of the female killer” (x). Demonizing the female murderer and thereby demarcating boundaries of acceptable womanhood, Jones argues, these cultural narratives (i.e. the narratives that were produced by both the dramatic interpretation of the murder trial and each case’s historical legal records together with the press coverage) often function as cultural morality tales that reinforce and perpetuate gender stereotypes. To signal the conservative politics of such narratives, Jones coins the term ‘narrative of containment’ (xii–xv).

Building on Jones’s argument, I seek to amplify this category to define a recurring pattern in plays that feature female murder. What I propose is to differentiate between dramatic narratives that are textually and ideologically constructed in a way as to ‘contain’ the ideologically disruptive potential of female murder, i.e. performances of containment, and dramatic narratives that exploit this potential to disclose and attack dominant ideologies, i.e. lethal performances. In the structural logic of a performance of containment, for example, the (symbolic) punishment of the murderous woman is a recurring plot mechanism6 that retrospectively contains her ideologically disruptive potential. Often (yet not always) this effect is textually achieved by the closed form that, by virtue of its dramatic structure, invites narrative closure, thus resolving the plot and re-establishing order. June Schlueter observes that “[c]losure is not an ideologically neutral concept” as it links generic convention (i.e. dénouement or resolution) with social convention (Dramatic Closure 39). Certain narrative patterns may therefore work to reinforce or question social power structures, as Annette Kolodny explains: “The power relations inscribed in the form of conventions within our literary inheritance […] reify the encodings of those same power relations in the ← 12 | 13 → culture at large” (147). An ending in which the female murderer marries may ideologically re-align the murderously deviant woman with socially conservative values and thereby reinforce their validity and moderate her lethal power. By the same token, an open ending that leaves the meaning of murder unresolved may be a narrative strategy that draws attention to a conflict rather than resolving it, thereby provoking new ways of thinking about the issues raised in the playtext.

Depending on the style, structure, and plot of a dramatic text, female murder may be used as a tool to reinforce or question established social, cultural, and political boundaries. This is not to suggest that certain narrative structures as a rule conjure up specific meanings. Rather, it is important to distinguish between a thematic ending and its ideological underpinnings, for, as Kolodny also notes, crucial is “what the symbolic demands of that particular conventional ending imply about the value and beliefs of the world that engendered it” (147). What interests me is the interplay of form and content in the given text: How is female murder brought about textually and performatively? At what point in the dramatic narrative is the murderous act played out and what could it mean? Given its rare occurrence in real life, why would female murder feature in a certain playtext? What is the dramatic function of female murder and how does the play relate to its cultural frame of reference? Is there a link between ‘containing’ or ‘disruptive’ dramatizations of female murder and the cultural and historical moment from which those narratives emerge?

Jennifer Jones sees a direct connection between the political validity of narratives of female murder and the narratives’ cultural context. She holds that narratives of female murder “proliferate in times of feminist activity because they contain anxiety about gender roles and, in so doing, deflect attention away from the systematic repression of women” (xiii). The belief that women’s emancipation goes hand in hand with a rise in women’s criminality reaches back to the late nineteenth century and, despite the lack of empirical substance, persists even today (Heidensohn, Women and Crime 154). Only recently, Hanna Rosin in her The End of Men (2012) attributed women’s greater participation in the job market to the development of a man-consuming ‘matriarchy,’ contending that “[w]omen are becoming more aggressive and even violent in ways we once thought were exclusively reserved for men. This drive shows up in a new breed of female murderers, ← 13 | 14 → and also a rising class of young female ‘killers’ on Wall Street” (10, emphasis added). This argumentation strongly resonates with Freda Adler’s Sisters in Crime (1975), in which she announced the rise of a new female criminal at the height of the second women’s movement and unabashedly claimed that women’s crime would rise as women demanded equal access to formerly male domains (13).

According to criminologist Meda Chesney-Lind, such warning forecasts “provided those opposed to the women’s rights movements with apparently scientific evidence of the ‘dark side’ of liberation,” which fueled anti-feminist tendencies (“Rediscovering Lilith” 15). Hence, it is a symptom of sexism that during times of a heightened feminist consciousness (often accompanied by political action) the bugbear of the criminal woman is conjured up and stylized into a cultural ‘performance of containment.’ The nature of this resistance against gender equality also explains why stereotypical notions of criminal women in court, in the media, and in culture have proven rather tenacious. Focalizing plays that transcend such stereotypes, this study seeks to problematize the narrow lens with which female murder is too often analyzed.

As performances of containment tend to be designed in a way as to not question established power relations, I propose to add another category to the repertoire of dramatic narratives of female murder.7 Utilizing the ideologically disruptive potential of the female murderer, lethal performances, I argue, draw attention to dominant ideologies and challenge social and cultural assumptions about gender, genre, and sexuality. Due to this political potential, the function of female murder in lethal performances, I posit, often transcends the strictly dramatic domain, critically commenting on social and cultural ills of the day. The lethal performances ← 14 | 15 → in this study disclose and challenge gender-based double standards in the law, the media, and in culture; they revise familiar fictional and historical narratives of female murder; they dismantle and attack binary oppositions that structure hierarchical gender relations; and they draw attention to a discursive tendency that conflates female crime with deviant sexuality, and vice versa. The radicality of bringing a lethal performance onto the stage suggests that such narratives do not respond to feminist political activity by “[deflecting] attention away from the systematic repression of women,” as Jones proposes (xiii), but quite on the contrary, by using the politicized cultural climate to feed discursive redefinitions of gender and sexuality. As political interventions into established power relations, lethal performances do important cultural work. Processing, disclosing, and enacting the ideologically disruptive potential of female murder, lethal performances challenge dominant ideology. Hence, the word ‘lethal’ in the title is meant not only in literal terms, as in causing a deadly effect, but also is to denote the political commitment of plays categorized as lethal performances, that is, their potential to ‘kill’ concepts, beliefs, or ideas that are taken as a given.

The performative aspect may be understood in two different, yet interrelated ways: First, the word performance describes the theatrical act of staging a dramatic narrative of female murder that employs mimesis to create verisimilitude. A work in drama studies, this study concentrates on textual analysis, yet also seeks to approach drama as a text that is designed to be performed in a theatrical context. To attach satisfactory meaning to the cultural function of female murder in modern American drama, this study takes account of the theatrical and historical context of each play’s original production. The title ‘Lethal Performances’ is deliberately formulated in the plural so as to accredit the multifaceted dramatic representations that this study examines. Second, by constituting a theatrical reality, the plays, cultural artifacts themselves, signal the constructed nature of the discourses they generate (including gender) and thereby highlight their performative nature. Thus drawing attention to normative processes generated by reiteration (i.e. to their ‘performativity’), performance becomes a “site in which concealed or dissimulated conventions might be investigated” (Diamond, Introduction 5). Elin Diamond explains that “as soon as performativity comes to rest on a performance, questions of embodiment, of social relations, of ideological interpellations, of emotional and political effects, all ← 15 | 16 → become discussable” (5, emphasis in original). The term ‘performance’ in the title of this study, therefore, also signals drama’s potential to symbolically perform a politics that via theatrical production may affect the spectator and generate transformation.

There is a critical tendency to overinvest the figure of the murderous woman with a feminist consciousness or agency. Feminism’s combative nature and its aim to test the boundaries of normative social values certainly invite an equation of a female murderer with women’s empowerment. Conceptually speaking, this is, however, a questionable logic since murder is always also an expression of impotence to solve conflicts in a different way and, due to its legal and punitive repercussions, the very contrary of a political program. Even though I maintain that (dramatic) narratives of female murder do have a special political potential, I would like to emphasize that I consider the idea that female murder in and by itself is a feminist political statement a fallacy. As I demonstrate in this study, the function of female murder in American drama takes many forms and may actually also have decidedly anti-feminist effects. I hold that, instead of celebrating certain representations of women who kill as feminist, it is much more interesting to look at how the plays negotiate gender on a thematic, structural, and dramaturgical level and the ways in which female murder reveals social and cultural concerns about gender, sexuality, and crime. In other words, this study retains a feminist interest in that it uses feminism as a tool to shed light on the values, ideas, and beliefs that structure the narrative.

For an analysis of female murder in American drama it is crucial to frame gender in a theory that acknowledges the materiality of the body, for the material presence of the actress’ body on the stage is fundamental for the theatrical realization of plays that feature female murder. The very visibility of the (gendered) body in theatrical space sets processes of signification in motion even before a word is spoken, since “the facticity of the actor’s biological sex always reinscribes the performer with the cultural codes associated with his/her gender” (Geis 169). Using ‘woman’ as a central category of analysis, this study begins with a critical perspective on feminist criticism itself. Since women who kill occupy an exceptional cultural and criminal space precisely because they are women, as my brief history of female murder in the second chapter demonstrates, the category ‘woman’ is fundamental to this study. Feminists have rightly questioned this category ← 16 | 17 → on account of its essentializing tendencies, yet, in so doing, have dismissed the category and, thus, impaired feminism. In my critique of feminist criticism in chapter two, I map out a theoretical framework that seeks to assess gender in a way that retains its conceptual flexibility and acknowledges the materiality of the sexed body so as to retrieve the category ‘woman’ as a politically variable and analytical tool.

The main part of this study is dedicated to textual analysis. To come to terms with the dramatic function of female murder, this study offers a close reading of plays that feature a woman who kills (or a woman accused of murder) as a central character or motif. Murder is chiefly understood as “the deliberate and unlawful killing of a human being” (OED), yet may also take on symbolic meaning (i.e. in terms of its destructive potential regarding concepts). Dramatic narratives that deal with female infanticide and suicide are not covered, because self-murder and the murder of a child raise a host of issues that are conceptually and normatively different from the murder of another (adult) human being. Structurally, each play analysis is preceded by a plot synopsis that outlines the ways in which female murder features in the overall economy of the play.

The corpus comprises American plays that were commercially and critically successful at the time of their original production. The commercial success of a play production is typically reflected in its box-office results while critically successful plays receive favorable theater reviews and usually enter academic debates. All of the plays covered in this study were critically acclaimed when they were first produced. Some productions did not reach commercial success and others ran only for a short period of time. Even though most of the plays have garnered a lot of commentary and criticism in academia, only few articles discuss female murder as a central issue and virtually none have inquired into the dramatic function of this recurring motif. This study seeks to remedy this situation.

To gain insight into the cultural function of female murder I draw upon a number of sources that provide information on the reception and cultural context of the plays (i.e. historical testimonials, such as theater reviews or contemporary publications, and cultural histories). The broad time frame set for analysis (1910s–1980s) seeks to identify tendencies in representing female murder in certain historical periods and to put Jennifer Jones’s claim that narratives of containment “proliferate in times of feminist activity” ← 17 | 18 → to the test (xiii).8 Given that this study concentrates on modern American drama, the plays’ cultural context is of special relevance for another reason. As the Latin etymology of the term modern, meaning ‘now time,’ signals, modern drama is dedicated to the present and, therefore, in dialogue with the culture from which it emerges (Watt 112). Besides its topicality, modern drama, which pioneered with Henrik Ibsen, emphasizes character over plot (thus reversing the Aristotelian precept), so that an analysis of the figure of the female murderer in modern American drama appears particularly worthwhile.

In the American context, the emergence of the Little Theatre Movement set the stage for modern drama (Bigsby, Critical 7; Watt 111). With the watershed of World War I and the social, economic, and cultural upheavals of modernity, American drama reinvented itself institutionally and aesthetically. In the wake of the dissolution of the Theatrical Syndicate, American playwrights, artists, and actors forged a new kind of theater that was dedicated to the production of experimental, non-commercial plays written and performed by Americans. Among the most prolific of the groups of the Little Theatre Movement were the Provincetown Players, a group of amateur playwrights, actors, and stage designers that began to mount their own plays in 1914 in Provincetown before attracting larger audiences upon moving to New York City in 1916.9

Setting off in 1916 with Susan Glaspell’s Trifles, this study begins its survey of dramatic narratives of female murder in the early days of modern American drama. Illustrating the wide spectrum of dramatic styles and themes during this time, chapter three also covers Eugene O’Neill’s ← 18 | 19 → Mourning Becomes Electra (1931),10 Glaspell’s The Verge (1921), and Sophie Treadwell’s Machinal (1928). In the period between the 1910s and the 1930s, on which this chapter concentrates, female murder features as a motif that is employed to comment on issues as diverse as the gender-bias in the criminal justice system, women’s sexuality, marriage, the loss of male privilege, women’s participation in the job market (including the arts), insanity, and eugenics. Attacking dominant gender norms and dismantling the ideological conflation of crime with sexual transgression, the lethal performances in this chapter use female murder to ‘kill’ the Victorian ideal of ‘the Angel in the House.’ Given that murder is directed against sexual partners in a private space in all of these plays (three of whom are actually murdered in the bed), the chapter title ‘Murder Most Foul’11 indicates the radicality of questioning an ideology that relegates women to the ‘private sphere’ by way of murder.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2019 (January)
Female killers American literature Sexuality Gender Women’s Studies Crime
Frankfurt am Main, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2017. 346 pp.

Biographical notes

Ottilie P. Klein (Author)

Ottilie P. Klein graduated in American Studies, Modern History, and Political Science from the University of Bonn. She also studied English at Mount Holyoke College and graduated in Women’s Studies from the University of Oxford. Klein successfully completed a binational doctorate at the University of Gießen and the University of Helsinki.


Title: Lethal Performances