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Lethal Performances

Women Who Kill in Modern American Drama


Ottilie P. Klein

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.

Cultural representations of female murderers in modern American drama (1910s–1980s) – Dramatic and cultural function of female murder in Susan Glaspell’s Trifles and The Verge (1921) – Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra (1931) – Sophie Treadwell’s Machinal (1928) – Joseph Kesselring’s Arsenic and Old Lace (1941) – Maxwell Anderson’s Bad Seed (1954) – LeRoi Jones’s Dutchman (1964) – Maria Irene Fornes’s The Conduct of Life (1985) – Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart (1979) – Wendy Kesselman’s My Sister in This House (1980) – Women and Crime, or: Why Sexual Difference Matters, feminist criticism, history of female crime – Murder Most Foul: Killing the Angel in the House – Murder Most Rare: Postwar American culture, politics of sexual containment, femme fatale, film noir – Murder Most Fair: Female Murder as a Catalyst for Social Change