A harsh exposé on trashy celebrity media

  • June 25, 2010
I have seen a play that I wish every Catholic with a strong stomach could see. It says more about sick contemporary culture than anything I’ve seen on stage for a very long time.

The plot is based on the story of Jack Unterweger, an Austrian convicted of the 1974 murder of a girl. While serving a sentence for this crime, Unterweger took up writing. His stories and autobiography — all twaddle, it appears — won him fans and even the support of the literati.


After a surge of petitions for pardon from his backers, Unterweger was released in 1990. Thereupon he became a minor media personality by hosting television programs about criminal rehabilitation and working as an investigative reporter.

He also began to kill again. By the time he was arrested, in 1992, he had murdered at least nine prostitutes. Unterweger hanged himself on the same day he was condemned to life imprisonment for the prostitute killings.

In the musical stage-play performed in Toronto in mid-June, Viennese director and playwright Michael Sturminger brings Unterweger back to life to flog his new book, The Infernal Comedy: Confessions of a Serial Killer. (The title of the book and of Sturminger’s theatrical piece are the same.)

Everyone who has attended a celebrity book signing will immediately recognize the scene Sturminger sets: a mostly bare stage, with a table stacked high with books ready to be autographed. The author (played by the well-known American actor John Malkovich) appears, dressed smartly, but casually.

He loosens up the audience with a few jokes. The audience plays along with clapping and laughter, because we know the script of even very serious celebrity book-signings. The start-up jokes are part of the evening’s entertainment.

An early indication that this is going to be no ordinary author’s event, however, occurs when a soprano walks into the light, and, accompanied by a baroque ensemble, begins to sing a Mozart aria. By the song’s end, Unterweger is kneeling at the soprano’s feet, clutching her in rapt adoration. This stage business is surprising. But the business becomes dark and startling a few moments later, when another soprano, while singing, is strangled by Unterweger. She revives to sing again — death arias by baroque composers punctuate Unterweger’s monologues and rants — dragging the audience back and forth between high musical art and the author’s vulgar banality, and wrenching the usually sedate book-launch format into ruin. Unterweger promises to tell the truth. But can he be believed? The presumed authority explains that the only thing he regrets about his career in crime is that he lied for show-biz effect and that some of these lies got into his Wikipedia biography. We then find that even the title of the book, which he screams at us to buy, is a lie: every copy is blank.  The whole book tour at the heart of the drama turns out to be nothing more than an opportunity for the dead author to bask again in the spotlight of celebrity and do more of the manipulative spouting-off that won him, in life, much notoriety in Austria and beyond.

If the audience felt ripped off at the end, that’s exactly what Sturminger intended. This play, and Malkovich’s bright, sinister performance of it, are sharply focused attacks on the mass-cultural taste for books and TV shows with titles like The Infernal Comedy: Confessions of a Serial Killer. It is also an assault on the huge media industry that panders to this trashy taste, even as the real Jack Unterweger successfully gratified it during his brief season of celebrity. The play is indeed cruel, but not as cruel as the vast cultural phenomenon it so savagely exposes.

(Mays is a Toronto author and journalist.)

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