- Blood Relations (play)
"Blood Relations" is a psychological murder mystery by
Sharon Pollock. The play is based on historical fact and speculation surrounding the life of Lizzie Bordenand the murders of her father and stepmother, crimes with which Borden was charged.
Historical Context: Lizzie Borden
On August 4, 1892, Borden discovered her father's body in a downstairs room of the family house. She called upstairs to
Bridget Sullivan, the family's maid, to inform her. Later, while neighbors attended to Borden, Sullivan discovered the body of Borden's stepmother. Both victims had been killed by multiple blows with a hatchet, and although a broken hatchet was found by investigators in the basement of the house, the hatchet was never proven to be the murder weapon. In the absence of other evidence, such as bloody clothing or a murder weapon, the jury in Borden's trial acquitted Borden after an hour's deliberation. The notoriety of the murders and trial led to speculation in the following years about who the murderer was.
The play opens on a late Sunday afternoon in the parlor of the Borden house in 1902, in Fall River, Massachusetts. The Actress's opening speech is from Act 3, scene 2 of Shakespeare's
The Winter's Tale. In this speech, Hermioneresponds to being falsely accused by her husband, Leontes.
Miss Lizzie enters with tea for the Actress, who protests she doesn’t like the tea and toast routine while Lizzie puzzles over the proper way to pour tea. Lizzie worries that Fall River is a little boring for the Actress. She says she is there to see Lizzie. She gives a report about how her rehearsals are going. She reports hearing children in the alley singing a little song about Lizzie killing her parents. Lizzie asks if she defended her. The Actress reports she closed the window. They put on a record and dance as the Actress tries to figure out if Miss Lizzie looks jowly, a comment made in news reports during the trial. The Actress complains that Lizzie never tells her anything, when Lizzie fails to respond to the question of whether she committed the crime or not.
Lizzie wonders aloud whether part of the Actress’s success is due to her connection with an infamous accused murderess such as herself. The Actress bristles at this, but Lizzie says that, ten years after the events, people still talk about her and the crime. Lizzie complains that Emma keeps asking, “did you?” The Actress starts to imitate Emma, carrying on both sides of an imaginary conversation with Lizzie’s older sister.
The Actress says she wants to know the truth. Lizzie suggests they play a game in which the Actress will play Miss Lizzie and Lizzie will play Bridget, the maid the family had in 1892. The action shifts to Lizzie’s murder trial that took place ten years before. The Defense questions Lizzie as Bridget, and she describes the Borden family, including the visit of Harry, Mrs. Borden’s brother. This recollection dissolves to another flashback to the Borden home. Harry has arrived, and it is clear that the purpose of his visit is money, either for himself or his sister, who is Mr. Borden’s second wife. Lizzie had Harry thrown out the last time he visited. He wonders what Bridget is doing with bread crusts. She says they are for Lizzie’s pigeons, and Harry says Lizzie prefers animals to people. The Actress, now playing Lizzie, appears and Harry slips off to split wood.
After Bridget reports a conversation between Mr. Borden and his brother-in-law, Lizzie calls Harry a stupid bugger, flustering Bridget with her foul language. Lizzie voices her concern that Harry is only visiting to connive more money out of her father. Emma appears, complaining of the noise that has kept her from sleep. Emma indicates she’s heard Lizzie’s bad language. Emma doesn’t want to deal with the reality of the family farm, which is in financial ruin, or Harry’s schemes to get more of their father’s money. Lizzie tries to make her talk about it.
Mrs. Borden, the girls’ stepmother, comes down for breakfast and questions Bridget about Harry’s appearance and whether Lizzie knows he’s here. She comes to the conclusion that Lizzie is really quite spoiled. There is obvious tension between Mrs. Borden and Lizzie revolving around Mr. Borden’s money. Mr. Borden appears and they discuss Lizzie and a widower, Johnny MacLeod, who is interested in her. Her father pressures Emma to talk with Lizzie. She goes off in a huff, unwilling to be the family mediator and communicator.
The scene shifts to Dr. Patrick and Lizzie talking outdoors, where she flirts with him, inviting him to run off with her, although he is married. Harry passes by and tells Lizzie to come in for lunch, even though they have just finished breakfast. The scene shifts and Bridget and Lizzie talk about the expectation that Lizzie should get married and have a home of her own. Meanwhile Harry reports to Mrs. Borden that Lizzie has been consorting with the doctor. Mrs. Borden and Harry gang up on Mr. Borden, saying he can’t control his own daughter. Mr. Borden says he’ll talk with her.
The scene returns to the courtroom, and Lizzie recalls how she never was quite good enough as a girl, supposing that she never got at birth that magic formula for being a woman. The Defense returns and questions whether Lizzie could have delivered the ax blows that killed her parents.
The scene switches to a conversation between Borden and Lizzie as he tries to persuade her to see the widower MacLeod. “He’s looking for a housekeeper not a wife,” Lizzie contends. Mrs. Borden joins in and they talk of Lizzie leaving the house and the dowry she’ll receive if she marries. Mr. Borden slaps Lizzie. Her stepmother reminds her that she is financially dependent on her father and that she can’t hope to inherit a third of his estate when he dies.
Harry and Mr. Borden talk, revealing Harry’s business. He wants the fallow farm put in Mrs. Borden’s name and leased to him. Harry will conduct horse auctions and have buggy rides on the property, giving Borden twenty percent. What they are unaware of is Lizzie’s presence, and she confronts her father. Borden’s anger erupts and he directs it at the pigeons Lizzie keeps. Taking the hatchet Harry has brought in from splitting wood, Borden smashes it into the table. Ax in hand, Borden says he is going to take care of the birds. The act ends back in the present with Lizzie saying she loved the pigeons.
The action returns to Lizzie and the Actress’s re-enactment. It is the following day. Emma tells Lizzie she is going away for a few days. Lizzie accuses Emma of running away from things. Lizzie underscores the reality — Harry is getting the farm signed over to their stepmother and will be living there. They will be essentially cut out of their father’s will, left to subsist on only a small allowance.The scene returns to the courtroom. The Defense reappears and questions Lizzie about what happened on that day, and she recalls going for a walk, eating pears, coming back, finding her Papa dead, and calling for Bridget.
The scene shifts back to that day. Mrs. Borden comes down for breakfast and soon Mr. Borden joins the table. Harry pops in and gets an invitation to go to town with Borden. Lizzie, knowing they plan to sign papers in town, tries to persuade her father not to go. The scenes fades to another talk between Dr. Patrick and Lizzie. Lizzie says she could die if she wanted. They walk, and she is going to show him her birds but the cage is empty She asks him whom he would save if he could only save one of two people dying from an accident. Then she asks if he met Attila the Hun and could kill him, would he? He says he would fight in a war but is uncomfortable with this line of questioning. She launches into an attack on her stepmother but she doesn’t get the support she wants and accuses Patrick of being a coward.
The scene turns to Mrs. Borden and Lizzie, who talks about her father killing her birds with an ax. Mrs. Borden is uncomfortable and decides to go upstairs. Lizzie asks her to carry her clean clothes upstairs and put them in her room. Mrs. Borden starts up the steps, and Lizzie follows, describing how she would kill someone, as they exit. Lizzie comes back with a hatchet concealed in her basket of clothes and appeals to Bridget for help, coaching Bridget to say that someone broke in and killed Mrs. Borden.The scene changes, and Mr. Borden is home. Lizzie talks about how much she loves him and the ring she once gave him. She encourages him to sleep and when he does, approaches him with the hatchet. The stage darkens.
Back in the present, Emma and Lizzie discuss the Actress. Emma considers the relationship “disgraceful.” Emma again asks her sister if she did it. Annoyed by her sister’s repeated inquiries, Lizzie threatens Emma with “something sharp.” If she is guilty, Lizzie states, then Emma is guilty as well because Emma raised her and taught her everything. The play ends with the Actress deciding Lizzie did commit the murders. Lizzie, however, points her finger at the Actress and the audience.
* The Actress is Lizzie’s friend and, by all appearances, lover. It is at her request that the tale of Lizzie’s past is re-enacted. Once the flashbacks begin, the Actress assumes the role of Lizzie. In this capacity, she recreates the events leading up to the murders. Basing her assumptions on what she knows of the family’s history, the facts of the murders, and her own personal knowledge of Lizzie’s personality, the Actress pieces the past together. She arrives at the conclusion that Lizzie did commit the murders as a means to escape the claustrophobic life that her family — and society — imposed upon her.
* Abigail Borden married Mr. Borden, a widower with two young girls, and she has never had a good relationship with Lizzie. She would rather not deal with her stepdaughter at all. When she is forced to confront Lizzie, she is harsh and critical, telling the girl that she must do what is expected of her (get married, move out, and have a family of her own) if she wants to progress in the world. Abigail is manipulative, jealous, and, like her brother, Harry, scheming. She sees Lizzie as a threat to the lifestyle that she wants for herself. Unlike her husband, who is stern with Lizzie because he is confounded by her, Abigail’s animosity is rooted in dislike and jealousy.
* Andrew Borden is the man of the house and therefore the one with power. He makes the decisions. Yet he is nagged by his wife and badgered by Lizzie, in their running feud over her future. He prefers not to deal with Lizzie if he can help it. He is pleasant to her if she is being good, but when he is exasperated with her, he can explode, as he does when he attacks her pigeons with the hatchet. His confusion with his daughter’s behavior leads him to avoid her when possible and brutalize her when he is cornered by her. While he is not a physical threat to Lizzie’s survival, his deal with Harry will effectively terminate the small amount of freedom Lizzie enjoys. For this reason his death is rationalized by Lizzie (and the Actress playing her in the dream thesis portions) as necessary for her own survival.
* Emma Borden is Lizzie’s older sister. Since her mother’s early death, Lizzie has essentially been raised by her sister. Emma is a kind and loving person, but she is also meek and non-confrontational. She refuses to face facts, preferring to let any problems work themselves out over time. When Lizzie exhorts her sister to help her put a stop to Harry’s plans, Emma refuses and instead goes off to visit some friends at the beach. While she loves her younger sister, Emma does not understand Lizzie. Like the Actress, Emma also believes that her sister committed the murders. She, however, cannot grasp the circumstances that might explain why her sister would commit such a crime.
* Miss Lizzie Borden is the play’s central character, the axis around which the play events occur. Ten years after the murder of her parents, a crime for which she was accused and later acquitted, she lives with her sister Emma. In both the play’s present and in the flashback sequences, Lizzie is a headstrong, slightly eccentric woman. She has very firm beliefs about living her life by her own rules. Contrary to the expectations placed on women in the late 1800s, Lizzie has no desire to marry and become a glorified domestic servant to a man she does not love. She wishes to follow her own path and, like the pigeons she kept, soar above the confines of the earth.
In the play’s present, ten years after the murders, Lizzie has evolved into something of a legend in her hometown. There are still whispers of her guilt, and her obvious sexual relationship with the Actress give further credence to the town gossip that she is an antisocial freak, an aberration of nature. True to her belief that people should be allowed to pursue their own interests regardless of what others think, there is a part of Lizzie that relishes her outlaw status. By living her life publicly without shame or apology, she is showing others like her that it is okay to be yourself.
Pollock allows the audience to view the character of Lizzie from two unique perspectives in the play. The first is the actual Lizzie who entertains the Actress in her home during the play’s present time frame. The second Lizzie is presented in the flashback sequences. In these scenes, Lizzie is portrayed by her friend the Actress, an outsider to the events that took place ten years prior.
* Dr. Patrick is Lizzie’s closest ally. He frequently visits her, going on long walks during which the two discuss their escape fantasies. While he is sympathetic to Lizzie’s hopes and dreams, he does not fully understand her or her need for personal freedom. He responds to Lizzie’s flirtation and intellectual ponderings, but when she challenges him in a mental game about the value of life — and the possibility of taking life — he has no real answer. In the courtroom sequences, he also plays the part of the Defense, arguing for Lizzie’s innocence.
* Harry Wingate is Lizzie’s step-uncle and the catalyst for her decision to murder her parents. He arrives at the Borden home to convince Lizzie’s father to sign away ownership of the family farm to his wife, Harry’s sister. Harry will then run the farm as an auction site. The deal that Harry and her father arrive at convinces Lizzie that she will be slowly eliminated from the family, her means of support cut off. Knowing that, once in control of the family’s resources, her stepmother will force her out of the house and into a marriage that she does not want, Lizzie knows that she must act to preserve her life. Harry is little more than a two-dimensional conniver whose presence is more or less a wake up call to Lizzie.
* The question is raised what is truth? The Actress asks, “Did you do it?” A question to which Lizzie does not — or cannot — respond. Emma asks her regularly, a litany each day. “Did you — did you — did you?” And Lizzie is again mute. Throughout the play there are more questions raised than answered. The audience would expect empirical evidence, and the play produces the Defense attorney who questions the suspect and her maid. But their authenticity, their authority are in question because the events are being recounted by Lizzie. By presenting the evidence of the case through the memory of the accused, there is no certainty that the events portrayed are real or are figments of Lizzie’s imagination.
* Although it is based on an actual event, Pollock goes beyond the historical facts to delve into the mind and motivation of her central character. While the end results are the same — Borden and his wife are dead and Lizzie has been acquitted of the crime — Pollock raises questions as to the actual path taken to reach those results. She forces the audience to question their own assumptions and conclusions about the truth of things, about why things may have happened as they did.
Sacredness of Life
* “Is all life precious?” Lizzie questions Dr. Patrick. She really isn’t looking for an answer from him because she rejects immediately the affirmative response he offers. She cannot accept that the life of that “fat cow” (her stepmother) is precious, so she pursues the question further. She poses an ethical enigma to the Doctor. If he could only save one of two people injured and dying from an accident, whom would he choose? Would it be the bad person or the one trying to be good?
* Lizzie focuses her questioning in a way that leaves the Doctor uncomfortable. In the same way, the spectator may become uncomfortable because it is clear that Lizzie is rationalizing the murder of her parents to preserve a way of life for her and her sister. In Lizzie’s mind murder becomes logical and acceptable. An analogy is made to puppies on the farm who must be done away with because they aren’t quite right. This is presented to further rationalize Lizzie’s assumption that bad elements must be removed so that regularity (in this case her personal freedom) can be maintained.
* When Lizzie’s pigeons are killed, it is clear something important in Lizzie has been violated. The birds’ deaths are symbolic of the fate that awaits her and her sister if they allow Borden and his wife to go forward with their plans. She cannot stand by without any response. The puppy that is not quite right — who is a threat to normalcy — and is killed becomes the people who are obviously sick and must also be removed. This allows the audience to understand Lizzie’s way of thinking and, in some way, understand her motives for violence.
* Lizzie’s father wants her to consider Johnny MacLeod as a husband. MacLeod is a neighbor who is a widower with three young children and is looking for a wife. With his daughter already in her thirties, Borden is worried that Lizzie will never go out on her own. The only solution for her is to marry. It’s only natural, he tells her.
* Lizzie resists, saying she won’t be around when MacLeod comes to call. “He’s looking for a housekeeper and it isn’t going to be me,” Lizzie says to her father. Her stepmother sees nothing wrong with such a domestic arrangement. That’s essentially what happened with her. She came and married Lizzie’s father, who had two young children, and cared for them. In exchange, she received a nice house to live in, food to eat, and companionship.
* But this is not what Lizzie wants from life. She just can’t fit into the mold society offers her. She complains to her father, “You want me living life by the Farmer’s Almanac; having everyone over for Christmas dinner; waiting up for my husband; and serving at socials.” This is not a life with which Lizzie can ever become comfortable.
* It’s not her fault, Lizzie tells the Actress at another moment. Somehow she didn’t get that magic formula that is stamped indelibly on the brain, the formula for being the socially-acceptable version of a woman. “Through some terrible oversight. . . I was born . . . defective.”
* Lizzie even begs her father to let her go to work with him and learn how to keep books. He refuses. That’s not a woman’s place, he tells her. She responds that he can’t make her do anything she doesn’t want to do. Her stepmother urges her as well to consider MacLeod, reminding her that her father is taking care of her. Lizzie volunteers to leave but, with no means to earn a living that isn’t a possibility. Her stepmother tells her, “You know you got nothing but what he gives you. And that’s a fact of life. You got to deal with the facts. I did.”
* All that Lizzie can see is that she is entitled to a third of what her father has. She thinks this only fair. But she has no right. Her stepmother says that her father is going to live a long time and indicates she won’t be included in the will. “Only a fool would leave money to you.”
* So even though Lizzie is proud and defiant, she is without any real power. She is not supposed to be out walking and talking with married men, as she does with Dr. Patrick. She is without any money other than what is doled out to her. She has no right other than the birthright of her body. She can marry and have children. This is not a choice Lizzie could ever accept.While contemporary women have many choices in deciding their life course, this was not the case in the late 1800s. Women were second-class citizens expected to fulfill specific — limited — roles in society. While Lizzie is spoiled, she is also prepared to work to preserve her independence. She offers to work in her father’s office but that option is denied to her. Presented with the choice of conforming to a way of life she abhors (an arranged marriage with MacLeod) or living as little more than a servant (to her stepmother and step-uncle), Lizzie decides to actively alter her and her sister’s fate.
* There are many examples of Lizzie’s desire to act and live independently — to stretch beyond the boundaries of traditional women’s roles — in the play. This is illustrated by her open relationship with the Actress, a relationship that appears to be homosexual in nature. Such activity was scandalous in the nineteenth century; respectable women were not supposed to be overtly sexual — especially not with each other. While this is strong evidence of Lizzie’s quest for independence, Pollock’s most powerful statement lies in the murder itself: Lizzie is willing to kill to earn her personal freedom.
* Pollock has labeled Lizzie’s re-enactment of the 1892 murder ten years prior as the “dream thesis.” The play avoids realism and defies logical time progression. There aren’t clear entrances and exits. The actors weave in and out of the present and past. There are three real characters on stage, Lizzie, the Actress, and sister Emma. The others are pulled up from the memories of the 1892 event. This gives the scenes with Borden, his wife, Harry, and Dr. Patrick a hazy, hallucinatory quality; they are the ghosts of Lizzie’s memory.
* To make these sequences more surreal, the flashbacks are not played in a straightforward fashion. Events from the present, the trial, and the days leading up to the murder are jumbled together — representative of the randomness of dreams and memories. The ambiguity of the play increases when Lizzie proposes playing a game in which the Actress will play her. And so as the dream progresses, the audience is unable to keep a distance. There is always a question of what is real and what is not. As the two women assume their roles in the re-enactment, the boundaries between Lizzie and the Actress fade. And then it is unclear who is the real Lizzie.This approach provides the opportunity to consider the fluidity of truth, or perhaps the idea that there are many sides to truth and therefore many truths. The dream sequence is part of the structure that incorporates a play within a play, where action and conflict are happening on different levels.
* By having the Actress re-live Lizzie’s past, to perceive the events as Lizzie did, Pollock encourages the audience to do the same, to view Lizzie’s life through the eyes of an outsider to the family. This technique effectively illuminates for the viewer the personal path that Lizzie took to the murders.
* The roots of documentary theatre go back to 1925 and the work of Erwin Piscator. According to Robert C. Nunn in Canadian Literature, this approach “forgoes the traditional emphasis of dramatic theatre on the timelessness of the human condition in favour of an emphasis on the human situation unfolding in a specific historical context.” It’s an attempt to get at the truth that can be hidden by the existence of fact.
* Documentary theatre is a way to look at how performers relate to the audience and how performance relates to reality. Techniques that are used include dreams, reflections, monologues, and flashbacks that are laced throughout the work. “These break into the action,” said Peter Weiss, a German dramatist known for his connection with the Theatre of Cruelty. As Weiss wrote in Theatre Quarterly, “causing uncertainty, sometimes creating a shock- effect, and showing how an individual or a group are affected by the events portrayed. Laying bare the inner reality as opposed to external trappings.”
* Blood Relations successfully jars the audience away from their comfortable understanding of truth and raises questions that are not answered in the play, questions that are meant to play over in the viewer’s mind after the drama has ended.
* Blood Relations weaves in two important
* The hatchet is a sharp-edged implement that clarifies and separates. Harry wields it, as does Mr. Borden. This symbol of masculinity and control is usurped, however, when Lizzie takes the hatchet to both her stepmother and father. In addition to being the instrument of liberation from her oppressive parents, the hatchet gives Lizzie value and a place in the community. She is more than just an old spinster; she is the one who took the ax and killed her father and stepmother, a source of tremendous talk even ten years after it occurred. The hatchet is symbolic of Lizzie’s ability to transcend the patriarchy that she felt enslaved her.
Historical Context: The Murder and Trial
On the morning of August 4, 1892, Lizzie reported to Bridget Sullivan, the Irish maid, her discovery of the bloody body of her father sprawled on the sofa in the sitting room, and instructed her to fetch the family physician, Dr. Bowen. When the doctor and the police arrived, they also found the body of Abby Borden upstairs, her head similarly crushed by multiple axe blows. Bridget Sullivan testified that she had been in her own attic room, resting from cleaning windows on a very hot day. She had neither heard nor seen anything unusual. Lizzie claimed that she had been in the barn, although the undisturbed dust on the barn floor seemed to indicate otherwise. Emma was out of town visiting friends. Four axes were discovered in the basement, one without a handle, and the head covered in ashes. No evidence of blood was found on Lizzie’s clothes, although her friend, Miss Russell, did discover her burning a dress three days later, which she claimed had been stained with paint. At the inquest, it was also revealed that Lizzie had bought prussic acid from a local pharmacy the day before, and that Abby and Andrew Borden had been ill that morning. Lizzie was arrested for murder and the trial date set for June 5, 1893. The trial lasted fourteen days, and caused a national sensation: it was the first public trial in the United States to be covered extensively by the media. Popular opinion was split on the innocence or guilt of Lizzie Borden, with strong support coming from feminists and animal rights advocates. [http://www.canadiantheatre.com/dict.pl?term=Blood%20Relations Canadian Theatre Encyclopedia ] ] .
Lizzie and Emma hired the best lawyers, paid from their father’s estate. The legal rhetoric of the lawyer for the Defense as recorded in the trial transcripts is passionate, persuasive, and very playworthy:
To find her guilty you must believe she is a fiend. Does she look it? As she sat here these long weary days and moved in and out before you, have you seen anything that shows the lack of human feeling and womanly bearing? Do I plead for her sister? No. Do I plead for Lizzie Andrew Borden herself? Yes, I ask you to consider her, to put her into the scale as a woman among us all, to say as you have her in charge to the Commonwealth whom you represent: It is not just to hold her a minute longer, and pleading for her I plead for you and myself and all of us that the verdict you shall register in this most important case shall not only commend your approval now, unqualified and beyond reasonable doubt, but shall stand sanctioned and commended by the people everywhere in the world who are listening by the telegraphic wire to know what is the outcome as to her. She is not without sympathy in this world.
This impassioned tone is also evident in the statement for the Defense in Blood Relations, reflecting a male bias against the possibility of women committing such atrocities:
;Gentlemen of the Jury!! I ask you to look at the defendant, Miss Lizzie Borden. I ask you to recall the nature of the crime of which she is accused. I ask you – do you believe Miss Lizzie Borden, the youngest daughter of a scion of our community, a recipient of the fullest amenities our society can bestow upon its most fortunate members, do you believe Miss Lizzie Borden capable of wielding the murder weapon – thirty-two blows, gentlemen, thirty-two blows – fracturing Abigail Borden’s skull, leaving her bloody and broken body in an upstairs bedroom, then, Miss Borden, with no hint of frenzy, hysteria, or trace of blood upon her person, engages in casual conversation with the maid, Bridget O’Sullivan, while awaiting her father’s return home, upon which, after sending Bridget to her attic room, Miss Borden deals thirteen more blows to the head of her father, and minutes later – in a state utterly compatible with that of a loving daughter upon discovery of murder most foul – Miss Borden calls for aid! Is this the aid we give her? Accusation of the most heinous and infamous of crimes? Do you believe Miss Lizzie Borden capable of these acts? I can tell you I do not!! I can tell you these acts of violence are acts of madness!! Gentlemen! If this gentlewoman is capable of such an act – I say to you – look to your daughters..
Lizzie’s social position, physical appearance, and public performance all mitigated against a guilty verdict. Although her testimony at the inquest was contradictory and confused, at her trial she was calm, impassive, and inscrutable. She did not testify at the trial, and her only words she spoke were, “I am innocent. I leave it to my counsel to speak for me.” The transcript records only the words of others. And in Blood Relations, Miss Lizzie also evades direct testimony. Her part is enacted by her friend, an actress from Boston, and she assumes the role of the maid Bridget, an observer and director of the replay of the events that culminated in the murder of the Bordens. This framework establishes the possibility of multiple perspectives. What “happened” ten years earlier depends on what is remembered, what is re-enacted. The past is played out as theatre, as is the trial. We are the witnesses, and we try to ascertain the “truth” – which proves endlessly elusive and multi-faceted. As in many of her other plays, Sharon Pollock is intrigued by questions of choice and responsibility – the reasons for our actions, whether they be motivated by personal considerations or public pressures, or a combination of both.
Lizzie Borden was acquitted – her lawyers having persuaded the jury that the evidence was circumstantial. She continued to live in Fall River in a fashionable Victorian mansion located on “The Hill” with her sister. In effect, however, she continued a life of social circumscription, even more limited than before the murders, since she was ostracized by the community. She did travel regularly, however, maintaining a relationship with a young Boston actress named Nance O’Neil, which provoked yet more rumours, and resulted in Emma finding her own place to live. She died in 1927 and was buried in the Borden family plot. She left her estate to animal care organizations.
Historical Context: Women’s rights
As Mr. Borden points out to Lizzie in Blood Relations the “natural thing” for a woman of her age was to be married, have children, be running her own house. The role of women was that of mistress of the home and dispenser of hospitality – as exemplified by Lizzie’s tea etiquette in the opening scene of Blood Relations. But as a spinster daughter in her father’s home, with no marriage prospects, Lizzie’s role was circumscribed by her father’s authority, even though, like other relatively affluent women, she traveled in Europe with lady friends, and engaged in charity work.
By 1898 women in most States could own or control property, but inequalities of civil status remained. They were still confined in tight corsets and impeded by long trailing skirts, flounces and bustles. Although improvements in domestic conveniences liberated middle-class women from household drudgery, allowing more time for a wider participation in society, the traditional prejudice against self-support remained entrenched. The aspiration of many young women was the freedom to develop their own personalities through education, work, or club activities, which became training schools for humanitarian, political, and social leaders, including suffragettes and feminists. As Kate Wells pointed out in an 1880 issue of Atlantic Monthly, “What is this curious product of today, the American girl or woman? Is it possible for any novel, within the next fifty years, truly to depict her as a finality, when she is still emerging from new conditions,... when she does not yet understand herself?... The face of today is stamped with restlessness, wandering purpose, and self-consciousness.” Yet, according to historian Arthur Schlesinger, she was “responding to her highest instincts in struggling toward an easier, more self-respecting and self-reliant footing in American society” (The American Woman [1870-1900] ).
In Blood Relations, Miss Lizzie attempts to find for herself a freer existence, but which she can only imagine through dreams or through role-playing. The Actress, on the other hand, flaunts her freedom to indulge in late-night parties, to smoke cigarettes, and to have a “liaison” with Lizzie Borden.
The “real” Lizzie Borden acted out her frustration by fabricating break-ins into the home and barn behind the house, and her father responded by decapitating her pet pigeons, and by placing locks on almost every door in the house.
The play premiered professionally at Theatre 3 , Edmonton Alberta , March 12 1980, directed by Keith Digby , with set by J. Fraser Hiltz, costumes by Kathryn Burns and lighting by Luciano Iogna, featuring Janet Daverne as Miss Lizzie, Judith Mabey as the Actress, Barbara Reese as Emma, Wendell Smith as Dr. Patrick/Defense, Brian Atkins as Harry, Paddy English as Mrs. Borden and Charles Kerr as Mr. Borden. This was not the play's first appearance on stage, however, as Sharon Pollock often extensively revises her plays, even after the first couple of productions. The previous version was produced as My Name Is Lisabeth in 1976 at Douglas College with Pollock herself playing the role of Lizzie Borden. After significant revision, she renamed the play Blood Relations and staged it as a new work in 1980. It subsequently played at theatres across Canada, including the Centaur and the Shaw Festival in 2004, and in the United States, Australia and Japan. .
In 1982 and 1983, Pollock sued a television station for damage to her literary reputation when it decided to drop her play and develop its own script. The case was settled out of court.
A published version of Blood Relations, released in 1981, won the Governor General's Award, the first time such an award was made for a piece of dramatic literature.
Pollock’s early plays quite clearly were focused on making a comment about society, earning her the label of social playwright. “With Blood Relations people who don’t like social comment plays seem to think I’ve ‘moved’ considerably and I’m finally beginning to concentrate on character, that I’ve learned a few character traits and maybe they can expect some ‘better’ work from me,” Pollock once said in an interview in The Work: Conversations with English-Canadian Playwrights.Although not well-known in the U.S., Pollock has an impressive reputation in her native Canada. Jerry Wasserman of the University of Toronto Quarterly, labels her one of the “two finest living [Canadian] playwrights.” Richard Paul Knowles seemed in agreement when he wrote in Atlantic Provinces Book Review that “Sharon Pollock is one of only a handful of playwrights in Canada who have put together a solid and developing body of work over a number of active years in the theatre, and of that handful she is one of the best.”
Some critics have been disappointed in what they perceive as a lack of clear feminist focus in Blood Relations. According to S. R. Gilbert, the play “does not adequately explore issues of women in Victorian (or modern) society.”
Pollock commented on how male reviewers failed to see any connection with feminism in this work, with some seeing the play as a mystery play while others as perhaps a psychological study of a woman. “It’s only women who see it making a statement about women today,” the playwright noted.
Pollock’s claim that Blood Relations does have a feminist message has been echoed by many women critics. “In many ways the play epitomizes the strengths and originality of theatre about women imprisoned in a man-ordered universe,” said Ann Saddlemyer in Rough Justice: Essays on Crime in Literature, “but at the same time . . . it speaks beyond this framework to explore even more far-reaching concerns of time and spirit.” The structure of the play has received a good deal of attention and credit is given to Pollock for her effective use of the dream thesis.
Paul Matthew St. Pierre, writing in Canadian Writers since 1960, praised Pollock for her ability to reach audiences in “imaginatively and strikingly unconventional manners.” The critic lauded her for the use of the dream thesis in which the past is called up with the assistance of the Actress. St. Pierre claimed that this technique creates far more dramatic suspense than the actual physical action of the ax. “This technical accomplishment, more than anything else, is the source of the play’s triumph.”
The structure of Blood Relations allows for the ambiguity that is interwoven throughout the play.Nowhere does the play state in absolute terms that Lizzie is guilty (although the Actress’s perception, playing Lizzie in the dream thesis, seems to indicate so). And the court acquits her. But then there’s the Actress who arrives at the conclusion, after playing the role of Lizzie, that she is guilty.
A basic question that resounds throughout the play is “did she?” The play remains ambiguous and never really fully answers this. According to Saddlemyer, Pollock successfully reframes that question by pointing the finger (and ultimately the hatchet) at the viewer and asking, in Lizzie’s shoes, what would you do? ”Saddlemyer, Ann. “Crime in Literature: Canadian Drama” in Rough Justice: Essays on Crime in Literature, edited by M. L. Friedland, University of Toronto Press, 1991, pp. 214-30.] .
Mary Pat Mombourquette noted in the International Encyclopedia of Theatre that Pollock is not one to let the audience off the hook. Passivity is not allowed. “Instead she demands that the audience acknowledge that the act of judging makes them active participants in the theatrical event.” Mombourquette, Mary Pat. “Blood Relations” in the International Encyclopedia of Theatre, Volume 1: The Plays, edited by Mark Dady-Hawkins, St. James Press (Detroit), 1992, pp. 71-72.] .
Pollock, in the interview in The Work, entertained the thought that there may be more to the story, and that she has another play to write that takes off where Blood Relations ends. That play, she stated, will examine what happens to the woman who is unable to kill her father or mother, or even herself. That play will be “about women and madness.”
Pollock has been labeled a regional playwright, living and working on the western coast of Canada. This is a label she both accepts with pleasure, looking askance at New York and London for acceptance, and one that she resists. Diane Bessai, in her introduction to Blood Relation and Other Plays, thinks the label is limiting, stating that “few playwrights practicing the craft in Canada today have her range and technique.” Bessai, Diane. Introduction to Blood Relation and Other Plays by Sharon Pollock (NeWest Press, 1981)] .
Blood Relations was the first full-length play Pollock produced. Pollock's early plays quite clearly were focused on making a comment about society, earning her the label of social playwright "With Blood Relations people who don't like social comment plays seem to think I've 'moved' considerably and I'm finally beginning to concentrate on character, that I've learned a few character traits and maybe they can expect some 'better' work from me," Pollock said in an interview. Robert Wallace, The Work' Conversations with English-Canadian Playwrights (Coach House Press, 1982)] .
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