Blood Relations by Sharon Pollock

Blood Relations

by Sharon Pollock
Table of Contents
1. Blood Relations: Introduction
2. Blood Relations: Sharon Pollock Biography
3. Blood Relations: Summary

4. Blood Relations: Characters
5. Blood Relations: Themes
6. Blood Relations: Style
7. Blood Relations: Historical Context
8. Blood Relations: Critical Overview
Blood Relations: Essays and Criticism
¨ The Victimization Experienced by Lizzie Borden in Pollock's Play
¨ Feminism and Metadrama Role-Playing in Blood Relations
¨ Stages of Boredom
10. Blood Relations: Compare and Contrast
11. Blood Relations: Topics for Further Study
12. Blood Relations: What Do I Read Next?
13. Blood Relations: Bibliography and Further Reading
14. Blood Relations: Pictures
15. Copyright
Blood Relations: Introduction
Blood Relations was first produced in 1980 at Theatre 3 in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. 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.
The play is based on historical fact: die 1892 double murder of Lizzie Borden's father and stepmother, a crime
for which Lizzie herself was charged. The crime shocked the Massachusetts community of Fall River, as well
as the whole nation, and citizens read with fascination reports of the trial. Lizzie was acquitted but the crime
was never solved, and her innocence was questioned by the public. In contemporary times, the figure of Lizzie
Borden has achieved iconic status. Many perceive her as an early feminist who did not shy from acting and
Blood Relations 1
thinking as an individual. It has often been theorized that, if Lizzie did in fact commit the murders, her actions
were based on self-preservation, an attempt to escape from an abusive family situation.
Some reviewers of Blood Relations challenged Pollock for writing a work that failed to adequately confront
feminist concerns, instead choosing to direct the play towards a more general political agenda. Pollock's work
appears to be "more involved with studies of oppression in general and political processes in particular than ...
in specific struggles of women," said S. R Gilbert in Contemporary Dramatists.
Blood Relations was the first full-length play Pollock produced. A published version of it, released in 1981,
won her the Governor General's Award, the first time such an award was made for a piece of dramatic
Controversy often followed Blood Relations, specifically in 1982 and 1983, when 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.
Blood Relations: Sharon Pollock Biography
Sharon Pollock was born on April 19, 1936, in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada. Named Mary Sharon
Chambers, she was the daughter of a physician and politician. Her mother died when she was sixteen,
evidently a suicide. She studied at the University of New Brunswick but dropped out to marry Ross Pollock, a
Toronto insurance broker, with whom she had five children before the marriage ended.
Pollock then became involved in theatre in New Brunswick and later moved on to Calgary, Canada. In 1971,
after having worked as an actress, she began to write plays Her first work to be staged was Walsh, which was
produced in 1973. The play examines the Canadian government's treatment of Native North Americans. Like
Walsh, her subsequent work often deals with political themes. The Komagata Maru Incident, which was first
produced in 1976, addresses the issue of racism.
Blood Relations was first produced in 1980 (although an early version of the play was produced in 1976 under
the title My Name Is Lisabeth) and signaled a shift in Pollock's drama towards the individual as seen in family
and social relationships. The play earned Pollock a Governor General's Literary Award, the first time a
published dramatic work received such an honor. A second Governor General's Award came to Pollock for
Doc, produced m 1984. This play later evolved into Family Trappings and is based on autobiographical
material about Pollock's family. Other productions of Pollock's work include Fair Liberty's Call, which
premiered at the Stratford Festival in 1993, and Saucy Jack, performed first at the Garry Theatre in Calgary,
where she is founder and artistic director
Pollock's other literary honors include the Canada Australia Literary Award (1987) for her body of work, the
ACTRA Nellie Drama Award for National Radio, and a Golden Sheaf Award for writing for television.
Pollock has not limited her activity solely to creating her dramas; she has taught play writing at a number of
Canadian universities and has worked as a director. She has been chairperson of the Advisory Arts Panel of
Canada Council, headed the Playwright's Colony at the Banff Centre for Fine Arts, and has been associate
director for both the Stratford Festival Theatre and the Manitoba Theatre Centre In addition to the
contemporary stage, she has written for radio and television She has also written numerous dramatic works for
Blood Relations: Introduction 2
Blood Relations: Summary
Act I
The play opens on a late Sunday afternoon in the parlor of the Borden house in 1902, in Fall River,
Massachusetts. 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 m 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 crane 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 lo 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 Hash-back 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
Blood Relations: Summary 3
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.
Act II
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
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 m
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
Blood Relations: Summary 4
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.
Blood Relations: Characters
The Actress
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
She 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
Mr. 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
Emma 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
Lizzie 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.
Blood Relations: Characters 5
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 tune 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
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
Harry 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.
Blood Relations: Themes
The question is raised what is truth1? The Actress asks, "Did you do it1?" A question to which Lizzie does
not—or cannot—respond. Emma asks her regularly, a litany each day. "Did you—did you—did you1?" 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
Blood Relations: Themes 6
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.
Women's Roles
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
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
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
Blood Relations: Themes 7
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
Blood Relations: Style
Dream Thesis
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 the real
Lizzie is.
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.
Documentary Theatre
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
Blood Relations: Style 8
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 m two important images: the hatchet and the pigeons Viewers are introduced to these
images early in the play. The birds are brought up when the crusts of bread that Bridget has for them are seen
and their importance to Lizzie is made known. The birds represent the part of Lizzie that can fly, that can be
free. This is seen in her flirtatious talk with Dr. Patrick and her fantasies of stepping off to Boston with him
Like the birds, however, which are caged, Lizzie also is tied down. And Lizzie also is fed the crusts. The
birds' link to Lizzie is further illustrated when Borden kills them. Just as he literally cuts them to pieces, he
figuratively "cuts" Lizzie off from the life she desires, shattering her dreams.
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.
Blood Relations: Historical Context
The 1970s were an important time for the women's movement. Although women received the right to vote in
the 1920s, most of society's advantages still resided with men. The women's advocacy group the National
Organization of Women (NOW) was formed in 1966 and a few years later the feminist movement was given
an important media voice with the debut of Ms. magazine The women's movement had its highest profile in
the years from 1972 to 1982, when an attempt to pass a constitutional amendment addressing the issue of
equal rights for women was underway. The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) was passed by both houses of
Congress. The only hurdle was the requirement that the amendment be ratified by three-quarters of the states
in America. A strong opposition movement, fueled by irrational fears that women would lose special
privileges and would have to go to war and share public washrooms with men, gathered steam. The opposition
was successful and the ERA was defeated.
In the Supreme Court, however, a victory for women was won in 1973 m the historic Roe vs. Wade case. This
legal precedent established the right of an American woman to have an abortion. Some power was left in the
hands of the individual states, which could place some limitations on the procedure. It was, however, a victory
for feminists and, in essence, gave women the right of control over their own bodies.
The success of the forces that opposed the ERA represented a growing movement of conservatism in the U.S.
It was that movement that resulted in the election of Ronald Reagan as president in 1980. He represented a
broad base of Americans who had survived the massive changes in the 1960s and 1970s and believed that the
government shouldn't be bothered with assuring the rights of all peoples. Reagan arrived on the political scene
at a time when the economy was floundering and America's position of power in the world seemed threatened
by numerous enemies. If government withdrew from certain areas of life, this conservative movement
asserted, the economy would flourish and everyone would be better off.
Blood Relations: Historical Context 9
Reagan's campaign had promised support for the family What became clear was this was not support for
women's issues but rather an attempt to keep women m traditional domestic roles. This position turned a blind
eye to certain sociological realities: namely that many more marriages were ending m divorce and that there
was a significant increase in single-parent families. For many women's activists, the 1980s served as an era
during which their dedication to independence was renewed.
Struggles for freedom were also occurring on the world front in 1980. A significant event in Poland
foreshadowed the eventual breakdown of the communist dictatorship that controlled the Soviet Union and
Eastern Europe. Shipyard workers in Poland went on strike to protest arise in meat prices. Their stand unified
the majority of workers in the country who had grown uneasy with the way the government ran their lives.
The spirit of protest spread to the general population of Poland. The slogan "Solidarity" was adopted to
exemplify the working-class's unity. Ultimately the strikers' demands were met, including the release of jailed
dissidents. This event gave Polish citizens a foothold in controlling their rights. The strikers were eventually
able to gain control of the government and their leader, Lech Walesa, became Poland's new president.
Also in 1980, former Beatle John Lennon was shot to death by a disturbed fan, Mark David Chapman,
shocking the world and ending for good any fantasies that the Beatles, who had gone their separate ways m
the early 1970s, would reunite. Lennon's death stirred a continuing debate about gun control that was given
further strength when John Hinckley attempted to assassinate President Reagan a short time later.
Blood Relations: Critical Overview
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
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.
Blood Relations: Critical Overview 10
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 m 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 slate in absolute terms that Lizzie is guilty (although the Actress's perception, playing Lizzie in
the dream sequence, seems to indicate so). And the court acquits her. Bui 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 the question by pointing the
finger (and ultimately the hatchet) at the viewer and asking, in Lizzie's shoes, what would you do?
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." 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 staled, 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."
Blood Relations: Essays and Criticism
The Victimization Experienced by Lizzie Borden in Pollock's
Long before she was arrested for the murder of her parents, Lizzie Borden was more than likely thought of as
an eccentric personality around Fall River, Massachusetts Even within her family she had a reputation. Her
father avoided bringing up uncomfortable topics with her. He seemed to be afraid of what she might say or do.
Harry, her stepmother's brother, would creep around, trying to avoid her, claiming Lizzie loved animals but
"what Miss Lizzie doesn't love is people." And her stepmother avoided her when she could, complaining of
Lizzie to anyone who would listen; "The truth is she's spoilt rotten."
Yet in spite of this seeming display of power, Lizzie is essentially impotent. Her influence over people only
extends to trivial matters. When it comes to exerting her will to attain something that is truly important to her,
she is powerless Within the social structure of the late-nineteenth century, Lizzie is at the mercy of female
stereotypes. This headstrong, peculiar young woman, who was accused of killing her parents with a hatchet, is
in fact a victim of the conservative era in which she lived.
Pollock's Blood Relations shows us a woman who is trapped in a body and an assumed role for which she is
not suited. Confiding in her friend the Actress, Lizzie acknowledges that somehow she didn't get that special
something that brands one as a socially-acceptable woman at birth. Lizzie puzzles over whether it was
because her natural mother died at birth. Whatever the cause, she knows that she is different, she does not fit
Blood Relations: Essays and Criticism 11
die mold.
Her isolation from social norms is highlighted when her father attempts to arrange a marriage between her and
a local widower. She tells Borden that she tries to do what he expects of her, "but I don't want to get married. I
wouldn't be a good mother."
It's only natural to be interested in a man, her father tells her, mistaking her talks with the married Dr. Patrick
as some kind of love interest. But Lizzie's interaction with the doctor is removed from romance; she seeks his
company because he is willing to listen to—and at times participate in— her ideas, hopes, and dreams.
Unfortunately, Lizzie has no one else with whom she can relate (and, despite his willingness, Dr. Patrick is
not the kindred soul she seeks). She feels isolated within her own family and ill-suited to fulfill the role
expected of her. She is a victim of her body, put in a woman's body without having the “natural'' inclinations
of a woman. Ten years after the murder, Emma nags Lizzie about her relationship with the Actress, implying
that they are lesbians. “People talk,'' Emma tells Lizzie, who, it is clear, cares very little what others think of
her behavior (and may even relish her scandalous reputation as a murderous lesbian). The proper Emma,
however, is horrified with her sister's action and finally bursts out, "It's ... disgraceful!" Lizzie Borden lives a
life that others might consider enviable. Even her stepmother envies her, jealously complaining about the trip
to Europe her father had given her. And although she is well provided for, she is the victim of abuse. While
Lizzie appreciates the material comforts her family provides her, what she really craves is acceptance for who
she is and encouragement to live her life as she feels she must. Yet her family-—and the community at
large—are too entrenched in subscribing to "normal" and "acceptable" female behavior to ever allow such
freedom. Instead, Lizzie's family is often frustrated with her stubborn eccentricity, and they are unsure of how
to interact with her. Borden vacillates between avoiding and ignoring her, to favoring her with gifts, to
outright brutality when she tries his patience excessively.
This is illustrated in a flashback when Lizzie overhears Harry's scheme to have the farm signed over to his
sister, Lizzie's stepmother. Lizzie bursts in on the men, Harry slinks off, and she demands to see what her
father has hastily stuffed in his pocket. "What are you doing with the farm?'' she demands. He insists it's not
any of her business, but she presses him and tries to grab the papers from his pocket. He slaps her. Harry
returns with a hatchet that Borden grabs and announces that he's going to eliminate the problem of the birds.
"No," Lizzie pleads These pigeons are more important to her than the humans who people the house. Borden
realizes how vital the birds are to Lizzie. By destroying them he is consciously trying to wound her. It is
possible that his intentions are to shock her into more acceptable behavior, but it is equally logical to assume
that his act is one of pure malevolence. In any event, the birds' deaths have a profound affect on Lizzie. Not
only did she love them as pets, the pigeons, and their capacity for flight, were a symbol of the freedom for
which Lizzie yearned.
Borden's brutality is so stark and dramatic that we question the singularity of his act; this is not the first time
that Lizzie's father has cruelly attacked her way of life. We understand, then, her attempts to please her father,
her proclamations that she is trying to be good. Behind her tough guy act, Lizzie is a woman who has for
years had to dodge the explosive, brutal anger of her father. She fears him and what he might do.
Borden forms the cornerstone of the dysfunctional family in the play. But in addition to the brutal, distant and
controlling father, there is the conniving and bitter stepmother. She feels that Borden spoils his
daughters—especially Lizzie. When she is ineffective at changing her husband's behavior, she schemes with
her brother to gain control of the farm and gradually squeeze the girls out of Borden's financial support So it is
Harry that reports to Borden that people in the town are talking about him and that it's bad for business. "If a
man can't manage his own daughter, how the hell can he manage a business—that's what people say."
Mrs. Borden brings all her resentment to bear on Lizzie. She has suffered, marrying a man and having to
mother his two children (and have none of her own). She feels that Lizzie presence is undermining her own
The Victimization Experienced by Lizzie Borden in Pollock'sPlay 12
happiness, spoiling what would otherwise be a good life.
Emma is brought into the triangle when her father asks if she has talked to Lizzie about entertaining
MacLeod. Emma has, despite Mrs. Borden's claims of mothering the girls, essentially raised Lizzie herself
and has been made to feel responsible for her. It's not a role she enjoys, but she continues to look after her
younger sister. But she complains as well. When pressed to influence her sister's thoughts on marriage, Emma
indicates her unwillingness to get involved. "Then why don't you tell her?" she bursts out. "I'm always the one
that has to go running to Lizzie telling her this and telling her that, and taking the abuse for it!''
Lizzie makes a valiant but unsuccessful attempt to solicit Emma's support in her opposition to Harry's scheme
to take over the farm. Although it is highly unlikely that the two of them allied against their father would have
had much impact, Lizzie still feels that she has to take a stand. Emma, however, chooses to sneak off to visit
friends at the beach for a few days to avoid any confrontation. Lizzie feels betrayed and misunderstood, since
the loss of the farm impacts Emma's future as much as it does hers.
Emma is less fretful of the future, trusting that things will somehow work themselves out. She prefers to avoid
confronting her problems. As she tells Lizzie: "If I want to tell a little white lie to avoid an altercation in this
house, I'll do so. Other people have been doing it for years." Lizzie pushes Emma away from her, recalling the
experience of finding her birds dead and her father's callous attitude. “He didn't care how much he hurt me
and you don't care either Nobody cares." Unable to find comfort and support within her own family, Lizzie
feels victimized and alienated.
But as she stated in The Work, Pollock sees Lizzie's problems as more than just her family. “As soon as you
start dealing with the politics of the family, it's not so easy to know who the bad guys are ... Blood Relations is
a play in which the woman is in conflict, not with her father—she loves her father—but with the society around
her" While it is clear that her family could offer her more in the way of support, it is also evident that their
subscription to social mores prevents them from endorsing the kind of life Lizzie, wishes to lead. Lizzie is
ultimately a victim of her times and her society.
Lizzie has ideas in her head of how she wants to live her life. What is clear is that she will never succumb to
the pressure to marry even though it— and motherhood—were the only real roles for women at the end of the
nineteenth century. When her father points out that marriage is a natural thing, she asks him if, because she
does not want to marry, she is unnatural. It's a question to which he does not want to respond. If his daughter
is, by biological definition, a woman and yet also not a woman by social definition, then the whole social
order is in question. It is more than Borden can comprehend.
Lizzie tries to explain to her father what she wants. “I want out of all this ... I hate this house I hate.. I want
out. Try to understand how I feel.... Why can't I do something?... I could go into your office . I could... learn
how to keep books?"
This question of course has no answer. Her father tells her that women do not work in offices. He begs her to
think sensibly As the daughter of a wealthy respectable community member, he and society expect her to
function as a responsible and appropriate woman. And living apart from her family, or working outside the
home, does not fit into the narrow constraints of society's expectations.
The double edged sword is this, even if she were allowed to strike out on her own, Lizzie has no real property
rights. She can own property, and have her "own'' life, only as connected to a male family member, whether
father, husband, or brother. She demands as her right a third of the farm, but her stepmother makes it clear that
she has no rights— neither society nor her family will give her any.
The Victimization Experienced by Lizzie Borden in Pollock'sPlay 13
The only future she can envision is one in which her father has passed on, and she continues to live in this
house with her intolerable stepmother and step uncle Harry. She foresees her sister obediently waiting on their
stepmother while she, Lizzie, will just sit alone, isolated, in her room. This future is intolerable to her She
strolls and chats with Dr. Patrick, the one person with whom she can engage m fantasy of life with a bit of
freedom. And although she may chat about going off to Boston, she counters that with talk about death, even
her own: "If I wanted to die—I could even do that, couldn't I?"
Dr Patrick is flustered and tries to ease her out of her depression by discussing a fantasy they have shared
about going to Boston. But this doesn't deter Lizzie from considering death, either for herself or someone else,
as a solution to her problems When she is with Dr. Patrick she allows herself the fantasy that she is free, that
she could do this or that. But on this particular day, that fantasy is crushed when she has to confront again the
brutal killing of her pigeons. She has reached the point where fantasy is no longer satisfying. She must take
action in deciding her future.
What follows, or what may have followed, may seem like a premeditated and cold-blooded criminal act. The
facts that are known for certain are these—both Borden and his wife were killed by blows from an ax. The
defense proclaimed Lizzie innocent. The court believed Lizzie's story and found her not guilty Ten years later,
however, the question still lingers. Her sister Emma and her lover, the Actress, badger her for the truth. Did
she do it?
Lizzie doesn't answer. On the surface it might appear that Lizzie is a criminal. But the surface as Pollock
shows it in Blood Relations is a blurred area. The story is recalled as a kind of waking dream. Lizzie's
experiences from that past are recalled by an outsider to the events, the Actress It is unclear whether the story
related is the truth or what the Actress assumes to be the truth. The facts of Lizzie's life offer a plausible
motive for her to have committed the crime, but because she remains mute on the subject, the audience is left
to ponder her actual involvement.
Lizzie was brutalized by her father, her family, and a society that insisted she act in a way that was
inconsistent with her nature. There was no escape, or so it seemed to her. She was the victim, something we
understand as the play ends and Emma again begs to know the truth. The Actress, arriving at her conclusion,
says, "Lizzie, you did." "I didn't,'' Lizzie responds. Pointing at the Actress and then the audience, she states,
"You did."
The question at the center of Blood Relations, according to Ann Saddlemyer in Rough Justice, is "which is the
greatest crime: imprisonment of the soul, or life at any price?" The evidence presented in Pollock's play seems
to confirm Lizzie's acceptance of the latter. Realizing that to continue living in her parents' house meant a
slow death of her ideals and the imprisonment of her independence, Lizzie chose to take action. Born in an era
unwilling to accept a woman as a unique individual and misunderstood by her family, she saw herself as a
victim. To Lizzie it was her parents' life or her own. Her final gesture, an accusatory finger pointed at the
audience, is a call for the viewer to look at their own prejudices and preconceptions of what is "normal," what
is "acceptable." While modern society has made great strides in accepting behavior that was once considered
odd or antisocial, there are still many people who are persecuted because society at large cannot understand
them. In accusing the audience of the crime, Lizzie is saying that, by imposing strict roles for women,
nineteenth century society was just as guilty of the Borden murders as the woman who picked up the ax.
Source: Etta Worthington, for Drama for Students, Gale, 1998.
Feminism and Metadrama Role-Playing in Blood Relations
Feminism and Metadrama Role-Playing in Blood Relations 14
In her introduction to a new collection of feminist essays on contemporary women's theatre, Lynda Hart
reminds us of Marilyn Frye's analogy between women and stagehands. In the foreground of our collective
world view, Frye observes, is "Phallocratic Reality," constructed by men and presented as objective reality
The analogue is dramatic realism, which depends on sustaining the onstage illusion of reality. In both cases,
attention is not to stray to the background. Women's experience in the one instance and offstage reality in the
other are kept in the dark, while men's experience and onstage action are illuminated. Feminism moves our
focus of attention to the background, as does theatre that challenges the conventions of realism Hart speaks of
"a shift in the last decade" of feminist criticism "towards rigorous exploration of the language of
representation itself" [Making a Spectacle, University of Michigan Press, 1989] The dramatic analogue would
be metadrama, those plays about drama and theatre that examine the conventions—the language—of dramatic
representation itself.
Feminism and metadrama intersect in the role-playing of Sharon Pollock's Blood Relations. The character of
Lizzie Borden is created at the point of intersection. Her character is defined both by the social role-playing
that was imposed on her by family and the rest of society in 1892 and by the Actress' 1902 performance as
Lizzie, when she imaginatively creates Lizzie's part in the ax murders.
The first kind of role-playing is a feminist concern; the second is metadramatic. The part of the play that
recreates the events of 1892 presents the independent, strong-minded Lizzie in contrast with her mousy older
sister Emma. Except that she is not married, Emma is what society, represented by the senior Bordens,
expects of a woman. "Emma's a good girl," as her father says. Lizzie rebels against the role she is expected to
play. She straggles against the role of the dutiful daughter, alternately pleading with and raging at her father.
She is contemptuous of the expectation that she will pose as eligible and alluring when she has no wish to
become a dutiful wife and mother. Her flirtation with the married Catholic doctor is carried on out of boredom
and defiance, not because she is attracted to him, as her father assumes, but because she can amuse herself and
annoy her family without running the risk of being pushed into marriage with him. Lizzie's hatred of
dependence and her individuality cannot be accommodated in her society. Her father, whom she loves,
approves of her only when she wears a mask that horrifies her, when she pretends things she doesn't feel,
when she reflects her father's idea of femininity .The first act closes on a highly theatrical depiction of Mr.
Borden's slaughter of Lizzie's birds. Act II opens on the subject of death, not directly Lizzie's reflections on
her father's destruction of the birds she loved, but her memory of her father drowning a puppy during one of
her childhood stays at the family farm. The puppy was "different," Lizzie reflects—as she is "different"—and
"different" things are killed The atmosphere of death is pervasive from this point on.
Mr. Borden's destruction of Lizzie's birds recalls Jean's destruction of Julie's bird in Miss Julie. Pollock keeps
the outcome of Stnndberg's play before us, as Lizzie considers the possibility of taking her own life. The trap
tightens around Lizzie, as her prospects for further freedom are cut off by the transfer of her father's property
to her stepmother. As death looms ever larger, the only options are Julie's—suicide—or murder. "I want to die,
but something inside won't let me," Lizzie says. “Something inside says no." So the murders can be seen as an
act of strength, an assertion of Lizzie's own value, of the repressed woman's right to life.
Lizzie's parents portray traditional modes of thought. Mrs. Borden, whom Lizzie despises, is caught in the
same trap as Lizzie, but she accepts it as inevitable. Mr. Borden is driven frantic by his inability to make his
daughter conform to the only role for women he understands. He is bewildered and frustrated by her refusal to
accept what he is convinced is best for her Lizzie's murder of the senior Bordens can be taken as an attempt to
destroy blind male authority and female acceptance of it.
In the part of Blood Relations that depicts events that take place in the Borden household in 1892, then, we are
shown a woman who rebels against the social role expected of women; the role is so far from her sense of her
true identity that she feels herself being destroyed by it; the role is a killer, and she reacts by becoming a
murderer, enacting instead of suffering destruction. This fits Helene Keyssar's emphasis in Feminist Theatre
Feminism and Metadrama Role-Playing in Blood Relations 15
on transformation rather than recognition as characteristic of feminist theatre. From the tune of Aristotle,
Keyssar observes, the recognition scene has been central to drama, but feminist drama presents
metamorphosis in place of serf-discovery. Lizzie Borden's transformation from repressed daughter to
murderer, from victim of society to destroyer of paternal authority, is an instance of such transformation. The
key development of the play is not a moment of self-recognition but rather Lizzie's decision to change, to
seize power and strike out for freedom after a lifetime of powerlessness in which every possibility for freedom
has been denied her.
Pollock's feminist exploration of social roles and their limitations is complex in a number of ways I do not
propose to discuss in detail. Lizzie's Lesbian relationship with the Actress accounts for her rebellion against
traditional courtship; her homosexuality is just one of the ways in which her individuality runs counter to the
prescribed social role that stifles her. The contrast between Mrs. Borden, who is able to use the woman's role
to her advantage, and her stepdaughters, who cannot, is instructive. And certainly it is noteworthy that it is the
very strength of society's conviction that woman must be what popular belief dictates she is that acquits Lizzie
in the murder trial. The Defense moves towards his concluding assertion of Lizzie's innocence with:
"Gentlemen! If this gentlewoman is capable of such an. act—I say to you—look to your daughters—if this
gentlewoman is capable of such an act, which of us can lie abed at night, hear a step upon the stairs, a rustle in
the hall, a creak outside the door?..."
Blood Relations is a feminist play, but it goes beyond the feminist study of the restrictions of women's social
roles and the feminist emphasis on the possibility for change. These ingredients were in the early version of
the play called My Name is Lisbeth, performed at Douglas College in 1976, a version that was judged wanting
by Pollock and by others. The play that earned the first Governor General's award for drama and many
productions across Canada and beyond is more — not only a feminist study of social roles but a sophisticated
metadramatic exploration of role playing. The University of Calgary's collection of Sharon Pollock's
manuscripts shows how she worked to create and strengthen the metadramatic impact of her play. In My
Name is Lisbeth, there is no Actress, no 1902 frame, just the depiction of the events of 1892 in the Borden
household. Later, the Actress and the role-playing device are introduced. Still later, the Actress' role is
strengthened to the point at which it dominates the play. Even after she published the script in 1981, Pollock
extended its metadramatic suggestions further in a production she directed.
In Blood Relations, Lizzie's choice of murder in response to the threat of self-destruction is portrayed by the
Actress in 1902; we do not see a "direct'' presentation of the events or characters of 1892, but rather what
Pollock calls "a dream thesis"—all the characters of 1892 are imaginary. Miss Lizzie (the script's designation
for the 1902 character), who has been toed and acquitted, will not say whether or not she committed the
murders The Actress comments on Miss Lizzie's awareness of the "fascination in the ambiguity. .. If you
didn't I should be disappointed... and if you did I should be horrified " If she didn't, Miss Lizzie is nothing
more than "a pretentious small-town spinster," and the Actress is doubtful whether that is better than being a
murderer (21) Certainly the ambiguity was central to Pollock's conception, which is reminiscent of
Pirandello's Right You Are (If You Think So) and Henry IV. In a holograph note on the back of the penultimate
page of a nearly final version of Blood Relations, Pollock wrote, "The ambiguity of her art is what keeps the
Lizzie Borden legend alive '' Historically, the ambiguity is maintained by the fact that although Lizzie was
acquitted, no one else was ever convicted of the murders. In the play, Miss Lizzie's relationship with the
Actress apparently depends on the fascination of that ambiguity. Metadramatically, the central ambiguity of
the play is the relationship between Miss Lizzie and the Actress—not the sexual relationship, but their
identities and their interaction in creating the events of 1892.
The device of the Actress' creation, under Miss Lizzie's guidance, of the circumstances that lead up to the
murders, and then a gradual move into her part in such a way that the enactment of the murders is her own
creation, produces the desired ambiguity. It also extends the exploration of role-playing with a construct that
is overtly metadramatic. Like feminism which rejects conventional social roles, metadrama subverts dramatic
Feminism and Metadrama Role-Playing in Blood Relations 16
conventions by calling attention to them, spotlighting the assumptions about the relationship between drama
and life that underlie most dramatic performance. We have traditionally thought in terms of difference: actors
play roles on stage, while offstage they revert to their true selves. Drama is about life, even if a play inevitably
presents a perception of life rather than an imitation of life, as Richard Hornby argues in Drama, Metadrama
and Perception.
Metadrama is about our means of perception, about how we organize our experiences to present them in
dramatic form; "it occurs whenever the subject of a play turns out to be, in some sense, drama itself." [Drama,
Metadrama and Perception, Buckrell University Press, 1986] Much feminist drama, including Blood
Relations, is about socially dictated gender roles. But Blood Relations is also about how we perceive
role-playing itself. There is considerable use in the play of dreams, game-playing, images, all of which point
to perception, rather than action, as central to the play. Most evident of all in this complex of non-naturalistic
devices is the central device of role-playing, which raises questions of identity and reminds us "that all human
roles are relative, that identities are learned rather than innate.''
In the early stages of the Actress' adoption of Lizzie's role, she is tentative, guided by Miss Lizzie in her role
of the maid Bridget to understand the family relationships and the situation. Miss Lizzie/ Bridget subtly
corrects her mistakes and leads her towards an understanding of her role. As the Actress gains confidence in
her role, Miss Lizzie, as Bridget, fades into the background. The Actress is never assigned a name of her own.
She blends into Lizzie, both on stage as they change roles and in Pollock's designations in the script, where
she is first THE ACTRESS, then LIZZIE and sometimes ACTRESS/ LIZZIE. Even before the role-playing is
undertaken, Miss Lizzie has a line which begins to blur the line drawn between the two: "You look like me, or
how I think I look, or how I ought to look ... sometimes you think like me... do you feel that?'' The Actress
concurs- "Sometimes." The two can be seen to comprise one complete identity, each supplying something that
is lacking in the other.
By Act II, the Actress is fully in control of her portrayal. Her Lizzie is now an independent creation, though
we may not realize it as the drama unfolds. There are many reminders that Miss Lizzie and the Actress are
role-playing in Act I, but there are fewer in Act II. The outlines of Lizzie's character are consistent with those
developed under Miss Lizzie's guidance in Act I, but the Actress' performance of Lizzie's actions on the day
of the murders is almost completely uninfluenced by Miss Lizzie/ Bridget, who is mostly absent from the
stage during the buildup to the first murder. Bridget exits just after the beginning of Act II, reappears twice,
briefly, instructing the Actress/Lizzie only once— "You mustn't cry"—before the Actress/Lizzie leads Mrs.
Borden upstairs to her death.
Later, Miss Lizzie/Bridget appears unobtrusively just before the Actress/Lizzie picks up the ax to murder her
father as he sleeps. Under Pollock's direction, the blackout that occurs just as the ax hesitates at the apex of its
path was accompanied by a chilling scream. Who screams9 One thinks of Bridget, horrified by Lizzie's deed.
But could it be that Lizzie is horrified by the Actress' depiction of her as murderer of the father she loved? (Of
course it could have been pure theatricality—-just a scream, to underscore the horror of the moment.)
Because the Actress' portrayal of Lizzie as an ax murderer is so vivid and so psychologically convincing, and
because our absorption in the unfolding events of Act II is virtually undisturbed by reminders that this Lizzie
is an actress' creation— despite the theatricality of the blackout at the moment before the "onstage" murder —
an audience is very likely to accept the truth of events as they have been portrayed. However, the end of the
play provokes second thoughts on both die truth of the events just witnessed and the characterization of Lizzie
as feminist heroine.
The characterization of Lizzie as a strong and independent woman in 1892 in undercut by the realization that
in the frame play ten years later, Miss Lizzie still lives in the same house (which she had earlier longed to
escape) and she still lives with her conventional sister Emma. Her dream of social prominence in a corner
Feminism and Metadrama Role-Playing in Blood Relations 17
house on the hill remains unrealized, as does her alternate wish to live by herself on the family farm. Emma's
concern about what people will think still intrudes on Miss Lizzie's life. Miss Lizzie has formed a bond with
the unconventional Actress, but she is still chained to the old values, represented by Emma. Quite realistically,
she has been unable to free herself entirely from the social role she might have hoped to escape with the death
of the older Bordens—her transformation is limited. She is independent enough to maintain a socially
unacceptable liaison with the Actress, but hardly more independent than she was ten years earlier in her
flirtation with the married doctor. Lizzie occupies a middle ground between Emma and the Actress on the
scale ranging from social constraint to freedom from social role-playing. It is the Actress, the professional role
player, who is freely unconventional, uninhibited, strong. And, as the last line of the play (Miss Lizzie's "I
didn't. You did") reminds us, it is the Actress who enacted the murders, who might be said to have created a
Lizzie strong enough to commit them.
In the final scene, Lizzie rebuffs Emma's persistent questioning about whether she committed the murders. In
a sequence which Pollock originally placed early m the play but which gained power when she moved it to the
end, Lizzie turns the spotlight on Emma: "Did you never stop and think that if I did, then you were guilty
too?... It was you brought me up.... Did you ever stop and think that I was like a puppet, your puppet... me
saying all the things you felt like saying, me doing all the things you felt like doing, me spewing forth, me
hitting out...." This speech suggests a parallel between the Actress' creation of Lizzie and Emma's creation of
Lizzie, an assertion of psychological reality in which the differences between life and art fade into
insignificance. And the implication that Lizzie is what Emma created is no more true or false than that she is
what the Actress created The Actress projects herself into a situation described by Lizzie and creates a Lizzie
who murders her parents Emma, Lizzie claims, created Lizzie to respond to a situation as Emma never dared
to herself—as the Actress would respond. The good girl needs the feminist, which is why Emma stays with
Lizzie, even though she has good reason to fear her. One might say that Emma deliberately absented herself
from the home on the day of the murders, to give Lizzie more opportunity to act A feminist reading would see
how all three women share complicity in the murder—and the stage direction has the Actress looking at the
audience when Lizzie concludes the play with "You did," which suggests an extension of complicity to the
audience as well.
However, Lizzie is not necessarily either Emma's creation or the Actress'. She is ultimately an unknown. As
Lizzie claims in trying to explain to her father that she cannot live simply as the reflection of what others want
to see, “If no one looks in the mirror, I'm not even there, I don't exist!" Both Emma and the Actress as
creators constitute a defense for Miss Lizzie, barriers to any claim she might make to autonomy, to
self-definition—or to responsibility. But this recognition, interesting as it may be to us intellectually, carries
relatively little dramatic impact. Dramatically, the truth is that "Lizzie" is a murderer. The murders are
psychologically convincing, theatrically vivid. They are not realistically presented—the "onstage" murder is
highly stylized, in fact, not actually depicted at all. But the drama is more powerfully convincing than the
theoretical possibility of a different reality. The drama satisfies, leaving an audience incurious about the
reality, despite the invitation in the play's conclusion to dismiss the staged events as just an imaginative
construct of the Actress'. Lizzie's life remains an enigma, but the Actress' dramatic portrayal is vivid and
arresting. The Actress outshines her subject, and the drama eclipses whatever the reality might have been. The
art is more real than life.
Source: Susan Stone-Blackburn, "Feminism and Metadrama Role-Playing in Blood Relations" in Canadian
Drama, Volume 15, no 2,1989, pp 169-78.
Stages of Boredom
Sharon Pollock's Blood Relations is ... quite routinely boring. Lizzie Borden may not be the most original
subject for the stage (Elsie Borden might have been more interesting), but a woman who, as Miss Pollock
Stages of Boredom 18
plainly suggests, could ax her father and stepmother to death in 1893, and even in those pre-Alan Dershovitz
days, get herself acquitted, is not likely, you would think, to yield an infinitely talky, monotonous, and in most
ways unsurprising play. It is this most successful Canadian playwright's notion, however, that Lizzie was a
lesbian feminist as well as a free and cultured spirit stifling in the burg of Fall River. When her father kept
signing over more and more of her rightful inheritance to his crude wife and her cruder brother, and would not
listen to reason, what else was Lizzie to do?
The play begins in 1903, showing us Lizzie and "the Actress" (presumably based on Nance O'Neil) together
chez Lizzie, in the most discreetly conveyed flagrant delicto This line is not pursued; instead, the two women
act out a highly sanitized version of what happened back then, with the Actress playing Lizzie, Lizzie playing
the Irish maid, the parents and an uncle playing themselves, and one other actor playing both Lizzie's married
swain and her defense attorney An awkward conceit, especially as some character is always skulking or
lowering around the periphery, while the story lurches this way and that, and the revelations come thin and
The language is genteel and civilized enough, though now and then somewhat anachronistic ("hooligan''
appears several years too early, and I doubt if in that time and place anyone would "soak up the ambience").
But the serious prolepsis is in the characterization: "To have murdered one's parents or to be a pretentious
small-town spinster—which is worse?" asks one or another of the Lizzies. The author's accusing finger, I'm
afraid, points to the latter. I felt uncomfortably throughout that I was supposed to view the case as justifiable
homicide. Under David Kerry Heefner's routine direction, and in a handsome production with a particularly
apt set by Ron Placzek, all the actors are adequate, and both Lizzies, the mysterious Jennifer Steinberg and the
extremely subtle Marti Maraden, outstanding.
Source: John Simon, "Stages of Boredom" in New York, Volume 16, no. 9, February 28, 1983 , p 78.

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