Blood Brothers Analysis
In Blood Brothers, Willy Russell combines elements from musical theater, folk plays, and Greek drama to create a realistic tragedy with a distinct political view. One of the most interesting aspects of the play is that it uses tropes of Classical drama—such as the concept of Fate and the hamartia, or tragic flaw, that makes characters engineer their own downfalls—to explore contemporary class divides. Further, Russell turns these very ideas on their head, arguing that these preordained destinies and flaws are actually products of historical and material forces.
To make the play more accessible in the tradition of folk drama, Russell uses plenty of rhyming songs that can be set to simple, hummable, and sweet melodies. The resulting lines lend the play an immediacy and easy musicality:
So, did y’ hear the story of the Johnstone twins?
As like each other as two new pins
The language is immediate, colloquial, and colorful, with the young Mickey and Edward delighting in sharing “the F-word” and a schoolteacher referring to a pupil as a “y’ borin’ little turd.” And the use of structured rhyme in the Narrator’s songs lends authority to his pronouncements, underscoring his role as a stand-in for a Greek chorus.
Apart from the use of music, two prominent devices the play borrows from folk theater are its use of repetitions and patterns and its catalog of familiar symbols and omens. Folk theater, which originated from troupes travelling from village to village performing familiar stories, often uses set motifs and patterns to establish ready-made contexts. In Blood Brothers too, twins, doubles, the number seven, and other motifs are repeated often to help build the play’s themes and atmosphere. For example, Mrs. Johnstone repeats “Marilyn Monroe” as a talisman until Marilyn Monroe becomes the play’s shorthand for tragedy, and her refrain of “going dancing” is an eerie expression of the dwindling optimism to which Mrs. Johnstone still clings, imagining a future where she can dance in the carefree manner of her youth. Later, she describes Mickey as “dancing mad,” signaling the end of hope. The Narrator’s tendency to transform into other characters adds to the motif of doubling and repetition.
The play often uses omens and superstitions from British and global contexts. For instance, magpies, which are a symbol of ill omen in British folklore , recur in the play, as do images of other classic superstitions, such as broken mirrors and spilled salt. These symbols of ill omen become a code for the tragedy towards which the play is hurtling. Another theatrical convention the play borrows from folk drama is mime, colloquially known as “the dumb show.” The deaths of Mickey and Edward are mimed in the opening scene, priming the audience to discover the how and why of their deaths. This structural...
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