The Victimization Experienced by Lizzie Borden in Pollock's Play

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2486

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 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...

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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 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 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

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3031

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 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 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 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

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 381

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 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 slow.

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.


Critical Overview