Historical Context

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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.

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,...

(This entire section contains 622 words.)

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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.

Literary Style

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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 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.

SymbolismBlood 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.

Compare and Contrast

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1892: Lizzie Borden is arrested for the brutal murder of her father and stepmother, a murder which left the community aghast. Later an all-male jury acquits Lizzie of the murders.

Today: Sports hero O. J. Simpson is accused of the brutal slaying of his estranged wife Nicole Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman. Media coverage of the trial is enormous, and the proceedings are dubbed “The Trial of the Century.'' Despite a preponderance of evidence implicating Simpson, he is acquitted. He is later found responsible for Nicole and Ron's deaths in a civil case, which establishes his liability in terms of money owed to Goldman's family. Despite the civil trial results, many consider him a murderer who escaped justice through the deceit and trickery of his skilled defense attorney, Johnny Cochran.

1890s: A rash of mergers and buyouts result in the formation of trusts, which are designed to reduce competition. This results in major increase of wealth for a few individuals, while the real wages of workers increase so slightly that they remained on the verge of financial ruin.

Today: Microsoft, a multi-billion dollar computer software company, has successfully eliminated or reduced most of its competition, making chairman Bill Gates one of the wealthiest men in the world. Microsoft is under investigation for charges that it has violated antitrust laws created to prevent market monopolies.

1976: The first Michigan Woman's (the intentional misspelling removes the word "man" from the gender tide) Festival convenes, bringing women together from all over the country. The event attracts mostly gay women and makes the lesbian community quite visible.

1980: The beginnings of the AIDS epidemic calls attention to political concerns of the gay and lesbian communities.

Today: Ellen Morgan, the main character in the popular sitcom Ellen, comes out as a lesbian, as does the actress playing her, Ellen DeGeneres. Although there is significant protest from conservative religious movements, the show continues on prime time television. Gays continue to fight for equal rights and for the right to marry same sex partners.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources Bessai, Diane. Introduction to Blood Relation and Other Plays by Sharon Pollock, NeWest Press, 1981, p 8.

Gilbert, S R. "Sharon Pollock" in Contemporary Dramatists, edited by James Vmson, St Martin's Press, 1983, pp 642-45.

Knowles, Richard Paul. "Sharon Pollock Personal Fictions" in Atlantic Provinces Book Review, February-March, 1987, p. 19.

Mombourquette, Mary Pat "Blood Relations'' in the International Encyclopedia of Theatre, Volume 1: The Plays, edited by Mark Dady-Hawkins, St James Press (Detroit), 1992, pp 71-72.

Nunn, Robert C "Performing Fact: Canadian Documentary Theatre" in Canadian Literature, Winter, 1984, pp 51-56.

Pollock, Sharon. "Canada's Playwrights. Finding Their Place" in Canadian Theatre Review, Spring, 1982, pp. 34-38

Saddlemyer, Ann. "Crime in Literature Canadian Drama" in Rough Justice, Essays on Crime in Literature, edited by M L Fredland, University of Toronto Press, 1991, pp 214-30.

St. Pierre, Paul Matthew, "Sharon Pollock" in Canadian Writers since I960, second series, edited by W H New, Gale (Detroit), 1987, pp. 300-06.

Wallace, Robert, and Cynthia Zimmerman. The Work Conversations with English-Canadian Playwrights, Coach House Press, 1982, pp 114-41.

Weiss, Peter. "The Material and the Models" in Theatre Quarterly, January-March, 1971, pp 41-43.

Further Reading Langley, Winston E, and Vivian C Fox, Editors. Women's Rights in the United States A Documentary History, Greenwood Press, 1994. This is an overview of the progress of women's rights in this country The subject matter provides good background for understanding the circumstances of Pollock's female characters in Blood Relations.

Porter, Edwin H, The Fall River Tragedy: A History of the Borden Murders, King Philip Publishers, 1985. Written by one of the reporters who covered the Borden murder case, this is a reprint of the book issued after the Reports say that all the books in the first pressing were bought up by Lizzie Borden

Steele, Apollonia, and Jean F. Tener, The Sharon Pollock Papers, Canadian Archival Inventory Series, 1989 An excellent overview of Pollock's work. This includes a critical essay on Pollock by Professor Denis Salter.

Zimmerman, Cynthia, Editor. Playwriting Women Female Voices in English Canada, 1994. This works studies six Canadian Women playwrights, including Pollock, and issues of feminism in their plays.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide