Blood Relations (play)

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Blood Relations [1] is a psychological murder mystery written by Sharon Pollock. The play is based on historical fact and speculation surrounding the life of Lizzie Borden and the murders of her father and stepmother, crimes with which Borden was charged.

Historical context: Lizzie Borden[edit]

Main article: Lizzie Borden

The play is based on the case of Lizzie Borden. On August 4, 1892, Borden's father's body was "discovered" by Lizzie in a downstairs room of the family home. Soon, the Bordens' maid, Sullivan, discovered the body of Borden's stepmother. The subsequent investigation and trial of Lizzie set a precedent for media coverage.


  • The Actress, a friend of Lizzie's and, by all appearances, her lesbian lover.
  • Abigail Borden, the step-mother of Lizzie.
  • Andrew Borden, Lizzie's father, owner of the property.
  • Emma Borden, older sister.
  • Lizzie Borden, the play's central character.
  • Dr. Patrick, Lizzie's closest ally in the play.
  • Harry Wingate, 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. This means that Lizzie's hold on the estate is in danger.



  • The question is raised: what is truth? This is central to Pollack's relativist moral stance toward the murder and the murderess. The Actress keeps asking, “Did you do it?” but gets no response from Lizzie. Each day, Emma asks her, "Did you—did you—did you?" Lizzie is mute. Throughout the play there are more questions raised than answered. The audience would expect empirical evidence, and so the play produces the defense attorney who questions the suspect and her maid. But authority is dubious, because the events are being recounted by the accused. By presenting the evidence through the memory of the accused, events can be real or bits of Lizzie's imagination—or her self-justification.

Sacredness of life[edit]

  • "Is all life precious?" asks Lizzie of Dr. Patrick. She isn't looking for any of his answers, because she immediately rejects his affirmative response. Some lives are expendable—for example, that of the woman she refers to as the "fat cow"—her stepmother. Lizzie poses an enigma to the Doctor. If he could only save one of the two people dying from injuries in an accident, whom would he choose? Would it be the bad person or the one trying to be good?
  • Lizzie's quizzes leave the Doctor uncomfortable; perhaps he guesses her purpose. In the same way, the spectator may be uncomfortable: it's clear that Lizzie is rationalizing the murder of her parents to achieve her own ends. Was murder both logical and acceptable? The play itself is highly ambiguous on that question.
  • When Lizzie's pigeons are killed, it is clear something important in Lizzie has been violated. The birds' deaths suggest the fate that awaits her and her sister if they allow Borden and his wife to go forward with their planning. She cannot afford not to strike back. The puppy is not medically whole; Pollock suggests it's a threat to normalcy, and is killed as a sort of euthanasia. This is Pollock's analogy for social norms that do not tolerate minority sexualities such as lesbianism.

Women's roles[edit]

  • It's not so much women's roles explored in the play as the roles and limitations of being a lesbian. Lizzie's father wants her to consider Johnny MacLeod as a husband. MacLeod, a neighbor, is a widower with three young children who 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 to her. She married Lizzie's father, who had two young children, and cared for them. In exchange, she received a nice house to live in, food to eat, and companionship.
  • 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 a socially acceptable woman—in other words, heterosexual. "Through some terrible oversight. ... I was born ... defective."
  • There is evidence that Lizzie wanted to be her father's son, not his daughter. Lizzie 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 will not get it while her parents are alive and in control of their wills. 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."
  • There are many examples of Lizzie's desire to act and live independently—to go beyond the boundaries of 19th-century women's roles. This is illustrated by her open relationship with the Actress, a relationship that appears homosexual. Some viewers' eyebrows will, however, be raised by the stretch Pollock posits from that—an analogy between wanting to "live independently" on the one hand, and taking an axe to your parents' heads to achieve it. At any rate, the stretch is achieved with no editorial quibble from the writer or from any of her characters.


Dream thesis[edit]

  • 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.
  • 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 play's earnest ambiguity increases when Lizzie proposes playing a game in which the Actress will play her, Lizzie. Some observers consider this a sustained stylistic attempt; others merely find it clotting and cloying.

Historical context: the murder and trial[edit]

On the morning of August 4, 1892, Lizzie reported to Bridget Sullivan, the Irish maid, her discovery of the bloody body of her father sprawled on the sofa in the sitting room, and instructed her to fetch the family physician, Dr. Bowen. When the doctor and the police arrived, they also found the body of Abby Borden upstairs, her head similarly crushed by multiple axe blows. Bridget Sullivan testified that she had been in her own attic room, resting from cleaning windows on a very hot day. She had neither heard nor seen anything unusual. Lizzie claimed that she had been in the barn, although the undisturbed dust on the barn floor seemed to indicate otherwise. Emma was out of town visiting friends. Four axes were discovered in the basement, one without a handle, and the head covered in ashes. No evidence of blood was found on Lizzie's clothes, although her friend, Miss Russell, did discover her burning a dress three days later, which she claimed had been stained with paint. At the inquest, it was also revealed that Lizzie had bought prussic acid from a local pharmacy the day before, and that Abby and Andrew Borden had been ill that morning. Lizzie was arrested for murder and the trial date set for June 5, 1893. The trial lasted fourteen days, and caused a national sensation: it was the first public trial in the United States to be covered extensively by the media. Popular opinion was split on the innocence or guilt of Lizzie Borden, with strong support coming from feminists and animal rights advocates.[2]

Lizzie and Emma hired the best lawyers, paid from their father's estate. The legal rhetoric of the lawyer for the defense as recorded in the trial transcripts is passionate, persuasive, and very playworthy:

"To find her guilty you must believe she is a fiend. Does she look it? As she sat here these long weary days and moved in and out before you, have you seen anything that shows the lack of human feeling and womanly bearing? Do I plead for her sister? No. Do I plead for Lizzie Andrew Borden herself? Yes, I ask you to consider her, to put her into the scale as a woman among us all..."

Very strong, too, is the possibility that Lizzie's lesbianism was both known in select circles of the community and suppressed in the court record. People of the age were unwilling to acknowledge female homosexuality. If that was the case, then the jury was certainly prevented from knowing the "real" Lizzie—an essential part of judging her at trial. In looking at her, they could scarcely accuse her of murder. Lizzie's social position, physical appearance, and public performance all militated against a guilty verdict. Although her testimony at the inquest was contradictory and confused, at her trial she was calm, impassive, and inscrutable. She did not testify at the trial, and her only words she spoke were, "I am innocent. I leave it to my counsel to speak for me." The transcript records only the words of others. And in Blood Relations, Miss Lizzie also evades direct testimony. Her part is enacted by her friend, an actress from Boston, and she assumes the role of the maid Bridget, an observer and director of the replay of the events that culminated in the murder of the Bordens. This framework establishes the possibility of multiple perspectives, as the play argues against convicting her. What “happened” ten years earlier depends on what is remembered, what is re-enacted. The past is played out as theatre, as is the trial. We are the witnesses, and we try to ascertain the “truth”—which proves endlessly elusive and multi-faceted.

Lizzie Borden was acquitted—her lawyers having persuaded the jury that the evidence was circumstantial. She continued to live in Fall River in a fashionable Victorian mansion located on “The Hill” with her sister. However, she continued a life of social circumscription, even more limited than before the murders, since she was understandably shunned by the community. She did travel regularly, however, maintaining a relationship with a young Boston actress named Nance O'Neil, which provoked yet more rumours, and resulting in Emma finding her own place to live. She died in 1927 and was buried in the Borden family plot.

Historical context: women's rights[edit]

By 1898 women in most states could own or control property, but inequalities of civil status remained. Upper-class women still wore confining corsets and had long trailing skirts, flounces and bustles. Although improvements in domestic conveniences liberated middle-class women from household drudgery, allowing more time for a wider participation in society, the traditional prejudice against self-support remained strong.

The historic Lizzie Borden acted out her frustration by fabricating break-ins committed against her own home and the barn behind.

Production history[edit]

The play premiered professionally at Theatre 3, Edmonton, Alberta, March 12, 1980, directed by Keith Digby, with set by J. Fraser Hiltz, costumes by Kathryn Burns and lighting by Luciano Iogna, featuring Janet Daverne as Miss Lizzie, Judith Mabey as the Actress, Barbara Reese as Emma, Wendell Smith as Dr. Patrick/Defense, Brian Atkins as Harry, Paddy English as Mrs. Borden and Charles Kerr as Mr. Borden. In 2010 it was performed by the Dramatic Arts Department at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada. It was also performed in 2011 by the Drama Department of Grande Prairie Regional College, directed by Annie Smith. In December 2010 play had its opening at the National Theater of Kosovo.Same year it was also published in Albanian, in an edition published by the National Theater of Kosovo.


The published version of Blood Relations won the Canadian Governor General's Award in 1981.

Critics' response[edit]

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 a reputation in her native Canada. Jerry Wasserman and Paul Knowles have praised her for developing a significant body of work.

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 has commented that male reviewers fail to see any connection with feminism in this work, with some seeing the play as a mystery while others as a psychological study. Pollock herself has not commented on whether Lizzie's reputation as a lesbian, not just a woman, influences these more limited associations between women in general and the 1890s murderess named Borden.

Pollock's claim that Blood Relations does have a feminist message, though, has been echoed by some academic feminists. "In many ways the play epitomizes the strengths and originality of theatre about women imprisoned in a man-ordered universe," says Ann Saddlemyer in Rough Justice: Essays on Crime in Literature. A few critics find merit in her use of the dream thesis; others find the technique clumsy, overwrought, and closer to embroidery than to polished technique.

The structure of Blood Relations allows for the ambiguity that is interwoven throughout the play. Nowhere does the play state in absolute terms that Lizzie is guilty (although the Actress's perception, playing Lizzie in the dream thesis, seems to indicate so). And the court acquits her. But then there's the Actress who arrives at the conclusion, after playing the role of Lizzie, that she is guilty.

The play remains ambiguous and never really fully answers the question. According to Saddlemyer, Pollock successfully reframes that question by pointing the finger (and ultimately the hatchet) at the viewer and asking, in Lizzie's shoes, what would you do? However, some will regard that as a dodge, suspecting that Saddlemyer and other feminists excuse Lizzie's crime out of solidarity and thoughtless identity with the criminal.[3]

Mary Pat Mombourquette has 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."[4] If this is accurate, Blood Relations is not the best exemplar of Pollock's work or of audience participation. The play seems to adore Lizzie at every turn, and demands very little, if any, judgment of this celebrated lesbian murderess.


  1. ^ Pollock, Sharon. Blood Relations and Other Plays. NeWest Press. ISBN 978-1896300641.
  2. ^ Canadian Theatre Encyclopedia
  3. ^ Saddlemyer, Ann. "Crime in Literature: Canadian Drama" in Rough Justice: Essays on Crime in Literature, edited by M. L. Friedland, University of Toronto Press, 1991, pp. 214–30.
  4. ^ 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.