Psychological murder/mystery drama by Sharon Pollock , first produced at Douglas College, New Westminster, British Columbia (under the title My Name is Lisbeth and featuring the author in the title role). 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. It subsequently played at theatres across Canada, including the Centaur and the Shaw Festival in 2003, and in the United States, Australia and Japan. It won the Governor General’s Award in 1981.
The program for 2003 Shaw Festival production included the following essay on Blood Relations by Anne Nothof --
Lizzie Borden’s Trial by Theatre
Popular culture is obsessed with “murder most foul” – the brutal killings of politicians and prostitutes, of wives and schoolgirls. The trials of the accused are performed as theatrical spectacles on television and in the press. Events and characters are probed for causes and reasons. Murder theories multiply as public opinion shifts, and individual acts are placed in broader social and political contexts. The trial of the infamous Lizzie Borden, accused of the murder of her father and stepmother in 1892, is a case in point. Her story has become folklore, a skipping song for children (with an exaggerated number of “whacks”), and a case study for a history course at the University of Massachusetts. It has been retold and reinterpreted in dozens of versions, including a made-for-TV movie, an opera, a ballet, an A&E biography, a comic book account, and in a variety of websites embellished with family portraits and floor plans of the Borden house -- now a Bed and Breakfast, with a museum and a gift shop which offers a CD of the trial transcript, long and short-sleeved T-shirts, and axe key chains.
Theories of culpability have multiplied over the past century, as the “facts” transcribed at the trial are reinterpreted. Different accounts point to the family maid, Bridget, to Lizzie’s older sister, Emma, to the family physician, Dr. Bowen, to her uncle who was visiting for the day, and to Lizzie’s Chinese Sunday School student. The most plausible, however, point to Lizzie, including a thorough account by Edmund Pearson which reproduces the court transcript, entitled The Trial Book of Lizzie Borden (1937), and comprehensive investigation by Edwin H. Porter, the police reporter for the Fall River Daily Globe, entitled The Fall River Tragedy (1893). On the advice of her lawyer, the day that Porter’s book was published, Lizzie bought most of the copies and burned them.
Sharon Pollock’s play, Blood Relations, which premiered in Edmonton at Theatre Three in 1980, is another conjectural account, a trial by theatre, in which the audience participates as judge and jury -- and as accomplice. Pollock uses the “facts” of the case as a foundation on which to build a strong case for collective guilt and responsibility. As Denis Salter points out in a biocritical essay on her plays, “the desire to commit murder is a product of socio-economic and psychological factors over which a single individual might have very little control” (“[Im]possible Worlds: The Plays of Sharon Pollock”). And as Sharon Pollock has commented, “I’m saying that all of us are capable of murder given the right situation” (The Work: Conversations with English-Canadian Playwrights).
Lizzie Borden was born in Fall River, Massachusetts in 1860, the youngest daughter of a wealthy but parsimonious businessman. Her mother died when she was two of “uterine congestion,” and her father remarried three years later. Although their relationship seemed harmonious, friction between Lizzie and Abbie, her stepmother, developed over her father’s considerable assets. She believed that Abbie would inherit most of the estate, and that her opportunity for financial independence would be lost. American women in the 1980s and 90s inhabited a limited space, and were becoming increasingly restless over the restrictions and expectations. As Mr. Borden points out to Lizzie in Blood Relations the “natural thing” for a woman of her age was to be married, have children, be running her own house. The role of women was that of mistress of the home and dispenser of hospitality – as exemplified by Lizzie’s tea etiquette in the opening scene of Blood Relations. But as a spinster daughter in her father’s home, with no marriage prospects, Lizzie’s role was circumscribed by her father’s authority, even though, like other relatively affluent women, she traveled in Europe with lady friends, and engaged in charity work.
By 1898 women in most States could own or control property, but inequalities of civil status remained. They were still confined in tight corsets and impeded by 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 entrenched. The aspiration of many young women was the freedom to develop their own personalities through education, work, or club activities, which became training schools for humanitarian, political, and social leaders, including suffragettes and feminists. As Kate Wells pointed out in an 1880 issue of Atlantic Monthly, “What is this curious product of today, the American girl or woman? Is it possible for any novel, within the next fifty years, truly to depict her as a finality, when she is still emerging from new conditions,... when she does not yet understand herself?... The face of today is stamped with restlessness, wandering purpose, and self-consciousness.” Yet, according to historian Arthur Schlesinger, she was “responding to her highest instincts in struggling toward an easier, more self-respecting and self-reliant footing in American society” (The American Woman [1870-1900]). In Blood Relations, Miss Lizzie attempts to find for herself a freer existence, but which she can only imagine through dreams or through role-playing. The Actress, on the other hand, flaunts her freedom to indulge in late-night parties, to smoke cigarettes, and to have a “liaison” with Lizzie Borden.
The “real” Lizzie Borden acted out her frustration by fabricating break-ins into the home and barn behind the house, and her father responded by decapitating her pet pigeons, and by placing locks on almost every door in the house. 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.
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, to say as you have her in charge to the Commonwealth whom you represent: It is not just to hold her a minute longer, and pleading for her I plead for you and myself and all of us that the verdict you shall register in this most important case shall not only commend your approval now, unqualified and beyond reasonable doubt, but shall stand sanctioned and commended by the people everywhere in the world who are listening by the telegraphic wire to know what is the outcome as to her. She is not without sympathy in this world.
This impassioned tone is also evident in the statement for the Defense in Blood Relations, reflecting a male bias against the possibility of women committing such atrocities:
Gentlemen of the Jury!! I ask you to look at the defendant, Miss Lizzie Borden. I ask you to recall the nature of the crime of which she is accused. I ask you – do you believe Miss Lizzie Borden, the youngest daughter of a scion of our community, a recipient of the fullest amenities our society can bestow upon its most fortunate members, do you believe Miss Lizzie Borden capable of wielding the murder weapon – thirty-two blows, gentlemen, thirty-two blows – fracturing Abigail Borden’s skull, leaving her bloody and broken body in an upstairs bedroom, then, Miss Borden, with no hint of frenzy, hysteria, or trace of blood upon her person, engages in casual conversation with the maid, Bridget O’Sullivan, while awaiting her father’s return home, upon which, after sending Bridget to her attic room, Miss Borden deals thirteen more blows to the head of her father, and minutes later – in a state utterly compatible with that of a loving daughter upon discovery of murder most foul – Miss Borden calls for aid! Is this the aid we give her? Accusation of the most heinous and infamous of crimes? Do you believe Miss Lizzie Borden capable of these acts? I can tell you I do not!! I can tell you these acts of violence are acts of madness!! Gentlemen! If this gentlewoman is capable of such an act – I say to you – look to your daughters.
Lizzie’s social position, physical appearance, and public performance all mitigated 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. 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. As in many of her other plays, Sharon Pollock is intrigued by questions of choice and responsibility – the reasons for our actions, whether they be motivated by personal considerations or public pressures, or a combination of both.
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. In effect, however, she continued a life of social circumscription, even more limited than before the murders, since she was ostracized 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 resulted in Emma finding her own place to live. She died in 1927 and was buried in the Borden family plot. She left her estate to animal care organizations.
In Blood Relations Sharon Pollock extracts the salient details of the case and constructs an imaginative “who-dunnit.” But she is more interested in the “why” than the “who.” Although she has written many plays since, including Whiskey Six Cadenza (1983), Doc (1984), Getting it Straight (1989), Fair Liberty’s Call (1993), Saucy Jack (1993), Moving Pictures (1999), End Dream (2000), and Angel’s Trumpet (2001), Blood Relations remains her most popular play. It has traveled to Japan, Australia, and England, and (no mystery here) to many theatres in the United States. It has inspired almost as many theoretical academic interpretations as has the axe murder – as postmodern metatheatre which comments on the unstable nature of representation and identity, as a feminist tract, as a psychodrama played in the head of the Actress, as an instrument of moral inquiry. Its conflation of acting with self-disclosure, of confession with subterfuge, of compulsion with repression, is endlessly intriguing. Pollock’s plays resist easy categorization and explanation. They provoke and challenge. Finally, they direct their questions at the audience. Who is responsible for these crimes against humanity? Perhaps no one is innocent.
Sharon Pollock. Blood Relations and Other Plays. Ed. Anne Nothof. Edmonton: NeWest Press, 2002.
Sharon Pollock: Essays on Her Works, ed. Anne F. Nothof. Toronto: Guernica, 2000.
Sharon Pollock Collected Works, Vols 1, 2, and 3. Ed. Cynthia Zimmerman. Toronto: Playwrights Canada Press. 2005-2007.
Sherrill Grace. Making Theatre: A Life of Sharon Pollock. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2008.
Last updated 2020-07-17