by Sharon Pollack
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 Borden took an axe / And gave her mother forty whacks / When the job was nicely done / She gave her father forty-one.
That was the song I skipped to as a child. Before I knew who Lizzie Borden was, before I understood the circumstances that led her to kill and the gender biases that kept her out of prison, before I ever read Blood Relations by Sharon Pollock, and before I knew that Lizzie Borden was the O.J. Simpson of the 1800s (well, likely before O.J. Simpson, for that matter). As famous murders-who-clearly-did-it-but-didn't-serve-a-lick-of-time-for-their-heinous-crimes go, Lizzie belongs in the ranks of the finest. I can't imagine many hatchet murders go unsolved. But this play is not a simple bio piece about Lizzie Borden, nor does it try to excuse her crimes in any way. Sharon Pollock's Blood Relations is primarily a play about two things: gender and memory.
To start with, the gender issue is keenly felt through this play, but not in the heavy-handed manner of a Margaret Hollingsworth. Pollock paints a Lizzie Borden who is pushed into murder by the situation of unmarried women in her time. Lizzie's mother died in childbirth, and Lizzie's father had remarried. The stepmother, Abigail, had a brother (named Harry in this play but I don't think that was his name in real life). Knowing the precarious position of widows in American society at the time, Harry is focused on ensuring that as much property as possible is transferred into the name of his sister -- after all, in the absence of a will (and Mr. Borden had no will), his estate would default to his daughters. While Harry is looking out for his sister, Lizzie sees this in no uncertain terms as the wholesale vanquishing of her security. As an unmarried woman, she would be beholden to her father's estate to see her put right. Her fear is that she will not have enough money to be independent and will have to reside with her step-mother until she dies. In Pollock's telling of the events, this is what drives Lizzie to commit murder; fear for her own future and security, coupled with her terrible relationship with her step-mother, leads Lizzie to commit murder. But if the gender situation drives a powerless Lizzie to murder, it's also what keeps her out of prison. No one believed, or wanted to believe, that women -- especially good daughters from good families with good educations -- could be capable of murder. An inability to see women as human beings, and therefore as fallible, Pollock seems to suggest, resulted in a guilty woman going free.
The other major issue of the play is memory. None of the characters are real, even in the world of the play, except for Lizzie and The Actress. (The Actress is a depiction of Nance O'Neil, who rumour has it was carrying on a lesbian relationship with Lizzie, possibly for her own financial gain.) The Actress is desperate to know if Lizzie actually committed the murder, which leads to the conjuring up of the other characters through memory. The play implicates Lizzie, but Lizzie tries to use her memory of the events to attach blame to the family that drove her to it and the sister who raised her. Memory is powerful enough to cause pain, but perhaps not powerful enough to ascertain the truth.
This is an absolutely beautiful play, and I would love one day to see it performed.