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Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Blood Relations: Part II

Sharon Pollock is a Canadian playwright whose work has been produced since the 1980s. She is chiefly known for “social” and “historical” work, that is, plays that explore politics and society more than issues of private life. Her chief successes date from the 1980s. Among the better-known plays are Walsh, Doc, and Blood Relations.
             Since the '80s, only Blood Relations has had a sustained run on Canadian stages; in fact, it’s almost a repertory play in some companies. The most recent revivals were at Brock University and the University of Ottawa in 2010. The play is constantly put up in commercial theatres, but especially on campuses. For our part, we witnessed a campus production in 2005, and another at a downtown space, in 2009. So it seems appropriate to look at it, and to ask where the demand for the play comes from.
             We'll be interested in that because theatre in Canada is not entirely market-driven, and especially not for Canadian plays. There are audiences for select works and authors, to be sure. However, theatre is subsidized in Canada, and that deforms the choosing of plays, as directors are mandated to mount scripts that tell the stories they most relate to. Also, there is theatre at universities, and those offerings will be even less market-driven. So this blog will look at the actual demand for Blood Relations
            Once we've done that, we'll explore ethical questions that arise both in its programming and in its construction as a script.
             Let’s start with the obvious: Is Pollock's play really good theatre, strong writing?
             Not really. Blood Relations tells the story of the character Lizzie, and eventually works its way through a plot. But, like many texts of the era, it avoids linear and clear presentation of events that would build a backstory to sketch a character. Instead, it inserts hallucinatory scenes into realistic ones, confusing timeframes and cluttering the viewer’s perspective. This is Pollock's attempt to say something about personal autonomy, self-concept, and memory. Pollock herself refers to this as a “dream thesis.”
             In a strong play honed by a seasoned writer, such technique might be both successful and exciting. In this particular play, it probably fails. There’s a veil of confusion that falls over Pollock’s stage as “true” characters talk to “imagined” ones, with no clear marker between the one and the other. So, in terms of playwrighting skills, Blood Relations has justly been called a noble failure.
             Then why do we see it over and over again, particularly on campuses? Here are some suggested answers– ones you won’t read in typical discussions of the play.
             Possibly, Blood Relations is valued – and promoted – for political reasons, not dramatic ones. This is not something we are particularly surprised at or alarmed over. Politics rule the choice of many playbills, particularly in an age where a very select demographic goes to live theatre. At universities, politics dominate the curricula of many drama departments. And so, politics are with us. However, along with politics come ethics – the one following from the other. A drama is a powerful story. As we'll see below, there are ethical issues around Blood Relations that are profoundly troubling.
             To start, let’s look at the politics in, and the politics of, Blood Relations.
             That consists entirely of sexual politics. After all, the play is about a nineteenth-century lesbian, Lizzie Borden. Although Pollock opaques Lizzie's lesbianism in indirections, it is implicit in the text, and her late-life bond with an actress is explored. But aside from sexual orientation, who was the historic Lizzie Borden?
             No-one unusual. She was the daughter of a Massachusetts Victorian named Andrew Borden, and his second wife, Abigail. The wife was hated by Lizzie, perhaps out of jealousy. Lizzie’s life as a daughter was unrewarding and stunted. In events that loomed, Lizzie was going to be excluded from her father’s will.  So Lizzie’s tale is that of a lesbian who, refusing to marry, would soon be a poor spinster, and who rebelled against unsympathetic parents.
             In August of 1892, Andrew and Abigail were murdered in the family’s home. An axe was taken to their heads. Lizzie was immediately declared a suspect; she had sought to purchase a cyanide compound previous to the murders. She was seen burning a dress a few days later – bloodied? Sent to trial, she was acquitted after a sensational hearing covered by national media. 
             As a wealthy woman, though, she had enjoyed the best of lawyers. More importantly, her femaleness was underlined, in this case, to her benefit. Here’s a quote from the transcript of her lawyer’s plea:
"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..."
It is fitting to ask what Sharon Pollock’s interest was in these events, the clue to her liking the story. What was she piqued by, inspired by? Was it the media attention that the trial provoked – unprecedented for its time? No, there is no in-text discussion of that. Was it the fact that Lizzie was a frustrated woman? Partly, but that doesn’t tell us much: how many such women were there in the nineteenth century? Millions, and writers such as Henrik Ibsen wrote about them. And why Lizzie Borden? Was she a poet like the oppressed Elizabeth Barrett? A hero like Sojourner Truth? No, no, and no.
             Pollock could have asked other leading questions about the story, questions such as “what goes on in the minds of a nineteenth-century jury?” or, “what is justice for rich women versus justice for poor women?” But she does not. She is entirely consumed by her character’s moods and loves – her main character, Lizzie. And so, the play is a sympathetic poem to Lizzie Borden.
             And that is a clue to the endurance of this play: it’s a sympathetic text about an infamous lesbian of the nineteenth century.
             Among some theatre people, directors and artistic directors, this is sufficient to drive programming: sexual orientation + historical reference = social importance = reason for doing a drama. Well, let’s accept this as the state of the stage, an impoverished state, in our view, but one that we have no control over.
             But then, there are the university stages; they are not entirely driven by what is popular or will sell tickets. They are partly pedagogical, partly driven by what professors want their students to see. On Canadian campuses, Pollock’s play is a regular.
            This too must be set down as politics. If Blood Relations is cherished, it must be because it was written by a woman and sympathises with a notorious female character. It helps that many teachers are women and most of their students are female. Also, and perhaps this is the key, Lizzie belongs to a feminist political elite: lesbians. On this point, the agenda in Queer Studies goes hand in hand with that of Drama.  
             Today’s drama curriculum is certainly full of such politics, much of it feminist and female-focused. Most of it is of questionable value. Minor early writers such as Aphra Behn are forced onto the canon, despite little talent. The antique comedy Lysistrata  (Aristophanes) is offered year after year. In Lysistrata, the females force a change in State politics by going on a sex strike. Naturally, feminists, particularly lesbians, find this conceit thrilling. Lysistrata is de rigueur for the fledglings, who are taught the text and frog-marched into the auditorium, autumn after autumn. But there's no reason for this:  Lysistrata is a quaint, odd, crude, and vulgar artifact, an outsized visual joke.
Finally we turn to ethics.
             First, a definition. What do we we mean by ethics? How do ethics relate to drama departments? What do ethics have to do with plays and playwrighting?  Good questions.
             Ethics, for this writer, relates to ends and means. Our choices and actions are ethical if they take all consequences into consideration; if they consider the impact on everyone; and if they consciously avoid harming the innocent.
             Ethical conduct can be argued for every job and every profession. The plumber is ethical if he does not perform expensive repairs before telling you the costs. The doctor is ethical if she outlines all courses of possible treatment.
             The university professor is bound by all sorts of ethical codes, most of which are not relevant here. However, some university ethics are relevant to us. For example, a teacher is ethical if she does not hide the weakness of her views in an effort to get students to agree with her, or join her in a partisan faction. A professor is ethical if she does not argue ad hominem: You are wrong (or irrelevant) because of who you are, not what you espouse. A professor is ethical if she does not substitute her own agenda for the consensus on what is exemplary, or significant, in the discipline she is teaching.
              So an ethical drama curriculum will do just that: present a fair, reasoned, scholarly, and consensus-based picture of what the theatre is, how it developed, and how it pleases its audiences. An ethical curriculum will not select female plays that are poor, over male plays that are brilliant, just because we are touts for female authorship.
             By that ethical standard, it’s hard to see why Blood Relations hangs around. It’s a play that is part of the country's cultural history – its early work. It did win an award as Best Play of the year (but not Best Play of the Last Several Decades). However, it’s a clumsy thing with a confusing narrative conceit. The text is not high poetry. It explores aspects of the mind of Lizzie Borden. Period.
             And, guess what, Lizzie Borden is nobody to most of the Earth’s population. If lesbians are 2% of the population, lesbian murderesses can't be more than a fraction of that. In the nationalistic Canadian culture, she can't even be counted as Canadian! So this seems to have been just a private interest of Pollock's.
             We’ve examined the business of ethics in drama departments and theatre programs. But what of the plays themselves? Do play texts need to be moral? Do they adhere to any ethics? Are they entirely exempt from such judgements?
             The answer is No, they are not exempt.
             Classical drama – and all its modern extensions – has a moral or ethical core. Into that core is poured ethical dilemmas: if my father abuses me, for example, do I have the right to kill him? If he now has Alzheimer’s, do I have the right to steal from him? If the Venetian owes me money, and is anti-Semitic, do I, like Shylock, have the right to my pound of flesh?
             The playwright’s job is to identify that core and that dilemma, and expose them to view. The playwright customarily does this by enrolling at least one character, and having the character represent moral society on stage.
             So now we have to ask: Who represents ethical or moral society on stage in the play Blood Relations? The answer is “pretty well nobody.”
             Why do we say that? Because nobody asks the single, outstanding, ethical question: Lizzie, we know you did it; now tell us, were you right to kill your parents because you were unhappy with them?
             Oh, there are lots of other questions. Lizzie’s sister Emma keeps asking one: Did you do it? Did you kill our parents? And Lizzie keeps refusing to say No, I did not. This is certainly interesting and points to either her confusion or her guilt. But it’s also irrelevant, completely irrelevant. Lizzie’s crime was committed before modern forensic science; certainly, there were gaps in the evidence; she was acquitted, partly, because the State could not prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
             She did have financial motives for killing her parents. But that’s not what leads us to her story… or her case. Lizzie's voice in Sharon's play is all about feeling frustrated with being a girl, daughter, and lesbian. That’s the truth of Pollock’s play – it’s not a murder mystery. It’s a portrait of a woman who envies and hates the men around her and the step-mother who’d taken over the family.
             This leads us to the only ethical question this play could possibly ask on stage: Was she justified in killing them?
             However, Pollock never allows this question on stage, not via Lizzie herself nor by any other character.  We might then conclude, that, on the evidence, the play is ethically or morally ambiguous. 
             And yet, can we say it's ambiguous? Is that what Pollock is saying, that you can’t say one way or another that Lizzie should not have murdered her parents?
             Not quite. In fact, Pollock does make a statement as to the ethical basis of killing the Borden couple; but she’s careful not to make it clearly. She buries it in the text.
             Watch the play carefully and it’s there. The clearest evidence is in the story of Lizzie’s pigeons and a conversation she has with the character called Dr. Patrick.
             In the story of the pigeons, based on reality, Lizzie has kept these birds in the barn behind the house. Starved for affection, she'd developed a bond with the creatures. One day, she enters the barn and finds them all dead. Not just dead, but dead by axe-blows!
             According to legend, the fatal blows had been delivered by her father, just days before he himself fell to an axe-murderer, which directly links his murder to the story of the birds.  However, we’re focused on the play, not the history. The question is: does Pollock, like the original Lizzie, consider the killing of Andrew Borden a fitting answer to the killing of pigeons?
             In the play, Lizzie seems clearly to answer “yes.”
             More revealing still is her conversation with Dr. Patrick. In that, she poses the question this way: “whose life is worth saving and whose is not?” She puts it point-blank to the doctor: If you had two accident victims, and you could only save one, would you save the “good” person, but not the “bad”? The doctor is shocked by the conundrum and does not answer; however, it’s reasonable to assume that Pollock would answer “yes,” and that Lizzie’s escape from her impending poverty is considered a saving of her life. This escape might justify the killing of her parents. 
             Other clues and hints abound. For example, Lizzie discusses euthanasia with the doctor; is killing the Borden couple a form of euthanasia? Also, she mourns the pigeons as gentle souls; but refers to her step-mother as a “fat cow.” Yet the cow is an animal of no moral standing: we slaughter it when doing so meets our needs.
             For these reasons, we conclude that Pollock sympathises, not only with her beloved character Lizzie, but with the whole idea of dispatching Andrew Borden and his wife.
             Perhaps our greatest ethical worry is that Pollock has not revealed her own sympathies, not clearly at least. As we've seen, she never brings the issue into the open, never stages the debate. She leaves it floating in air. Yet a spectator will detect it immediately; and some student spectators may depart with a sympathy, not only for Lizzie, but for the killing of her parents.
             We may thus be out there, staging an apology for patricide and parricide, and a brief for Lizzie and her murderous ways. Should we now consider the consequences?


  1. This second instalment of “Blood Relations” raises questions about the critical approach. Can it not be argued that great literary works (which don’t necessarily include Pollock’s play) transcend ethical criticism and social mores?

    Consider that Pollock’s Lizzy Borden (not the historical figure) is in a long line of bloody females going back to Clytemnestra and Medea. When the latter murders her children, does Euripides expect the audience simply to understand the action as an ethical failure?

    Pollock’s presentation of Lizzy might also be seen in the Romantic context of Byron’s or Shelley’s heroes. Manfred is essentially a psychodrama which presents the character’s rage and rebellion as beyond the rule of conventions.

    These comparisons are not intended to elevate Pollock’s Blood Relations but to suggest why even a bad play (like Manfred) can have a long life independent of good judgment. Perhaps this discussion is really about faddish tastes in Theatre.

  2. Thanks for your excellent comments.
    I don’t disagree that there are a few great plays that transcend contemporary ethics or morals, or that don’t really confront moral issues. They have to be extremely rich in exposing the personal tragedy of characters. In that event, we might say there is an ethical issue: “Now that you know how human I am, tell me how I can go on living?”
    Blood Relations, which can never be called “great,” does not even attempt that. We’re not watching much of Lizzie’s existential rage on stage. In fact, most of the action happens AFTER the trial, when Lizzie is living scot free.
    At that stage, she does not have the requisite debate with herself about the ethics of killing her parents. All she does is continue to complain: Why does everybody stare at me??
    It’s true that ethical standards, in Greek tragedy, are sometimes hard to pinpoint.
    Notwithstanding that, I don’t think one can claim Medea as a text outside of ethics. There is rage, jealousy, anger; but there is also awareness of how monstrous her act of murder will be. In addition, Medea was a foreign-born character for those Athenians who watched the play; given Athenian culture, that audience would have been much more at ease watching Medea as a “monster” than we are, as we watch the daughter of the Bordens. Finally, it must be said that moral pain is expressed by the Chorus.
    As I mentioned above, it’s the programming of this manifestly political play, Blood Relations, that causes us unease. The play is not a “window into the lesbian soul.” It’s a justification of patricide, some might say a trivialization of it, based upon an unexplainable affection for the character Lizzie by the author.