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- 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
- “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.
- 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.
- Historical context: Lizzie Borden
- Historical context: the murder and trial
- Historical context: women’s rights
- Production history
- Critics' response