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  • Black Holes in the Mask: Looking Awry on the Feminine Subject in Sharon Pollock’s Blood Relations
  • Graham Wolfe (bio)

Blood Relations by Canada’s Sharon Pollock begins by both evoking and complicating the notion of a transcendent gaze. A performer alone onstage delivers a speech from Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale in which Hermione, wrongfully accused and having no one to support her claims of innocence, asserts her faith in all-seeing forces: “But, if Powers Divine / Behold our human action as they do . . . .”1 The fact that the performer forgets her lines and falters in her delivery of this speech (“Bollocks!”) prepares us for a play that contests the metaphysical and metalinguistic audience-positions presumed by Hermione, positions from which the truth of the past, or of a person’s inner soul, could be accurately and wholly beheld. Focusing on the historical figure of Lizzie Borden, who in 1890s Massachusetts was suspected but acquitted of brutally axing her father and stepmother, Blood Relations has provoked an incessant flow of productions and critical responses since its first swing in 1980.

One of the play’s most complex engagements with gazes occurs when Miss Lizzie relays, in second person, a nightmare about riding on a carousel horse. As the carousel whirls round, you “watch yourself on the horse,” and you see that you are “wearing a mask.”2 The mask “looks like your face except that it’s rigid and white,” and its expression changes with the flickering carousel lights. The dream reaches its climax with a glimpse beyond the mask’s surface: “the music and the carousel and the horse . . . they all three slow down, and they stop . . . You can reach out and touch . . . you . . . you on the horse . . . You look into the eyes! . . . There are none! None! Just black holes in a white mask . . . .”3

The complexity of this dream is doubled by the metatheatrics of its context. Miss Lizzie delivers these lines to a character introduced in the script as the Actress, a young and attractive woman who, during her frequent and scandalous visits to the home of this suspected murderess, repeatedly asks of Miss Lizzie, “Did you?” On this particular afternoon Miss Lizzie and the Actress have been playing a ludic game in which the Actress performs “Lizzie,” enacting what she imagines to be the infamous woman’s past, while Miss Lizzie helps by playing the supporting role of Bridget the housekeeper. Other characters—such as Lizzie’s father and step-mother, sister Emma, and the flirtatious Dr. Patrick—emerge as [End Page 25] figures in what Pollock calls the “dream thesis” of the past.4 Thus, Miss Lizzie’s nightmare monologue of being trapped in masks is addressed to and performed for an Actress who is playing her, and who, by this point in the script, has literally usurped her name.

This complex dream goes surprisingly unremarked in the bulk of critical writing on Pollock’s play. Neither Sue-Ellen Case, who emphasizes the Lacanian “mirror stage” and “split subject,” nor Susan Clement and Esther Beth Sullivan, who focus on the “gaze” as articulated in feminist theory, explores the splitting and gazing involved in this dream.5 Neither Kathy K.Y. Chung’s discussion of the play’s engagement with narrativity and subjectivity, nor Ric Knowles’s analysis of “historiographic metadrama” makes reference to the dream.6 But if critics frequently exclude the carousel sequence, a number of existing analyses can be productively extrapolated to shed light on it. As Susan Stone-Blackburn writes, “[Lizzie’s] father, whom she loves, approves of her only when she wears a mask that horrifies her, when she pretends things she doesn’t feel, when she reflects her father’s idea of femininity.”7 In this light, the mask in Lizzie’s dream can be interpreted as the social performance expected of women, a role “so far from her sense of her true identity that she feels herself being destroyed by it.”8 To put the matter in Rosalind Kerr’s psychoanalytic terms, the mask gives body to “the annihilation which awaits the bourgeois daughter as she is forced to enter into an ‘Oedipalization’ process which can only...


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pp. 25-44
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