Carolyn Gage interprets Lizzie Borden's case

Reclaiming history
By MEGAN GRUMBLING  |  January 11, 2012

KEEPING SECRETS? Karen Ball as Nance O’Neil, later lover of Lizzie Borden.
Lizzie Borden, who allegedly murdered her father and step-mother in 1892, remains an iconic figure in American cultural memory. But despite a slew of dramatic works written about her over the years, many still might not know much more about Borden than the old schoolyard rhyme ("Lizzie Borden took an ax/and gave her mother forty whacks"). What holds up best in her legacy is the sensational act of which she was formally acquitted, but of which public opinion has long held her guilty. What her received legend doesn't convey are the particularities, the personalities, and the social fabric of the day. Last weekend at Lucid Stage, Borden's popular persona was challenged by two plays billed together as Axed!, both by Carolyn Gage, which explore social and psychological dimensions of Borden and her age. Together these two plays, Lace Curtain Irish and The Greatest Actress Who Ever Lived (directed by Ariel Francoeur and Gage, respectively), demonstrate theater's capacity to deepen the context of the historical record, and even to reinterpret it.

Gage's interpretation certainly might intrigue — or draw fire from — some Borden traditionalists. First of all, the two plays of Axed! are unique in depicting not Borden herself, but two women who knew her: Bridget Sullivan, the Irish maid present the day of the murders (played by the magnificent Denise Poirier), and Nance O'Neil, an actress with whom Borden later was intimate (Karen Ball, lusciously). In both Sullivan's monologue, during which she retrieves traumatic memories years later in Montana, and in O'Neil's ardent talk of Borden with a closeted Hollywood reporter (Josieda Lord, fiercely), Gage proposes that Borden was not only innocent, but actually heroic: That she was a generous, class-conscious lesbian who took the heat for the young maid, knowing how a working-class immigrant would fare in the courts of the day.

Initially drawn to Borden for her close relationship with O'Neil, Gage began to take on the murders. She delved into the trial transcripts; Borden's letters, financial records and will; and oral histories with Sullivan's family. She found that Borden had once kept her father from prosecuting Sullivan for theft, had dissuaded police and her own lawyers from considering Sullivan as a suspect in the murders, and had soon afterward paid for Sullivan's passage back to Ireland. Gage found that Sullivan had testified to suffering from food poisoning on the morning of the murders, fingered a Polish farm worker for the crime, changed her testimony several times, and later, having re-emigrated to Montana, been considered a vicious drunk. Around these details Gage formed a narrative that not only asserts a rationale for Borden's innocence, but lays out the larger cultural biases — of gender, class, sexuality, and ethnicity — to which she, Sullivan, and plenty of other people were subject.

To convey this fraught texture of time and place, Gage fills her characters' talk with quotidian turns of phrase, work, and custom: Sullivan scorns Abby Borden's family as "codfish aristocracy," spitefully recalls her windowless room in the Fall River house as "good enough for the Irish girl," and tells of being docked three months' pay for breaking a cracked teapot. We learn the labor-intensive way of cleaning Irish lace so fine it can't hold up to washboard. We hear the fierce pride of Sullivan, so long a second-class citizen in New England, that in her Irish-run Montana town, the mine's hiring notices are written in Gaelic. In the dramatization of these details, we encounter history on not just an academic scale, but a human one.

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