Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Blood Brothers and socio-economic inequality

At the dramatic culmination of Willy Russell’s gripping musical, Blood Brothers (1983), one of the twins who were parted soon after birth, Mickey, expresses his resentment at his mother, Mrs Johnstone, for not having been the one (Eddie) who was given away to a rich, childless woman, exclaiming something like: “I could have been him!” And then he shoots his own twin brother, Eddie, before being shot by police himself.

It is a riveting drama about desperation on the part of a poverty-stricken mother, the possessiveness of a rich, barren woman who exploits the former’s economic destitution to take one of her twins away from her, and the friendship, as well as ultimate division, between the poor, factory-worker brother (Mickey) and the wealthy, university-educated, councillor brother (Eddie), who only learn right at the end that they are real brothers, and not only the ‘blood brothers’ they pledged to be when they were boys, playing together in the neighbourhood. And the final ingredient that catalyses the action into a tragedy: both Mickey and Eddie love the same girl/woman, Linda.

We were privileged to be in the audience for Robin Williams’s school production of the musical at PEMADS Little Theatre in Port Elizabeth last Saturday; she managed to pull off a wonderful rendition of this very popular musical, of which the script, music and lyrics were written by Willy Russell in the early 1980s. First intended as a school play, Blood Brothers was performed for a short time in London’s West End in 1983, winning the Laurence Olivier Best New Musical Award before touring the UK for a year. After returning to the West End in 1988, it was performed more than 10000 times in the course of 24 years, finally closing at the end of 2012. Understandably, it has been produced many times, including on Broadway in New York, and not surprisingly (given its compelling plot), a cult circle of aficionados has grown up around it.

I wrote ‘not surprisingly’ regarding its dramatic narrative and cult following for a reason that is deeply embedded in the economic soil of the world we live in, and that creates a receptivity, I believe, to the actions and poignant songs performed onstage in the course of the musical. This is not to deny that the play is conducive to powerful identification-processes on the part of actors and audience alike, which partly explains its popularity. On the contrary, the ease with which actors identify with their respective roles – particularly those of Mrs Johnstone, Mickey, Linda, Edward and the narrator (who plays a role similar to that of the ancient Greek chorus as commentator regarding the unfolding events) – has to do, I believe, with what has been a recurrent theme, sometimes foregrounded, sometimes in the background, in world literature, to wit, economic or class differences among people.

Off the top of my head such class-oriented narratives that come to mind include Arundhati Roy’s tragic novel, The God of Small Things, in which the social chasm between ‘touchables’ and ‘untouchables’ in India is highlighted, and Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, where the lot of working-class people in 19th-century England intertwines with related themes like religion and education. Even in a novel such as Jane Austen’s well-known Pride and Prejudice, which does not foreground class differences as much as the other two novels referred to here (or as Blood Brothers does), the issue of social class and economic wealth always hovers in the background, as the ‘game’ of finding a husband who is suitably endowed, economically speaking, proceeds.

One does not have to be a Marxist to appreciate the important, if not decisive, role played by economic relations in societies throughout history, and the fact that this is reflected in literature should surprise no one. After all, it is no accident that economic relations ineluctably have a political flip-side, as indicated by the phrase ‘political economy’ – it is simply because economic, bread-and-butter issues move people to take an interest in different ways of governing, which are inseparable from either having power, or lacking power. And power, in turn, is inseparable from economic relations. What makes Blood Brothers special in this regard, is Russell’s insight, that economic power, on the one hand, and the lack of it, on the other, can even disrupt, and eventually destroy, a friendship between ‘blood brothers’ (who happen to be, unknown to themselves, real brothers).

This is the tragedy potentially, and sometimes actually, inherent in economic inequality, and explored in exemplary fashion in Russell’s ‘musical tragedy’, which may seem like an oxymoron, but to anyone familiar with Bizet’s Carmen, or Verdi’s La Traviata, is a viable musical genre. When Mrs Johnstone, who is at the time working for Mrs Lyons, the wife of a wealthy industrialist, reveals to her employer that she is expecting twins – a blow to a single parent who is already struggling to feed her other children – the childless Mrs Lyons jumps at the opportunity to ‘give her husband a son’ when he gets back from abroad (without his knowledge that the baby came from Mrs Johnstone).

Despite being torn between economic need and her strong inclination to cling to her offspring, Mrs Johnstone agrees in the end, urging Mrs Lyons to take one of the baby boys, instead of choosing herself which one to part with. This is how Mickey Johnstone and Edward Lyons are parted, and grow up in homes marked by vast economic and social inequality. This was not to last, however, because Mrs Lyons soon complains to her husband that her cleaning lady’s fussing over ‘her’ boy, Edward, is getting on her nerves, and that she would have to go. Mrs Johnstone ends up losing, not merely one of her twins, but her job as well.

However, if Mrs Lyons thought that it was the end of any connection with the Johnstones, she was wrong. As they grow up, the twins had to bump into each other in the streets of the town, and when they do, they take to each other to such a degree that, at Mickey’s suggestion, they solemnly pledge to be ‘blood brothers’, despite Eddie being discouraged by Mrs Lyons from fraternising with the locals. Through Mickey, Eddie also gets to know Linda, a real Tomboy, who is inseparable from Mickey.

To cut the proverbial long story short, when Mrs Lyons discovers that her ‘son’ spends his time playing with Mickey, she insists to her husband that they move to the countryside, but as karma would have it, the Johnstones get to move to the same area through a stroke of what seems at the time like good luck, and before long, the two boys bump into each other again, to their great surprise. The two of them, together with Linda, spend a lot of time together, and it is clear that Eddie has fallen for Linda. Then Eddie goes to university, Mickey starts working in Mr Lyons’s factory, and Linda gets pregnant with Mickey’s baby. They fall on hard times when factory workers, including Mickey, lose their jobs, and in desperation he participates in an attempted robbery, only to be arrested and sentenced to prison for a number of years, where he is diagnosed with depression and becomes addicted to anti-depressants.

On Mickey’s release from prison, Linda tries to prevent him from taking the anti-depressants, but in vain. In the meantime Eddie has become a councillor and they start seeing each other, something Mrs Lyons discovers, and tries to stop by telling Mickey, who is working in the factory again, about it. This is what impels Mickey to go searching for Eddie with a gun, and finding him in the council chambers where he confronts Eddie about his relationship with Linda. Having been alerted by Linda, Mrs Johnstone arrives on the scene where Mickey is pointing the gun at Eddie, and tries to stop him by revealing that they are brothers, separated soon after birth.

The contribution of socio-economic inequality to tragedy manifests itself clearly when Mickey, instead of – as one might expect – reproaching her for separating them, complains that she might have given him (Mickey) away instead, so that he could have been in Eddie’s (wealthy) place. With this insight Russell confirms that of psychoanalyst Paul Verhaeghe, that the greatest incidence of suffering in the form of depression, anxiety and other psychic maladies, is to be found in societies where socio-economic inequality is most pronounced (see http://thoughtleader.co.za/bertolivier/2014/08/17/why-it-is-important-for-our-health-to-get-rid-of-the-neoliberal-regime/).

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