Blood Brothers Notes - GCSE English Literature

GCSE English Literature Blood Brothers Revision Booklet

Blood Brothers Context

Willy Russell

Russell was born in 1947 into a working-class family near to Liverpool. He left school at 15 without academic qualifications and became a hairdresser. By the age of 20 he felt the need to return to education and, after leaving university, he became a teacher at a comprehensive school in his home city.

During this time Russell wrote songs for performers and for radio shows. One of his early plays was about the Liverpool pop group the Beatles. He has a love of popular music and this can be seen in many of his plays, but especially in Blood Brothers.

Social context

Blood Brothers was completed in 1981, two years after the Conservative party leader Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister. She felt that British manufacturing industry had become uncompetitive and saw the cause as weak employers and overly strong trades unions who were, she felt, only too willing to call their members out on strike. She reduced the powers of the workers’ unions and privatised (‘sold off’) many publicly owned companies. She closed many uncompetitive coal mines, too.

Political context

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Margaret Thatcher

One of Thatcher’s central political beliefs was that success came to those who chose to work hard. In Blood Brothers, Russell contradicts this view. He shows a divided society by having Mickey and Edward attend very different schools and live in different houses.

That money and influential connections are necessary to become successful is written into the play. Mickey's failure, despite his good character and hard work, is the basis of the tragedy in the drama.

Cultural context

Marilyn Monroe

Monroe was a very famous Hollywood actress. Her image was well known even to people who did not watch her films. She was presented by the media as a kind of ‘perfect’ fantasy woman and she was shown to live a glamorous and carefree lifestyle. The reality was often very different. She needed anti-depressants and eventually died from an overdose of pills.

Pop culture

In the 1950s society went through massive changes. As a result of young people gradually having more money, popular culture (music, TV and film) flourished, becoming accessible to a much wider public. Even the poorest in society, people represented in the play by the fictional Johnstone family, would have had the chance to go to the cinema or to a club for dancing.

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Summary

The story Blood Brothers covers the lives of twins Mickey and Edward. The play is divided into two acts, and has many songs. A narrator speaks to the audience at the beginning and throughout the play, commenting on the action and setting the scene.

Act 1

The play begins with the deaths of two men. The narrator tells us that they were twins, but were separated and never knew that they shared the same surname: Johnstone. As the lights go down, Mrs Johnstone, their mother, enters and the narrator asks us to judge her story.

Mrs Johnstone

Mrs Johnstone sings of how she fell in love while dancing, but that her husband left her because she no longer looked like Marilyn Monroe. She has seven children despite being only 25, but the audience are told that she looks much older; and she is pregnant again.

Mrs Johnstone can’t afford even the basics of life - her kids complain about being hungry. But she thinks she’ll be able to get by when she starts her new job, cleaning for a couple called Mr and Mrs Lyons.

Mrs Lyons

The Lyons are well off and live in a large house. Mrs Lyons explains that she is lonely. Her husband is away working for nine months and they have no children of their own – a strong contrast to the Johnstone family.

Twins

Mrs Johnstone finds out that she is expecting twins. This will mean the Social Services, the ‘Welfare’, will put even more pressure on her to put some of her children into care. She tells Mrs Lyons, who offers to bring up one of the twins as her own child, saying that she can give him a good home. Mrs Johnstone, in awe of the Lyons’ wealth and the possibility of a comfortable upbringing for at least one of her children, eventually agrees.

They make a vow of silence and swear over the Bible. Not even Mr Lyons will know.

Mrs Johnstone gives birth to the twins. Mrs Lyons arrives and, after reminding Mrs Johnstone of their pact, takes one of the twins.

Mrs Johnstone still works at Mrs Lyons’ house, but Mrs Lyons feels uncomfortable, thinking that Mrs Johnstone is becoming too attached to the twin she has given away. Mrs Lyons tries to pay Mrs Johnstone to leave. Mrs Johnstone threatens to tell the police about the baby, but Mrs Lyons terrifies her with a superstitious omen: she claims that if either twin learns of his brother, both will die. Mrs Johnstone leaves and stops working at the Lyon’s house.

Mickey and Edward

Seven years pass. Mickey is the twin that stayed with Mrs Johnstone. He has been playing a favourite childhood game of the time, ‘Cowboys and Indians’ near the ‘big’ houses. Mrs Johnstone tells him off because he is not allowed to play there. Edward Lyons, the other twin, has seen Mickey playing and comes to find him. This is the first time in the play that they speak to each other. Edward offers Mickey lots of sweets and they become friendly.

They learn that their birthdays are identical and decide to become ‘blood brothers’. They nick their hands with Mickey’s penknife and clasp hands. Mickey says “See, this means that we’re blood brothers, an’ that we always have to stand by each other.”

Mrs Johnstone comes out and asks Edward his name. When she realises who he is, she orders Mickey into the house and tells Edward never to come back again.

Later Mickey sneaks to the Lyons’ house to calls for Edward. Mrs Lyons quickly realises who he is and takes Edward away. She tells Edward not to mix with ‘boys like that’.

Linda

Mickey, Sammy and others are pretending to have a shootout. Mickey says the ‘F-word’ and the others laugh at him, saying he’ll die and go to hell as a result. A girl called Linda, protects Mickey and tells the others to leave him alone. Linda and Mickey go to Edward’s house and convince him to sneak out and play with them.

Influenced by the Johnstone’s kids’ behaviour and games Edward is about to throw stones through some windows, but is seen by a policeman. The policeman visits Mrs Johnstone and warns her harshly that any more trouble from her children will mean a court visit. In contrast, he then visits Mrs Lyons but chooses to explain away the trouble as merely a childish ‘prank’. He asks her to make sure Edward ‘keeps with his own kind’.

Mrs Lyons’ knows that Edward will be drawn into friendship with Mickey and she is afraid of the consequences. After the incident with the police, Mr Lyons agrees to move the family to a different house, away in the country.

Soon afterwards Mrs Johnstone receives a letter from the council to say that her family is also being re-housed to a nicer area. She is thrilled and dances and sings at her good fortune.

Act 2

Mickey, Edward and Linda as teenagers

The story jumps forward another seven years. By coincidence both families moved to the same area, and the twins live near to each other, although they do not know this. Mrs Johnstone has settled happily into her new home, although Sammy has been put on probation for causing a fire at his school. Mickey is now an awkward fourteen-year-old at the local comprehensive school. Meanwhile Edward is at an all-boys private boarding school.

Mickey is on the school bus with Linda when Sammy joins them. Sammy tries to get a cheap ticket reserved only for schoolchildren, but the conductor refuses. Sammy pulls out a knife and threatens the conductor, before running off, chased by policemen. Linda tells Mickey she loves him, but only if he doesn’t become a criminal like his brother.

Mickey and Linda go up a high hill, where they see a young man looking out of his window. Linda says the young man is ‘gorgeous’, but Mickey doesn’t like her saying so. Linda leaves in a huff and the young man approaches. It is Edward.

Edward and Mickey look at each other as they get nearer and we hear them both wish that they looked more like the other. Mickey confides to Edward that he doesn’t know how to tell Linda he loves her. Edward recommends they go to see sex films at the cinema to ‘see how it’s done’.

Mrs Lyons turns up in Mrs Johnstone’s kitchen. She wants to know why Mrs Johnstone has decided to ‘follow’ her. She offers a large sum of money to bribe Mrs Johnstone to move away, but Mrs Johnstone rejects this, saying that she has made a better life for herself in her new home. Dramatically paralleling Sammy’s violence with a knife, Mrs Lyons grabs a kitchen knife and tries to stab Mrs Johnstone, but Mrs Johnstone dodges it. Mrs Lyons exits cursing.

We see Edward and Mickey leave the cinema with Edward thrilled by what he has seen. He is shown as clearly enjoying the escape from the restraints both of his home and his school.

We fast forward and see Mickey, Edward and Linda become close friends as they grow up year by year – the narrator tells us that they are now eighteen.

Edward and Linda meet. He tells her he is sad as he is leaving for university the next day and wonders if he can write her letters, despite Mickey being in love with her. Linda reveals that Mickey still hasn’t asked her to be a proper girlfriend. Edward sings lovingly that if he were Mickey he would have asked a long time ago.

Mickey arrives and Edward urges him to declare his love for Linda. At last Mickey asks Linda out and kisses her. Linda and Mickey want Edward to come out with them to a club, but Edward declines and seems dejected. The scene opens on the Johnstone’s house. Mickey tells his mother that Linda is pregnant and they are marrying in a month. On the wedding day Mickey loses his job. Mr Lyons, who happens to be the managing director of the factory where Mickey works, explains that due to the ‘global slump’ his services are no longer required.

Edward comes back from university for Christmas, well dressed and happy. He has been partying and has met many new friends. Mickey doesn’t share his happiness and explains that he has been out of work for three months. Edward doesn’t see the problem of living life ‘on the dole’ but Mickey feels that he just cannot begin to understand. Mickey explains that he has had to grow up and become an adult, while Edward can happily still play around like a kid. He feels they no longer have anything in common and he tells Edward to ‘beat it’.

Edward leaves and bumps into Linda, and at the same time, Mickey runs into Sammy. As Sammy convinces Mickey to be a look-out for his gang, Edward tries to convince Linda to marry him, not knowing about her wedding or pregnancy. Sammy breaks into a petrol station while Mickey keeps look-out. Sammy has trouble getting money from the man at the garage and an alarm bell goes off. A shot rings out. Sammy has killed the filling-station assistant. They run to their house and Sammy hides the gun, but both are arrested.

Mickey is found guilty and sent to prison for seven years. Whilst there he becomes clinically depressed and is prescribed anti-depressants. Released from prison early for good behaviour, he has been reduced to a shadow of his former self and is addicted to the tablets.

Linda has found Mickey a job, but she won’t reveal to Mrs Johnstone who has arranged it for him. They have moved into their own home now, but Mickey is still addicted to his anti-depressants. Linda desperately tries to convince him that they have sorted their lives out and he doesn’t need the pills. But Mickey is angry and answers back that he knows who really sorted their lives out and gave him the job. It was Edward, now grown up and known as Councillor Eddie Lyons.

The scene changes to show Edward meeting Linda and kissing her. Mickey is shown hard at work, trying desperately to avoid taking his tablets. Mrs Lyons enters and tells him that Edward and Linda are seeing each other. He becomes frenzied, rushes home and takes a gun that Sammy had hidden under the floorboards. Mickey charges into town to look for Edward. Mrs Johnstone tells Linda that Mickey has a gun and she realises that he is after Edward at the Town Hall.

Edward is a successful councillor giving a speech at a town hall meeting. There is a commotion amongst the audience and Mickey approaches the stage pointing his gun at Edward. He blames Edward for taking Linda from him and even accuses him of fathering Linda’s child. We know this is not true, and it is a sign of Mickey's depression and desperate state of mind.

Mrs Johnstone enters the hall and approaches Mickey, begging him not to shoot. She decides to reveal to him that Edward is actually his twin brother and that he was given away to Mrs Lyons. The police arrive. Mickey screams in anger at his mother, asking why she couldn’t have given him away, instead. Waving his gun in a frenzy at Edward, it accidentally goes off and Edward is killed. Mickey shouts ‘No!’ at a waiting policemen, but the police shoot him. He dies.

The play ends with Mrs Johnstone lamenting what has happened. The narrator states the key theme of the play. He says:

And do we blame superstition for what came to pass?
Or could it be what we, the English, have come to know as class?

Characters

Mrs Johnstone

  • She is 25 years old at the start of the play and has already had seven children. This suggests that she has a naturally maternal character, embracing new life and being a caring person. Russell might also be hinting at religious rulings against contraception.
  • Often she makes rash decisions on impulse rather than thinking carefully over the consequences of her actions. For example, she buys lots of items from a catalogue on credit despite knowing she probably won’t be able to pay for them later.
  • She has a strong, generous character knowing almost instinctively what’s right and wrong, although her circumstances make it hard for her to be a straightforwardly ‘good’ person. She refuses Mrs Lyons’ attempts to bribe her showing that she values people above money, yet she does agree under extreme pressure to give Mrs Lyons one of her children. This is suggested to be largely unselfish because she is shown only to have concern for the child, foreseeing a more comfortable life for him.
  • She is presented by Russell as a lonely housewife, with a cold character who finds it difficult to be affectionate towards others. This may be her natural personality, but circumstances certainly haven’t helped: she and her husband are unable to have children naturally and her husband spends long periods at work away from home.
  • She is wealthy, but dependent upon her successful businessman husband’s income. She doesn’t work or do the housework. She hires Mrs Johnstone to do the cleaning for her, while she shops for expensive things. Russell creates this character as an inconsiderate, pampered but dependent individual.
  • She is a self-centred character who uses others for her own gain. Once Mrs Johnstone has handed over Edward, she no longer needs her and cruelly discards her, manipulating her through preying on her uneducated and superstitious mind.
  • He is created by Russell to be a friendly, excitable boy in Act One. He likes to play adventure games with others and sneak off to pull pranks.
  • He looks up to his older brother Sammy and often feels like a cast-off in comparison to him. He feels the need to impress Sammy and finds it hard to say no to him. Later in the play this will influence him into helping in Sammy’s crime.
  • He is very shy about his emotions and takes years to ask Linda out even on a date. He finds it hard to tell Linda that he loves her. He tries to prove himself to her through working hard but becomes even more withdrawn after becoming unemployed.
  • Edward is presented by Russell as a friendly, generous character. He searches out Mickey to play with and perhaps naively offers him sweets in an attempt to impress him. He joins in with Mickey and Linda’s games and unselfishly tries to get Mickey to express his love for Linda.
  • He is raised in a middle-class home and is educated at a private school. He feels restricted and this is one of the reasons he likes the company of Mickey. He revels in Mickey’s liveliness, bad language and risky games.
  • She is presented by Russell as naturally kind and compassionate character. She comes to Mickey’s aid both when he is suspended from school and when he is mocked by the other children.
  • She is quite feisty and humorous, joining Edward and Mickey in their games and often leading the way. For example, she plays a trick on a policeman so that the three of them can run away.
  • He is an aggressive and threatening kind of character who the audience would recognise. From the start of the play he is shown to enjoy making fun of others, especially Mickey.
  • He is presented as anti-social and criminal, threatening a bus conductor with a knife and killing a filling station worker.
  • He has no outlet for his hostile tendencies, he has no job or money.
  • He is presented as a wealthy businessman who spends long periods of time away from his family. He becomes the managing director of the factory where Mickey worked before Mickey was made redundant.
  • He is a distant figure to his wife and son, preferring not to get involved in their affairs. Instead he provides money and homes in wealthy areas as well as expensive schooling for Edward.
  • He seems indifferent to the people whose lives he can directly affect - his workforce. He sends Mickey a heartless redundancy letter.
  • Russell creates a ‘character’ of the narrator, who acts a little like the Greek ‘Chorus’ from ancient tragedy whose role is to explain some of the key action on stage. The narrator also involves the audience by asking them directly to judge what they see. He helps to make sure that the audience stay a little ‘detached’ from the events of the play. He also helps them remember that this is a ‘story’. • He reveals that the brothers die at the very start of the play and from then on constantly reminds the audience of the twins’ fate. He presents the themes of fate, destiny and superstition throughout the play, but at the end he asks the audience to consider if it was social forces rather than 'fate' that caused the tragedy.
  • These minor characters are created for various dramatic purposes. They either lack sympathy or are unfair and two-faced when dealing with others. They represent social institutions, which Russell seems to suggest are prejudiced.
  • The policeman is friendly at the wealthy Lyons’ house, but in contrast is harsh when dealing with the Johnstones.
  • The milkman won’t listen to Mrs Johnstone’s valid excuses initially, but once she has some money at her new home he is pleasant and flirts with her.
  • The judge gives Sammy a lighter sentence than would have normally have been handed out, but this is only because he is attracted to Mrs Johnstone’s appearance.
  • Edward’s schoolteacher is petty and takes the side of Edward’s bullying classmates. Mickey is certainly awkward and disrespectful to his teacher, but he and Linda are suspended for minor things. The teacher does not bother to answer Mickey’s questions, even though they seem quite justified.

Language

Blood Brothers Key Quotes

“Did you never hear how the Johnstones died” – narrator in the opening scene. It establishes the play as having some features of a tragedy and gives an air of inevitability to the outcome that hangs over the narrative, creating foreboding.

“The mother, so cruel, there’s a stone in place of her heart” – narrator before we meet Mrs Johnstone. We are invited to judge her and dislike her, so that her likeable persona is a surprise. It raises the question of moral dilemma: it’s not always easy to distinguish good from evil.

“He told me I was sexier than Marilyn Monroe” – female sexuality/vulnerability. (Remember that MM is a motif used throughout the play).

“By the time I was twenty-five, I looked like forty-two” – Mrs J. has had a hard life.

“I’m up to here with hard luck stories” – (Milkman) – the area is one of poverty and society is uncaring about their difficulties.

“During the dance, she acquires a brush, dusters and a mop” – stage directions and props used to show Mrs J’s role as Mrs L’s cleaner.

Themes

  1. Social class
  2. The individual and society
  3. Nature vs. Nurture
  4. Fate, bad luck and destiny
  5. Friendship
  6. Education
  7. Growing up
  8. Men and women
  9. Money

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