Bonnie and Clyde: Where does guilt really lie?

In 2011 Bonnie and Clyde opened on Broadway. The response was lackluster, and the run ended after only two months. Clearly, the story of two alluring yet violent fugitives failed to resonate with American audiences. But this is 2022. The world and its political landscape have changed significantly. Today’s audiences going to see Bonnie and Clyde – it opened to packed audiences at Sydney’s Hayes Theatre Co and runs until 17 July – are far more likely to connect with this ‘most wanted’ duo who violently rebel against a society that has failed them. 

As director Sam Hooper makes clear in a recent Hayes Theatre Co newsletter, this musical does not make light of the tragic 13-strong body count that the pair notched up over the course of their three-year rampage. But the story signals that motivations are complex; human beings amount to more than the worst thing they have ever done. 

The backgrounds of this legendary pair provide ample clues to their later exploits. Like every one of their generation, Clyde Chestnut Barrow and Bonnie Elizabeth Parker experienced the hardships of 1930s America. Their troubles were not unique, so what made these two individuals any different from the average poverty-stricken American? Quite simply, the fact that fate brought them together. Two disaffected individuals, both of whom wanted more from life than the slim pickings that were on offer, happened to cross paths and trigger in each other a latent desire for rebellion against social injustice –  with toxic consequences. 

On this note, it’s not for nothing that the two have been likened to Robin Hood; they made very little cash from their endeavours, and gave their ill-gotten gains away to the less fortunate. While this does not redeem the two bandits, it does emit a potent ‘people’s champion’ quality  – a notion that may well strike a chord with many. Modern theatregoers will be acutely aware of the widening gap – globally – between the most and the least well-off. Some may even secretly root for a protagonist who grabs injustice by the neck, and takes by force what he can never have the opportunity to legitimately earn. 

Clyde Chestnut Barrow was born the fifth of seven children, into a poor Texan farming family. Farming, of course, was an industry badly hit by the Depression that followed the 1929 Wall Street Crash. Rejected by the Navy because of a childhood illness, Clyde’s options were few. It’s little wonder that robbing grocery shops was the path he chose to go down. A life of crime offered a solution to economic paucity, but also served up something rather intoxicating: recognition. That this recognition came in the form of notoriety is a moot point. The Instagram generation should surely connect with the sense of satisfaction that comes from being ‘seen’, being acknowledged. Clyde overtly enjoyed the fame that accompanied his and Bonnie’s mayhem, often pausing mid-heist to sign his autograph. Meeting his partner in crime would only propel Clyde further along this journey he had begun. Like the Macbeths of Shakespeare fame, each requires the other to spur them into action that may otherwise never be taken. 

Fellow Texan Bonnie Elizabeth Parker, not untypically for a 1930s female, married at sixteen and endured a short but abusive relationship with her husband, Roy Thornton. The marriage came to end when Thornton was imprisoned in 1929. Bonnie’s mother was a seamstress, her father a bricklayer who died when she was four years old. Much like her future sidekick, she had limited options in life. A prolific poet, Bonnie must have been keenly aware of her own potential, and even more so of her social impotency. 

Meeting Clyde gave Bonnie the opportunity to move into gear, and enjoy acknowledgment. The two would bask in their ability to outwit authorities. These two ‘Depression-era Kardashians’, as they were once described in the Washington Post, had found fame, and it felt good. No social media for these two – they claimed recognition the only way they knew how. And with role models including the likes of Al Capone and Billy the Kid, it’s of little surprise that a seemingly glamorous life of crime seemed infinitely more appealing than a life of invisibility.

Had Bonnie and Clyde not met, they may never have advanced beyond petty crime and frustrated ambitions. They may have lived ‘lives of quiet desperation’, as the saying goes – and like so many of us do. But meet they did, unleashing a lethal cocktail of dangerous desires wrought by the ripples of a crashed economy and heady aspirations.  Their fate was sealed from this moment, which is perhaps why the current performance both begins and ends with their deaths. The musical, based on Ivan Menchell’s book, fills this death-scene sandwich with a chronological account of the pair’s story and how it evolved to its fatal conclusion. A simplistic set that easily transitions from one locale to another is punctuated with the soundscape of gunshots and the consequent bloodshed. The covert message is that there is surely a link between disenfranchisement and social tragedy.

From their fateful meeting in 1930, this relationship hurtled towards its grand finale. The two outlaws were ambushed in Louisiana on 23 May 1934, a posse of lawmen emptied their weapons, bringing America’s most epic manhunt to a dramatic end.  

Whether perceived as sociopathic or romanticised as a pair of loveable rogues, Bonnie and Clyde have established their place in the public’s collective consciousness. This charismatic twosome were undoubtedly cold-blooded killers, but it is also true that they were robbed of any legitimate means of carving out a meaningful life for themselves. While individuals can never fully abdicate responsibility for their actions, it is equally true that a society that marginalises individuals or groups will always suffer a backlash. 

Today, global unrest is burgeoning and marginalisation is rife. Consequently, outlets will continue to be sought. Acknowledgment will be demanded, legally or otherwise. So for now, at least, the curtain is unlikely to fall on Bonnie and Clyde Syndrome.

Amanda Ellison

Amanda Ellison is a writer, teacher and labradoodle owner, hailing from a Northumbrian coastal town in the UK. She writes regularly for various publications, exclusively on subjects she is passionate about – including the arts and current affairs!

Amanda Ellison

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *