Death and the Maiden Essay - Critical Essays

Ariel Dorfman

Critical Context

Conceived in the early 1980’s, when the end of Pinochet’s rule was nothing more than a hope, Death and the Maiden (originally titled Scars on the Moon) was completed in three weeks, shortly after the election of Patricio Aylwin in 1990 and the appointing of the Commission on Truth and Reconciliation a few months later. It was indeed the commission that provided Dorfman with the key he needed to turn his original idea into final form. Although set in “a country that is probably Chile,” the play’s eventual worldwide success derived from early interest not in Santiago but in London: a staged reading at the Institute for Contemporary Art and inclusion in LIFT’91 (London International Festival of Theatre), before moving to the West End, where it drew rave reviews. The New York production, with its star cast, drew large crowds but largely withering reviews.

The political context so largely missing from the New York production (and the later film version) was precisely what made the play so timely and so powerful elsewhere, particularly in countries confronting their own recent histories: Argentina, the former Czech Republic, Poland, Germany, South Africa, Britain (Northern Ireland, the Falklands), and elsewhere. Although clearly a timely play given German reunification in 1990, Polish martial law, and South African apartheid, Death and the Maiden is also a play that transcends its moment in two important ways. First, it is effective, indeed riveting, theater and undoubtedly Dorfman’s most successful work, one in which his interest in postmodern techniques and his tendency to overdramatize are most successfully channeled. Second, subsequent events during the 1990’s, especially the spread of and responses to global terrorism and the debate over the failures and successes of the various Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, make Death and the Maiden seem a more urgent and arguably universal play than ever before.