Ariel Dorfman

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Ariel Dorfman and Wendy Smith (interview date 21 October 1988)

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SOURCE: Dorfman, Ariel, and Wendy Smith. “Ariel Dorfman.” Publishers Weekly 234, no. 17 (21 October 1988): 39-40.

[In the following interview, Dorfman discusses the themes and narrative voice of The Last Song of Manuel Sendero and Mascara.]

It is the dubious distinction of the 20th century to have created a vast literature of exile. The most compelling voices of our time are homeless, and modern fiction has been enriched by the passion of expatriate writers from cultures as diverse as those of Czechoslovakia, Colombia, Russia and Peru. Chilean author Ariel Dorfman gave near-definitive expression to the anguish of exile in The Last Song of Manuel Sendero, published here in 1987. In his new novel, Mascara, just published by Viking, he moves beyond the confines of that experience, exploring the fragmentation, despair and moral anarchy that inform even more settled lives, while retaining his commitment to the struggle for freedom and justice in his homeland and abroad.

Born in Argentina in 1942, the grandson of Jews who fled Eastern European pogroms, Dorfman and his family lived in the U.S. for 10 years before settling in Chile in 1954. As a supporter of Salvador Allende, he was forced into exile after a CIA-backed coup established General Augusto Pinochet as dictator in 1973. He now lives in Durham, N.C., where he is a professor at Duke University, although he spends much time in Chile; he was permitted to return in 1983 and hopes to settle there permanently someday. But his continued denunciations of the Pinochet regime make this unlikely: in August 1987 he was detained with his two sons for eight hours at the Santiago airport, then deported without explanation. Two weeks later, the ban was mysteriously lifted and he was again allowed to return.

When PW speaks with him in his home, he is about to make another trip to Chile, taking with him a group of TV spots by such celebrities as Christopher Reeve, Jane Fonda and Richard Dreyfuss, urging people to vote in the October plebiscite—which Pinochet expects will legitimize his rule, and which Dorfman hopes will reveal how deeply Chileans oppose it.

“We were given 15 minutes a day for the first time in 15 years,” he explains. “Clearly, 15 minutes a day does not compensate for 15 years of lies and brainwashing, but it's something. My whole theory of literature and communication is that if you're telling the truth, a token is important. I've written and lived like that my whole life. You have to be sure enough of yourself to say it's better to have 15 minutes than nothing, that with those 15 minutes you can do a lot.” [Editor's Note: Dorfman's cautious optimism seems to have been justified. As PW went to press, the Pinochet regime conceded that it had lost the plebiscite.]

This stance is far removed from the dark mood of Mascara, an unsettling allegory narrated by three troubled personalities. Principal among them is the protagonist whose terrifying monologue opens the novel: an unnamed man, cursed with a face no one can remember, who takes his revenge on society by capturing people's most intimate, shameful moments in photographs. This character leads the reader into a world of deception and betrayal, puzzles and masks, where image is everything and manipulation is the preferred path to domination.

Observing the tenderness with which Dorfman treats his wife and son, it's hard to believe this profoundly gentle man could possibly be acquainted with such dark passions. “I'm as surprised and stunned as anybody at these voices coming out of me,” he says. “It was not my intention...

(This entire section contains 2137 words.)

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to write this book. I can almost say that it was my intention since before I was born to writeThe Last Song of Manuel Sendero, because I felt it was in me as a primeval memory of the race. But this book scares me. I was possessed by this voice, it overwhelmed me. It said, ‘You must write, and you must write in this way.’ I'm not the sort of guy who sits down and plans what's going to happen in a novel. What I tend to do is have a voice, I let the voice go and I see where it's going to take me. Once you have the tone of voice, you must be true to that. If you aren't, the character will just savage you.

“I think that in some sense this book comes out of my 15 years of confrontation with evil. In all of my books, I'm obsessed with evil, with how it works, with how it's a part of our everyday landscape. In the U.S., the more evil you are, the more special effects you get—lights, horrors, cracking noises, all these things. I think evil is exactly the opposite of that. I think it's generally quiet, because the act of evil happens in the conscience. Some of my own experiences—of exile, torture, loss of identity, of not really controlling your own existence—are in this novel. That doesn't scare me, because that would be a comfortable explanation. What scares me is that somehow I feel the voice is deeper than that, and that it might be mine.”

Dorfman fought his natural tendency to look for a way to mitigate the horror of that voice. “I had to go to the last consequences of what it was telling me about humanity. In all my other books, because I think there is hope in the world, I put hope into the books. But in this book I decided that I'm not going to put hope into it that the readers aren't willing to put in themselves.

“The other thing I decided was that I was writing a novel that was not about Chile—I wanted very desperately to do that. You know, my life has been hostage to General Pinochet for all these years: he sneezes, and I turn over in bed! I keep on proclaiming my independence from him, he keeps on pulling at the leash, and I go, ‘Yes.’ Because the only way not to be a hostage would be to become indifferent. However, I was worried that everything I wrote was obsessed with him and the situation in Chile. I wanted to do something a bit more timeless.”

Mascara is Dorfman's first book without topical references, yet all his work has elements of fantasy and allegory. He feels it's an essential literary strategy for writers from totalitarian societies. “All this horror has a weight of reality, of immediacy, of urgency, which can be very dangerous to literature because you tend to feel that the only way is to be very realistic—in Spanish the word is minucioso, very minute in the details. You try to make a photograph, an exact replica of what happened, which of course is totally impossible. For a Latin American, writing in the late 20th century, you can't write as if you were Zola. We should have a Victor Hugo or an Emile Zola for what we're living, but you can't write that way anymore: we're living 19th century barbarism with 20th century esthetic tools.

“So for me the problem has been, how can I liberate myself from that material and not be overwhelmed by it? Absolute realism I think is a trap. As you can see in Manuel Sendero, I'm very anguished by that problem: that book had a crisis after the fourth chapter, when all of a sudden I said, ‘I have to bring in the real exiles.’ But just in case anybody thought that they were more real than the babies [the unborn children whose revolt is the mythic center of the novel], I put in footnotes to make sure that people understood these are forms of representation of reality, which may or may not correspond to the totality of reality. In my poems [collected in Last Waltz in Santiago], I was able to write directly about the disappeared, but I don't know if anybody would be able to stand a 300-page novel written with that intensity. I think if you read those 20 poems you've had enough for the rest of your life—I'd certainly had enough writing them! There's that need for distance, for placing things in a way in which I can deal with them.”

The artistic distance he has fought to achieve is one that Dorfman can never have in his personal life; like most activist writers, he feels the conflict between the demands of his work and his political commitments. “There's something in the back of your head saying, ‘Ariel, how could you be writing about voyeurs [in Mascara] when people are being killed?’ It's a legitimately moral stand, but it's not right and it's not going to solve my literary problem. I'm never going to put it behind me; there's going to be tension all my life between writing and more immediate political action. As I get surer about my writing, as I get clearer about the fact that it is deeply political in the sense that it asks very perturbing questions about our lives and this century, there's a sense that I'm doing what I should do. Now, as a citizen there are certain things that I also have to do; I use my influence where I can.”

A convinced populist, Dorfman is painfully aware of the people he hasn't reached. “I'm always challenged that there's an audience out there that may not understand anything I'm talking about. A lot of Latin American literature is informed by the existence of enormous masses of people who are creating culture every day, but who are excluded from the literary elite. Many of us are struggling with the fact that our literature comes from an old Spanish tradition, but it's also created by all these voices which come from real people and from popular culture. This is one of the central issues of my generation, and it ends up being a question of: Where is reality? How can you narrate a reality which has so many different fragments?

“A lot of my work is about division. I've spent a great part of my existence fighting to be whole, fighting to have some integrity, an identity which is not separate or fragmented. But I find that everything in my life tends towards that, even the fact that I'm bilingual. The world for me is very fractured. What's happened in the last year or so is that I'm beginning to enjoy this doubleness. These are the cards I've been dealt. I'm going to fight to be whole, but if I can't be, then I'm going to explore all this division.”

Paradoxically, Dorfman sees Mascara as his most unified book. “I avoided the temptation to let things take me away from the main structure. You might say that the whole history of 20th century Latin American literature is the search for some form of unity—you see it in Borges and Cortázar—and I don't feel apart from that search. I'm always looking for the unifying factor, the one voice through which I can tell the story, but I've never been able to quite pull it off. One of my problems has been that I always have one genre commenting on another; Manuel Sendero is an experiment in genres, in languages. In this book, I wanted to maintain a basic structural unity, and I think I managed it.”

It wasn't easy. Additional chapters kept presenting themselves, and his old nemesis wouldn't leave him alone. “General Pinochet was trying to get into this book. At one point, I was totally crazy, and I shouted at the computer, ‘You son-of-a-bitch, you're not going to get into this one!’ Just as he excluded me from the country for so many years, I excluded him from the novel! But I discovered that in fact I've probably written more about Pinochet in this novel than in all the others.

“What horrified me as I wrote this novel was the question: Has Pinochet come to dominate my world so much, have experiences been so terrible that this voice has finally been injected into me? Or a worse question: Did it come from before? Is it deeper? Is it part of this century? Is this what we have been forced to do to each other to survive? Because in one sense I know that Pinochet is evil, period—let's get rid of him, get him out of our lives. In another sense I know he is a product of a century that I am part of. The deeper question is: What if he is more than just a person, but part of a system, a cyclical sickness which reappears over and over again? If that's true, then there's something in us which we have to work on much harder. I see literature as part of that therapy of becoming more human.”


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Ariel Dorfman 1942-

Argentinean-born Chilean novelist, critic, essayist, playwright, short story writer, poet, memoirist, travel writer, screenwriter, and nonfiction writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Dorfman's career through 2003. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 48 and 77.

Dorfman is considered one of Latin America's most original social critics and fiction writers. He is best known for his essays, novels, and plays, in which he examines such topics as exile, life under authoritarian rule, the influence of popular culture on social and political values, and the interaction of power, language, and ideology. A world renowned political activist, Dorfman has garnered considerable attention for his outspoken opposition to cultural imperialism and political repression. His most recognized work, Death and the Maiden (1991), graphically explores the lasting impact of military aggression and torture on the individual.

Biographical Information

Born in Buenos Aires, Dorfman was two years old when his family was forced to flee to the United States due to his father's opposition to the Argentine government. Dorfman spent the next ten years in New York City, where his father worked for the United Nations, before the family settled in Chile in 1954. After completing his education at the University of Chile, Dorfman became a naturalized Chilean citizen in 1967. A year later, while working as an activist, journalist, and writer, he published his first book, El absurdo entre cuatro paredes: El teatro de Harold Pinter (1968), a critical analysis of English playwright Harold Pinter. Following the overthrow of Chilean president Salvador Allende by Augusto Pinochet in 1973, Dorfman was again forced into exile, living intermittently in Argentina, France, the Netherlands, and the United States. As a contributor to English and Spanish journals and a frequent guest on television news programs, Dorfman remained an active participant in Chile's political and social affairs. He returned to Chile in 1990 after Pinochet relinquished his position to his popularly-elected successor Patricio Alywin. Dorfman eventually settled in Durham, North Carolina, where he has taught at Duke University since 1984. He has frequently contributed essays, articles, and stories to a variety of periodicals, including Harper's,New York Times,Los Angeles Times,Village Voice, and The Washington Post. Dorfman has also held teaching positions at such universities as the University of Chile, the Sorbonne, the University of Amsterdam, and the University of Maryland. An internationally acclaimed literary figure, Dorfman received the New American Plays Award from the Kennedy Center for Widows (1988) and the Sir Laurence Olivier Award for best play for Death and the Maiden.

Major Works

The interaction of culture and politics is a recurrent theme in Dorfman's nonfiction. In Para leer al Pato Donald (1972; How to Read Donald Duck: Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comic) and Reader's nuestro que estás en la tierra: Ensayos sobre el imperialismo cultural (1980; The Empire's Old Clothes: What the Lone Ranger, Babar, and Other Innocent Heroes Do to Our Minds), Dorfman argues that such forms of popular literature as cartoons, comic books, children's stories, and the magazine Reader's Digest subliminally promote capitalist ideology and encourage passivity. Some Write to the Future: Essays on Contemporary Latin American Fiction (1991) presents critical analyses of a selection of contemporary Latin American authors—such as Gabriel García Márquez, Jorge Luis Borges, and Jose Maria Arguedas—noting the themes of political violence and repression prevalent in their works. Dorfman's 1998 memoir, Heading South, Looking North, chronicles his maturation as a political activist and author, while addressing the complex nature of language and identity. Dorfman reflects on how his bilingualism has affected his life and his relationship to the United States and Chile. Exorcising Terror: The Incredible Unending Trial of General Augusto Pinochet (2002) offers a journalistic account of the lengthy legal trial of the Chilean dictator, General Pinochet, examining the politician's rise to power and the numerous abuses that took place during his tyrannical reign.

In Dorfman's fictional works, he often emphasizes the long-lasting impact of political oppression on the human spirit. Published the same year as Pinochet's overthrow of Allende, Dorfman's first novel, Moros en la costa (1973; Hard Rain), explores the appropriateness of writing in the midst of mass murder, exploitation, and poverty. The short stories in Cría ojos (1979; My House Is on Fire) present a series of vignettes describing how individuals retain a sense of hope while living under a repressive military regime. Viudas (1981; Widows) centers on the struggle between an autocratic government and thirty-seven women who suspect that their missing husbands were abducted and killed by the authorities. Although Dorfman set the novel in occupied Greece during the 1940s to avoid government censorship, he changed the setting to Chile when he adapted the novel for the stage in 1988. Similarly, Dorfman portrayed a people's battle against an abusive power in La ùltima canción de Manuel Sendero (1982; The Last Song of Manuel Sendero), a complex novel containing multiple strands of labyrinthine narrative voices. The novel combines storylines told from several unusual perspectives, such as unborn fetuses who refuse to enter a world filled with violence and fear, two exiled Chilean cartoonists, and the characters within the cartoonists's comic strip. Dorfman utilized an analogous technique in Máscaras (1988; Mascara), wherein he incorporates the monologues of a voyeuristic photographer, an amnesiac woman with multiple personalities, and a plastic surgeon whose operations provide politicians with the faces the public expects.

A drama addressing morality and justice in post-Pinochet Chile, Death and the Maiden is set in an unnamed country recently returned to a democratic government after an era of fearsome repression. The protagonist, Paulina, is the wife of a lawyer asked to serve on a commission investigating the crimes under the previous government, including Paulina's rape and torture. Through her husband, Paulina meets the man she believes raped her—she was never allowed to see his face during her imprisonment. She kidnaps the man and places him on trial for his crimes in her own home. Dorfman later collaborated with Rafael Yglesias to adapt Death and the Maiden for a 1994 film by noted director Roman Polanski. Told almost entirely through dialogue, Dorfman's novel Konfidenz (1994) chronicles the ambiguous relationships between several individuals associated with a London political movement. In the play Reader (1995), the author concentrates on the issue of censorship and how it affects individuals and history. The lead character is a government censor who commits his wife to a mental institution after she espouses anti-government opinions. Based on a true-life event, Nana y el iceberg (1999; The Nanny and the Iceberg constructs a narrative around a terrorist's attempt to blow up an iceberg submitted as an exhibit from Chile to the 1992 World's Fair. Stylistically, the novel is presented as a suicide note e-mailed from the protagonist, Gabriel, to his girlfriend. Inspired by the nonfiction work by Kerry Kennedy Cuomo, Dorfman's play Speak Truth to Power: Voices from beyond the Dark (2000) combines the testimonies of torture survivors with statements from some of the world's leading social activists, including the Dalai Lama and Václav Havel. In Blake's Therapy (2001), Dorfman examines the corruptive power of corporate culture on the lives of individuals and the lure of voyeuristic entertainment. The plot centers around Graham Blake, the chief executive officer of a corporation called Clean Earth, who has not been able to sleep in three months due to a crisis of conscience. His associates arrange for him to come under the care of Dr. Tolgate, an immoral psychologist who treats executives plagued with moral dilemmas. Tolgate places Blake in total control of a poor Puerto Rican family, allowing Blake to play God and discover his true nature. In 2002 Dorfman published In Case of Fire in a Foreign Land: New and Collected Poems from Two Languages, a retrospective collection of his poetic works throughout his career.

Critical Reception

Critical scholarship on Dorfman's oeuvre has been varied, with scholars alternately focusing on his atypical narrative structures and his firm emphasis on promoting social justice. His early critical works, How to Read Donald Duck and The Empire's Old Clothes, have been praised for their insights on a rarely studied topic, though some have faulted Dorfman for failing to place his analyses within a firm social context. Scholars have frequently placed Dorfman within the tradition of such experimental Latin American novelists as Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortázar. His novels have been acclaimed by critics for their innovative narrative forms and complex thematic material. For example, Mascara has won acclaim for constructing a unique political allegory, which drew comparisons to the works of Franz Kafka and Günter Grass. However, many reviewers have derided Dorfman's fiction, arguing that his works feature convoluted plots and overwritten narratives. Though Death and the Maiden has unquestionably been Dorfman's most popular work, it has also received a diverse and conflicting range of scholarship. While some have lauded Death and the Maiden's powerful evocation of the emotional impact of torture, others have complained that the play is dramatically inert and overly polemic. The recurring political and socially conscious themes in Dorfman's works have been widely debated by commentators. His supporters have argued that Dorfman's texts present an unified vision that reject all forms of political repression, while his detractors have asserted that such political posturing interferes with the emotional truth of his narratives.

Cecile Pineda (review date 30 October 1988)

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SOURCE: Pineda, Cecile. “Plastic Sorcery.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (30 October 1988): 3.

[In the following review, Pineda finds Mascara to be an inventive and successful thriller, comparing Dorfman favorably to Franz Kafka and Kobo Abe.]

So we're finally going to meet, Doctor. Face to face, so to speak.

The opening words of Mascara establish the major premises of Ariel Dorfman's first novel written in English. The work will deliver on its promise of a sinister encounter (with astonishing results); and the immediacy of its tone will distinguish it throughout as a literary event as opposed to a flat narration. What is less readily apparent is that its opening pun hints from the start at a narrative strategy that, despite its indirection, will raise what in less consummate hands might remain merely a fantastic thriller to the level of a political and metaphysical metaphor. As such, Mascara places Dorfman in the exalted cultural Parnassus inhabited by Franz Kafka and Kobo Abe.

Mascara consists of three sections closely resembling monoplays. The personae are a faceless photographer, a plastic surgeon named Marivelli, and the woman, identified only as Oriana, a victim of multiple personality disorder. The first monologue, which occupies very nearly half the book's length, consists primarily of an obsessive harangue directed at Dr. Marivelli. In it, the protagonist describes himself as a voyeur, a clandestine photographer and an informer whose bureaucratic position in the Department of Traffic Accidents permits him to infiltrate a spreading network of victims-become-accomplices. All his successes, however, are attributable to his self-admitted “invisibility.” “Nobody remembered me. … The world acted as if I had not been born. …” His viscerally pornographic, racist and self-pitying digressions are mercifully interrupted by the arrival of a woman named Oriana, who remembers neither her real name nor her past. His diatribe is nearly matched in length by the doctor's own response.

No run-of-the-mill face cranker, Dr. Marivelli is by his own admission “a plastic surgeon who had sculpted and sewn up the most pre-eminent faces in the country, the public faces with which the powerful governed … the elder ones, that they may continue to reign under the newer faces. And the youngest, that they may aspire someday to infiltrate the proudest faces of ancient power.” But Dr. Marivelli has a further ability: “My operations have such an incredible degree of success because along with the old skin, they eliminate old habits, the past.”

Sandwiched between the voices of what must be two of contemporary literature's more revolting personae, Oriana shows the disturbing signs of multiple personality. Entombed in the mummy case of her walking-talking doll persona, one who is completely forgetful of her past, is the memory of the recording angel who “like(s) the dead, the people who are about to die (who) hear(s), in the miserable cities where people are not the owners of their own hands, thousands of men, thousands of women who await (her).” The hands she describes are the hands of slaves; the mysterious secret police (“Don't you remember them? A pair of men always in a hurry, blunt, … with their knives (and) their photos”) are “the real owners of all the hands in the universe … (And) because I remembered them, they would come to take my very own hands, even before I had passed away. … I (would have) to witness and watch … what those men would do to my hands, … stuffing (them) into boiling water, extracting them pale as sheets, without a wrinkle, without a line that could remind anyone of what they had once caressed.”

With the persona of Oriana, bordering on the archetype where the exterminating and recording angels meet, Dorfman bursts the bonds of political allegory as a genre to include the ultimately inviolable territory that exists between death and life, the regenerative Tibetan Bardo of the universe. In this section, above all others, he reveals the extraordinary power of his imagination.

Is Oriana's double personality intended to reflect, on the one hand, the innocent notion we hold of American democracy, undisturbed by covert memories, and, on the other, what happens when, as a result of political repression, the notion of liberty survives only as a memory? Does Dorfman mean to imply that the manipulators of power and their supporting infrastructure of secret police are ultimately interchangeable? Or that Dr. Marivelli's chameleon name changes are there deliberately to suggest that his number is legion? Has Dorfman temporarily switched from the Spanish of his native Chile, with its ongoing legacy of political terror, in order to address us directly in English? And can it be that, in Dr. Marivelli's words, Mascara encodes some disturbing reminders of our own pre-election masquerade?

Mascara proves to be a marvelously inventive story of suspense. Not only is the fate of the world at stake, but so is the outcome of a first-class thriller. One suspects, however, that what the author admits in a “sort of” epilogue may have been editorially generated to make the book-as-plot more accessible to the hypothetical “average reader.” It is to Dorfman's great credit that he manages to bring off this rather obvious tying of loose ends with such magisterial skill. Because, politically speaking, the story has no end. Secret governments and political repression continue to proliferate. No one is immune. In a clear reiteration of his larger meanings Dorfman chooses to break off his epilogue abruptly:


Principal Works

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El absurdo entre cuatro paredes: El teatro de Harold Pinter (criticism) 1968

Imaginación y violencia en América (essays and criticism) 1970

Para leer al Pato Donald [with Armand Mattelart; How to Read Donald Duck: Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comic] (nonfiction) 1972

Moros en la costa [Hard Rain] (novel) 1973

Ensayos quemados en Chile: Inocencia y neocolonialismo (essays and criticism) 1974

Superman y sus amigos del alma [with Manuel Jofré] (essays and criticism) 1974

Culture et résistance au Chile (essays and criticism) 1978

Cría ojos [My House Is on Fire] (short stories) 1979

Pruebas al canto (poetry) 1980

Reader's nuestro que estás en la tierra: Ensayos sobre el imperialismo cultural [The Empire's Old Clothes: What the Lone Ranger, Babar, and Other Innocent Heroes Do to Our Minds] (essays and criticism) 1980

Viudas [Widows] (novel) 1981

Missing (poetry) 1982

La última canción de Manuel Sendero [The Last Song of Manuel Sendero] (novel) 1982

Hacia liberación del lector latinamericano (essays and criticism) 1984

Dorando la píldora (short stories) 1985

Patos, elefantes y héroes: La infancia como subdesarrollo (essays and criticism) 1985

Pastel de choclo [Last Waltz in Santiago and Other Poems of Exile and Disappearance] (poetry) 1986

Máscaras [Mascara] (novel) 1988

*Widows (play) 1988

Scars on the Moon (play) 1990

Death and the Maiden (play) 1991

Some Write to the Future: Essays on Contemporary Latin American Fiction (criticism) 1991

Death and the Maiden [with Rafael Yglesias] (screenplay) 1994

Konfidenz (novel) 1994

Reader (play) 1995

Rumbo al sur, deseando el norte: Un romance en dos lenguas [Heading South, Looking North: A Bilingual Journey] (memoir) 1998

Nana y el iceberg [The Nanny and the Iceberg] (novel) 1999

Speak Truth to Power: Voices from beyond the Dark [adaptor; from the nonfiction work by Kerry Kennedy Cuomo] (play) 2000

Blake's Therapy (novel) 2001

Más allá del miedo: El largo adiós a Pinochet [Exorcising Terror: The Incredible Unending Trial of General Augusto Pinochet] (nonfiction) 2002

In Case of Fire in a Foreign Land: New and Collected Poems from Two Languages (poetry) 2002

Desert Memories: Journeys through the Chilean North (travel writing) 2003

Other Septembers, Many Americas: Selected Provocations, 1980-2004 (essays and criticism) 2004

*Widows originally debuted at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in 1988. Dorfman co-authored a revised version in 1991 with playwright Tony Kushner.

Margarita Nieto (review date 28 January 1990)

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SOURCE: Nieto, Margarita. “In Chile: The Lingering Stench of Fear.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (28 January 1990): 3, 10.

[In the following review, Nieto comments on the strengths and weaknesses of the stories collected in My House Is on Fire, noting that all of the stories “reflect the omniscient presence of a repressive military state.”]

In the aftermath of the political changes that have swept across Eastern Europe and Asia during the last six months, two images stand out the horrifying massacre in Tian An Men Square and the joyful reunion of a once-divided people dancing on the Berlin Wall. As mute reminders of the universal meaning of oppression and freedom, they symbolized the power of political actions in human terms. Yet, the dramatic poignancy of these two events also served to underplay the conflicts between repression and political choice that recently affected our own continent in Latin America.

While less dramatic than the political changes in Eastern Europe and Asia, the free elections held in Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Uruguay in 1989 were significant as an initial step toward reclaiming political liberties that had been lost not to Communism but to the tyranny of military dictatorships shamefully supported by the United States.

Like Tian An Men Square and the Berlin Wall, the Latin American elections are only the most overt signs of a deeper conflict in the political culture between decades of oppression and hopes of freedom. As he did in his earlier novels—Mascara,Widows and The Last Song of Manuel Sendero—Ariel Dorfman captures the essence of this conflict in these 11 short narratives [in My House Is on Fire].

Ranging from neo-realistic descriptions and dialogues of the Chilean environment to quasi-Kafkaesque situations, these stories always reflect the omniscient presence of a repressive military state. That awareness, curiously enough, also is the basis of the inherent literary problems in them.

Writing on the recent Chilean elections in an article published in the December issue of Harper's entitled “Adios, Mi General,” Dorfman, who was exiled from Chile in 1973 and only permitted to return 10 years later, speaks of Pinochet's “strangely ethereal, almost unreal” presence in his own life and in the Chilean life in general. It is a presence that transformed Chile from a democratic country to one tormented by fear and authoritarianism. And it is a presence that threatens to cast its shadow over Chile's future.

Although Patricio Aylwin, the candidate of a coalition of opposition parties, won the presidential elections, Pinochet will have left Chile strapped by a series of constitutional, economic and military changes that will take years to revise. Moreover, he has announced that he will remain as commander-in-chief of the army for another eight years.

It is under this aura that My House Is on Fire conceives a world in which even the most innocent victims can no longer remain untouched. In the title story, My House Is on Fire, perhaps the most successful in the collection, a child narrator describes his sister and himself hiding under a blanket playhouse. Through the narrator, the reader becomes terrifyingly aware that this male child knows and fears what his baby sister has not yet grasped: that their parents' lives depend on their silence; that this game is not child's play but a game of life and death.

In “Family Circle” and “The Reader,” contemporary political reality is even more closely woven into the plot. In the first story, a young man returns home on military leave fearing his father's contempt. The family's economic straits and their effect on the older man's loss of authority and self-esteem are results of the father's punishment for his political ideology. The result is a confessional climax of shame and confrontation between father and son, who has been assigned to guard duty at the maximum security prison where his uncle is being held a political prisoner. The son asserts that “… if somebody tries to escape, I'll shoot him. I'll shoot him full-blast.”

In “The Reader,” Dorfman utilizes unfolds a double plot. A conscientious and respected editor (read: censor) for a publishing house struggles allows publication of a manuscript that he knows will not only cost him his job but also his freedom. The twist is that the novel being read is a foretelling of the story.

But the internal struggles of these characters caught among duty, compromise and morality are never fully developed. We know from the beginning that Lucho, the young man, is compromised, that Don Alfonso, the censor is finally going to confront the truth. Rather than take action, they tell us what they will do. It seems that the expediency of the political thrust of the story does not allow for the reader's participation.

Yet despite their unevenness and a sometimes awkward translation, Dorfman's gift for language is revealed in his next-to-last story. A poetic and conflictive sense of despair and triumph in the narrative voice echo the breathless escape of a young man outwitting his assassins: “… Theo escaped into the darkness like a wondrous animal endowed with more arms and legs than he knew what to do with, flowing in the river of himself and the stretcher, fleeing beneath the blue stars far from the barking dogs and the faraway fury of the inquisitors, fleeing impossible, impossible, driven by the words with which the colonel would have to inform Mama. …”

In moments such as these, Dorfman's mastery as a storyteller makes reading these stories most worth while.

Further Reading

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Agosin, Marjorie. “Chilean Novelist's Surreal Political Fable of Lives in Limbo.” Christian Science Monitor 79, no. 60 (23 February 1987): 24.

Agosin praises the “fascinating and original plot” of The Last Song of Manuel Sendero.

Arana-Ward, Marie. “A Voice in the Night.” Washington Post Book World 25, no. 8 (19 February 1995): 4.

Arana-Ward asserts that, with the publication of the novel Konfidenz, Dorfman “steps confidently from the realm of Latin American storyteller into the arena of a world novelist of the first category.”

Doughty, Louise. “Under the Oppressor.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4656 (26 June 1992): 22.

Doughty compliments Dorfman's deft use of detail in the stories collected in My House Is on Fire.

Elliott, Fiona. “The Cost of Living without Loyalty.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4822 (1 September 1995): 18.

Elliott discusses the themes of censorship and oppression in Reader.

Finnegan, Brian. Review of Heading South, Looking North, by Ariel Dorfman. American Studies International 36, no. 3 (October 1998): 103-04.

Finnegan presents a critical reading of Dorfman's memoir Heading South, Looking North.

Hornby, Richard. Review of Death and the Maiden, by Ariel Dorfman. Hudson Review 45, no. 2 (summer 1992): 299-300.

Hornby argues that Death and the Maiden employs a number of “psychological subtleties” that elevate the play “above the level of a thriller.”

Jones, D. A. N. “Allendistas.” London Review of Books 14, no. 21 (5 November 1992): 30-1.

Jones maintains that the criticism collected in Some Write to the Future offers valuable insights into the relationship between the Latin American literary community and their works.

Kerrigan, Michael. “All-American Revolutionary.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4964 (22 May 1998): 36.

Kerrigan commends Dorfman's depiction of his struggle with his Latin American heritage and his attraction to America in Heading South, Looking North.

Omang, Joanne. “Fire and Ice.” Washington Post Book World 29, no. 33 (15-21 August 1999): 4.

Omang criticizes The Nanny and the Iceberg, calling the novel boring, repellent, and self-indulgent.

Stavans, Ilan. “Speaking in Tongues.” Nation 266, no. 16 (4 May 1998): 30-2.

Stavans views Heading South, Looking North as not only a memoir but also a study “about the incisiveness of words, about their relation to social conscience.”

Wetzsteon, Rachel. “Lyric Gestures.” American Theatre 20, no. 2 (February 2003): 60-2.

Wetzsteon compliments the range of poems collected in In Case of Fire in a Foreign Land.

Additional coverage of Dorfman's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 124, 130; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 67, 70; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 48, 77; Contemporary World Writers, Ed. 2; DISCovering Authors Modules: Multicultural; Drama for Students, Vol. 4; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Hispanic Literature Criticism, Ed. 1; Hispanic Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Literature Resource Center; and World Literature and Its Times, Ed. 1.

John J. Hassett (essay date 1992)

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SOURCE: Hassett, John J. “Dictatorship, Memory and the Prospects for Democracy: The Fiction of Ariel Dorfman.” Third World Quarterly 13, no. 2 (1992): 393-98.

[In the following essay, Hassett explores how Dorfman utilizes memory as a source of dramatic and emotional conflict in Viudas, La última canción de Manuel Sendero and “La batalla de los colores.”]

In my comments on “La batalla de los colores”, Viudas and La última canción de Manuel Sendero I intend to show how the narrative world of Ariel Dorfman revolves principally around two agnostic forces: the desire on the part of a repressive military regime to erase all memory of the past and the struggle of a people intent on keeping that past alive and bringing about democratic change. Dorfman's texts suggest that at the heart of our humanity is the struggle to remember and that our refusal to forget reflects a political act in a culture dedicated to lobotomising its citizenry. Memory in his narrative world serves not just as a mechanism for reconstructing the past but also as a catalyst for keeping hope alive and creating a better life for all at some point in the future. Dorfman's stories and novels imply that to go on living as if the past did not exist or were not worthy of our recollection, is in fact to be left without a sense of our own identity. Memory, Dorfman insinuates, is what distinguishes us from inert matter; it subverts the robotic responses to life of those who live exclusively in the present and upon whom repressive regimes depend for their continued existence. Without the ability and courage to remember, Dorfman seems to say, we are condemned to live in a world in which the quest for individual power and control over others takes precedence over any commitment to society's collective well being. The past that he strives to keep alive through his writings in the hearts and minds of his fellow Chileans is the long history of his nation's democratic traditions, in general, and the values espoused by Salvador Allende's Popular Unity government in particular.

“La batalla de los colores” first appeared in a collection of short stories entitled Cría ojos published in 1979.1 The title of the collection represents an interesting inversion of an old Spanish refrain: Cría cuervos y te sacarán los ojos. The original refers to a negative experience that produces pain, darkness and disillusionment in its victims. Dorfman's version, on the contrary, is positive in nature. In the context of the entire collection Cría ojos signifies a gradual opening of the eyes, of learning to see and understand the true nature of present reality and of putting an end to terror and repression. The text, then, embodies two stages: a raising of the reader's political consciousness and a call to struggle against a repressive military dictatorship.2 The process of political awakening is portrayed in the text as a gradual one. Interestingly, Dorfman divides the collection into three separate sections entitled Párpados,Cuervos and Ojos respectively. As we read the stories contained in each section we move from a world engulfed in darkness and paralysed by fear to one in which a definitive reawakening has occurred, with victory over oppression seemingly only a matter of time.

“La batalla de los colores”3 is the collection's final story and it serves as a fitting climax in this process of political awakening. Unolike the other stories, it uses the fantastic to contrast the vitality of a free Chile under the Popular Unity government with a repressive military dictatorship. José, the protagonist, sets out one morning to collect drawings done by the children of the country in order to preserve a record of life in Chile during the Popular Unity government. The day José chooses to do this, however, happens to be 11 September 1973, the day of the military coup against the Allende government. While the soldiers increase their control over the city José intensifies his activity as the archivist of the collective memory. Drawings from the most remote corners of the country arrive at his doorstep filling his apartment with children's graphic recollection of their daily lives and their depiction of the most important moments of the Allende presidency. What is viewed initially by the military as the work of a deranged soul is later interpreted as a serious act against the security of the state. It is at this point in the story that the battle between present and past ensues. José determines to defend the past not because he is obsessed with it but because it is his and his country's link to a future restoration of the freedom and joy portrayed in the children's sketches. Dorfman captures convincingly the intensity of this battle in the final section by employing a narrative voice that is very much like the style he was to employ later in a large part of La última canción de Manuel Sendero. It is a battle between heavily armed soldiers of the sombre present and colourful images of the past. As the soldiers penetrate José's apartment they find themselves entrapped in a forest of vibrant colours and smiling faces. Their force is rendered useless in the face of a reality that refuses to disappear as they discover that even they themselves are beginning to remember, to recall what they have been taught to forget. The more they try to take down the drawings and eliminate the reality portrayed in them, the more they feel moved by the love and affection of the human figures to take on a life of their own. José's home becomes a warm beacon of light in a city of darkness, as additional drawings continue to arrive through a network of underground tunnels dug by José's neighbours. They, following his example, refuse to allow their past to be obliterated and their history rewritten.4 Ultimately, the military's efforts to clear out the apartment and locate its owner fail. As the narrator states:

que José se había ido en tranvía de los colores más adultos posibles cargado de gallinas y huevos y burros de oro y que esperaba a todo el país en un futuro ileno de colinas rojas donde los niños volverían a pintar su liberación.

(p. 229)

The novel Viduas5 was first published in 1981 and like the rest of Dorfman's fiction it too recounts the story of a community beset by political terror. The events narrated in the novel take place at the beginning of the Second World War in a country whose identity is never clarified explicitly. Its characters, surnames and geographical details, however, prompt us initially to identify the area as Greece during the Nazi occupation and later as any part of the world that has fallen victim to fascism. Unlike “La batalla de los colores” the author has taken the novel's action out of the confines of a strictly Chilean reality in his text and to ensure, by disguising his authorship, that the novel would be published and read in Chile.

Longa,6 the name of the fictional village, is a community of desaparecidos, of women without men, of families without fathers, of agents of death. The novel grew out of a poem that appeared in Pruebas al canto (1980)7 entitled “Identidad” whose principal figure is a women whose husband has been found dead, floating in the river. In Viudas Dorfman expands the image to include an entire community of women faced with the grim prospect of waiting for the corpses of their men to turn up at the river's edge.

As with José's act of collecting the drawings of the children in “La batalla de los colores,” the women's insistence on waiting at the river to collect the bodies of their dead and give them a proper burial is initially viewed by the military authorities as a minor inconvenience. But upon realising that neither threats nor bribes will dissuade the women from carrying out their task, they identify their behaviour as an organised conspiracy against the State.8 The novel closes with a tense confrontation between the women and a heavily armed contingent of soldiers sent to the river to disrupt their vigil.

The desire of the women to bury their dead is really a rejection of the military's attempt to erase their past. Each body represents a specific generation, an ever-evolving chronology in the history of their community. By burying the corpses in a common, unmarked grave the soldiers undermine the community's collective strength and eradicate the reality of the ‘disappeared’. Dorfman, through Sofia, the principal female figure in the novel, implies that it is the community's link with its past that ensures its survival. Ironically, it is the soldiers, according to Sofia, who will ultimately ‘disappear’ and not the members of her community, for they are totally alone, immersed in the present of their own violence and repression.9

In the final scenes of the novel Sofia reminds her teenage grandson, as he is about to be taken away to the capital and perhaps never heard from again, that the purveyors of political terror are the real underdogs in this battle. For Sofia they are to be pitied for they have forgotten their past, their humanity, their sense of community:

tú crees que son fuertes ellos, alexis? que se fijara más bien en lo que nos diferencia. la diferencia. no tanto que ellos eran ricos y nosotros pobres o ellos armados y nosotros indefensos o ellos dueños de todo y nosotros bueno … sino que ellos eran huecos, huecos, entiendes, y nosotros … está claro como somos nosotros. vacíos ellos, sin nada adentro, si los abrías salía un poquitín de sangre triste y porquerías y al rato hasta las tripas también irían a desaparecer, y por eso cuando se morían, se morían para siempre.

(pp. 188-89)

In reading Viudas, published some eight years after the coup, we cannot help but feel the intensity of the ever growing physical separation between the exiled writer and his homeland. As he makes clear in his prologue, Dorfman wrote this novel to maintain an ongoing dialogue with those still living in Chile. By 1981 almost a decade had gone by since the military takeover and a whole new generation of Chileans had found themselves living under a dictatorship that had done everything possible to erase all remnants of the past. It is to this generation, in particular, that the writer addresses himself so that it never forgets what took place in 1973 and that it learns, just as Alexis learns from his grandmothers, that a community, with its shared history and values, is a living organism that never dies and that violence and terror do not guarantee the longevity of the repressive state.

While Viudas is laconic and lean in its narrative exposition, La última canción de Manuel Sendero10 (1982) is a diffuse and complex novel with a labyrinthine structure and multiple narrative voices which tax the abilities of even the most sophisticated reader. Similar to “La batalla de los colores,” Dorfman fuses the fantastic and the real to portray a society caught in the clutches of repression and terror. The text is composed of three apparently distinct narrative threads but as we continue reading we discover that the similarities between them far outweigh their differences. Taken together these three storylines present a moving, uplifting and often highly amusing portrayal of a people's struggle against abusive power.

The narrative sequences entitled Adentro relate the story of the son of Manuel Sendero who returns to Chile to corroborate what he remembers about his legendary father and to lead the second rebellion of the foetuses against the dictatorship that has ruled the lives of their parents and grandparents for many years. By refusing to be born into a world whose only options are apretar el gatillo o recibir la bala (p 21) in contrast to life inside the protective warmth of the maternal womb donde no se conjuga el verbo temer (p 30), the foetuses hope to bring about an end to the dictatorship. Must like Rulfo's Juan Preciado,11 the son of Manuel Sendero encounters hostility upon his return to his native country and an endless array of contradictory versions regarding the true identity of his father. From the outset the text underscores the corrosive effect of time, the elusiveness of the past and the importance of memory in thwarting the efforts of an authoritarian regime.

The events narrated in the second storylines take place in Mexico some eight years after the military coup in Chile. In a long and very moving dialogue two Chileans, David Wiseman and Felipe Cuadra, recall their years before and during exile in a typical Mexico City traffic jam. The conversation, which could easily be viewed as the thinking of every political exile, expresses the fears, hopes and frustrations of individuals cut off from the source of their cultural identity. Chile, as recalled by David, is now nothing more than a faded memory. His words and thoughts reflect the scepticism experienced by exiles who detect an increasing consolidation of power by the military and an ever-growing disparity between the homeland remembered and that of the present. For David exile has meant an interminable wandering during which he has suffered the breakup of his marriage and family. After almost a decade of living in countries and speaking languages that will never be his, he decides to return to his homeland, convinced of the impossibility of changing the political situation there in the immediate future. Felipe, contrary to David, remains a dedicated political militant. Rational and unemotional in his approach to the political situation, he vows to return to Chile only when democracy has been fully restored. For him such a goal is never an illusion but a reality that can be achieved by remaining faithful to the Cause and by suppressing all individualistic desires and impulses.

Within this dialogue Dorfman inserts a rough draft of a political comic book that David, its author, hopes to publish with the help of Felipe and his contacts within Chile. The comic's plot narrates how the military regime of Chilex headed by the Caballero del Laboratorio and his advisors—J W Guilfoyle, the Head of ITT's Latin American section; A I D Arnold, F M I Milton and Patricio Garras, chief of the country's security apparatus—seeks to create a new citizen, men and women without memory of the turbulent past, and a new society unencumbered by tensions and malcontents. The authorities have determined that protest and discontent are due to a chemical excess of X-Factor which causes people to revert to past behaviour and reject the status quo. By reducing this imbalance the regime asserts that society's welfare would be assured and the values of the established order safeguarded.

At first glance the numerous story lines of La canción de Manuel Sendero seem to follow separate paths without ever intersecting. But this is a novel of unending refractions and it is clear, as we look more closely, that at the heart of all of its multiple texts is Chile, the victimised and far away land now known as Chilex or ex-Chile. For example, David's contemplated return, his memories of the past and his own exile have their counterpart in the return of Manuel Sendero's son and his search to confirm the veracity of what he remembers. The limbo in which the foetuses live, their refusal to be born and their final surrender to the need to enter the world has its echo in the predicament of all political exiles as they weight the decision to ‘go back’. In all three stories we also find a military regime headed by a Caballero determined to use violence in order to erase the past and rewrite history. And in Manuel Sendero's world, for example, the military sacks the minds of its fellow citizens, believing that memory is the source of all potential revolutionary activity, while in the ‘fictional’ world portrayed in David's comic book a regime proceeds to reduce the level of X-Factor in its citizenry to create a more controllable society. Nor are these examples very different from the documented cases of Felipe's world in which concentration camps and torture had become useful tools in remodeling aberrant behavior. Finally, in all of these stories the creative process—whether it be Manuel Sendero's song, the biography being written by his son, or David's cartoon strip—embodies a potentially dangerous act in a society governed by the ever vigilant eye of the Caballero.

Dorfman's texts, too, are dangerous to the ongoing health of repressive regimes because they force people to begin thinking about who they are, where they have come from and what is being done to them in the name of order, progress and national security. Unlike the stifling and sealed atmosphere created in such works as Garcia Márquez's El otoño del patriarca.12 Dorfman's fiction tends to be structurally open, pointing toward an alternative political reality that transcends an apparently future political culture might look like, it is obviously one based on notions of community, collective action and a redistribution of power. Each of the texts discussed in this study closes ambiguously, with a sense that the final chapter in this long and arduous campaign has not yet been written. At the core of ultimate victory is a people's refusal to allow present circumstances to eradicate what once was. The timetable for such change, however, differs from text to text and, no doubt, such differences are directly proportional to the duration of the author's own political exile. In “La batalla de los colores,” for example, the days of the military regime appear quite numbered, while in Viudas and particularly in La última canción de Manuel Sendero the struggle is one that encompasses generations. Despite these different time frames, the final outcome is really indisputable and Dorfman leaves little doubt in his reader's mind that Manuel Sendero's great-grandchildren will have the last word in their conversation with the Caballero who, before long, will be but a memory of their distant past.


  1. Cría ojos (Mexico: Nueva Imagen, 1979). All references to this text are from this edition.

  2. Juan Claro-Mayo discusses Dorfman's short fiction from the point of view of its political commitment in: ‘Dorfman, cuentista comprometido’, Revista Iberoamericana, v. 47, nos. 114-115 (January-June 1981), 339-345.

  3. This story has appeared in two other collections by Dorfman. See Dorando la píldora (Santiago: ediciones del Ornitorrinco, 1985) and Cuentos para militares (Santiago: Editorial Emisión, 1986).

  4. Following the coup in 1973 the Junta wasted little time in restructuring the country's political, economic, legal, educational and social institutions in its desire to remove all trace of the Allende years and assume total control of the country's present. The literature on this subject is extensive and I indicate here only a small percentage of significant readings: Phil Obrien, Jackie Roddick et al.,Chile: The Pinochet Decade (London: Latin American Bureau Ltd, 1983); North American Congress on Latin America, ‘Chile: Beyond the Darkest Decade’, NACLA Report on the Americas, XVII, 5 (September-October, 1983), 2-41; Genaro Arriagada, Pinochet: The Politics of Power (Boston: Unwin Hyman Ltd, 1988): Soledad Bianchi, ‘Where to Begin to Grasp This Land?’ in Gínor Rojo & John J Hassett (eds) Chile: Dictatorship and the Struggle for Democracy (Gaithersburg, Maryland: HISPAMERICA, 1988) pp. 53-73; Joseph P Farrell, The National Unified School in Allende's Chile: The Role of Education in the Destruction of a Revolution (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1986): Manuel Antonio Garretón, The Chilean Political Process (Boston: Unwin Hyman Ltd, 1989).

  5. Viudas (Mexico: Nueva Imagen, 1981). All references to the novel correspond to this edition.

  6. The story of Longa is curiously similar to that of a real community in Chile called Lonquen where the bodies of labour leaders, workers, students, campesinos and professionals were found in 1978. The discovery established the first concrete link between disappearances and suspected executions that took place after the coup and it forced the government to open the first public discussion of those who ‘disappeared’ in 1973. Similar to events portrayed in Dorfman's novel, the survivors of one particular family, the Moreiras, petitioned the military government for over a year for permission to bury their dead. When permission was finally granted the regime abruptly changed its mind and had the bodies secretly moved to an unmarked grave. See Cynthia G Brown, Chile since the Coup: Ten Years of Repression (New York and Washington, DC: Americas Watch, 1983) pp. 80-86.

  7. Pruebas al canto (Mexico: Nueva Imagen, 1980).

  8. The thematic implications recall the content of Sophocles' classic Greek tragedy Antigone.

  9. I discuss these aspects in an essay that will soon appear in an upcoming issue of Discurso Literario entitled ‘Ariel Dorfman's Viudas: Solidarity vs. Political Oppression’.

  10. La última canción de Manuel Sendero (Mexico: Siglo XXI, 1982). All references to this novel are from this edition.

  11. Juan Rulfo, Pedro Páramo (Mexico: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1955).

  12. See R Boyers excellent study of García Márquez's novel in his Atrocity and Amnesia: The Political Novel since 1945 (New York and London: Oxford University Press, 1985) pp 71-92.

Stefan Kanfer (review date 23 March 1992)

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SOURCE: Kanfer, Stefan. “Fantastic Voyages.” New Leader 75, no. 4 (23 March 1992): 20-1.

[In the following review, Kanfer presents a negative critical reading of Death and the Maiden, maintaining that the play “has no armature, no catharsis, no revelation, no real ending.”]

In the program for Death and the Maiden, Chilean writer Ariel Dorfman states that his tragedy occurs in a country that “is probably Chile” but may in fact be someplace else. This coyness sets exactly the wrong tone for the evening, and Director Mike Nichols amplifies it for two acts.

A totalitarian leader has been deposed, his regime replaced by liberal democrats. Gerardo Escobar (Richard Dreyfuss), an ambitious lawyer, has just been named to the President's committee investigating crimes and misdemeanors of the previous administration. Among those offenses were the imprisonment and rape of his wife Paulina (Glenn Close), one of the country's many walking wounded. En route to Señora Escobar at their beach house, the lawyer has a blowout. A total stranger, Dr. Miranda (Gene Hackman), stops to give him a lift home. The hour is late and the doctor is exhausted; Gerardo persuades him to stay the night.

Next morning Miranda awakens to a nightmare. He is bound hand and foot to a kitchen chair. While her husband slept, Paulina crept into the guest room, knocked out the visitor, tied him up and gagged him with her panties. Now he sits, helpless and mute, as she explains her actions. She heard his voice last night and recognized it. Fifteen years before, she goes on, Miranda and his thugs imprisoned and violated her. Today she is going to put him on trial in her own kangaroo court. When Gerardo awakens he tries to intervene, less for humanitarian purposes than to avoid a scandal. But his wife is armed with a pistol. She fires a warning shot and repeats her intentions. Nothing and no one will dissuade her. She is to be the prosecution, judge and jury; Gerardo will act as the defense attorney.

Released from his gag—though not his ropes—the doctor vigorously protests his innocence. He seems persuasive. Then again, so does Paulina. She insists that Miranda is indeed the war criminal, the medical experimenter, the sexual tyrant. Is the prisoner trying to squirm out of his past? Or is this a case of mistaken identity? Is Paulina so deranged that she can no longer distinguish between truth and fantasy? And what if the doctor is guilty? Will his warden exact an illegal revenge—and thereby become a criminal herself?

There are enough moral dilemmas here to fuel a dozen plays, and at least one whodunnit. But Dorfman has not the slightest idea how to construct a drama or a mystery. His work has no armature, no catharsis, no revelation, no real ending. A silent coda brings the trio together at a formal concert where they exchange meaningful glances—meaningful to them, not to us. We never learn whether Paulina is crazy or if Miranda is culpable. Dorfman's one note is irony, and it is always presented with heavy hands: Death and the Maiden, for example, is the title of the doctor's favorite Schubert quartet.

With a different cast and director, and a bitterly serious outlook, the play has become a hit in London's West End. The Broadway version at the Brooks Atkinson Theater has been misconceived from start to curtain. Gene Hackman, who spends most of the time in bondage, has the greatest star power and the fewest lines. Dreyfus does his famous sputtering husband, cf. Down and Out in Beverly Hills,What about Bob? etc. The inventiveness of Nichols' bits of business notwithstanding, this is not a comedy, and the laughs invariably come in the wrong places. Close is all technique, hitting her marks accurately, manufacturing tears at precisely the right moment. Yet we have seen this diary of a mad housewife before, notably in Fatal Attraction, where she was more terrifying and just as implausible.

It seems anticlimactic to mention Tony Walton's stark set. The claustrophobic rooms evoke no country and no country house on earth. Still, because Dorfman's play has no recognizable connection with history, geography or humanity, it may be the most appropriate part of the production.

Jack Byrne (review date spring 1992)

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SOURCE: Byrne, Jack. Review of Hard Rain, by Ariel Dorfman. Review of Contemporary Fiction 12, no. 1 (spring 1992): 151-52.

[In the following review, Byrne praises Dorfman's fragmentary narrative in Hard Rain, calling the work a “brilliant anti-novel.”]

“All you need are a body, a killer, and a detective. Perfect first ingredients. Season well with a few other characteristics (a list of suspects, limited to residents and visitors who had access to the closed space where the crime took place; authorities who feel bewildered and impotent; a criminal who threatens to strike again; a detective who is emotionally involved in the case; an explosive atmosphere) and we've got ourselves a first-rate mystery novel.” This is a bewildering opening paragraph to a “novel” about the short, happy presidential life of Salvador Allende of Chile [Hard Rain], but it is one way to get the reader's attention. It doesn't take long, however, to realize that we are experiencing a brilliant anti-novel meant to personalize, through the fragments of memory and experience (bits of unfinished literary efforts: newspapers, magazines, books, anthologies, letters, encyclopedia articles, editorials, mostly fictitious), an epoch little understood by most Americans, including Nixon's CIA. Very near the end there is a masterful diatribe, running two full pages (reminiscent of Giancarlo Giannini's bravura outburst at the end of Lina Wertmuller's classic Seven Beauties), using hundreds of clichés for rationalizing one's conduct at the cross-roads of political decision-making: “They'll tell you you're very young, they'll say you're crazy. … They'll say why don't you listen a little, OK, and then you'll know what to do; they'll tell you to get organized first, to think before you act; they'll call you an extremist, a reformist, a bureaucrat, a traitor … they'll say you have to read more, they'll say there's no better book than experience … they'll tell you to wait until you've had a few kids … they'll say Rome wasn't built in a day” and on and on. In between these two excerpts, Ariel Dorfman creates, much like Dos Passos in U.S.A., a personal novel-like re-creation of what it was like to live through Allende's last days of glory in Chile. In between we are also given variations on several themes by Dorfman—his revolutionary politics, his views on literature, especially the novel, his philosophy of life, in short, his exploration “of the role of the artist as creator, chronicler, Cassandra and Pygmalion to his continent and people.” In the author's “Preface to the English Translation,” Dorfman tells us that Hard Rain “was written during the last months of 1972, in the middle of one of this century's most fascinating, and tragic, social experiments: the revolution known as the Chilean peaceful road to socialism.” Newsweek recognizes Dorfman as “one of the six greatest living Latin American novelists,” and it is difficult, after reading this first novel, to disagree with them. Hard Rain puts Dorfman in the vanguard of contemporary Spanish literature.

Gerald Weales (review date 8 May 1992)

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SOURCE: Weales, Gerald. “Go Ahead, Shoot.” Commonweal 120, no. 9 (8 May 1992): 21.

[In the following review, Weales argues that, despite Dorfman's “elegant” plot, Death and the Maiden fails to engage the audience or make the characters and plot believable.]

Somewhere beneath the slick and enervating surface of Ariel Dorfman's Death and the Maiden, there are serious themes struggling to get out. The play is set in “a country that is probably Chile,” one that has recently emerged from a dictatorship and has become, tentatively, a democracy. The question—one that is asked every day in Eastern Europe, in South and Central America, in Africa—is whether the new nearly democratic health of a country depends on the recognition and punishment of the oppressors from the past or whether the present is better served—as Mussolini's sexpot granddaughter was saying on television recently—by dismissing all that ugliness as history. In Dorfman's play there are advocates of recognition and of punishment, although not necessarily of both. Gerardo Escobar (Richard Dreyfuss) is a lawyer who has been named to a commission, with minimal power, that will investigate charges of wrongdoing—very wrongdoing—in the past. His wife, Paulina Salas (Glenn Close), who was raped and tortured in an attempt to extract information from her, is understandably obsessed by what happened to her and aches to punish the villains. Circumstances provide an occasion. Roberto Miranda (Gene Hackman), who has earlier rescued Escobar, stranded on the road by a plot device, drops by in the middle of the night to congratulate Escobar or perhaps to soften him up in case his name should come up in the hearings. Paulina recognizes (or thinks she does) Miranda as the Schubert-loving doctor who led her torturers; she ties him up, demands a mock trial, threatens to be judge and executioner.

Escobar is potentially the most interesting character. Miranda either is or is not the torture doctor; Paulina either will or will not kill him. Escobar finally sides with Miranda and feeds him information, which he may not need, for the confession Paulina demands. Escobar's motivation is nicely unclear. His distress at Paulina's homemade vengeance may result from his belief in proper legal proceedings, even though he knows that the judiciary is still shot through with appointees of the old regime; after all, we do not want to be like them. He may be afraid that Paulina's irrational behavior will wreck his career, stain his growing importance within the new government. It may be a bit of male bonding; we learn that while Paulina was under arrest, risking her life to protect Escobar's name, he was having an affair.

In the next to last scene, Escobar having been sent offstage, Paulina listens to Miranda's confession and decides to kill him anyway. After an impassioned speech about the way victims are expected to act in a civilized way (“And why does it always have to be people like me who have to sacrifice”), she holds a gun to his head and … blackout. In the published play, Dorfman asks for a mirror to descend so that the audience can see itself while a spotlight picks out one playgoer after another. This effect would presumably generalize the theme, take the play away from Paulina, who may or may not be mad, and prepare for the final scene. There, the three principals, formally dressed, arrive at a concert to hear a little Schubert. Dorfman may intend a final ambiguity to an ambiguous play—a testimony to Paulina's unwillingness to act as her torturers did, an indication that the past is to be smoothed over by social ritual, or, given the look exchanged between Paulina and Miranda, a confession that the questions the play presumably faces are questions still.

If this sounds like an interesting—even an important—play, it certainly did not seem so in the theater. Part of the problem lies with Dorfman. Although moral problems can certainly be carried by a thriller or a mystery, here the emphasis is on the is-he-or-isn't-he of Miranda and the possibility that Paulina may have been driven mad by her experience. More of the blame lies with director Mike Nichols. That blackout on the gun-wielding Paulina is a case in point. It comes across not as her hesitation, but as a directorial tease, an attempt to pump suspense into a flaccid melodrama. The three stars, all of whom have done admirable work elsewhere, seem simply to be going through the motions of performance. Everything is as elegant and sterile as Tony Walton's set. I found I did not believe in any of the characters nor care about their dilemmas which meant that it was also difficult to dig for the half-buried serious themes.

Stanley Kauffmann (review date 11 May 1992)

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SOURCE: Kauffmann, Stanley. “Assumptions.” New Republic 206, no. 19 (11 May 1992): 30-4.

[In the following review, Kauffmann laments the lack of resolution in Death and the Maiden, noting that the American actors are “miscast” as South Americans.]

Having cleared my throat by questioning the importance of opinions, let me offer my own highly arguable evaluations of the productions disputed by Rich and Richards, hoping that my views, however negative, will be an incentive rather than a deterrent to interest in the plays. I confess I didn't see a lot of virtue in Ariel Dorfman's Death and the Maiden. The work is about a woman—from a “country [probably Chile] that has just given itself a democratic government after a long period of dictatorship”—who, with the help of her reluctant husband, turns the tables on the right-wing sadist she believes had raped and tortured her. I found the plot preposterous, resting on more coincidences in a day than most people experience in a lifetime, and the style struck me as conventional agitprop realism. It's as if Extremities had been rewritten for a benefit held by Amnesty International, or The Boys from Brazil were being refilmed for a meeting of Human Rights Watch.

The heroine defines “the need of the country” as to “somehow put into words what has happened to us,” but her own words are hardly a model of expository prose (“I want you inside me a lot,” she says to her husband, who later reflects, “We can explore all the frontiers but we'll still have that unpredictable female soul”). Dorfman creates some Pirandellian suspense over whether the fellow sitting bound and gagged in this comfortable house is actually the Mengele-type doctor who liked to play Schubert while torturing his victims with electric shocks (she never saw his face), or just a poor schnook who gave her husband a lift in his car. It's sensible of him not to resolve this, but then very little is resolved in this play, other than the woman's passion for vengeance.

The production style belongs less to Santiago than to Beverly Hills. Tony Walton has designed a triangulated suburban home with plaster columns that Nichols has rented to three good Hollywood stars: Glenn Close, Richard Dreyfuss, and Gene Hackman. The actors do what they can, considering that Close and Dreyfuss are miscast as husband and wife, and they're all miscast as earnest South Americans. Actually, I found Nichols's direction relatively subdued, compared with his usual habit of pumping laughing gas into toothache plays. But then no one either on stage or off seemed to regard this event as anything less than an obligation.

Amanda Hopkinson (review date 10 July 1992)

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SOURCE: Hopkinson, Amanda. “Silencers.” New Statesman and Society 5, no. 210 (10 July 1992): 40-1.

[In the following excerpt, Hopkinson commends the emotional range of the stories in My House Is on Fire and praises Dorfman's attention to detail in his short fiction.]

For decades, publishers have told us that the short story is dead: not because people didn't want to write or read the things, but because they have lacked the wish to anthologise them. Yet one means by which stories have become part of an expanding market is through translation. Why? Is it simply because we assume that only foreigners are skilled in such an antiquated form? Or that, being foreign, we anticipate a childlike quality in their writing, and children's fairy stories are still sound business? Readers who accept these assumptions need look no further for a rude but salutary contradiction.

For in none of three newly translated volumes from the Southern Cone is there any hint of “magical realism”, still less of fairy tales. All are rich in imagination, but in an imagination fed and flourishing through the paradox of its attempted strangulation by brutal military regimes. The greater the official Philistinism, it would appear, the greater the ability of some human beings to escape or transcend the experience.

Just as well, since some of the horrors subverted here defy literal description. When they are so great, the smallest details become the most telling. The Chilean Ariel Dorfman (My House Is on Fire, Methuen; translators: George Shivers and the author) is probably the best-known of these authors: for his generous critical evaluations of fellow Latin Americans; for his barbed dissections of US cultural imperialism; and for flights of delicate invention mingled with failed sentiment in his own writing.

This collection includes some of his most recent and best stories. They tease the reader by suggesting any number of possible directions before ending at what suddenly becomes an inevitable destination. If you pick only three, try “Godfather”, with its dedication to assassinated President Allende; “Consultation”, in which a starved and tortured doctor is “consulted” by the lieutenant in charge on how to reduce his appetites; and “Crossings”, a story of repeated assignations between a man and a woman who meet only to exchange unspoken information. Then read on …

Ilan Stavans (review date summer 1993)

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SOURCE: Stavans, Ilan. Review of Death and the Maiden, by Ariel Dorfman. World Literature Today 67, no. 3 (summer 1993): 596.

[In the following review, Stavans lauds the powerful ambiguity of Dorfman's narrative in Death and the Maiden, arguing that the play is “full of action and disarming ideas.”]

The Chilean novelist and critic Ariel Dorfman's 1990 play Death and the Maiden (the title comes from a Schubert quartet) has the taste of a tautly constructed classic. Although its cast is minimal (three characters), it is full of action and disarming ideas. Divided into three acts and set in Chile or in “any country that has given itself a democratic government” just after a long period of repression, it is built around an unresolved mystery. Paulina Salas, the forty-year-old wife of a wealthy lawyer who is asked to serve on a commission investigating crimes committed by the military junta, was raped and tortured during her youth by a doctor who worked for the dictator. One night several decades later her husband, Gerardo Escobar, gives a lift to a stranger, Roberto Miranda, whose car has broken down in the middle of the road. Unable to activate his car and thus forced to spend the night at Escobar's, Miranda is introduced to Paulina. Believing she recognizes in him a voice from her past and the identity of her torturer, she kidnaps the alleged victimizer while her husband is asleep and, after a few hours of doubt and fear, decides to take the law into her own hands: to put him on trial right at her home.

The first act sets forth Paulina's dilemma; in the second we witness the trial; the third has an ambiguous ending. Dorfman deliberately leaves a number of questions unanswered. Is Miranda the real torturer? Has Paulina lost her mind? Should crimes under a military regime be forgotten, to give way to a more peaceful environment where democracy prevails? How do we forgive those who have hurt us irreparably? For this and more, Death and the Maiden can be staged in basically two ways: as a tragedy or as a thriller. (In 1992 I saw the New York version at the Brooks Atkinson Theater, with Glenn Close, Richard Dreyfuss, and Gene Hackman. The director, Mike Nichols, injected too much humor into the text and emptied the plot of political connotations. The result, of course, might have pleased the Broadway crowd but angered many and infuriated Dorfman, who made his dissatisfaction public.)

The play, the author's third (Widows and Reader are the other two) and certainly his most successful, is dedicated to the British writer Harold Pinter, who attended its first reading in November 1990 at the Institute for Contemporary Art in London and was instrumental in arranging its premiere at the Royal Court Upstairs. (In England the role of Paulina was played by Juliet Stevenson.) Apparently, Death and the Maiden was written in English (no translator is credited), which confirms that, like Carlos Fuentes and Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Dorfman belongs to the polyglot branch of Latin American literati who move comfortably from one language to another (mainly from Spanish to English but also to French and German, as in the cases of Severo Sarduy and Antonio Skármeta), depending on the audience. Published in paperback by Penguin, the play also offers an afterword that describes how the plot came to be, first as a novelistic idea and then as a theater piece. A highly recommended delight that grasps the pulse of our century.

Ariel Dorfman and Ilan Stavans (interview date summer 1995)

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SOURCE: Dorfman, Ariel, and Ilan Stavans. “The Gringo's Tongue: A Conversation with Ariel Dorfman.” Michigan Quarterly Review 34, no. 3 (summer 1995): 303-12.

[In the following interview, Dorfman discusses the challenges of being a bilingual writer, the influence of his Jewish background on his work, and the role of memory, suffering, and justice in his fiction.]

Ariel Dorfman (b. 1942), responsible for, among other works, Widows,The Last Song of Manuel Sendero,Death and the Maiden, and Konfidenz, is a proud member of what could be called the “Translingual Literary Club,” also populated by Joseph Conrad, Vladimir Nabokov, Jerzy Kosinski, Shmuel Yosef Agnon, and Franz Kafka, writers who consciously, and sometimes as a result of political circumstances, switched from one language to another to shape their creative oeuvre. Their linguistic odyssey is often marked by a sense of uprootedness, of lack of belonging. They write in what one might describe as “borrowed words.” I first met Dorfman in Durham, North Carolina, at a translator's conference he organized at Duke University in October 1994, in which translators from north and south of the Rio Grande shared their notes on the craft. We began a friendly dialogue about polyglotism, memory, Judaism, and bicultural identities that continues to this day. The following interview, devoted to these issues, took place in March, 1995.

[Stavans]: Would you please map for me your transition from Spanish to English: what each of these languages means to you?

[Dorfman]: I have spent my entire life switching languages. The book I am presently starting to write, a memoir, deals with this phenomenon. It's an attempt at a self-portrait that would also be a portrait of the world I've been crossing or traversing since I was very little. I was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, but at two-and-a-half years of age I moved with my family to New York, where I had a traumatic experience. I contracted pneumonia. I entered the hospital speaking Spanish but when I came out I didn't speak a word of it. And I wouldn't do so for another ten years. So my first language was Spanish, but I erased it in relation to speaking it, although I could still understand. I understood everything my parents would say to me, but I would answer them in English. Then, for complicated reasons, when I was twelve we went back to Latin America—more specifically to Chile, where I had to relearn Spanish. Soon I became enraptured with it, until 1968, when I went to Berkeley. At that point I was entirely bilingual. I had kept on writing in English while in Chile, but I had also begun writing essays in Spanish. By then I had already produced a book or two. At Berkeley I was a research scholar, and it was there I realized that everything I was writing about in fiction concerned my Latin American experience—the experience of the marginal, of the underdeveloped. Around that time I made a commitment to myself never again to write in English—a foolish proposal no doubt.

I then returned to Chile (it was the early seventies, an explosive revolutionary time in Latin America, when Salvador Allende had just come to power) and I swore that henceforth I would write only in Spanish. As I saw it, I had readopted, or had been readopted by, the Spanish language. But the gods of the twentieth century decided to play the cards differently. I went into exile at the end of 1973 and continued to write most of my fiction in Spanish, in exile, far from Chile. I spent some years in Paris and in Holland, and in 1980 my family and I came to the United States, supposedly for a very short period. We got stranded here, and the stranding meant that I had to make a living writing in English. I had to support my kids, I had to begin a new life. As time went by, very gradually—and this is where I find myself at the moment—I began to accept the fact of my bicultural, bilingual, split life … and the split languages that I inhabit, or that inhabit me. I ceased to be at odds with my binary identity. I ceased to fight. I'm currently finishing a BBC project (a screenplay) in English, I'm working on a play in Spanish, and I have the memoir I was telling you about, which will probably be in both tongues. I'm also thinking of a novel that will have one chapter in Spanish and one in English.

Talk to me a bit more about that novel. By writing it in both languages, you must necessarily be visualizing a bilingual reader, one as fluent in them as you are. But is there such an audience out there, one big enough for the publisher to be ready to embark on a risky project like this? Or are you only writing it in that way and the alternative chapters will then be translated into the other language?

An intriguing question. I'm only writing it that way in order to express myself the way I want to. Mascara, published in 1988, is the first of my novels that I wrote in Spanish, then rewrote in English, only to then use what I had redone in English to change the Spanish version. I had an editor at Viking who would work at the English text, and then I would change the Spanish accordingly. I did that because, as you Ilan know very well, there are very few editors in Latin America: your book undergoes little change between the time you submit it and the finished text. Once again, in this new novel I will do the translation myself. It will probably be a monolingual text written by a bilingual writer. But the issue of an audience ad hoc to my needs concerns me deeply. For me the perfect audience would be one made of some forty to sixty million people as bilingual as I am. I honestly think that if I had that audience I would write in an entirely different way. I would write the way I live: switching languages, going in and out, like the Nuyoricans and Chicanos. When you come to our house, you realize that first we say things in Spanish and then switch to English; we mix everything up. But then, when I'm in the world, a world organized categorically in a Kantian fashion, a world in which languages organize societies and create wars, one must acquire or perhaps call on a different self. Although I have never written a book with a specific market in mind, I do take into account whether somebody is going to read my text or not, whether someone is going to understand it or not. By the way, in my new novel I may create a landscape in which I have an entirely bilingual country.

Henry James once tried to describe the difference between the first, original tongue, and its counterpart, the second, acquired one. He called the first the mother tongue and the second the wife or mistress tongue. It was a logical approach: James happened to be addressing someone who had English as a second tongue and he said, memorably, that English behaves like a mistress—it will be loyal to you if you take care of her, but it will betray you, be angry and offensive, if you misbehave. Taking that as a starting point, could you describe what Spanish means to you and likewise English? How do they behave toward you and you toward them? Which one would you rather have in an intimate moment? Which is the language of fury and which the language of dreams?

Gosh, I wish I knew the answer. The fact that Henry James would talk about mistresses and wives is already a very gendered approach to the issue. Personally I'm not surprised that he would put it in those terms. In my own case, I really don't know which one came first, which one is nearest to me. One is the mother tongue in the sense that it's the language my mother spoke to me when I was a baby. But I have no memories of it. The language of my childhood, the language I chose, perhaps as an act of rebellion, is English. Spanish very slowly became the language of my maturation; it also became the language of love because it's the tongue in which I fell in love with Angélica, my wife. (Coincidentally, she was an English teacher when I met her.) In a way, I think I'm married to both languages, but marriage implies divorce and separation. Perhaps I have two mothers: two origins, two beginnings. Or is it two mother-wives? This does not preclude the fact that oftentimes I feel as if I don't have a language at all—a sort of aphasia: I can stumble, lose my sense of what language I'm using, and not find a word in either tongue; I can search for the word but the word is not there. Probably the deepest side of myself inhabits that no-language geography. When I'm writing, if the voice, the inner voice, comes to me in one language, I will follow through: I let the language choose me. By the way, languages in my life have never been neutral or apolitical. They often put me in awkward positions. During the seventies and the early eighties, I would find myself enjoying English, and I felt closest to it, even when English was the language of empire, the language of aggression and oppression. In spite of the fact that the language of Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and Humphrey Bogart, a gringo tongue (even if I spoke it better than the gringos) was often understood as an enemy language, I felt closer to it. This makes me think of Rubén Darío's admonition: Vamos a rezar en inglés—we will pray in English.

Did that create guilt?

I think so, for a large part of my life. Remember that I was born into a very well-to-do family by Chilean standards, and I would try to hide that fact. I kept on saying to myself: I should be writing in Spanish, because Spanish is the language of identity, the language of community shared by millions of people with whom I'm creating a New World, I'm dreaming the Revolution, and I'm dreaming the return to Democracy. Once settled in the U.S., I told myself: You are using English to help others understand Latin America, to analyze the many contradictions of the region, to explore the vicissitudes of Latin American intellectuals. But then I began to recognize that, deep inside myself, I always felt a bit of a stranger in Spanish. I'm not embarrassed by that anymore. Nowadays I don't try to hide my social background: I am who I am, and it's because of who I am that I can write the way I write. I don't see my bilingualism as a curse anymore. I've lived outside Chile for over two decades already and am accustomed to the linguistic dilemmas we've been talking about—they aren't new for me.

Incidentally, I once talked to Oscar Hijuelos about the same topic. He isn't fully bilingual: his Spanish language is in his unconscious, in the background. He told me that the disappearance of his Spanish tongue took place at a very early age, when he entered a hospital for a few months to recover from a very serious sickness. The hospital was in New York and he soon discovered that unless he requested whatever he needed in English, the nurse practitioner wasn't going to do things his way. Just like you, he entered speaking Spanish and left speaking English. What's curious, I think, is that both of you lost, or found, a tongue in a hospital. A hospital, a sickness and a recovery—these were the ingredients.

Extraordinary. As for me, I can't remember a single thing that happened in that hospital. Not a single thing. Everything has been erased from memory.

I have in front of me the two versions of Konfidenz, Spanish and English. As you know, often when a text is translated from Spanish to English, the resulting text is smaller in size—in pages. But in your book there's only one page difference: 175 and 176, which seems to me incredible. As writers we often need to further explain, or substantially delete, segments of the text for a translation to be successful. We are addressing a different audience, with different cultural needs. But if length is any indication, you have achieved a perfect balance. Balance of syntax and grammar. Balance of content. Balance of cultures. You add and take in the same proportion.

I began to try solving the problems of exile by writing simultaneously for an audience back home and for one abroad. By doing so, I was hoping that words would become the meeting ground of what was within and without, outside and inside. The text was the in-between, a fusion, an amalgamation, signifying in one way and in the other depending on who was reading. Likewise, my characters have a tendency, though grounded in a certain reality, to become ghosts—to signify other realities. Death and the Maiden takes place in a country that could be Chile (it's probably Chile), but that can also be any place in Africa, in the Middle East, in Eastern Europe under the same circumstance. The same with Konfidenz, which makes the reader think it's about Latin America, although in fact it's about Nazis, Jews, and the resistance during World War II. I started doing this with Widows, which, although it's about the desaparecidos in Argentina, is set in Greece, and to do so I created a pseudonymous Danish author, who is supposedly the one writing the whole story. A very Latin America idea, I should add, harking back to Borges, Julio Cortázar, Alejo Carpentier, and even Pablo Neruda: we're all echoes, shadows of something original and originary, hand-me-downs, residuals, anticipations of something utopian still to appear.

Was Death and the Maiden written in Spanish?

Yes, and then I almost immediately and very feverishly translated it into English.

Spinoza wrote Ethics in Latin but thought it in Hebrew. And one could say something similar about Kafka's German, if not about Nabokov's English and French. Could you describe your Spanish to me? Soon after I left Mexico, my editors back home began to complain that the columns and stories I would send from New York were written in Spanish but thought out in English. And my Spanish today, well … it's bookish, abstract, alien, foreign, anything but regional.

Likewise with me: my Spanish is haunted by English, and vice versa. People in Latin America react toward my Spanish by saying, we don't know where you fit. Consequently, and like you, I'm drawn to bilingual writers, certainly the ones you mentioned or those that sound bilingual. I used to feel uncomfortable because I didn't belong, but now I'm happy to be loyal to my calling.

Yours, then, is a written English with a Spanish accent.

Yes. For instance, when I write for the New York Times an editor may suggest changing an adjective to make the sentence correct. But I fight with my life against it. I want to write for the gringo with a sense of familiarity. After all, I'm also a gringo. I was brought up in this country, and I know what it means and feels to be a U.S. citizen. But I also want to convey in my writing a sense of alienation, distance, discomfort. I will fight against stubborn editors to retain my own syntax, my own voice. Maybe I'm trying to be true and translated simultaneously.

Bilingual writers, writers fully active in two or more languages, might have an internalized translator. It makes it easier for editors to come directly to us, since at least one intermediary—the translator—is unneeded. You are your own translator. So in the old saying, traduttore traditore, the only one guilty here is oneself. On the other hand, translators are the closest to a perfect reader one can ever dream of having. They know the dirty tricks, the subterfuges, the many masks a writer has. A translator can bring out the best in a writer and also the worst. As I think you will agree, often a translation improves the original—the second reader, the perfect reader, elevates the text to a higher standard. But by being your own translator (and here I of course also talk of myself), we are miserably deprived of that gift. We are deprived of the dialogue one can have with one's best possible reader.

I couldn't agree with you more. It's wonderful observation. You do miss a step. One of the problems one has as a writer is that you tend to fall in love with your own language, with your own words. When you yourself translate them, I think you tend to be literal and, thus, you miss that step: in a sense, what you miss is to be betrayed. But there's a positive and a negative aspect to betrayal. On the one hand, it can be the worst possible fate for a work of art, and not capriciously did Dante place traitors at the heart of hell. I myself think loyalty is the most important of all human qualities. On the other hand, as I've experienced life, I realize that there are moments of let's call it good betrayal. Moments when you have to leave yourself, the past, and certain people behind in order to grow. You have to cross a border at a certain point and turn your back on a few things. Pure loyalty is also a loss of self. You give yourself entirely to someone else, so you may not know who you are. I don't know if I have a translator inside: the two languages inhabiting me are contiguous, as if there's a customs office between them. I go back and forth—as if I had simultaneously two faces, which I could switch on and off.

You come from a Jewish family. I wonder if there were other tongues aside from English and Spanish—French or Yiddish, perhaps. Also, I wonder if the environment in which you grew up championed polyglotism. You already told me how you would talk to your parents in English and they would respond in Spanish. …

I began thinking about all these things only recently. For instance, I have realized, while writing my memoir, that both of my parents were bilingual. That is, I knew it all along but in the past few months the fact has acquired new importance. My father was born in Russia and Russian was his first language. He stills speaks it perfectly. He's trilingual: English, Spanish, and Russian. Both he and my mother also speak a little bit of French. And my mother was brought up with Yiddish—her first language—because she was born in Romania, and at three months old she left for Buenos Aires. She still speaks some Yiddish and understands some German. Obviously my maternal grandparents spoke Yiddish, and my paternal ones spoke Russian. Thus, my two parents had the experience of acquiring a second language. All this is to say that, you're right Ilan, my childhood milieu was multilingual but, also, as I told you before, that having two languages at times felt like having a birthmark on my childhood face—an invisible, yet painful birthmark. Now I realize that it was also exhilarating.

We've been talking about translation and polyglotism, about memory, suffering and justice. Would you consider yourself, now more than before, a Jewish writer? Of course a Jewish writer is a person that is Jewish and that writes. But I would like to go further. You've discussed Kafka's influence on you and betrayal of a certain past and a certain pattern as a strategy to move onward with life. Every Jewish writer is a hybrid: a transnational, transgenerational, transcultural, and translingual entity, one that goes places but has no specific address, and has influences that come from far beyond his immediate milieu, and often his work cannot find an echo in that milieu. Considering your own present ambivalence toward Chile—when I saw you last, you told me you couldn't live in Chile any longer—I wonder how you feel about “the Jewish question.”

I have changed in this regard. For most of my life I thought I was Jewish merely by accident, that I was Latin American by choice, and that it had befallen on me to be an English-speaking person. Let me stress it once more: my identity was centrally that of Latin America, which I defined as a resistant Latin America and a revolutionary Latin America. I perceived the region as eternally hopeful, in a permanent journey toward a better future, toward a Promised Land. But as years go by, I feel I belong but that I also don't belong. No matter how much I drink of Latin America, I'm never full, I'm always missing something in my relationship toward the continent, both as I see it and as the region sees me or avoids seeing me. Consequently, already for some time I have begun defining myself as a Latin American who is everywhere and nowhere. I feel at home in many places and, to be perfectly honest, I like and feel comfortable with my wandering condition. Often I'm struck by nostalgia and sadness, by the realization that I will always be globe-trotting, that I will never call a piece of land my own. I think that's my destiny, an anticipatory and prophetic destiny in the sense that I know I'm participating in a new breed of humanity, a cross-national breed. When I begin to define myself in these abstract terms, I realize that by definition I'm as old as my ancestors—that is, I'm Jewish. If for decades I thought of Jews simply as being very much the observers of a series of religious habits and I observe none of these (my mother was brought up in a Zionist household and my father was very much an agnostic who rejected the very idea of Judaism and fought for world revolution), now I've discovered I might be Jewish in the deepest sense. After all, I'm messianic, profoundly (perhaps perversely) ethical; like a Talmudist I discover multiple readings in every text. Recently I went to the Jewish Museum in New York and was mesmerized by photos and images of the shtetl, which I felt were looking at me, not only the other way around. Some eyes in those photos were my eyes, calling to me from inside my past. So there you find me, Ilan: while I used to answer that I'd be Jewish until the day when there was no more anti-Semitism, today I'm more conscious of my background. Jewish characters have appeared in my work: in The Last Song of Manuel Sendero, for instance, David, one of the protagonists (which happens to have been the name of both my grandfathers), is an eternal wanderer; and Judaism and Nazism are at the center of Konfidenz. I must add to all this that I never experience an excessive amount of anti-Semitism in Chile, not from the Left and not even under Pinochet. Unlike dictators in Argentina like Perón and the tyrants of the Dirty War, Augusto Pinochet was not an anti-Semite.

Why was Death and the Maiden so successful in Israel?

I have heard that it is a magnificent production. But its success may also be due to its literary structure. The play is deliberately written to allow different audiences to read into it their own dilemmas, allegorically speaking. It is something of a deformed mirror, and, as you remember, a mirror appears at the very end. If the public, collectively speaking, is worried about the problems on stage (justice, evil, memory, how one tells one's own tragic story so that it's confirmed by others, and what happens if one suddenly ceases to be marginal and acquires enormous power which can be exercised against a former enemy), then it will be attracted to my characters and their questions. As you know, the play was very successful on Broadway, but it was successful in monetary and artistic terms, not in engaging the community to ask questions about itself. It had fine actors and was sold out for six months. But as with the movie adaptation directed by Roman Polanski, no one wrote an op-ed piece saying, “Here's a set of questions affecting us deeply, which we should address.” People saw it as one more play or motion picture. It was different in the cases of Israel, Belgrade, Belfast, Brazil, Kenya. Audiences were able to read their own experiences into the text. In Israel in particular, what people saw on stage was not the Latin American but the Jewish and the Israeli experience. As a people, Jews have been about as deeply hurt as one can possibly be in this world—in relation to persecution, damage, and destruction brought upon us. I believe that anybody who is Jewish has to ask himself whether to pardon those who committed atrocities against us—especially today, as anti-Semitism, ethnic violence and chauvinism rear their head again. Also, the three characters in Death and the Maiden could be Palestinian … and that was an issue I discussed with the Israeli director when the play was in rehearsal. Israel, then, probably used Chile as mirror and so did Germany, which, by the way, is where my play has been most successful—64 different productions at this point, I think. Perhaps Germans are also exploring their guilt—their multiple pasts.

Stephen Gregory (essay date fall 1996)

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SOURCE: Gregory, Stephen. “Ariel Dorfman and Harold Pinter: Politics of the Periphery and Theater of the Metropolis.” Comparative Drama 30, no. 3 (fall 1996): 325-45.

[In the following essay, Gregory investigates the influence of Harold Pinter on Dorfman's work, concluding that the two writers both focus heavily on “issues of the interaction of politics and language and of the mental and physical abuse of the rebellious and the powerless.”]

The skeleton of this article is what looks like a string of contingencies. The Chilean writer Ariel Dorfman's first book was a lengthy study of Harold Pinter's first play The Room (1957).1 Some twenty years later, Pinter would date his political reawakening from the same coup in Chile by General Pinochet in 1973 that would condemn Dorfman to a seventeen-year exile.2 In the mid to late 1980's, Pinter wrote two brutally stark political plays about torture and repression.3 Shortly afterwards, Dorfman dedicated to Harold Pinter his own English translation of his play La muerte y la doncella (Death and the Maiden), set “in a country that is probably Chile, but could be any country that has given itself a democratic government just after a long period of dictatorship.”4 In 1991, Pinter's sketch The New World Order was used as a curtain-raiser to the London production of Dorfman's play.5

To flesh out these bare bones, the chronological starting point, then, is Dorfman (b. 1942), a promising young critic, working out of the unlikely place (in the context of Pinter studies, at least) of the capital of a distant third-world country,6 who devotes his first full-length exercise in literary analysis to a playwright from London a mere twelve years his senior. This initial connection turns much later into a friendship between two highly acclaimed creative writers who meet on an equal footing, when Pinter is instrumental in getting Dorfman's first play about the Chilean political scene produced in London, after his own writing for the theater has been transformed by his new-found interest in the politics of Chile and Central America, the Middle-East, and, of course, Britain under Margaret Thatcher. To plot this trajectory, I open with a summary of the writers' respective political involvements and commitments, continue with an analysis of the relevant plays, and close with a retrospective political reading of Dorfman's study of Pinter to show how it anticipates both the concerns of his later work on Latin America and the issues that will unite the two writers some twenty years after its publication.

For those who have followed Dorfman's intellectual and literary development from the studies of cultural imperialism such as How to Read Donald Duck (1971, written with his colleague Armando Mattelart)7 and his detailed unraveling of the ideological underpinnings of comics and the Reader's Digest (1980),8 composed under the influence of the emancipatory socialist policies of Salvador Allende's government, through the numerous fictions, poems, plays, essays, and articles of his long period in exile,9 it can come as no surprise that in Death and the Maiden he takes up a theme of immediate political relevance to the early post-dictatorship era. As he himself says, “My work is political, to begin with, because my life is very political—and one writes about one's life, right?”10 Dorfman's definition of politics is short but to the point: “Politics for me is the way in which moral issues are worked out in terms of power.”11 Referring more specifically to Latin America, to the probable chagrin of some of his left-wing readers, Dorfman inverts the normal Marxist relationship between politics and economics: “The basic dilemma of Latin America today is not socialism or capitalism, but democracy or dictatorship”; nevertheless, this opinion certainly explains why “[p]ower and language are, above all, what draw me as a writer.” He expands this eloquently: “as an intellectual I am constantly being placed in a position in which I am asked to choose between equality and freedom. I am working extremely hard to create a life and a world where I don't have to ask that question about being in a lifeboat and who I am going to throw out, the artist or the peasant.”12

Harold Pinter's political evolution requires more lengthy treatment. For playgoers brought up on the early so-called “comedies of menace” (The Dumbwaiter,The Birthday Party,The Caretaker) and who had then accustomed themselves to Pinter's exploration of the tricks and manipulations of memory and of the small and large deceits often at the heart of friendship and passion (as in Old Times,No Man's Land, and Betrayal), his turn to the nastier aspects of political life must have come as something of a shock.

In 1961 Pinter had stated: “I'm not committed as a writer. … I'm not conscious of any particular social function. … I don't see any placards on myself, and I don't carry any banners.”13 Five years later, he repeated the same view, but then went on with the following by now much repeated quotation: “I'll tell you what I really think about politicians. The other night I watched some politicians on television talking about Vietnam. I wanted very much to burst through the screen with a flame-thrower and burn their eyes out and their balls off and then enquire from them how they would assess this action from a political point of view.”14 We shall have more than one occasion to relate Pinter's attitudes and actions to the politics fueled by anger and outrage. In 1971, he pronounced himself “horrified” by the suffering for which politicians are responsible15 but even in 1981 still claimed that his by then “strong political views” did not find their way into his work.16

Actually, a major change had occurred in 1973 on account of the same event that would affect Dorfman much more directly: “After all these years [Pinter was to say in the late 1980's], in a way ever since Chile in 1973, I have become more engaged in political matters.”17 In the same year that Dorfman was finishing Death and the Maiden, Pinter was capable of being much more explicit about his reaction to Pinochet's coup: “I just froze with horror, it absolutely knocked me sideways, and my disgust was so profound at what I immediately understood to have happened, which was, of course, a military coup supported by the United States. I was just amazed at the duplicity of the language that was used. … I began following the course of other upheavals in the world. And the more I did the more I felt it my responsibility to do something about them.”18 Again the gut reaction, but also the concern with hypocrisy and the misuse of language, and with his role as citizen rather than writer. In October 1989 he had been quite clear as to what sort of responsibility this was: “I understand my responsibilities quite precisely as trying to find out what the truth is.”19

This was for Pinter the revival of an older political awareness, since he had been attacked by fascist groups in the East End of London just after the Second World War either for being Jewish (which he was) or for being a Communist (which he was not), though he did tend to carry around a lot of books, which for the fascist groups was the same thing!20 Also, he was a conscientious objector in 1948, not through any religious or pacifist motives, but because “I disapproved of the Cold War and wasn't going to help it along as a boy of 18.”21 After that, for about twenty years Pinter was in a political wilderness: “I didn't know how to deal with the problems of the world, so I went away into my own pursuits.”22

Following the impact of the events in Chile in September 1973, Pinter went on to become an active member of Amnesty International, PEN, and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament movement, vociferously supported the liberation movements in Central America as well as the Sandinista government in Nicaragua, and worked hard to promote the rights of political prisoners around the world. In Margaret Thatcher's England, Pinter donated royalties to the coalminers' strike fund in 1984, formed in 1988 (at the instigation of the writer John Mortimer) the “20 June group,” a loose-knit collection of anti-Thatcher intellectuals which worked out of his own very well appointed home—a fact that got them lampooned in the ultra-conservative press as the “Bollinger Bolsheviks”—and supported Charter 88, which advocated a constitution and bill of rights for the United Kingdom that would guarantee its citizens their privileges and freedoms. On 11 September 1993, accompanied by the actress Julie Christie, Pinter delivered a wreath to the Chilean ambassador to the United States in memory of those who had died in the coup twenty years earlier.23

It is difficult to fault the pedigree of these initiatives (Pinter is aware that his efforts as a citizen are enhanced by his status as a world-famous writer24), but we can interrogate the motivations of his politics. Here are some of Pinter's recent statements: “US foreign policy could best be defined as follows: kiss my arse or I'll kick your head in”;25 “While we're talking … people are locked up in prisons all over the place being tortured in one way or another. I'm quite raddled with these kinds of images.”26 Commenting on the political links he sees between the early and the recent plays, Pinter elides the helplessness of individuals into the misfortunes of small, vulnerable nations: “It's the destruction of an individual, the independent voice of an individual. I believe that is precisely what the US is doing to Nicaragua.”27 Finally, referring to his 1958 play The Birthday Party, Pinter states the following: “All Petey says is one of the most important lines I've ever written. As Stan is taken away, Petey says: ‘Stan, don't let them tell you what to do’. I've lived that line all my damn life. Never more than now [in December 1988].”28 Pinter's is a reactive politics, a politics of negative critique, driven by feelings of outrage at offenses committed against those in no position to fight back. Hence the frustration and pessimism he sometimes seems to feel: “Finally it's hopeless. There's nothing one can achieve.”29 His attitude is perhaps best summed up by a moment in a 1990 interview. Wielding “a yellow plastic flyswatter,” he says: “There's an enormous bloody fly has come in, you see. And I am definitely a fly hater.”30 Pinter's sense of affront is so great that it even upsets his normally meticulous concern for the details of English grammar.

In 1989, just a year before Dorfman finished Death and the Maiden, Pinter had premiered a short, sharp piece called Mountain Language.31 Lasting only twenty minutes or so and inspired originally by an investigation Pinter and the American dramatist Arthur Miller had done into political imprisonment in Turkey and into the situation of the Kurds in particular on behalf of PEN International,32Mountain Language shows a group of peasant women waiting to visit their sons and husbands who are detainees in a military prison. Since the principal theme of the play is that of a minority language at first banned and then arbitrarily permitted, it is not surprising to find that the most emphasized means of communication is through the eyes. The Young Woman confronts the Officer;33 the Elderly Woman “stares up” at the Guard (p. 29); the Young Woman gazes at the Hooded Man (her husband), who obviously cannot return her look and anyway has to be physically supported by the Guard and the Sergeant (p. 37); the Guard “look[s] at” the Prisoner and the Elderly Woman (p. 43); and “the Sergeant walks into the room and studies the Prisoner shaking on the floor” (p. 47). These looks, expressing a whole gamut of attitudes and emotions—defiance, incomprehension, despair, scorn, anger, reproach—are essential in an environment where all forms of language are under threat.

The first casualties are names. The cast list gives none, limiting itself to the anonymity of age, gender, and/or role within—or under—the oppressive machinery of state power, but names are nonetheless crucial to the unfolding of the situations depicted in the play. It opens with the Young Woman twice rejecting the Sergeant's request for her name (“We've already given our names” [p. 11]), and when she later finally volunteers her provocatively respectable English name (Sara Johnson) to the Officer, it is only to discover that her husband is among the wrong batch of prisoners and to get herself reduced by the sergeant to an “intellectual arse” that “wobble[s] the best” (p. 25), and further to “Lady Duck Muck” who has come through the “wrong door” (pp. 38-39). She can address her husband (“Charley”) only when he collapses from the tortures inflicted upon him, while the one person whose name is given to her—a certain improbably but impeccably sounding “Joseph Dokes”—will apparently demand sexual favors in return for information about her husband's future whereabouts and condition (p. 41). Moreover, all this happens to her despite the fact that she is the only one of the women visitors—the prisoners and jailers are all men—who can speak the official state language, an ability which clearly confers no privileges. However, Pinter reserves his most telling use of names for the prison's guard dogs, one of which has bitten the Elderly Woman's hand (pp. 14-15). Protest over this elicits the gruesomely absurd claim that the dogs are trained to give their name before they bite (p. 17). But if dogs are, like soldiers, disciplined to give the equivalent of their rank and serial number, the converse may be true, and, indeed, the Guard and the Sergeant act like pre-programmed performing dogs throughout. Mountain Language is play within play, but with a devastating political vengeance.

In the most poignantly evocative moment in the play, when the visit is finally allowed, one of the women is forbidden to speak to her physically abused son because her “mountain language” has been outlawed by the state (pp. 27-29). When this rule is arbitrarily lifted in the final scene, the same woman does not utter a sound (pp. 43-47). In a typically Pinter move, it is never resolved whether her situation has rendered her incapable of speech, or whether she refuses to speak as the only form of mute resistance and protest available to her.34 Further ambiguity surrounds the two brief moments when the Elderly Woman communes with her son (p. 33) and the Young Woman with her husband (p. 39) by pre-recorded “voices over” while the silhouetted figures remain motionless.35 Although these characters can indulge in memories, hopes, and the need to impart good news, these fantasy scenes are in stark contrast to what is actually available to them. It is not at all clear that memory “circumvent[s]” the language of power, as Adler optimistically maintains.36

Five years earlier, Pinter had written a longer (45 minutes) but no less confrontational work, One for the Road. The first and last of the play's four scenes depict interviews between an interrogator (Nicholas) and a male prisoner (Victor). Scenes 2 and 3 show the same official questioning separately the man's seven-year-old son and his wife, Gila. While many audiences are likely to be most affected by the play's final moments when the father is almost simultaneously informed of his own immediate release and, very casually, of his son's murder (apparently, for having been unpatriotic enough to kick one of the soldiers who were arresting the family), the most shocking aspect of this unrelentingly oppressive piece is the way Pinter manages to suggest that his interrogator is merely a faceless Whitehall bureaucrat with the kid gloves of a repressive superego removed.

Clearly, the focus of the play is Nicholas, and Judith Roof has summarized his position and attitude precisely: “[H]is method of mental abuse consists in stripping and remolding the family model so that he, Nicholas, is both father and son, acceding to the power of the father in an identification with the country, leader and God, as well as taking the privilege of the loyal and dutiful son, thus closing down gaps and fears as they might relate to him.”37 In addition, Nicholas wants Victor to love38 and respect him (p. 37), tells him that he believes Gila is falling in love with him (p. 49), and orders the death of the young rebellious son just as he castigates Gila for being the treacherous daughter of the perfect father (p. 66). In short, Nicholas' self-congratulatory claim to total power (“I can do absolutely anything I like” [p. 33] and “I run the place” [p. 36]) entails occupying himself every possible subject position within the family unit—including those of wife and daughter.39 In this sense, he could never love anyone but himself, which is perhaps why he prefers the “death of others” to the pleasures of sexual intercourse (pp. 45-46). He has, in effect, castrated himself of the potential for despair involved in loving others as equals. As he himself says: “Chop the balls off and despair goes out the window. You're left with a happy man. Or a happy woman” (p. 53). And Nicholas, who oppresses and suppresses others, is irrepressibly jaunty throughout. This may only be the result of what appears to be his only Achilles heel: the ample quantity of whisky he drinks at all hours of the day or night. Yet the “one for the road” of the title signals not the “final drink”40 but the promise to return for more: the next victim, the next “other” to be led to death. More than anything else, the phrase encapsulates perhaps the most appalling feature of torture: its routine banality.

However, if the ability to decree the “death of others” shores up Nicholas' sense of his own potency, he still needs their gaze to substantiate his sense of self. At the end of Scene 1, he gets it: “Nicholas: … Look at me. / Victor does so. / Nicholas: Your soul shines out of your eyes” (p. 53). Victor's meek obedience and Nicholas' buoyant confidence suggest that the latter does not see Victor's soul at all but a reflection of his own power. The position is not quite so clear in the parallel ending of Scene 4 which closes the play: “Nicholas: Your son? Oh, don't worry about him. He was a little prick.41 / Victor straightens and stares at Nicholas. / Silence. / Blackout” (pp. 79-80). As Roof, who is very eloquent about Pinter's use of eyes in this play, maintains, the audience cannot know whether Victor's reaction to the past tense (“was”) with regard to his son is one of shock, defeat, or defiance, but neither is it clear that “the power certified by the look becomes the power threatened by the look.”42 While Nicholas obviously needs the power over others vested in him and the ontological security their dependence on him brings, there seems little reason to assume that his individual breakdown would bring with it the collapse of the order he represents. What is more, as in Mountain Language, that order seems more interested in words than eyes. At the end of the play, Victor, who has a house “with lots of books” (p. 41) and is supposed to like “the cut and thrust of debate” (p. 45), experiences enormous difficulty in saying anything at all: “Nicholas: I can't hear you. / Victor: It's my mouth. / Nicholas: Mouth? / Victor: Tongue. / Nicholas: What's the matter with it?” (pp. 76-77). Nicholas' last question, which viciously mimics a father's or doctor's concern, is never answered, leaving undecided whether Victor has been silenced (unmanned, made useless) for good.43 Once more, Pinter has left his audience with the discomfort of a situation unresolved.

In the very brief The New World Order,44 which was used as a kind of overture to Death and the Maiden in London, two interrogators stare at and talk about their male victim sitting blind-folded on a chair in front of them. They discuss vaguely but threateningly what they are going to do to him and, later, to his wife—not as though he were not there, but rather in the full knowledge that they have absolute power over him, in the certainty that he can do nothing but listen (he is silent throughout). Ironically, Pinter introduces his concern with accuracy and truth in language into the interrogators' own dialogue when one upbraids the other for referring to their prisoner in conventionally crude terms for both male and female genitals: “The terms are mutually contradictory. You'd lose face in any linguistic discussion, take my tip” (p. 30). They may be “contradictory,” but both terms apply to the prisoner who, although male, is now vulnerable to any thrust of his tormentors' power, passively open to any violation they may inflict on him. As in One for the Road and Mountain Language, in the aggressively reactionary discursive world of Pinter's interrogators and military, the male victim must be literally or symbolically emasculated, while all notions of the female must be ridiculed, negated, or destroyed.

This connection between sexual potency and effective language use is reinforced by the reasons for the prisoner's detention: “Before he came here, he was a big shot, he never stopped shooting his mouth off, he never stopped questioning received ideas” (p. 30; italics mine). Clearly, the opposition's policies are conceived here not only as a political threat but as an affront to the establishment's representatives' whole sense of self-worth, thereby adding a nuance to the absence of newspapers—a further attempt to suppress the power of the word—where the prisoner might have gained the advantage of already knowing what is now about to happen to him (p. 29). The interrogators' language, on the other hand, is revealingly merely a hotch-potch of set phrases and “received ideas” (as illustrated in the above quotations), sprinkled with equally predictable swear-words.

The close of the sketch is an exercise in perhaps overly contrived ambiguities. One of the interrogators, overcome with emotion, announces that he feels “so pure,” the other responding that he has every right to do so and explaining why:

Because you're keeping the world clean for democracy.
They look into each other's eyes.
I'm going to shake you by the hand.
Des shakes Lionel's hand. He then gestures to the man in the chair with his thumb.
And so will he … (he looks at his watch) … in about thirty-five minutes.

(p. 30)

The overtones of sexual power are clear: the mutual adulation of the all but loving look into each other's eyes, the heartfelt handshake (the “taking” of each other's “tips”?) and the dismissive gesture with the erect penile thumb. Other elements in the scene are less convincing, however. The abrupt reference to a specific short period of time is on the surface very effective. Yet, practiced resistance fighters, trained to countenance the ever present possibility of arrest, interrogation, and torture, might well feel empowered by the knowledge that they had to endure for only thirty-five minutes, even if—perhaps especially if—they were sure the session would result in their death. But in this case, it may not. Critics are divided as to whether the phrase “so will he [the prisoner]” refers to “keeping the world clean for democracy” (which would seem to imply his imminent liquidation) or to “I'm going to shake you by the hand” (suggesting sinister possibilities for the victim's future while still alive).45 Either way, of course, Pinter mounts a frontal assault on the interrogators' “received” conceptions of purity, cleanliness, and democracy.

What Colleran writes about Mountain Language is true of all three of Pinter's works discussed above: “in overlaying the brutal fascism of a prison camp with British mannerisms, Pinter violently dismantles … distinctions clung to about the exclusivity of British civilisation.”46 This is undoubtedly one of the most confrontational aspects of these plays but is a technique which can cut two ways: it may alienate audiences by causing disbelief—it cannot happen here; or it may bring them to a closer understanding of what is happening to some of their contemporaries in parts of the world they might visit on vacation. However, this exposure of the savage machinations of repressive power and its effect on individuals does severely limit the possibilities of showing how such regimes may be undermined or overthrown, thus inadvertently suggesting that they may be invincible.47 Such a conclusion loops back to the pessimism noted before in some of Pinter's interviews.

In 1990, shortly after being able to return to his native land for the first time in seventeen years, the Chilean writer Ariel Dorfman completed his play Death and the Maiden.48 Among those listed in the program for the Sydney Theatre Company's production of Death and the Maiden as having encouraged Dorfman because they “believed in the play before it was ever staged” is the name of Harold Pinter.49 Moreover, the English translation of the play is dedicated to him along with another person who also appears on the Sydney role of honor.

Set in a country which, like Chile, had just returned to democracy and the rule of law after a long period of dictatorship, the work has only three characters: Gerardo, a successful lawyer who has just been appointed to head a commission to investigate the fate of the “disappeared” and of others who had “died in custody” during the dictatorship; Paulina, his wife, still traumatized by her own experience of imprisonment and torture; and Roberto, a doctor, invited home by Gerardo after being given a lift by him when his own car blew a tire. In Roberto, Paulina believes she recognizes one of her torturers and, embittered and offended by having her own plight and that of all survivors excluded from the terms of reference of her husband's commission, decides to put on her own trial in her own home. The play stages a drama between a victim who demands justice for herself and others, an accused whose innocence or guilt cannot be definitively established either way, and a principled but pragmatic lawyer trying to pick a delicate path between two conflicting sets of demands.

While not attempting to offer a full study of the play, the following paragraphs hope to identify its two principal political themes and suggest the links between them: the issue of power and control in the relationship between Paulina and Gerardo, and Paulina's attempt to counter her own and many others' marginalization from the new democratic government's investigation of abuses carried out under the previous regime.

The conflict between husband and wife can be approached by looking at two moments that mirror one another. In Act II, Scene 1, Paulina is trying to get a reluctant Gerardo to repeat what she had told him years ago about being repeatedly raped while in detention. She then reminds him of his promise that one day the perpetrators would be put on trial, and asks to whom she can now appeal.50 Gerardo can only weakly reply that “that was fifteen years ago” (p. 30). In the parallel moment from Act III, Scene 1, she quietly but firmly interrogates him about how many times he went to bed with the lover he briefly took while she was in jail being punished for refusing to divulge his name (pp. 43-44). In both cases, the issue is Gerardo's betrayal of her, his preference for denying or not recognizing the validity of her experience, and his refusal to face the consequences. She eventually rebels—“All my life, I've always been too obedient” (p. 46)—beginning with the only apparently trivial gestures of questioning which of them is responsible for not having replaced the car's spare tire (p. 2) and of giving Gerardo's car jack to her mother (p. 3), a clear act of female solidarity. It is these actions that will bring her presumed torturer to her home, which she will then transform into her own court and interrogation room, mimicking the dictatorship's conversion of private houses into torture chambers. Similarly, in dragging the truth out of her husband, she imitates the perseverance of an interrogator. She thus runs the risk of becoming what she opposes.

The link between Paulina's emotional and moral tussle with her husband and the larger question of her exclusion from the commission's deliberations is ironically made twice by Gerardo himself. First to Roberto: “I think I understand Paulina's need. It coincides with the need of the whole country. The need to put into words what happened to us” (p. 39); and secondly to Paulina herself in the second of the scenes mentioned above: “we survived, and now we're going to do to each other what those bastards out there weren't able to do to us” (p. 44). For Dorfman, the re-assembling of the fabric of a society torn apart by the violence of dictatorship and virtual civil war crucially involves allowing the voices of the oppressed victims silenced by the official order to speak at last. However, this cannot be achieved unless individuals and families, themselves broken by or in the conflict, can face the difficult truths of their own and each other's stories.

This does not lead, of course, to some vast but vacuous univocal narrative of national consensus, but rather to a plurality of often clashing voices, all of which must somehow be persuaded to allow the others to be heard. After all, Roberto, whom Paulina identifies as the torturer who sullied Schubert's Death and the Maiden quartet by having it playing in the background of his sessions with her, is seen by Gerardo as a friend who magnanimously offered him a lift when he was stranded in a storm beside a car with no jack or spare tire. And Roberto has his own story to tell: his protestations of innocence are as vehement throughout as Paulina's accusations against him. This conflict is never resolved, as their final exchange shows:

So we go on and on with violence, always more violence. Yesterday they did terrible things to you and now you do terrible things to me and tomorrow the same cycle will begin all over again. Isn't it time we stopped?
Why is it always people like me who have to sacrifice, who have to concede when concessions are needed, biting my tongue, why? Well, not this time. If only to do justice in one case, just one. What do we lose? What do we lose by killing one of you? What do we lose?

(p. 53)

The stage directions immediately following ask for Mozart's Dissonant Quartet to be played.51

Concessions are in fact made. Through the mediation of Gerardo, Roberto makes a full confession, which may or may not be false, while Paulina relents enough, apparently, not to pull the trigger of the gun she is aiming at him. In the play's final scene (pp. 54-56), after the release of Gerardo's report which he hopes “will help in the slow, patient process of healing” (p. 55), Paulina looks for a moment at Roberto who has also taken his place in the concert hall to hear Death and the Maiden. However, the stage direction reads: “He could be real or he could be an illusion in Paulina's head” (p. 55). Reconciliation is to be tentative and fragile, if it takes place at all.

On the politics of Death and the Maiden, Dorfman is admirably clear: “The tragedy is that we must learn to live with those who have repressed us. To repress them would turn ourselves into them. So unless there is true reconciliation and repentance, during which society really opens itself up to learn what happened, we are not going to overcome the tragedy.”52 Or, as he says more personally: “I'm going to have to find a way of sitting down at the table with people who may have been responsible for killing my friends.” Dorfman does not use the first person complacently to absolve himself of responsibility: “[W]e must contend with the problem of how we allowed Pinochet to happen. What lack of self-understanding could have permitted these events to occur?”53

To begin to draw some of the threads of this article together, it is best to enumerate certain of the significant points that might link all of these plays together. First, all the works caused considerable controversy. Dorfman anticipated that he would be accused of reopening old wounds or of criticizing President Alwyn's Rettig commission.54 On Pinter's side, the author accepts that significant numbers of people have walked out of performances, particularly of One for the Road, but the playwright maintains that such people cannot face the nature of the truths he is placing before them.55

Such controversy stems in large part from the confrontational relationship both authors wish their works to have with their audiences. As we watch “the Paulinas, the Gerardos, the Robertos of this world,” Dorfman wants us “to figure out for ourselves which of these three we most resemble, how much of our secluded lives are expressed in each of these characters and in all of them.”56 Indeed, the play is marred, in my view, when Dorfman labors the obvious by asking for a huge mirror to be lowered before its final scene so that the audience can look at itself (p. 53). Pinter, likewise, wants us to recognize facets of ourselves “both in the position of the given victim” and in the interrogator of One for the Road: “Think of the joy of having absolute power,”57 he challenges himself and the spectator.

Finally, although all the works discussed here end in ambiguity or unresolved conflict, there is a major difference in the way each author employs this technique. Pinter wants to stimulate or even force the members of the audience to face truths he believes they would prefer to avoid. However, they are truths the audience can do nothing about except acknowledge their existence. Dorfman, on the other hand, also wants to stir up those in the audience, to wake them from complacency, but in the knowledge that both he and they must work to resolve the questions raised if what is required is to be achieved. Dorfman is as offended by assaults on the individual as Pinter, and he is equally drawn by the relationship between power and language. However, as we have seen, he and the characters in his work think politically—and look to creating a different and better world. Politics for Dorfman is part of the air he breathes, an inevitable part of the way he lives, a necessary ingredient in thinking through the business of living. This is not the case for Pinter and his plays. They respond to violence with violence, they attack the destroyers, while offering little in the way of hope for their victims. Dorfman's is a politics of reconstruction, while Pinter's is one of deconstructing those who wield power. This difference would seem to be as much a matter of context (of responses to the exigencies of their respective views of the worlds they inhabit) as the function that politics has played in their life and work generally.

But these differences between the two writers were not always so marked. As noted in the introduction to this essay, Dorfman's first book in 1968 was precisely a study of Harold Pinter which combined existentialism and the then very influential notion of the “theater of the absurd” to look at the ways in which violence or the threat of it impinges on Pinter's characters' relationships with one another and the world they inhabit. Although it is one of the earliest book-length analyses of Pinter's work and the first, as far as I know, to be published anywhere in the third world, it is virtually unmentioned by Dorfman's critics,58 while the only Pinter specialist I have come across who claims to have read it writes of it as follows: “Mainly a summary of other critics. Several pages are missing because of an error in the printing.”59 In fact, Dorfman goes to some lengths to acknowledge his critical debts but also to show how he differs from them,60 while the second statement is not true of my copy. Dorfman concentrates almost exclusively on Pinter's first play The Room, a sociologically and psychoanalytically suggestive piece in which the protagonist, Rose, struggles in vain to ward off a number of threats to her sense of security which she invests in the room where she lives with her frequently absent husband.

However, the importance of Dorfman's first book for me does not lie in its contribution to Pinter studies but rather, given the Pinochet coup and its aftermath together with the impact of these events on both writers, in the uncanny prescience of the terms of Dorfman's analysis. The work opens with an epigraph written by the author himself: “This is the story of a nightmare. And of its understanding and transcendence through art. We have all lived, have watched being lived or have dreamt this nightmare. Not all of us have known how to go beyond it.” In Pinter's world, Dorfman tells us, “situations change only once, but on that occasion they change violently” (p. 11). Pinter's works show us “the moment when everything that was feared would happen, in fact happened” (p. 12). He portrays the contrast between “the comfortable reality of everyday, so like our own, and that other reality which erupts violently and threateningly, bringing destruction and sometimes death” (p. 14), and illustrates “one of the most terrible of modern phenomena: indifference to the suffering of others” (p. 21). “The audience feels,” Dorfman writes, “that beneath this world with no apparent contradictions (although in fact they are there, hidden, but cannot be easily located) there is another reality which, submerged in the unconscious, is afraid to emerge” (pp. 35-36). This recalls his remarks quoted above which intimate that it is not only the supporters of the dictatorship who need to question the degree of their complicity with it: even the scrupulously liberal lawyer in Death and the Maiden is subject to the temptation of being an authoritarian with his wife.

If all this seems to anticipate the condition of being tyrannized by the projection into reality of our worst fears, Dorfman's version of Pinter also foresees that such a situation cannot be maintained indefinitely. “It is useless, Pinter tells us, to try to create a truth by dominating others, unless the executioner already effectively has the power and the knowledge,” in which case he is only putting into practice what was already latently present. In the end, however, any attempt to “construct a closed, conventional universe with neither doubts nor problems” in which one can seek refuge “will be destroyed by reality itself” (p. 67). Dorfman seems to herald both his and Pinter's later works—as well as the fate of many of his compatriots who put their faith in the Unidad Popular—when he writes: “To give oneself wholly to the imagination is dangerous and even fatal, since it is equivalent to putting the present situation in doubt, to positing possible alternatives, to being bold enough to come out into another world, far from the limitations of the immediate. The consequence is punishment (or liberty)” (p. 90).

El absurdo entre cuatro paredes is the only work by Dorfman to give itself the luxury of not dealing directly with Chile or Latin America. The very title of his second book, Imaginación y violencia en América (1970),61 linking as it does imagination with violence, recalls Dorfman's primordial interest as a writer in the connection between language and power, while the violence he has found waiting to happen in Pinter's The Room determines his general approach to Latin American literature in this book: “In Latin America, violence is not the second pole or term of a duality, an alternative facing which one can take a stand with some reasonableness or apparent indifference. It is the very structure in which I find myself” (p. 15). This is because Latin American “violence …, produced by a system which forces ninety percent of its inhabitants not even to know whether they will live beyond tomorrow, is also fed by the intoxicating insecurity of a continent that is looking for its identity, that adopts contradictory standards by which to live and act” (p. 17). Having given the violence at the center of one's being a new and urgent social context, Dorfman goes on to distinguish four different kinds of violence endemic in Latin American life and culture: “vertical and social violence,” which is a response to oppression directed by those on the bottom of the social heap at those further up and may find its way into political activity (p. 19); “horizontal and individual violence,” which conceives the world “as prison or labyrinth or urban jungle” where “people on the same existential level of misery and alienation fight among themselves” (pp. 26-27); “non-spatial and internal violence,” the kind which out of frustration people direct at themselves (pp. 36-40); “narrative violence,” an aesthetic act of protest, a violent attempt at waking readers up to ask the questions necessary for them to become fully human (pp. 40-41), a category which bears a strong resemblance to that at which both Pinter and Dorfman were aiming in the works analyzed earlier. He ends the introductory chapter by describing Latin America as “a world engendered by violence, in which each person both threatens and is threatened,” where people survive but only at the price of more violence which ends up engulfing them (p. 42)—a formulation which recalls the world Dorfman had disclosed in his reading of Pinter as well as the dilemma posed at the close of Death and the Maiden. Dorfman ends Imaginación y violencia by contrasting two major Peruvian novelists. In José María Arguedas he finds that “literature's fundamental subversion is political and social, and in the profound sense, liberating,” while in Mario Vargas Llosa “subversion is literary, individual, a breaking down of dogmatic, established worlds”; and he concludes provocatively that “[w]e, readers, Latin Americans, live, dream, hesitate between these two worlds” (p. 247). Here he seems to pick up on an insight from his previous book about Pinter: “the essence of Pinter's world is the division, the projection of the personality into two opposing parts. A clash between the two worlds is inevitable. … Every moment of equilibrium is a truce in a long war” (El absurdo, p. 114). The divisions of a single personality become the opposing political options available in a wider world.

The violence or threat of it associated with the protection of one's personal space or territory that Dorfman found exemplified in Pinter's early work leads directly to his first important analyses of modern Latin American literature and of the society projected in it, an approach which anticipates the major questions raised in Death and the Maiden some twenty years later. Pinter, meanwhile, discovered through his reaction to the military coup in Dorfman's native Chile that there was a link between his early plays that so fascinated Dorfman and his understanding of the repressive politics practiced in Latin America and elsewhere—a realization that changed completely, at least for a while, the kind of theater that he himself wrote. Both writers, despite their different perspectives, met over the issues of the interaction of politics and language and of the mental and physical abuse of the rebellious and the powerless. As a result, Pinter would mirror Dorfman's original interest in his work set in post-war England by promoting in London Dorfman's play about post-dictatorship Chile. This curious intermixing of the theater and politics of the metropolis and the periphery is, I would suggest, a small example of what Dorfman hoped audiences would feel as they watched the struggles of the characters in Death and the Maiden: “that strange trembling state of humanity we call recognition, a bridge across our divided globe.”62


  1. Ariel Dorfman, El absurdo entre cuatro paredes: El teatro de Harold Pinter [The Absurd within Four Walls: Harold Pinter's Theater] (Santiago: Editorial Universitaria, 1968); subsequent references to this work are to this edition.

  2. See the interview “Pinter among the Poets” in Andrew Graham-Yooll, After the Despots: Latin American Views and Interviews (London: Bloomsbury, 1991), p. 154.

  3. Harold Pinter, One for the Road (London: Methuen, 1985) and Mountain Language (London: Faber and Faber, 1988).

  4. Ariel Dorfman, Death and the Maiden (London: Nick Hern Books, 1992).

  5. See Ronald Knowles, “From London: Harold Pinter 1991,” Pinter Review, 5 (1991), 67.

  6. A point made by Dorfman himself in a private letter to the author (5 Sept. 1995).

  7. Ariel Dorfman and Armando Mattelart, How to Read Donald Duck, trans. David Kunzle (1975; rpt. New York: International General, 1984).

  8. Ariel Dorfman, The Empire's Old Clothes (New York: Pantheon, 1983).

  9. Salvador Oropesa (La obra de Ariel Dorfman: ficción y crítica [Madrid: Pliegos, 1992]), canvassing Dorfman's major works since the early 1970's, uses an aggressive combination of Marxist and post-structuralist theory to look for the aesthetic and ideological traces in them of what the Left has commonly seen as Allende's and the Unidad Popular's major error: its attempt to invert the power ratio between the upper and/or middle classes and the petit-bourgeoisie and proletariat, while leaving the principal features of the traditional bourgeois order intact.

  10. Quoted by Peggy Boyers and Juan Carlos Lertora, “Ideology, Exile, Language: An Interview with Ariel Dorfman,” Salmagundi, 82, No. 3 (1989), 144.

  11. John Incledon, “Liberating the Reader: A Conversation with Ariel Dorfman,” Chasqui, 20, No. 1 (1991), 100.

  12. Quoted in Boyers and Letora, “Ideology, Exile, Language,” pp. 144, 148, 150.

  13. Harold Pinter, “Writing for Myself,” Twentieth Century, 169 (1961), 175.

  14. Lawrence Bensky, “Harold Pinter: An Interview” [1966], in Pinter: A Collection of Essays, ed. Andrew Ganz (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1972), p. 22.

  15. Mel Gussow, Conversations with Harold Pinter (London: Nick Hern Books, 1994), p. 40.

  16. Quoted by Susan Hollis Merritt, “Pinter and Politics,” in Harold Pinter: A Casebook, ed. Lois Gordon (New York: Garland, 1990), p. 133.

  17. Quoted by Graham-Yooll, “Pinter among the Poets,” p. 154.

  18. Stephen Schiff, “Pinter's Passions,” Vanity Fair, Sept. 1990, p. 300.

  19. Gussow, Conversations with Harold Pinter, p. 85.

  20. See Miriam Gross, “Pinter on Pinter” [October 1980], in Critical Essays on Harold Pinter, ed. Steven H. Gale (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1990), p. 40, and Bensky, “Harold Pinter: An Interview,” p. 29.

  21. Quoted in Ronald Knowles, “Harold Pinter, Citizen,” Pinter Review, 3 (1989), 24. See also Nick Hern, “A Play and its Politics,” in Pinter, One for the Road, pp. 9-10.

  22. Schiff, “Pinter's Passions,” p. 300. See also Anna Ford, “Radical Departures,” The Listener, 27 October 1988, p. 5, and Gussow, Conversations with Harold Pinter, p. 82.

  23. Gussow, Conversations with Harold Pinter,passim; Knowles, “Harold Pinter, Citizen,” pp. 24-33; Schiff, “Pinter's Passions,” pp. 219-22, 300-03.

  24. See Knowles, “Harold Pinter, Citizen,” p. 31.

  25. Graham-Yooll, “Pinter among the Poets,” p. 155.

  26. Gross, “Pinter on Pinter,” p. 40.

  27. Gussow, Conversations with Harold Pinter, p. 69.

  28. Ibid., p. 71.

  29. Hern, “A Play and Its Politics,” p. 20.

  30. Schiff, “Pinter's Passions,” p. 222.

  31. In the following remarks on Mountain Language and One for the Road, I shall not seek to replicate the very persuasive and complete analyses already published in Judith Roof, “Staging the Ideology behind Power: Pinter's One for the Road and Beckett's Catastrophe,Pinter Review, 2 (1988), 8-18; David Rabey, “Violation and Implication: One for the Road and Ficky Stingers,” in Violence in Drama, ed. James Redmond (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1991), pp. 261-67; Marc Silverstein, “One for the Road,Mountain Language, and the Impasse of Politics,” Modern Drama, 34 (1991), 422-40; and Jeanne Colleran, “Disjuncture as Theatrical and Postmodern Practice in Griselda Gambaro's The Camp and Harold Pinter's Mountain Language,” in Pinter at Sixty, ed. Katherine H. Burkman and John L. Kundert-Gibbs (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1993), pp. 49-63. I have, however, drawn on these works.

  32. See Gussow, Conversations with Harold Pinter, p. 68.

  33. Pinter, Mountain Language, pp. 15, 19; subsequent references to this work will appear in parentheses in my text.

  34. On this point, cf. Thomas P. Adler, “The Embrace of Silence: Pinter, Miller, and the Response to Silence,” Pinter Review, 5 (1991), 7; Silverstein, “One for the Road,” p. 431; and Colleran, “Disjuncture as Theatrical and Postmodern Practice,” p. 61.

  35. For a detailed discussion of this technique, see Ann C. Hall, “Voices in the Dark: The Disembodied Voice in Harold Pinter's Mountain Language,Pinter Review, 5 (1991), 17-22.

  36. Adler, “The Embrace of Silence,” p. 6.

  37. Roof, “Staging the Ideology,” p. 13.

  38. Pinter, One for the Road, p. 49; subsequent references will appear in parentheses in my text.

  39. In this sense, the son's crime is not his attack on the soldiers but his defence of the family members whose positions Nicholas tries to usurp. Significantly, the son's name is Nicky.

  40. As stated in Roof, “Staging the Ideology,” p. 11.

  41. In the previous scene, Nicholas has accused Gila of bringing her son up to be “a little prick” (p. 71). Nicky was a “little prick” in two ways, however: he was a seven year old boy whose name was a diminutive of Nicholas' and had been addressed by him as “my darling” (p. 59), but he was also, as it were, a troublesome little thorn in Nicholas' side.

  42. Roof, “Staging the Ideology,” pp. 15-16.

  43. Critics are in wide disagreement on this point. See Roof, “Staging the Ideology,” p. 15; Rabey, “Violation and Implication,” p. 263; and Pilar Zozaya, “Pinter's Angry Shout: An Analysis of The Hothouse and One for the Road,Revista Canaria de Estudios Ingleses, 16 (1988), 128.

  44. Harold Pinter, The New World Order, in American Drama, November 1991, pp. 28-30. Subsequent references will appear in parentheses in my text.

  45. For example, Knowles, “From London,” p. 67, prefers the first, while Michael Gilsenan assumes the second in his review for the Times Literary Supplement, 16 July 1991, p. 16.

  46. Colleran, “Disjuncture as Theatrical and Postmodern Practice,” p. 58.

  47. On this point, see persuasively Silverstein, “One for the Road,” pp. 437-39.

  48. The play has recently been made into a film by Roman Polanski.

  49. See Sydney Theatre Company, Program to Death and the Maiden, p. 16. In addition, Dorfman credits Pinter with being the “godfather” of the play (private letter to the author, 5 September 1995).

  50. Dorfman, Death and the Maiden, pp. 29-30; subsequent references will appear in parentheses in my text.

  51. Reviewers regularly referred to the ambiguity of the play's ending—e.g., John Butt, “Guilty Conscience?” Times Literary Supplement, 28 February 1992, p. 22; Richard Hornsby, “Death and the Maiden” [review], Hudson Review, 45 (1992), 300; Eduardo Galán, “La muerte y la doncella: ¿perdonar los crímenes del fascismo?” Primer Acto, 249 (1993), 116-17.

    For those who know the Polanski film rather than the original play, it is worth noting that Dorfman, working with a co-author, rewrote large portions of the script, mainly, it seems, to accommodate or counteract the effects of the change of medium from stage to screen. A new scene is introduced in which a call to a European clinic apparently confirms that Roberto was working there at the time when Paulina claims he was her torturer, while Roberto's final statement is made on videotape instead of a cassette recorder. Unfortunately, the net result, I believe, is that viewers of the film receive a far stronger impression of the doctor's guilt than do audiences of the play.

  52. Quoted in “Ariel Dorfman: A Case of Conscience,” in Graham-Yooll, After the Despots, p. 64.

  53. Incledon, “Liberating the Reader,” p. 96. On this theme, see also the poem “Self-Criticism” (in Ariel Dorfman, Last Waltz in Santiago, trans. Elizabeth Grossman with the author [New York: Viking, 1988], pp. 61-62), which begins: “Let's tell the truth once and for all: / We didn't recognize them.” The poem first appeared in Spanish as “(Auto)critica(móvil),” in Ariel Dorfman, Pruebas al canto (Mexico City: Nueva Imagen, 1980), pp. 84-85.

  54. Ariel Dorfman, “Afterword,” in Death and the Maiden, p. 59.

  55. Hern, “A Play and Its Politics,” pp. 11, 16-17.

  56. Dorfman, “Afterword,” in Death and the Maiden, p. 61.

  57. Hern, “A Play and Its Politics,” p. 17.

  58. Oropesa, who provides the only full-length study of the writer to date, mentions this work in his bibliography (La obra de Ariel Dorfman, p. 171) but not in his text.

  59. Steven H. Gale, Harold Pinter: An Annotated Bibliography (London: George Prior: Boston: G. K. Hall, 1978), p. 74.

  60. Dorfman, El absurdo, pp. 108-09, 124; subsequent references to this work will appear in parentheses in my text.

  61. Ariel Dorfman, Imaginación y violencia en América, 2nd ed. (Barcelona: Anagrama, 1972); subsequent references to this work in my text are to this edition and appear in parentheses (translations mine).

  62. Dorfman, “Afterword,” in Death and the Maiden, p. 61.

George R. McMurray (review date autumn 1996)

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SOURCE: McMurray, George R. Review of Konfidenz, by Ariel Dorfman. World Literature Today 70, no. 4 (autumn 1996): 922.

[In the following review, McMurray criticizes Dorfman's confusing and overly obtuse narrative structure in Konfidenz.]

A native of Chile residing in the United States, Ariel Dorfman is one of Latin America's better-known contemporary writers. My favorite of his works is Some Write to the Future (1991), a collection of perceptive essays. One of his best-known novels is La última canción de Manuel Sendero (1982), about the revolt of unborn babies against an oppressive society. The criticism of that novel as being somewhat abstruse could also apply to Konfidenz. In the initial lines of the latter a young woman named Barbara has just arrived in Paris and, upon entering her hotel room, hears her telephone ringing. There follows a long, puzzling conversation—the major segment of the novel—between her and her unknown interlocutor.

For many pages the reader knows nothing about the nature of Barbara's visit to Paris except that she hopes to join Martin, probably her fiancé. We also know little about Barbara's caller, who identifies himself as “Leon,” a friend of Martin's. (Leon's real name is later revealed to be Max.) Eventually we learn that Barbara, Martin, and Max are Germans, more than likely anti-Nazis and perhaps communists, who have escaped from Germany to aid in the struggle against Hitler. Another key piece of information is that the date is 1 September 1939, the day Hitler began World War II by invading Poland. After nine hours on the phone, Barbara is visited by the police and accused of spying. Soon thereafter, Max appears in her room, and both of them are taken to police headquarters for interrogation.

What makes the novel “somewhat abstruse” is the almost total lack of definite information about the characters. Thus, Martin has been accused of being a Nazi spy, which remains a possibility, and Max confuses Barbara with a woman named Susanna, whom he has known since his twelfth birthday. His confusion of the two women stems from a picture of Barbara that Martin has shown him. This picture apparently has haunted Max and induced him to attempt to steal the young woman's affections from Martin. Further complicating the situation, Max is married to Claudia, about whom we know comparably little. Finally, it turns out that Barbara has given birth to a child named Victoria whose father may be Martin or Max.

Another complication is the narrative technique, which includes not only comments by what appears to be a self-conscious narrator, but also references to the unnamed, shadowy figure who observes the ambiguous behavior of the characters. That political terror and elusive personal identity are inextricably linked emerges as a major theme. (One might speculate here about the possible influence of Dorfman's experiences in Chile after the 1973 coup.)

We are told on the cover of this short paperback that Konfidenz is an “intellectually provocative … thriller.” Dorfman's book may indeed be intellectually provocative, but if he wants to create a thriller, he could learn a lot from popular novelists writing in English (Grisham, Crichton, and Higgins, among others).

Susan Smith Nash (review date winter 1997)

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SOURCE: Nash, Susan Smith. Review of Reader, by Ariel Dorfman. World Literature Today 71, no. 1 (winter 1997): 153-54.

[In the following review, Nash compliments Dorfman's “chilling” portrayal of political oppression in Reader, drawing parallels to the plot of Death and the Maiden.]

Ariel Dorfman, a Chilean citizen living in exile in the U.S., is best known for his play Death and the Maiden, which was made into a major motion picture directed by Roman Polanski. In Reader he has written a chilling, utterly riveting play which was performed at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh. Here the issue of political repression comes to the forefront, and the characters wrestle with moral choices and the consequences of questionable decisions made in the past. All takes place in an unnamed South American country where political oppression creates a special and hideous form of terror, pitting family members against one another and toxifying the atmosphere with suspicion and scarcely veiled rage.

Death and the Maiden involved a woman who is put in the unusual position of being able to exercise power and control over a person who committed hideous wrongs. There the crimes committed were those of torture and sexual assault against political adversaries. Not surprisingly, the practices were sanctioned by the government. Social control is viewed (by the government) as more important than individual self-expression, because if the antigovernment forces were to prevail, it could lead to chaos, destruction, and anarchy. Ironically, that is precisely what happened, but instead of the student protesters functioning as anarchists, it is the influential members of government and the police who bring about true anarchy.

This is precisely the case in Reader. The social controllers do not succeed in stabilizing the government, and neither do they preserve law and order. In Reader the agent of social control is the government's censor, who tries to exercise Orwellian thought control by not allowing people to read what could be damaging. Instead of stabilizing law and order and ensuring that the government has a reign of equanimity and accord, the censor contributes to an environment of terror, which is ultimately nihilistic. According to Nietzsche, the next stage is “radical nihilism,” which is characterized by the widespread belief that what are promulgated as truth and values are simply constructs enforced by the dominant ideology for its own ends.

Reader involves family secrets which are also government secrets, and they illustrate how repression never stays on the level of citizens' interaction with government but also extends into individual families. Duplicity, betrayal, death, and denial are always part of this situation. In Reader the scene is made even more poignant by the fact that the action involves a husband's willingness to commit his wife to a mental institution when she expresses views that contradict those of the government. The intensity of the play also has to do with the existential despair that the father's behavior engenders in the son, who slowly begins to realize the truth. Dorfman's method of unveiling truth has to do with mirrorings and doubles. However, his approach is quite different than that of other playwrights: he has one actor play two parts, so that the same person is seen to embody two extremes of perception, values, and conduct.

In Reader the censor (Don Alfonso), more than anyone else, is aware that he himself is a part of such radical nihilism, claiming that he “won't allow a tree to expire” to publish what he deems to be without value or social utility. Of course, this has an eerie echo here in the United States, where funding for the arts has been withdrawn with the claim that the expenditure does not contribute to society. In a totalitarian society the implications are more frightening, because the same standards that hold for written production are applied to human beings. Thus, if a person is deemed subversive or devoid of social utility, the government believes it has the right not to “waste” natural resources in keeping that person “extant.” Dorfman's play is a chilling reminder that the issues of social control and utilitarianism which typified novels and plays of the midtwentieth century are equally valid today.

Gordana Crnkovic (essay date spring 1997)

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SOURCE: Crnkovic, Gordana. “Film Reviews: Death and the Maiden.Film Quarterly 50, no. 3 (spring 1997): 39-45.

[In the following essay, Crnkovic presents a critical analysis of director Roman Polanski's film adaptation of Death and the Maiden, discussing how the director interpreted both the original play and Dorfman's screenplay.]

I had already been in the United States for a few years when the war started in my homeland, the former Yugoslavia. As time passed, the images and reports of massacres, rape, shelling, and ethnic cleansing accumulated. And yet many of my American friends and acquaintances still could not see who was doing what to whom; they could not figure out their own position on this conflict. I asked them what made it so hard to see what was happening in this war, given the availability of daily reports and images. They said things like “They always talked about how complex the situation was,” and that it was “hard to make up one's mind as to who is the aggressor and who the victim.”

I would suggest that the difficulty in perception and understanding of this war stemmed from, among other factors, a mystifying verbal discourse that accompanied images which were in themselves unambiguous (i.e., the destruction of Vukovar, the daily siege of Sarajevo, the cleansing of Bosnia). This verbal discourse, a “voice over” the images, was made up not only of the Western reporter's text, but also of the speeches by both the attackers—who claimed that they were not responsible—and those who suffered the attack—and survived to accuse the others. A “balanced presentation” of aggressors and victims, giving opposing accounts of events, made my American acquaintances doubt the otherwise clear-cut images.

I realized only later that I knew better what was happening in my country simply because I had the advantage of a “reality check.” In other words, I was getting firsthand information from many people in the area, which helped delineate truth from lie. My American friends did not have this reality check and had to rely solely on the representation provided by the media; consequently, they were much more affected by the differences between the stories told by victims and perpetrators. And so they remained doubtful and suspicious, and therefore passive.

When I first saw Polanski's Death and the Maiden in 1994, the familiarity of the situation struck me. Here we are again confronted by a situation that demands a judgment, but without any reality check to help us make it: two people who present different stories, each one claiming to be victimized by the other. We—the outside viewers—are left to figure out who is telling the truth.


As Lawrence Weschler observed, “Death and the Maiden might have served as an alternative title for well over half of Roman Polanski's movies.”1 Indeed, many of Polanski's films explore the victimization of a female character which ends with death—either that of the character or of those who persecute her. In Repulsion (U.K., 1965), for example, the main character, Carol (Catherine Deneuve), an increasingly schizophrenic young Belgian woman living in London, senses with abnormal intensity all the very real abuses of the male gaze, touch, and intrusion upon her body and her private space. By the end of the movie she has stopped being the victim of a sexist society and has become a brutal murderer of the men who pursue her. In two of Polanski's American movies, Rosemary's Baby (1968) and Chinatown (1974), a woman is victimized by being used as a womb to bear the child of rape by a devil—a literal devil in the first movie and a metaphorical one (the mythically evil and powerful Noah Cross, played by John Huston) in the second.

In The Tenant (France, 1976), a Polish immigrant in Paris (played by Polanski) gradually assumes the identity of a woman victimized by her surroundings to the point of suicide: and in Tess (France/U.K., 1980) a young girl (Nastassia Kinski) kills the man who seduced her and ruined her life, and is hung for the murder. In Bitter Moon (France/U.K., 1991), the dynamics of sexuality, power, and victimization unfold in a series of astonishing metamorphoses. A 40-ish American writer in Paris and a younger Parisian girl probe the depths of sexuality and sadism as they switch, in an increasingly deadly game, the positions of victim and victimizer.

Polanski's latest film, Death and the Maiden (U.S.A./U.K./France, 1994), explores these same themes but seems to be the first one to put the spectator in the uncomfortable position of not knowing who is actually the true victim. In many of Polanski's other movies the viewer is in the position of an “omniscient camera-narrator”—able to observe and grasp more than the film's characters can. Thus, for example, in Polanski's first feature movie, Knife in the Water (Poland, 1962), a young man who is presumed to be a nonswimmer falls from a boat into the sea, and the blame for his apparent drowning rests squarely on the older man who has been dominating their interaction and who now thinks he has inadvertently killed the younger man. We, however, know that this is not the case: we see the young man hiding behind a buoy, obviously not in any danger of drowning. In Repulsion, two men successively turn their backs to Carol and thus do not see—as we do—that she is coming at them with a heavy candlestick or a razor. The tension of these films (and obviously many others) is built precisely on characters' not seeing or knowing something that the viewer sees or knows. Or else the spectator is “allowed” to know at least as much as the main characters, for instance detective Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) in Chinatown or the husband (Harrison Ford) in search of his abducted wife in Frantic (U.S.A., 1988). We are also able to go back in time and see the characters' past through flashbacks, as in Bitter Moon, where the film continuously leaves the present time of a trans-Atlantic voyage and returns to the past in Paris. And sometimes we are even able to see the world through the eyes of one of the characters, as in Repulsion or The Tenant.

In short, Polanski's films usually allow us to assume the position of an omniscient spectator or of the film's characters. As such, we are granted a very unrealistic, and privileged, position, given that in “real life” we do not see the world through other people's eyes, nor are we usually present during the course of some private action involving other people, because such actions—whether amorous or murderous—mostly do not happen in front of an outsider. But it is precisely this voyeuristic position which is given to us by film, and that we have come to expect.

Polanski's Death and the Maiden constructs a very different viewer's position: following Ariel Dorfman's play, the film restricts the spectator's knowledge. In a solitary house near the coast of an unnamed Latin-American country shortly after the fall of a dictatorship, a woman named Paulina Escobar (Sigourney Weaver) claims that her husband's chance encounter, Dr. Roberto Miranda (Ben Kingsley), is the man who tortured her 15 years ago. Paulina beats this visitor unconscious with a gun, ties him to a chair, gags him with her panties, and wraps tape around his mouth. In front of her mortified husband, Gerardo (Stuart Wilson), she insists that even though she was blindfolded while being interrogated she can indeed identify Dr. Miranda as her torturer because she can recognize his voice, his smell, the way he laughs and the way he talks. She wants to force a confession from Miranda that would affirm the truth of her accusations. Miranda, on the other hand, keeps trying to convince her and her husband of his innocence.

We (the viewers) were not there when Paulina's tortures took place. Polanski's film does not allow any flashbacks which would vouchsafe us some hard facts about the events Paulina is describing, even if they did not reveal the identity of the torturer. Instead of opening up Dorfman's play to other locales and times (a customary practice in transforming a play into a film, but one that in this case would load the evenly balanced scales of ambiguity), Polanski leaves the action almost entirely in a closed space (the interior of a house), and even shortens the time of the play: the original night and a day become one night. This confinement puts us in an uncomfortable state of ignorance and limitation that is not at all typical of film. It is not merely that we do not know what the characters know, but we can also see only what is happening here (one house) and now (one night). Our only way of finding out the truth about the past is through what Paulina and Miranda are saying or doing in the present. Death and the Maiden places us squarely and brutally within the limits of the “real-life” situation of an outside viewer. It is the ethical position of judge and jury, with unknown people playing out a trial in front of our eyes.

Polanski's film emphasizes the tragic dichotomy at the root of Dorfman's play: the inability of outsiders to know a truth known only to the insiders, and the inevitable pursuit of this knowledge by those same outsiders who cannot avoid the drama unfolding in front of them. The film demands that we decide and pass judgment; if Paulina is telling the truth, she was a victim of Miranda's sadistic torture and he deserves the harshest punishment; if Miranda is telling the truth, he is an innocent object of a deranged and brutal woman's vendetta.

But how can one make an ethical judgment based on questionable knowledge? How can we know if we are facing an alleged victim falsely accusing someone of being her/his torturer, thereby justifying his/her own present violence over them, or the opposite, in which a genuine victim tells the truth but is not believed? The viewer of Death and the Maiden is invited to make a judgment and, more importantly, to recognize that s/he makes a very similar type of judgment in real life, where his/her ability to do so (or inability and ensuing passivity) determines the fate of real human lives.


The position of the outside viewer is replicated within Death and the Maiden itself, in the character of Paulina's husband. He is a high-powered lawyer just appointed as the head of a commission for human rights abuses during the days of the military regime. Stuart Wilson gives a sensitive performance as a bespectacled, clumsy, and somewhat overweight lawyer whose masculinity is softened by his attire—a robe and slippers throughout much of the film. His relation to Paulina can be taken as indicative of the ways in which legal discourse and procedures deal with victims of violence. Escobar puts on his legal persona while talking to Paulina, and spells out the reasons why he thinks she is wrong. First, she does not have proof that Miranda is indeed the man she believes he is—one needs facts, visual identification, witnesses. Secondly, even if Miranda is guilty, he should be given a chance for a fair trial and defense. Escobar tries to fight Paulina's apparent frenzy and his own rising panic with legal logic and arguments: “You don't have any proof … the only evidence you have is your own testimony … you are not a reliable witness … trust me, any court in the land would tear you to pieces.”

He questions Paulina, his voice increasingly like a trial lawyer's: “Isn't it true that five years ago in the Tabeli Café you heard the voice of a man that you recognized? … Isn't it a fact that you panicked on a bus last summer when a man touched your shoulder?” At the very beginning of this ordeal, he tells Paulina in total disbelief, “You were blindfolded!” implying that she could not possibly recognize her torturer. Paulina answers, “The voice.” He echoes her own words, making them utterly suspicious: “His voice, that's it?!” She says, “That's enough for me,” upon which her husband concludes, without a shadow of a doubt in his own pronouncement, “Pauli, you're ill.”

Just as Escobar assumes his legal persona in trying to prove to Paulina that she is deluded, Dr. Miranda also makes use of professional expertise in his own defense. Ben Kingsley fashions a brilliant portrayal of Roberto Miranda as the cultured middle-aged physician in a light summer suit, a picture of innocence, trying to suppress increasing panic while under attack. In a clear voice, attempting a rational medical discourse in the midst of this unleashed female frenzy, he tells Escobar, “Obviously, she's insane, she's not responsible for what she does, but you're a lawyer, if you don't stop this right now you're an accomplice, you're gonna have to pay the price.” A highly educated and professional man is addressing himself to one of his kind. An assumed and required male association between Miranda and Escobar is asserted by the positioning of both men in a single frame, with Paulina outside of it. We are thus reminded of the previous evening's bonding between Escobar and Miranda, and of Miranda's quoting Nietzsche's dictum (“I think it was Nietzsche,” he says) on the irreconcilable female difference: “We can never entirely possess a female soul.”

Miranda's head is in the right lower corner of the frame. His face is turned toward Escobar, who stands farther away to the left. Escobar makes some desperate gestures, signaling his own impotence and shock at what is happening. But before he has the chance to actually say anything and affirm the connection between the two rational male beings trapped by a delusional woman, a gun enters the frame from the left side. In the first few moments, we do not see Paulina's head, only the gun and the hand which holds it, a gun which comes to rest on Miranda's chin. The expression on his face changes from assertiveness and self-righteousness to fear, and he immediately stops talking. Then Paulina moves into the frame, positioning her head close to his, and we see the close-up of Paulina's head on the left and Miranda's on the right, with Escobar standing farther away and in the middle of the frame. With the two men silent, Paulina says, “You threatening? … Let me make this clear. The time for people like you making threats is over. Ha? Out there maybe you bastards are still running things behind the scenes but in here, in here, I'm in charge. Understand? Me! Is that clear?”


“Outside”—where we, the spectators, are also placed—the rules of factuality, proofs, legality, medical discourse, and rationality hold power. Paulina has no proof that Miranda is the person who tortured her. As far as the legal discourse goes, she is the unreliable witness who would be “torn to pieces by any court”; in the medical assessment, she is delusional and obviously insane. In order to believe Paulina, we need to suspend all these rules of fact, logic, and other established discourses of truth. We need to enter Paulina's space, a space where she is in charge and where different rules apply.

The night is stormy and the electricity and telephone are cut off, thereby severing all connections with the outside world. The candlelight emphasizes the difference of this female space. Electricity and its even light can be seen as attributes of logos—a term which means mind, word, light, and can also be interpreted as an attribute of “masculine cerebrality.”2 Paulina asserts a female space that is based on and oriented toward the body and its truths: the givens of rape and torture, the inability to conceive a child, the body's memory of smell, touch, and sound, the exclusion of the sense of sight privileged in a logos-centric discourse. As viewers, we need to accept the possibility of the body's truth, which turns the rational truth—of argument, facts, proofs, legality, medical science—into one big lie.

In order to fully participate in Paulina's different space, a space where “she's in charge,” we also need to be aware of how politics are aestheticized or, in other words, of the fact that torturers might seem civil, innocent, and utterly believable, whereas victims often look crazy, unreliable, and ugly. Kingsley's Roberto Miranda is genuinely likable, and could easily be the convincingly innocent victim of a deranged woman. On the other hand, Polanski's Paulina is more physical, brutal, and sensual, as well as less verbal, than Dorfman's character, and Sigourney Weaver's performance managed to bring these aspects out in being “persuasively febrile.” She is physically commanding (her performance in the Alien series resonates here): lean, muscular, and tall, with movements that are economic and precise but never (even before Dr. Miranda's arrival) graceful or beautiful. Weaver's Paulina can convincingly beat her captive into unconsciousness or push his car off the cliff—and thus look completely demented to those outside viewers who at that point in the film have no inkling of her possible motivations. She curses, beats up her captive, sniffs him, bites, and uses teeth instead of scissors. She holds Miranda's penis while he urinates with his hands tied behind his back. She is much “uglier” and less feminine (or not feminine at all) than in Dorfman's play.

By transforming Paulina's character in this way, Polanski's film sharpens the contrast between a woman who seems irrational and unreliable in her accusations, and her victim, who seems utterly innocent. There are convincing reasons for us—like Paulina's husband—to think that she is ill. Paulina can prove that she is right only if she can change our conventionally accepted parameters of what the truth is based on and what it is supposed to look like.


By holding Miranda and her husband hostage with her gun, Paulina manages to stage a situation that tricks Miranda into disclosing his intimate knowledge of the details of her torture. She succeeds in revealing his lies at the level of rational and factual discourse, and thus makes them visible even to her husband. But in order to be able to set her trap and “drag” Miranda into the open, to a space of factual proof which speaks to her husband (and to us), Paulina needs to have time and power, which she can obtain only with the help of her gun.

Throughout the night, Paulina never lets the weapon out of her hand (except for a moment of crisis when Miranda manages to take it away from her for a few seconds), and early on proves to Gerardo that she is absolutely serious about using it—firing at him when he starts to untie Miranda. When he pleads with her, “Give me the gun … listen, while you're holding the gun we have nothing to discuss,” Paulina corrects him, saying, “On the contrary, the minute I give up the gun all discussion will end.”

Polanski visually emphasizes the opposition between the legalistic, rational discourse advocated by Escobar and Paulina's method of getting the truth through the use of power. In many scenes, Escobar and Paulina occupy opposite sides of the screen, with the tied-up Miranda in the middle. We see, for instance, Escobar in the left corner, turned towards Paulina, who is standing farther away, diagonally across Escobar on the right side, and holding her gun. Miranda sits between them, like a prize for the winner. Across this space, Escobar delivers his talk and his persuasion, while Paulina points her gun at both men. Rationality flows from Escobar to Paulina, who fights back with the power residing in her pointed gun.

Another of the many striking examples of the visual accentuation of this weapon occurs when Paulina escorts Miranda to the bathroom. His hands are tied, so she unites his zipper and holds his penis above the toilet with her left hand. With her right hand, she holds the gun pressed to Miranda's neck. The frame contains a close-up of Miranda's face on the left, Paulina's on the right, the gun between them, and then, in a medium shot, Escobar farther away, positioned right behind the centered gun, with his flashlight pointing at and emphasizing it.

Polanski radically changes Dorfman's stage directions for Paulina's firing of the shot at her husband. In Dorfman's directions, it is “clear that [Paulina] does not know how to fire the weapon, because she is as surprised as both men are, recoiling from the shot.”3 Polanski's Paulina, on the contrary, is in complete control, obviously knows how to use the gun, and does so deliberately. The gun is the site of Paulina's power, and if she is to use her power efficiently, she needs to know how to use her gun well. Unlike Dorfman's character, Polanski's Paulina does not allow her husband to embrace her and render her weapon ineffectual. When Escobar approaches her with the intention of comforting her, she points the gun at him and says, “I can't trust you.” She opts for the gun and not for the husband. Sigourney Weaver portrays Paulina as a woman who, although shaken to the quick by Miranda's unexpected presence, repeatedly manages to get control over the situation—and herself—by literally drawing strength from her weapon.

In repeatedly emphasizing the crucial importance of the gun, Polanski's film underscores the necessity of power in obtaining the truth. Thus, this film leaves us puzzled and shaken. We surely do not want to relinquish the values of uncoerced investigation, rational discourse, and factual argumentation. However, as we become increasingly aware that Paulina might indeed be right, we also increasingly see “the law” (Escobar) as gullible, helplessly tied to the existing factuality, and affected by appearances (Paulina looks “ill,” whereas “Miranda looks like someone we can trust”). Although he is an official voice for Paulina, Escobar, left to his own devices, could never find the truth. She repeatedly addresses him as “my boy” or “my baby, my poor gentle baby.” Weaver infuses this line with the gentleness and cynicism of a woman who, though in love, is perfectly aware of her own superiority over her husband. As the voice of the Law, Stuart Wilson masterfully develops his role of a man who is always too slow, alternately expressing astonishment, utter disbelief, confusion, and finally understanding. When the astonished Miranda says, “He didn't do anything! He just stood there!,” referring to Escobar's failure to seize the gun which Paulina had momentarily lost, Paulina answers, “Of course ‘he just stood there.’ He's the Law!”

Escobar/the Law cannot follow or be a match for Paulina and Miranda as they do battle in the sphere of violence, darkness, Eros, and death, a sphere inaccessible to Escobar and his knowledge. Paulina has no choice but to use the illegitimate and reprehensive power of the gun in order to descend into this sphere. Only by using the gun (the “unacceptable” power) can she bring Miranda “out” into the different space of light (factuality, rationality), where his demonic side will become visible to Escobar—and also to us. Miranda's final confession—which a kneeling Ben Kingsley delivers with a face and voice so very different from his previous Good Samaritan that it creates the stunning impression of removing a mask—could not have been gotten in any other way.

The “Death and the Maiden” motif in Polanski's movies can also be seen as one of a woman holding a deadly weapon. Polanski's films obsessively rework the motif of a woman-victim seizing power, a tool of death, and then deploying it in different ways. In Repulsion, Carol turns from a victim into victimizer by appropriating and later using one man's razor to kill another man. At the end of Chinatown, Evelyn Mulwray manages to escape the deadly embrace of her father, a rapist and murderer, by shooting and wounding him (only to end up being killed herself by the Los Angeles police). In Bitter Moon, a woman (played by Emmanuelle Seigner, Polanski's wife) gives a gun to her paralyzed lover, thereby returning to him the masculinity and power which she took away when she crippled him. She cannot and does not want to escape a self-destructive cycle of eroticism as death. At the end of their voyage, her paralyzed lover uses this gun to kill her and then himself.

It seems that Polanski finds a productive solution for the motive of a woman-victim who seizes power (a weapon) in Death and the Maiden. Paulina uses a gun to get a confession, and when she gets it, she does not kill Miranda, nor is she herself killed. Instead, she puts the gun away—for the first time that night; she stashes it in her skirt, turns her back to Miranda standing at the edge of the cliff, and walks away. She employs the gun to prove the truth. Power is not used for retaliation and murder, which destroy not only the object of violence but also the one who violates; nor is power used inefficiently. Paulina uses her power to open a space that changes both her husband's and the spectators' notions of truthfulness, insanity, justice, and the role of power in revealing the truth.

I began this argument by linking the war in the former Yugoslavia to Death and the Maiden, finding the position of the outside viewer similar in both—a non-omniscient viewer, one who is required to make an ethical judgment and decide who is telling the truth and who is lying, who is the victim and who the villain. Without trying to reduce the multiple implications of this film, or forget that Paulina's struggle for the truth does not literally correspond to those that transpired with regard to the war in the former Yugoslavia, perhaps I can end by pointing out another analogy between that war and the film's assertion of the role of power in revealing the truth. In the Balkans, withholding “the gun” from the victims early on (through the arms embargo on Bosnia) prevented them not only from saving their lives, but also from representing the truth of what was being done to them. Had they not been so powerless and defenseless, their truth would have been supported by power which would have had to be listened to and considered. As it was, they were explaining, shouting, begging, urging. … But unarmed people do not have to be heeded, and their truth does not have to be accepted. Similarly, Paulina's truth would not have been accepted had she been without her gun. She would plead with Escobar, be left to his inadequacies, and watch impotently as polite Miranda takes his leave.


  1. Lawrence Weschler, “Artist in Exile,” in The New Yorker; 5 December, 1994, p. 90.

  2. I am drawing here on Luce Irigaray's equation of the Idea (Plato's Sun, perfect light, rationality) with the masculine element, in opposition to the feminine element of earth, body, or (in Plato's terms) dark cave. See section “Plato's Hystera,” in Luce Irigaray, Speculum of the Other Woman (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1985). Paulina dismantles the rationality of light and the accepted logical terms, and instead establishes the “dark” zone of a different, “feminine” truth.

  3. Ariel Dorfman, Death and the Maiden, trans. Dorfman (London: Nick Hern Books, 1991), p. 21.

Miranda France (review date 30 May 1998)

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SOURCE: France, Miranda. “Loyalty and Betrayal.” Spectator 280, no. 8860 (30 May 1998): 31.

[In the following review, France regards Heading South, Looking North as an autobiographical reflection “on the nature of language and identity.”]

Ariel Dorfman's new autobiography shows how political upheaval has forced nomadism on the people of this century. Dorfman, best known for his play Death and the Maiden, was born in Buenos Aires, in 1942, to a mother and father whose parents had fled revolution in eastern Europe. In 1945 Perón forced his communist father to remove the family to the United States. Later McCarthyism moved them on again, this time to Chile. Dorfman's own exile from Chile came with Pinochet's coup in 1973, and occupies the heart of this book.

Dorfman has experienced more than his fair share of identity crises. His father named him ‘Vladimiro’, in honour of Lenin. As a boy in the United States, he opted for ‘Eddie’—more acceptable in the playground. But this was too American a name in 1960s Chile, where he changed again to the poetic ‘Ariel’. In Chile, the teenage Ariel rejected English as a tool of imperialist America and rediscovered Spanish as the language that would make him ‘whole’.

As well as an autobiography, Heading South, Looking North is an essay on the nature of language and identity. Dorfman argues that one moulds the other, and to some extent his point is made by the way this book is written. Spanish is an indulgent language which tolerates the lengthy and somewhat flowery exploration of ideas. English, demanding precision, can reduce these to rambling. He may be bilingual, but Dorfman writes as a Latin American, in long sentences which sometimes go verbless, or jump tenses.

To be fair, this untrammelled style conveys a passion and anger which more careful prose might dampen down. Dorfman writes with painful honesty about the failures of his youth, about the doomed Allende presidency—which he served as a cultural adviser—and about the dangers of power.

I didn't really care if [our opponents] were scared. The truth is that we came to enjoy their fear, the thrill that power over them and over destiny gave us.

Dorfman would have been at Chile's presidential palace on the morning of Pinochet's coup if he had not switched shifts with a friend (he was going to discuss his communist cartoon character, ‘Susan the Seed’, with a television executive). He was not declared an enemy of the new regime, possible because his name had been removed from a list of government advisers by a colleague who realised a coup was imminent. Though relieved in one sense, Dorfman felt acutely ‘my enemies’ refusal to validate me as a supreme pain in the ass’. His survival, and the fact that he left the country without being sure that his life was in danger, are evidently still a source of some anguish. I have not read anywhere else such an eloquent description of the ‘survivor's guilt’, felt by many Latin Americans who were not ‘disappeared’ in the 1970s.

Dorfman's need to make sense of his past sometimes leads him to bring the events and thoughts of different periods to bear on one another in a contrived way. For instance, he applies an adult scrutiny to one defining moment, his childhood rejection of Spanish in New York:

America reassured me that my act of betrayal of a useless past and useful parents was an act of rebellion, of self-reliance, of dignity, inevitable in any march to the future. America, made of immigrants and pioneers and entrepreneurs, told me that I was free, that I should not let others determine my life.

Considering that he was only two at the time, these seem remarkably precocious sentiments, but perhaps that is English cynicism speaking. To be more generous, more Latin American about things, I would commend this book as an honest and impassioned memoir of a turbulent time. I hope Dorfman never has to uproot himself again.

Miranda France (review date 24 April 1999)

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SOURCE: France, Miranda. “Sad Shaggy Dog Story.” Spectator 282, no. 8907 (24 April 1999): 38.

[In the following review, France laments Dorfman's unfocused narrative in The Nanny and the Iceberg, calling the novel “confused, over-long and often clumsy.”]

Ariel Dorfman is a Chilean writer and was a cultural adviser to Salvador Allende's government at the time of General Pinochet's coup in 1973. Since then he has lived in the United States, lecturing and writing about Chileans' experience of the dictatorship in novels, poems and plays. His famous play, Death and the Maiden, describes the agony of life in a country where one-time torturers still walk freely among the tortured.

Dorfman feels and writes passionately about Chile. His recent autobiography, Heading South, Looking North, describes particularly well the pain of voluntary exile. Although Dorfman had good reason to believe that his life was in danger if he stayed in Chile after the coup, he never had proof of it and a continuing ambivalence about his flight still troubles him. He is both committed to his role as interpreter of Chile's past suffering and tormented by the fact that he did not directly experience it. In his long poem, ‘The Last Waltz in Chile’ he writes:

I'm not so different from the interpreters in
                    their glass booths
at endless international conferences
translating what the peasant from Talca tells
                    about torture.

Dorfman's thoughts on exile, dictatorship and torture are valuable and Salman Rushdie was right to describe him as ‘one of the most important voices coming out of Latin America’. But it is going too far to say that he is one of the continent's greatest writers. His very passion, his keenness to lay everything on the line, gets in the way of good writing.

Part of the problem is that Dorfman does not work to a plan—he lets the characters lead him. This is because he wants to write without prejudice: a belief that certain ‘types’ of people always behave in the same way has done much damage in countries like Chile and Argentina where people disappeared because they looked a particular way or read particular books.

However noble the philosophy, it doesn't work on paper, because books cannot be democracies—they need the author to be a dictator. The Nanny and the Iceberg suffers from Dorfman's free-flow approach. It is confused, over-long and often clumsy. Story-lines are espoused, then abandoned. Sentences are overloaded with clauses. Some of the writing is downright bad.

The novel is based on a true, extraordinary event: in 1992, Chile was represented at the Spanish Expo in Seville by an iceberg towed from Antarctica. This is an excellent premise for a novel—it even echoes Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, which begins with one of the characters remembering the first time he ever saw ice.

When Dorfman invents a terrorist threat to blow up the iceberg he adds a great plot, but then he goes on to add too many other indifferent ones. Investigating the threat is Gabriel, a 23-year-old who has returned to democratic Chile to try to lose his virginity. To do this, he needs to confront his father, Cris, who beds a different woman every night (because 25 years ago someone bet him that he couldn't).

Gabriel is so inhibited by his father's virility that even when the opportunity for sex arises, nothing else will. Not surprisingly, he is stuck in an adolescent rut, obsessed by hard-ons, or the disappointing absence of them. His attention is permanently fixed below his navel and, since he is the narrator, we readers have little choice but to follow it there. The many embarrassing or, worse, boring observations about sex and masturbation, make this a shaggy dog story in more ways than one.

To make things more complicated, Gabriel's impotence is somehow caught up with South America's political evolution, because he was conceived the day after Che Guevara's death, and General Pinochet's dictatorship has prevented him seeking out his father in Chile and thus losing his virginity. So Pinochet and Guevara are often brought into the narrative, and neither of them feels at home here.

There is a good story somewhere here, but it would take a team of law lords to free it. Reading The Nanny and the Iceberg is like listening to a garrulous friend in a noisy pub: the background noise makes it hard to concentrate on the plot. The temptation to think about supper instead is strong.

John Butt (review date 7 May 1999)

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SOURCE: Butt, John. “Days without Love.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5014 (7 May 1999): 22.

[In the following review, Butt derides Dorfman's complex and overworked language in The Nanny and the Iceberg.]

This novel is neither serious nor funny. The portrayal of the anti-hero's father shows why. He is named Cristóbal and is linked to Christopher Columbus in some obscure and unimportant way. After losing his virginity on the day of Che Guevara's death, he bets some Chilean friends that he will sleep with a different woman every day for twenty-five years (no prostitutes), and he keeps it up throughout most of his son Gabriel's youth, and most of the novel too. The effect of this treadmill marathon is to inflict total impotence on Gabriel, an unattractive computer nerd brought up in the United States; the novel is about his agonizing quest to lose his virginity and reroot himself in Chile. It says something obvious about fathers, mothers, Freud, Latinity and machismo, and also about Chilean women. But any chance The Nanny and the Iceberg had of being funny is destroyed by Ariel Dorfman's heavy touch when he adds the artistically fatal detail that the father's fornications are recorded by The Guinness Book of Records.

Not that this is all the plot. There is also an iceberg. The post-Pinochet Chilean government actually shipped a lump of the Antarctic to the Seville Expo 92 exhibition, where it was exhibited in a bone-chilling pavilion, and much of this novel is a fictionalized account of the gathering, refrigeration, transport, symbolic meaning and eventual display of this curiosity, and its protection from shadowy terrorists who threaten to blow it up. Like everything else, the iceberg gives out what the book might call “heavy message”. But what message? One character declares that “you see in it whatever you want … progress … amnesia … the rape of nature … the love of nature … the most Latin American thing we have ever done … or something so cool and Nordic and European”. Someone else reads it as an icon of post-Pinochet Chile: a chance to see the country as “a place like New Zealand or Hong Kong, full of industrious people, not swarming with lazy Che-Guevara lookalikes”.

But more themes and symbols add to the confusion. Che features as a symbol of something connected with Gabriel's birth, his father's bet and a lost Latin America of romance. The Nanny out-symbolizes even him and the iceberg. She is possibly the last survivor of a Native American tribe called the Ona, and she is perhaps a symbol of nature violated by capitalism; perhaps of a feminine tenderness. Or perhaps she is the mother Gabriel never had, or the antithesis of the iceberg, or of Cristóbal, or even the female dimension of Che himself.

All these profundities are served up in American gutter-slang which, assuming that it is all Dorfman's own work, reveals him to be a stupendous linguist. Too stupendous for his own good, since he condemns us to page after page of strangely off-key, mostly gynaecological obscenities, laced with sentences like “he looked me through and through with his video-camera eyes: my father registered every cybergeek detail.” Perhaps one can become too fluent in a foreign language. There is a puzzling inaccuracy which exemplifies a problem in the novel: the narrator Gabriel's claims on page 243 that there isn't a drop of fresh water in all Antarctica—but surely the poles are made of frozen snow. Of course this is an irony; the narrator's ignorance is not that of self-effacing Professor Dorfman, who must know about the chemistry of polar ice, since he went to the Antarctic to gather facts. All the statements of the dismal characters are as meaningless as the declaration of one that “women want two things from men: a father to protect them and a son to protect.”

The trouble is that, early in the novel, the heavy-handed irony fails, and this leaves the reader in disagreeable confusion. Three hundred pages of unrelieved dirty talking about solemn topics like Discovery, Revolution, Democracy and Dictatorship suggest that the book is a send-up of any attempt at intellectual seriousness about Latin America. But the learned epigraphs and the frequent allusions to contemporary tragedies leave one with the vague feeling that some significant comment about Chile is being made these pages. Perhaps the author could tell us what it is.

Ed Peaco (review date winter 2000)

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SOURCE: Peaco, Ed. Review of The Nanny and the Iceberg, by Ariel Dorfman. Antioch Review 58, no. 1 (winter 2000): 121.

[In the following review, Peaco argues that, despite the novel's “promising” subject material, The Nanny and the Iceberg suffers from Dorfman's “inelegant treatment of women and sex, and tedious rendering of rants from all corners of Chilean politics.”]

Dorfman assembles promising materials for this novel [The Nanny and the Iceberg]. Family turmoil: Chilean expatriates Gabriel McKenzie, 23, and his mother return from New York seeking reconciliation with father/husband, Cristobal, who is trying to win a bet by engaging in heterosexual sex every day until age 50. Coming of age struggle: Gabriel seeks paternal communion to resolve sexual dysfunction stemming from his father's reputation. Political intrigue: Someone is threatening to bomb the iceberg Chile will tow to Seville, Spain, for the 1992 Columbian celebration; Gabriel's nanny is both suspect and detective. Intricate plotting: Domestic, political and historical conspiracies nest within each other. But, sadly, Dorfman mishandles these materials. Gabriel tells the story as a suicide note as he plots to destroy himself and those he blames for his psychological scars. But he is an annoying narrator, often relating experience in the coarse language of a sex-starved frat boy from Revenge of the Nerds. Nor is Gabriel alone in his artlessness; when Cristobal at last instructs his son in the art of love, Dad only offers crude tips on how to score. The work suffers chronically from inelegant treatment of women and sex, and tedious rendering of rants from all corners of Chilean politics. The novel attempts to parody or satirize machismo, tangled post-fascist Latin American politics, and overwrought tales of conspiracy. But no voice in the novel dares to stand up to the folly of the characters or to the language itself (Gabriel actually considers his father's tips good advice, as far as they go). The reader must supply the winks and the nods, the necessary ironic or moral force that makes literature challenging. But since when is this the reader's job?

Sophia A. McClennen (review date spring 2000)

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SOURCE: McClennen, Sophia A. Review of The Nanny and the Iceberg, by Ariel Dorfman. Review of Contemporary Fiction 20, no. 1 (spring 2000): 182-83.

[In the following review, McClennen praises Dorfman's literary experimentation in The Nanny and the Iceberg but notes that the nontraditional narrative “wavers on the absurd.”]

The Chilean Pavilion at the 1992 World Expo in Seville featured an Antarctic iceberg as its main attraction. This surreal effort at highlighting Chile's emergence from dictatorship serves as the historical backdrop for Dorfman's new novel. Yet, unlike Dorfman's play, Death and the Maiden, which also addressed Chile's transition to democracy, The Nanny and the Iceberg places a traditional treatment of history in relief and accords it no more importance than cybersex. In fact, the novel is framed as an extraordinarily long E-mail message/suicide note to an Internet girlfriend.

Dorfman is a writer who excels at creating narrative worlds where previously unimaginable, unthinkable, or merely unlikely events collide. His latest novel pushes this strategy to a level which wavers on the absurd in a fantastic portrayal of the dark underbelly of contemporary Chilean culture. The narrator, aptly named Gabriel, is a twenty-five-year-old virgin with a child's face who returns to Chile from exile. Upon his arrival he is thrust into a bizarre male triangle between his father, his uncle, and his father's friend. A bet made a day after Gabriel was conceived is due to be settled. The vanity and egocentrism of the bet is shown to be symptomatic of post-Pinochet Chilean society: Gabriel's father would have sex every day, his friend would become the most powerful man in Chile, and Gabriel's uncle would see socialism rule the continent. Gabriel, representing a displaced and disenfranchised youth, is left to search for—or to annihilate—his identity in the shadow of these men and with the guidance of his nanny.

Robert A. Morace (essay date summer 2000)

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SOURCE: Morace, Robert A. “The Life and Times of Death and the Maiden.Texas Studies in Literature and Language 42, no. 2 (summer 2000): 135-53.

[In the following essay, Morace traces the initial success and eventual decline in popularity of Death and the Maiden, arguing that the several celebrity-driven adaptations of the play have ultimately lessened the work's dramatic and emotional impact.]

The rise and fall of Ariel Dorfman's Death and the Maiden is a subject worthy of close scrutiny, particularly now, following the arrest of Augusto Pinochet in Britain on 16 October 1998 at the request of the Spanish judiciary. How did a play that addresses a specific Chilean political issue become one of the most celebrated dramas of its time? How was the play's critical and commercial success the result of a fragile conjunction of forces at a point of historical time as well as theatrical space? How was this singularly successful play able to address and adapt to different political and theatrical contexts? And finally, by what means and to what ends was this unusually resonant and oddly postmodern form of political theater ultimately, perhaps inevitably, stripped of virtually all its political and much of its dramatic urgency and transformed into mere play, simple spectacle?


The long foreground of Death and the Maiden begins with the experience of one of the author's Chilean friends who, having been arrested, tortured, and exiled in the early 1980s, returned home nearly a year later only to find that his family “had erased the whole incident from their memories” (Dorfman qtd. in Rohter). Theirs was, Dorfman knew, a willed amnesia not at all uncommon in Chile during the seventeen years of Pinochet's brutal military dictatorship. In July 1990, four months after the peaceful but still fragile transfer of power to a democratically elected government led by President Patricio Aylwin, Dorfman returned, his own exile over, and found both the catalyst he needed to give his friend's experience the appropriate literary shape that had eluded him for so long and a compelling reason to transform the anguish of that friend's private drama into public performance even now that democracy had replaced dictatorship. The catalyst was the Commission on Truth and Reconciliation established on 20 April 1990 and charged with investigating abuses of power that had occurred during Pinochet's reign of terror. The commission's powers were, however, doubly limited. It could neither name (let alone judge) those who had committed or been responsible for the abuses, nor could it investigate any cases other than ones that had ended either in death or in the presumption of death. In limiting the commission's scope Aylwin was being prudent and practical; he was trying to address the horrors of the past but in a way that would minimize the risk to Chile's democratic future by giving the still powerful generals as little cause as possible for staging a second coup. More specifically, the commission gave Dorfman the idea for a new character, the lawyer Gerardo Escobar, a much younger and differently motivated version of the actual commission's eighty-year-old chairperson. Completed in just three weeks, Scars on the Moon, as the play was then titled, enabled Dorfman to transform his political as well as aesthetic powerlessness into a powerful and disturbing but not necessarily cathartic drama which would serve as much as pretext as afterword.1 As an act of “responsible delirium,” the play effectively embodied the author's “urgent concern over his country's refusal to confront the pain of transition from repression to democracy” and his belief that those who do not confront the past risk being “corroded by it” (Dorfman qtd. in Eccles).

A London reviewer later assumed that Scars on the Moon must have been “an urgent work of psychic healing” when it was first performed in Santiago (Feay). She was wrong. For many, the play seemed to open too many old wounds. Dorfman had difficulty securing financial backing, a theater, even actors to play Gerardo and Miranda (“I think they found it very difficult in a macho culture such as Chile's to be abused like this on the stage by a woman”). And the response to Scars on the Moon once it was staged left Dorfman feeling pained and “stunned,” particularly by the reaction of friends who “either didn't see the play or thought it was totally inopportune and inconvenient.” Scars on the Moon was, of course, a work designed to provoke, not please, and was susceptible to being misread by some as an attack on the commission and by others on the victims. Santiago's poor proved more receptive, though whether this was due to their greater political acumen, to their believing they had less to gain or lose than their middle-class neighbors, or to their being treated to free entertainment is unclear.2

And things might have ended there had it not been for a well-publicized rehearsed reading that had taken place a few months earlier. Part of the “Censored Theatre” project of the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA), the 25 November 1990 event began with Dame Peggy Ashcroft reading a Dorfman poem and ended with the author discussing his play. (The ICA thought highly enough of Scars to expend the program's entire £2,000 budget on bringing Dorfman to London.) The ICA reading proved fortuitous for Dorfman, the play, and theater history. Freed of the immediate political context that had made it so painful an experience in Santiago and bearing the cachet of “censored theatre,” Scars gained momentum on its way to becoming a sign of the times. Next stop was the London International Festival of Theatre (LIFT) 91's “Cross References” series. Once again interest in the play offset formidable obstacles: it was about three times longer than the stipulated thirty minutes and would cost more to stage than the organizers could afford. Part of the additional expense went to commissioning a revision by Michael Hastings. Some of Hastings's work proved immensely beneficial, his tightening of the structure in particular; some did not, his adding material in order to create a more documentary effect, for example, and was not adopted.

Death and the Maiden was performed 4-27 July 1991 on the Royal Court's small Upstairs Stage as part of an otherwise rotating double bill of international plays: Argentinean Griselda Gambaro's Putting Two and Two Together, South African Gcina Mhlope's Love Child, Bulgarian Stefan Tsanev's Paranoia, and Harold Pinter's New World Order. The prestige of the Royal Court and LIFT were vital to the play's eventual success. Equally important were its place as anchor (presumably by virtue of its length) and the context, or aura, of political urgency that the other plays provided. Context was especially important the night Dorfman's play appeared on the same stage (with two of the same cast members) as New World Order (also about torture), owing to Pinter's considerable reputation. (Pinter, the subject of Dorfman's 1968 thesis at the University of Chile, was one of the play's early champions.) No less noteworthy was the coupling during the festival's first week of Dorfman's “full-length psychological thriller” and Gambaro's “spare, surreal sketch” in which “a shipwrecked woman finds herself in a lifeboat with a representative of the military regime responsible for the ‘disappearance’ of her daughter” (P. Taylor; Billington). Like Death and the Maiden, Gambaro's play “offers no easy solutions. The victim and the victimiser continue to look for a way of communicating, their roles often interchanging” (Silbert). And it makes use of an actual event from recent Latin American history: the infamous La noche de los lapiches [Night of the Pencils]. For London theatergoers Death and the Maiden's political context included not only what had recently occurred or was still occurring in Argentina, Chile, and much of the rest of Latin America as well as the areas suggested by the other LIFT 91 plays: Eastern Europe, South Africa, the Persian Gulf. It also included events closer (politically speaking) to home: the Falklands War, the situation in Northern Ireland, and recent passage of a War Crimes Bill which raised for Britons the question of whether old men should he tried for crimes committed fifty years ago.


Despite its inauspicious start, Death and the Maiden was on its way to becoming “the unlikeliest of blockbusters” (Wolf). The success of this “demanding and thoughtful play surfacing in a sea of musicals” (Annen) can be measured: in the move to the Royal Court's Main Stage, in the overwhelmingly enthusiastic reviews, in Olivier and Time Out awards for best play and best actress, and in its playing to packed houses at both the Royal Court and, later, the Duke of York in the West End, where it was “the only non-musical … to attract queues for returns every night” (Lister). It also helped that among the non-musicals of note that season were two other popular plays that viewed “history through the experience of the diseased or damaged”: Tony Kushner's Millennium Approaches and Alan Bennett's The Madness of George III (King). But what most ensured the play's success as it moved into progressively larger and more commercial quarters, as well as further from the specific historical and political contexts that had contributed so significantly to the dramatic intensity of the play and early interest in it, is that Death and the Maiden also succeeds theatrically, especially in terms of the opportunities it offers its players. Indeed, Dorfman's achievement became inseparable from Juliet Stevenson's “harrowing portrayal” of Paulina Escobar. Stevenson's “original, excoriating performance” so far “transgressed the boundaries of acting” as to be “almost too painful to watch” as her Paulina “sway[ed] between rage and reason” and “switched effortlessly from coquettish young woman to trembling victim and avenging angel” (Annen, Kingsley, Wardle, Nathan).

It was Stevenson's highly acclaimed acting as much as the timeliness and dramatic qualities of the play itself that made it possible for Death and the Maiden to survive three changes of venue, two of cast, and one of director. When Geraldine James and Paul Freeman took over the roles of Paulina and Gerardo formerly played by Stevenson and Bill Paterson, reviewers noted not an inevitable decline but instead “a shift of emphasis from the overwhelmingly personal to the more generally political,” from “raw passion … to reasoned debate” (Kingsley). This was “proof, surely, of the play's resilience and versatility,” its being able to “adapt, alter, perhaps even grow” (Nightingale, “Fresh”). The play's continuing success in Britain extended beyond a third change of cast at the Duke of York (Pennie Downie, Danny Webb, and Hugh Ross; Brian Stirnen directing) which continued to receive respectful notices. The play was performed in at least one English prison, the Britannia Annex in Norwich (where prisoners, drawing on their legal expertise, judged Miranda innocent and contended that his case would never even have gone to court). One inmate, Joe White, serving a life sentence for the murder of a friend while on LSD, was allowed out to play Miranda in a production staged 6 June 1992 at the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn, opposite a prison guard and the wife of a Kurd who had been tortured in Turkey. Proceeds from the performance (which along with the after-show party was filmed by Anglia TV for a forty-minute documentary) went to Amnesty International and the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture (Burley). In 1994 Death and the Maiden was staged as part of the Manchester City of Drama Festival and received its Scottish premiere. The version aired on BBC Radio 4 on 5 September 1994, starring Stevenson, Paterson, and John Shrapnel (as Miranda) and directed by Hillary Norwich, was, “if anything, more psychologically compelling and emotionally claustrophobic [on air] than it was in the theatre” (L. Taylor).

By this time Death and the Maiden had already been hailed as the international play of the decade, “one of those rare plays which, with the limpid simplicity of classical myth, seem to grasp the pulse of the century” (Armistead). In 1992 it was staged in some forty countries (Nightingale, “Death”) and by October was being touted as “the most popular play in Europe, showing in more than fifty theatres across the continent, eighteen of them in Germany” (“Torture”). By mid-1995 it had become “the most widely seen new drama of our time,” performed in fifty-seven countries, “with sixty-three separate productions in Germany alone” (Gitten). Dorfman had been able to take the century's pulse because the changing but still precarious political situation in Chile coincided with equally momentous changes occurring in many of the countries eager to stage his play. Just as different London casts allowed for different permutational possibilities inherent in Death and the Maiden to emerge, so did productions in various countries allow for and adapt to significant differences within the set of seeming similarities both inherent in and evoked by Dorfman's text. The play “could not have appeared at a better time,” one newspaper said of the Warsaw production. “A commission is currently investigating whether martial law was a necessary response to circumstances of the early eighties. If it was not, then its author, General Jaruzelski, and others will face a tribunal” (“Torture”). Poland's commission, unlike Chile's, could afford to investigate past abuses because the demise of the Soviet Union had rendered Jaruzelski and others powerless, and it could afford to deal leniently with those found responsible, for although Poland had suffered under martial law, Chile had suffered far worse under Pinochet and therefore had a greater desire for justice on the one hand and vengeance on the other. Thus, “Crime without Punishment” (to borrow the headline of the review in Poland's leading newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza) meant one thing in Warsaw and quite another in Santiago (and another still in London, Seoul, Vilnius, Johannesburg). However, the Polish Death and the Maiden (in which internationally renowned film director Jerzy Skolimowski made his acting debut) represented something more than a relevant political play and “a harbinger of theatrical spring.” At least some Polish theatergoers—among those able to afford “the most expensive theatre ticket in Polish history” (Richardson)—were made uneasy by the commercial success of a play in which political debate, entrepreneurial spirit, and the Polish appetite for Western goods came together so seamlessly.


Clearly, the play was, politically speaking, “timely” and “intensely relevant,” but the fact that it was “deeply unsettling” had as much to do with the postmodern quality of its “dramatic urgency” as it did with the “painful [political, legal, and moral] questions” it raised about life after communism, Pinochet, and apartheid. The first hint of the play's dense, characteristically postmodern intertextuality appears in the title, which echoes well-known works in nondramatic, nonverbal forms: Schubert's quartet and Munch's drawing (or rather drawings, for what is Paulina's fifteen-year silence but a version of Munch's best-known work, The Scream?). Death and the Maiden is “compelling theatre” in part because it exists at the point at which so many dramatic speech types dialogically intersect, drawing on (alluding to) and outstripping (eluding) so many generic conventions and labels: “expert whodunit,” “crafty”/“even-handed melodrama,” “literate”/“moral”/“cliff-hanging psychological thriller,” “dramatic essay”/“meditation,” “political allegory,” “theatre of ideas,” “account of human brutality,” “classical fable for our times,” “debate about justice and revenge,” “morality play without a moral.” If Death and the Maiden reminded reviewers more of Deathtrap (and Sleuth) than of Agatha Christie's Mousetrap, it was Deathtrap with a difference, designed “to catch the conscience of an international audience” (Rich). “Underlaid with political, social, and feminist arguments which give immense ethical power to a revenge drama” (Shuttleworth), it was like Hamlet, only without the closure, a play in which “[t]he plot is everything” yet the “power comes from the moral issues it raises” (St. George). Some compared Death and the Maiden to Caryl Churchill's Mad Forest, set in post-Ceaucescu Romania, others to Sophoclean tragedy, about characters “trapped in a polluted society” and “on a collision course with impersonal destiny” (Peter). It was “one of those rare pieces that combine the structural simplicity of Sartre or Pinter with the moral complexity of a problem play” (Grant), but a problem play which seemed closer to exorcism than realism: a “ceremony of revenge,” a “dream-stuck ritual,” a “terrifyingly real” nightmare.

In this play in which, as more than one reviewer has claimed, “the tension rarely slackens,” the tension is of several kinds. There is the tension of the whodunit and the thriller and of the urgent political debate between Paulina and Gerardo, between revenge and reconciliation, madness and reason, past and future. And there is also the tension that results from Dorfman's shaping this debate both within and against the more or less rigidly defined popular subgenres just mentioned. Following Cervantes's example, Dorfman uses the popular “genres of his day and split[s] them wide open” (Incledon, 99). He does this most obviously with the whodunit and thriller and more subtly with the contemporary female revenge narrative. His “play about the empowerment of women” (Wolf) transcends the limitations of Sleeping with the Enemy,Fatal Attraction, and Extremities in three complementary ways: by grounding Paulina's madness in concrete historical circumstances, by investing her madness with the mythic power of a Medea or an Elektra, and by rendering her sexual anguish inseparable from political anguish, both literally and metaphorically. “What dictatorships do,” Dorfman noted, “represents the culmination in the extreme of what happens in many houses” (Wolf).

Equally interesting is the way Dorfman uses and splits open a very different, more typically Latin American “genre of his day,” the testimonial (a form which includes those real-life accounts from Chile that Amnesty International and the Medical Foundation for the Care of Torture Victims contributed during rehearsals in London). In Some Write to the Future, Dorfman discusses testimonials at length, identifying their “three primary functions”—to record, to inspire, “above all, to accuse” (there is also a fourth, ancillary function, to analyze)—as well as their chief limitations as a literary form: their being minimally structured, often repetitive, reductive in their depiction of the struggle between good and evil, and although ostensibly addressed to the entire world, in fact directed at “the already convinced” (146, 159). Dorfman's discussion of testimonials becomes especially relevant to Death and the Maiden when read alongside his remarks, elsewhere in the same volume, on the ethical failure of critics who, in extolling the textual intricacies of the most postmodern (and lest polemical) Latin American ficciones, have blinded themselves to the political terrors of Latin American life to which the testimonials give witness, however artlessly. These are the critics whom Dorfman charges with having “allowed themselves to be so mesmerized by Borges' masterful gamesmanship that they overlook[ed] what happens to the people inside that world … the men (there are hardly any women) who suffer that bewildering chaos” (25).

We have already seen that much of the aesthetic and ethical power of Death and the Maiden derives from the specific historical circumstances which inspired Dorfman first to conceive and then to complete his work and to those equally powerful and “empowering” circumstances under which the play came to be staged and received. We can now say that the play's power also derives from literary history, especially Latin American literary history, and more particularly still from its relations to Dorfman's other writings and his efforts in many of those writings to supplement Borges even as he draws inspiration from him. Death and the Maiden is connected by subject to many of the essays written during Dorfman's exile and published in the Nation, the New York Times, and elsewhere; by genre to his other plays; and by specific situation to the short story “Consultation,” which deals with a Dr. Miranda-like character and the means his interrogators use to cajole and coerce his cooperation and complicity in the torture of others. Less obvious but equally important are the connections between Death and the Maiden and Dorfman's first novel, Moros en la costa, in which the attempt to give democratic voice to all, to create a kind of aesthetic Allendeism, threatens to end in either chaos or tyranny—a difficulty that not even The Last Song of Manuel Sendero entirely overcomes. The political solution to this bewildering narrative polyphony and social heteroglossia was the military coup that cut short Allende's and, less momentously, Dorfman's experiments in democratic socialism. The aesthetic solution came only after Dorfman fled the country and entailed reducing the number of voices, styles, and open-ended narratives competing for the reader's attention and adopting the simpler, less threatening sequential structure of Widows and Mascara. But the fate of Mascara is especially interesting and, I would say, typical of Dorfman's work in general. Dorfman begins with a brilliant, horrific idea, but as the idea develops, the horror turns hollow. Much the same problem undermines Konfidenz where for a time Dorfman raises the postmodern gamesplaying of Borges and Eco to new political and psychological heights, only to end, once again, on a false note, with Dorfman's moral labyrinth about trust and betrayal coming to sound more and more like Casablanca.

Death and the Maiden manages to overcome the twin pitfalls to which so much of Dorfman's other imaginative writing has succumbed. The first is a sense of moral urgency that far outstrips aesthetic means and often leads to melodramatic endings. The second is the tendency to be too stylistically clever for his and his work's own good. Although this tendency derives from a laudable desire to put postmodern techniques to practical political use, it frequently manifests itself as a penchant for postmodern incertitude that seems little more than an ideological and aesthetic tic. But not in Death and the Maiden. London reviewers singled out the play's ending for special praise. Dorfman's play “about the reestablishment of liberal democracy after a period of sadistic oppression when the catharsis that the Nuremberg trials provided after World War 2 may not be possible” leaves its audience “firmly on the horns of the liberal dilemma” (Lavendar). The liberal conscience recoils from Paulina's extremism only to find itself uncomfortable with Gerardo's “humane” but “deeply suspect” “blandness,” which seems motivated more by political ambition than by reason. Caught “in a vast moral trap,” viewers are forced “to confront choices that most would presumably rather leave to the inhabitants of remote and less favoured countries: the image of the play itself as a mirror set before the liberal conscience is central to the work” (Butt). The Guardian's Richard Gott agreed, in a way. Deriding the play as light “entertainment for bien pensant thinking liberals” (I. Hilton), Gott argued

Far from using the powerful image of a tortured middle class woman to illuminate the tragedy of the great mass of the people in his country and of Latin America, Dorfman has written a banal tragi-comedy of manners that seeks the reconciliation of bourgeois individuals [the people in the audience as well as the characters on the stage] with no wider points of reference.3

Gott was, I believe, wrong about Death and the Maiden, or more specifically about the London productions to which he was responding, but he was on to something, nonetheless, some potential weakness lurking in the play, ready to surface once those “points of reference” he mentions atrophied, as happened with both the Broadway and film versions.


Differences between the London and New York versions are illuminating, even in matters of scale and size.4 Production costs at the Royal Court's 69-seat Upstairs Stage were $19,000, and at the 395-seat Main Stage only four times that amount ($77,000). Together the two productions earned the Royal Court a record $110,000 profit. Production costs at the 646-seat Duke of York were $190,000; advance sales totaled $140,000, and “the only hotter ticket was ‘The Phantom of the Opera.’” There was of course no similar slow growth in New York, only recognition of the play's phenomenal London success. One month after it opened in the West End, Death and the Maiden had its U.S. premiere at the 1,100-seat Brooks Atkinson Theater, where production costs of $1.3 million were more than offset by a “musical-size” advance sale of $3.4 million. Ian MacNeil's set, used at both the Royal Court and Duke of York and “conceived when [the play] was going to be little more than a staged reading,” gave “the impression of life precariously held together by tacks.” Costing $100,000 and looking more like a “seaside palace” than a “wooden shack,” Tony Walton's New York set gave a very different impression, one of elegance and sterility, “opulence and security.” The play's emotional intensity was of course greatest in the intimate surroundings of the Royal Court's Upstairs Stage where, as Bill Paterson pointed out, “with the audience so close, you had to hold back and not look them in the eye because the play is such an emotional onslaught” (“Gun”). Even so, the two moves to more spacious quarters “dissipated little of the unsettling potency either of Dorfman's play or Posner's sensitive, concentrated production” (Shuttleworth). Not even the fire that broke out during the 9 April 1992 performance at the Duke of York was quite enough to break the spell; fully 97 percent of the audience returned when the play resumed fifty-five minutes later (Pye).

Change in scale, from the spacious Duke of York to the cavernous Brooks Atkinson, cannot alone explain the size and scope of the New York debacle. That began long before the play opened in March, as soon as Broadway saw in the play's critical success new commercial possibilities, and with them the need to transform political theater into media event. The assumption that Juliet Stevenson would play Paulina on Broadway led to speculation in newspapers and magazines about who would replace her in London: Kathleen Turner, Mia Farrow, Isabelle Huppert, or Angelica Huston. American Equity turned Stevenson down, however, claiming (despite her triumphs in Death and the Maiden and the film Truly, Madly, Deeply) that she did not have sufficient star value; “Juliet US-urped” ran the headline in the Evening Standard. Her star value seemed especially low at a time when “austerity in the film industry had apparently helped persuade some big names in movies to seek work in New York's commercial theatre” (“Chasing”), at something more than austerity wages. Stevenson's weekly take at the Duke of York, estimated at $3,500, was about ten times what she had received at the Royal Court but still only a fraction of what Glenn Close, Richard Dreyfuss, Gene Hackman, and Mike Nichols received: 6 percent of the gross, about $19,000 per week, for each of the actors, and $32,000 per week for the director (Nightingale, “Death”). Highly paid stars, along with high ticket prices, are part of the cost of doing business on Broadway—a way for producers to lessen their financial risks. But whereas in London Death and the Maiden arose amidst “a sea of musicals,” in New York it was a part of, rather than apart from, “a season of movie and TV-star glitter” (Henry).

On Broadway Dorfman's play was not the thing to catch the audience's conscience (or its attention); the stars were, at times in rather surprising and not altogether peripheral ways. There was, for example, the Juliet Stevenson-American Equity controversy already mentioned. Then there was the protest lodged by HOLA, the Hispanic Organization of Latin Actors, over Nichols's failure to cast any Hispanics in a play set “in a country that is probably Chile.” (Nichols “promised that Hispanics would be considered as understudies”; eventually one was selected [Quinn; Guernsey, 49]). Another protest focused on the casting of Close as a victim of human rights abuses even though her father had long served as personal physician to Zairean president (and strong man) Mobuto Sese Seko (“On”). Then there were the well-circulated rumors that Dorfman and Nichols had “locked horns” over the latter's “Americanizing” of the play—rumors that Dorfman repeatedly (and unwisely) chose to deny (“Intelligencer”). And finally there was Close's bout with pneumonia late in rehearsals, which might have proven a more decisive factor had the Broadway play not been “misconceived from start to finish” (Kanfer) and thus destined for disaster anyway.

Few reviewers were bold or reckless enough to say that the New York version was “impeccably acted” and constituted “the season's deftest display of directorial tightrope walking” (Richards). Although many thought it “a hollow echo of the London production” (Owens), Paul Taylor argued that the Broadway show was not the “disastrous travesty” that some had claimed, “merely deeply inadequate” due largely to the “miscasting” of film stars in stage roles. Yet in some ways two of the stars seemed well suited for their roles. Dreyfuss had been one of the American celebrities featured on spots aired on Chilean television in 1988 urging people to vote in the October plebiscite, and Close had become famous playing desperate women in Fatal Attraction and Jagged Edge.5 It was Nichols, however, who got most of the blame. The director of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Heartburn, “a play about love and marriage trying to endure under extraordinary stress” (Rohter), chose to situate the play in the delimiting context of the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill debate and the William Kennedy Smith and Mike Tyson rape trials. According to Nichols, Death and the Maiden is “not a political play at all. It is a thriller about the intimate lives of three people and the ways in which their sexual natures are intertwined. God preserve us,” he added, “from a political play.” Close disagreed, “but you can't act politics. You can only act real people and real events” (Rohter). Suffice it to say that the London productions managed to be about politics without being polemical and about real people and events without being reductively realistic. For all its historical specificity, the play possesses a decidedly “mythic” quality which instead of supplanting history, supplements it.

Nichol's decision to eviscerate the play politically proved only the first of several missteps. Instead of “attempting to replicate [the] blood-curdling, locked room atmosphere” of Posner's “terrifying London production,” Nichols brightened the scene and slowed the pace by means of “pregnant pauses and suspense-draining scene changes” and by adding an interval “oddly inserted one scene into Act II” (Henry; Rich). Mimi Kramer thought his handling of Dorfman's “flaccid” play typical of “Nichol's usual wrongheadedness when it comes to matters of style and content” and of a piece with his having turned Beckett's tramps from Waiting for Godot into stars and Stoppard's The Real Thing “into a substandard drawing-room comedy.” Frank Rich judged Dorfman's play more sympathetically and as a result Nichols's direction even more harshly. Nichols's real feat, he claimed, was to transform Death and the Maiden “into a fey domestic comedy” and to have “given Broadway its first escapist entertainment about political torture,” having “no greater purpose than gazing at the stars.”

And what of the audience that “show[ed] up in a carnival mood to see the stars” (Owens)? Rich was forgiving. Their spasms of coughing and inappropriate, at times manic laughter were signs, he believed, of an “absolute bewilderment” brought on by the “gap between the tense, life-and-death text and the airy, bantering tone of the production.” Benedict Nightingale, one of the London productions' most enthusiastic admirers, now one of the New York show's most vociferous critics, saw the audience's role here differently. Noting a certain resemblance between the Broadway version and “the kind of sweetly sour love drama that flabbily oozes from two or three cable channels every night,” Nightingale wondered whether it was the American theatergoing public itself that had in effect “forced Mr. Nichols to make a dangerous drama less threatening” (“Trivial”; “Death”).

Yet Dorfman defended Nichols's version, which he claimed was being maligned because it had been misunderstood. Far from being “less threatening,” it was “too threatening, challenging Broadway in far too many ways.” How did it threaten? Dorfman counted the ways: the first Broadway play by a Latin American writer, the first political play on Broadway since Arthur Miller's The Crucible, one which dealt with “an unfamiliar reality and aesthetic” and whose ending was ambiguous and therefore disturbing (“Playwright”). But Dorfman protests too much. His Latin Americanness is hardly of the kind to make reviewers wax xenophobic, and between The Crucible and Death and the Maiden there had been Broadway productions of political plays by Athol Fugard, August Wilson, David Hare, C. P. Taylor, Caryl Churchill, and Emily Mann (Bush). Equally dismaying, in defending Nichols's decision to concentrate on the play's sexual theme, Dorfman nearly trips over his own trope. Because in a place like Chile, even love gets “deformed” and “is a victim,” the play (“I think”) “is also a love story. It's a story about how love survives” and how “the forces of democracy and dictatorship somehow had to find some way to live together.” In his view, Nichols's version not only complements, it corrects earlier ones which, in emphasizing the play's political issues, failed to show that “this is also a story that deals with a couple under tremendous strain” (Rohter). When the strain of so many negative reviews led Nichols to take a second look at the London production and to make a number of changes accordingly (reduced lighting, faster pace, fewer laughs), the playwright turned spin doctor: “It's admirable for a man of Mike Nichols's stature to keep working on a play, to try to make an audience happy, especially since it's sold out” (Witchel). Roger Berlind, one of the show's coproducers, agreed: “If the show can get better, we'll all be happier” (Witchel).

Was “happiness” the real issue here? Dorfman has generally thought of his audience—whether fiction reader or theatergoer—in a

respectful way, as if she were a citizen of the future, trusting him to decide the multiple ways in which the work must be internalized in order to be fulfilled, giving to them the task of completing the fiction massively and plurally in the mirror or the window of their community.

(Some Write to the Future: Essays on Contemporary Latin American Fiction, xiv)

The opposite of the reader or viewer as accomplice/collaborator is “the infantalized reader” (Incledon, 110), the literary equivalent of the helpless and demanding infantalized consumer for whom “the right and obligation to consume” is more important than the right to vote (Dorfman, The Empire's Old Clothes: What the Lone Ranger, Babar, and Other Innocent Heroes Do to Our Minds, 200). The infantalized adult reader can only consume “the most complex dilemmas” after they have been processed into “simplified and simpleminded formulas” of the very kind that one English journalist worried would mar the Broadway production of Dorfman's play, still almost a month off: “The Americans will surely be tempted to simplify the fragile and pragmatic compromises the characters make with themselves, each other and with the truth. Maybe they won't muck it up, but it's likely” (Annen).

Thus the question that the New York production begs: How to present a play whose purpose is to “look the truth and the horror and the inhumanity in the face” (Wisenberg, 109) to an American audience like the one that the speaker of Dorfman's poem, “Something Must Be Happening to My Antennas,” fears he is beginning to resemble, an audience indifferent to and insulated from real suffering and oppression yet moved to tears by General Hospital? Finding the means by which political art and commercial theater could “nurture each other” was not impossible (Blum). As Benedict Nightingale pointed out, Kiss of the Spiderwoman was “based on a book that would seem as congenial a musical subject as [Death and the Maiden],” but thanks to the composer's and lyricist's “integrity and courage” succeeded extraordinarily well, “sacrific[ing] neither a serious subject to entertainment nor entertainment to a serious subject” (“Ambitious”). That of course was London, but Nichols was not being asked to stage a musical. He was only being asked to do what Dorfman had done: to tell “the story of human beings [trying] to rescue dignity from the midst of terror” (qtd. in Trosky).

In presenting “to the most apolitical audience in the world a deeply political play [Death and the Maiden] with a director who deeply understands its human dimensions and shies away from its politics,” Dorfman claimed, “You have to be true to your vision. There is a line you cannot cross, and that line was not crossed in the United States. The production was a translation into a language the audience could understand” (Nightingale, “Death”). Clearly, however, a line was crossed; Death and the Maiden's dignity was not rescued from the terrors of Broadway, and this “translation into a language the audience could understand” did fail, critically if not commercially. Dorfman's play has, of course, often been “translated”: literally into different languages and figuratively adapted to different historical contexts. In New York this context was greatly reduced and ostensibly “apolitical,” and the result was a play that sold well and even out, drawing crowds of largely uncomprehending or uncaring but increasingly “happy” viewers along with generally scathing notices from reviewers who were often truer to the play's vision than the playwright himself. What did those viewers see when the mirror descended for the final scene? Dorfman's mirror recalls the one at the end of Cabaret (both Harold Prince's stage and Bob Fosse's screen versions). Creating a visual palimpsest, Cabaret's mirror eerily reflects Nazi horrors from two temporal and spatial points of view: one prospective, the other retrospective. Grounded in the specific historical circumstances of Cabaret's time and place, the reflected images implicate its hedonistic-voyeuristic audience in a visual and moral mise en abyme. In the Broadway Death and the Maiden the effect is very different. Ironically and unintentionally, it implicates the play's audience (along with director and cast) in the very act by which political drama is transmogrified into consumer spectacle, mere play, stars and infantalized stargazers narcissistically one at last.


One can only speculate as to what the planned BBC video version might have been like—how it might have redeemed or recovered the play that Broadway seemed determined to trivialize—had Hollywood not taken an interest in Dorfman's hot property. Or what kind of film Karel Reisz and Harold Pinter might have made had Warner Brothers and Roman Polanski not outbid them for the film rights. (Polanski had already directed Death and the Maiden in Paris; Reisz and Pinter had previously collaborated on the screen adaptation of John Fowles's novel The French Lieutenant's Woman.) Or what Polanski's film might have been like had Judy Davis not been “deemed commercially unsuitable” and the Davis-Liam Neeson-Stephen Rea lineup not been scratched. The might-have-been, as Herman Melville once noted, is but boggy ground to build on, except in movie-making, where rumors can serve both as early warning systems and as free publicity. In the case of Death and the Maiden, it was the “who will play Paulina” question that again generated the most interest. Close was mentioned, but only early on. Polanski preferred Angelica Huston, who was unavailable. Michele Pfeiffer had a new baby and did not want to leave the country (and Polanski could not return to the United States). Enter Sigourney Weaver, and to her (first) Jeremy Irons and either Michael Gambon or Alan Rickman, then Ben Kingsley and Stuart Wilson. The Weaver-Kingsley-Wilson lineup was the one that seemed destined to limit most severely the permutational possibilities of Dorfman's dramatic triangle, turning it into at best a game of chess between Weaver and Kingsley and at worst “an arthouse Alien.

Polanski was in certain respects the right person to bring Death and the Maiden to the screen. What other filmmaker had been as obsessed with enclosed, often remote, emotionally charged spaces and with trios of tormented, mismatched, doomed characters as the director of Knife in the Water,Repulsion,Cul-de-Sac, and The Tenant? Yet his film drew a mixed response. The film adaptation that some thought “electrifying,” others considered “airless.” Anthony Lane admitted that the film was “flat and unfrightening” and in need of a bolder, more personal directorial approach, but contended that the fault lay with Polanski's having been “at the mercy” of Dorfman and Rafael Yglesias's script. Derek Malcolm saw no fault at all, only commendable restraint on Polanski's part. Were Polanski's name omitted from the credits, Malcolm argued, it would be hard to tell he had been in charge. Quentin Curtis agreed but for a quite different reason, claiming that all that is “terrifyingly hidden” in the best of Polanski's earlier work is here made “banally explicit.”

However, Polanski's name was not omitted from the credits, and Malcolm was perhaps only being defensive in praising the director's restraint because he was well aware that far from being too self-effacing, Polanski was in danger of upstaging the play, less in terms of his direction than his personality. For who was Paulina (in the minds of many of the film's viewers, especially those familiar with Lawrence Weschler's feature article on Polanski which had appeared in the New Yorker a few weeks before the film's release) but Polanski the famous filmmaker, the young Jew in Nazi-occupied Poland and later the tormented husband of Sharon Tate, one of the victims, along with the couple's unborn child, of the Manson cult? And who was Miranda but the persecuted Polanski charged with statutory rape, forced to flee the United States and protest his innocence from abroad? A more autobiographical approach on Polanski's part, Lane suggested, would have made for a better film. It would have freed not only Polanski from having to rely on a writer whose “imagination is as vulgar as his intentions are high-flown” but “poor Sigourney Weaver” too from the ordeal of having “to filter the direst lines of her life through second-hand tough-guy prose.”

But is this “second-hand tough-guy prose” in the tale or in the teller? Is the weakness in the melodramatically inclined Dorfman or a quality that film audiences have come to associate with Weaver, “the Aliens avenger revelling in another up-against-the-wall woman's role”? As Lane points out, Weaver “is forceful, but it is hard to take her seriously as a Latin American dissident. And without that political context, Death and the Maiden becomes unventilated melodrama, a stage play burning up under the magnifying lens of Polanski's voyeurism.” Thus a play whose “depth lies in its compassionate investigation of the ways in which people deal with unbearable events sanctioned by authority” (Annen) is defaced (or whitewashed), transformed beyond recognition into autobiographical allegory (or affidavit),6 its politics submerged in personalities, its social issues merely an excuse for yet another round of stargazing (wholly voyeuristic this time, without the additional taint of narcissism found at the end of the Broadway version). In it we witness the kind of unintentional but also unavoidable intertextuality that turns Bakhtin's belief in the intensely and intricately social nature of language on its head. This is the reductive and uncritical intertextuality of the post-Walker Percy moviegoer for whom all the world is not a stage but a video store, and Polanski's film offers little more than a series of hyperlinks to other films7 and assorted media events in the lives of its stars and its director but no access to the play that many began to confuse with the film.

It is unfortunate, though perhaps it was inevitable, that the Broadway and screen versions have synechdochically eclipsed Dorfman's text for many viewers (and not just in the United States) and thus directed attention away from “one of the most perplexing political questions of the late twentieth century”: “how new democracies should punish deposed dictators and their associates” (Kinzer). Yet even these versions have their uses, along with their moral as well as financial costs. Together with the other productions, they remind us that Death and the Maiden exists as a node in a Foucauldian network and “that only an exploration of the ways in which our contemporary [literature] subverts prevalent power, or submits to it, can reveal that [literature's] true character” (Dorfman, Some, xii).


  1. On the commission's own long foreground see Meiselas, Chile from Within, and Dorfman, “In Chile, A Show of Hands” and “The Challenge in Chile.”

  2. Concerning the play's conception, composition, and initial reception see: d'Ancona; Dorfman, “Afterword”; Eccles, “Ending”; Graham-Yooll; Harding; I. Hilton; S. Hilton; Rohter; Woddis.

  3. For Gott's recollections of the period leading up to and immediately following the coup, see his “Diary.”

  4. Concerning the New York production see Eccles; Nightingale, “Death”; Hanks; Henry; Weales.

  5. Matt Wolf of the London Times sardonically wondered whether Close might win the Tony award for best actress as a reward for “host[ing] the Tony show, thereby ensuring better network ratings in those vast reaches of America that have never heard of, or care about, most of the nominees.” Close did win a Tony as well as a “distinguished performance” award from the Drama League.

  6. Ivor Davis considered the film not only autobiographical but a calculated attempt on Polanski's part “to control, sway and otherwise manipulate public thinking” in order to win a reprieve from the California state court and thus end an exile that had proven costly to him both financially and artistically.

  7. Including, as even viewers less intertextually adept than Quentin Tarantino well know, Weaver's Ripleyesque Paulina battling Kingsley's Gandhi.

Works Cited

Annen, David. Review of Death and the Maiden, by Ariel Dorfman. What's On, 26 February 1992. Rpt. in London Theatre Record, 12-25 February 1992, 212-13.

Armistead, Claire. Review of Death and the Maiden, by Ariel Dorfman. Financial Times, 11 July 1991, 11.

Billington, Michael. “Life with a Tortured Past.” Guardian, 12 July 1991, 34.

Blum, Debra E. “Giving Voice to the Tragedy of Oppression” (interview). Chronicle of Higher Education, 8 April 1992, A5.

Burley, Leo. “A Good Night Out.” Independent, 5 June 1993, 30.

Bush, Anne. “Broadway Politics.” Independent, 17 June 1992, 18.

Butt, John. “Guilty Conscience?” TLS, 28 February 1992, 22.

“Chasing Tonys on Broadway.” Economist, 18 April 1992, 96.

Curtis, Quentin. Review of Death and the Maiden (Warner Brothers movie). Independent, 27 April 1995, 21.

d'Ancona, Matthew. “Life with a Tortured Past.” Guardian, 12 July 1991, 34.

Davis, Ivor. “Out of Exile.” Los Angeles Magazine, January 1995, 90-94.

de Jongh, Nicholas. “Juliet's Maiden.” Evening Standard, 6 November 1991, 7.

Dorfman, Ariel. Afterword to Death and the Maiden. New York: Penguin, 1994.

———. “The Challenge in Chile.” New York Times Magazine, 29 June 1986, 22-29.

———. The Empire's Old Clothes: What the Lone Ranger, Babar, and Other Innocent Heroes Do to Our Minds. New York: Pantheon, 1983.

———. “In Chile, A Show of Hands.” New York Times, 23 November 1985. Rpt. in Meiselas, 108-109.

———. “A Playwright's Perspective” (letter). New York Times, 24 May 1992, II, 2.

———. Some Write to the Future: Essays on Contemporary Latin American Fiction. Trans. George Shivers and Ariel Dorfman. Durham: Duke University Press, 1991.

Eccles, Christine. “The Maiden's Voyage.” Independent, 12 February 1992, 18.

“Ending the Silence.” Evening Standard, 25 October 1991, 25.

Feay, Suzi. Review of Death and the Maiden, by Ariel Dorfman. Time Out, 13 November 1991. Rpt. in London Theatre Record, 23 October-4 November 1991, 1355.

Gitten, David. “An Exile on Prince's Street.” Daily Telegraph, 14 August 1995, 14.

Gott, Richard. “Diary.” London Review of Books, 17 September 1998, 36-37.

———. “Second Opinions: Truth Killed by Consensus.” Guardian, 7 May 1992, 28.

Graham-Yooll, Andrew. “Dorfman: A Case of Conscience.” Index on Censorship 20 (June 1991): 3-4.

Grant, Steve. Review of Death and the Maiden, by Ariel Dorfman. Time Out, 26 February 1992. Rpt. in London Theatre Record, 12-25 February 1992, 212.

Guernsey, Otis L., Jr., and Jeffrey Sweet. Theater Yearbook of 1991-1992. New York: Applause, 1992.

“A Gun and God.” Evening Standard, 7 February 1992, 25.

Hanks, Robert. “The Joy of Sets: Ian MacNeil.” Independent, 12 December 1993, 32.

Harding, Colin. “Revenge Haunts the New Chile.” Independent, 21 March 1991, 16.

Henry, William A., III. “Guys, Dolls and Other Hot Tickets.” Time, 25 May 1992, 64-66.

Hilton, Isabel. “Hola! The Play Isn't the Thing” (interview with Dorfman). Independent, 13 June 1992, 33.

Hilton, Susan. “Susan Hilton Selects Outings for the Week.” Independent, 23 November 1990, 29.

Incledon, John. “Liberating the Reader: A Conversation with Ariel Dorfman.” Chasqui: Revista de Literatura Latinoamericana 20 (May 1991): 95-107.

“Intelligencer.” New York, 17 February 1992, 12.

“Juliet US-urped.” Evening Standard, 4 February 1992, 8.

Kanfer, Stefan. “Fantastic Voyages.” New Leader, 23 March 1992, 20-21.

Kaufman, Joanne. Review of Death and the Maiden (Warner Brothers movie). People, 16 January 1995, 20.

King, Robert L. “Social Consciousness Onstage.” North American Review 277 (September-October 1992): 44-48.

Kingsley, Louise. “Notices.” Independent, 8 May 1992, 19.

Kinzer, Stephen. “We Weren't Following Orders, But the Currents of the Cold War.” New York Times, 24 March 1996, E7.

Kramer, Mimi. “Magical Opportunism.” New Yorker, 30 March 1992, 69.

Lane, Anthony. “Power Mad.” New Yorker, 16 January 1995, 86-88.

Lavendar, Andy. “The Language of Capital.” New Statesman & Society, 15 November 1991, 42.

Lister, David. “Bravely, Smartly, Strongly” (interview with Juliet Stevenson). Independent, 8 March 1992, 23.

Malcolm, Derek. “Tortured Past.” Guardian, 20 April 1995, II, 10.

Meiselas, Susan, ed. Chile from Within, 1973-1988. Texts by Marco Antonio De La Parra and Ariel Dorfman. New York: Norton, 1990.

Murren, Kenneth. Review of Death and the Maiden, by Ariel Dorfman. Mail on Sunday, 14 July 1991, 40.

Nathan, David. Review of Death and the Maiden, by Ariel Dorfman, Jewish Chronicle, 19 July 1991. Rpt. in London Theatre Record, 16-29 July 1991, 884.

Nightingale, Benedict. “Ambitious Spider Scales the Heights.” Times (London), 21 October 1992, 10.

———. “Death and the Maiden Becomes a Tale of Two Cities.” New York Times, 10 May 1992, C14, C34.

———. “Fresh Blood and Renewed Fire.” Times (London), 1 May 1992, Life & Times, 2.

———. “A Trivial Death on Broadway.” Times (London), 18 March 1992, Life & Times, 1.

[On Glenn Close's father]. Times (London), 27 March 1992, 14.

Owens, Michael. “Enter a Mad Maiden”; “Falling for a Part”; “Not Close Enough.” Evening Standard, 10 April 1992, 27.

Peter, John. “Timely Plays for Today.” Sunday Times (London), 24 November 1991, VI, 10.

Pye, Michael. “A Screaming Success on Broadway.” Sunday Telegraph, 12 April 1992 (London Theatre Museum Library clipping).

Quinn, Michael. “People.” Time, 3 February 1992, 64.

Rich, Frank. “Close, Hackman and Dreyfuss in Death and the Maiden.New York Times, 18 March 1992, C15, C17.

Richards, David. “Maiden Is a Thriller in Spite of Itself.” New York Times, 22 March 1992, II, 1, 34.

Richardson, Rick. “Maiden Stakes: Still Big in London, It's a Wow in Warsaw and Polanski's Interested: Rick Richardson on Death and the Maiden, the World Tour.” Independent, 7 October 1992, 23.

Rohter, Larry. “Dorfman's Maiden Cries Out.” New York Times, 8 March 1992, II, 1, 32.

St. George, Andrew. Review of Death and the Maiden, by Ariel Dorfman. Financial Times, 6 November 1991, 19.

Shuttleworth, Ian. Review of Death and the Maiden, by Ariel Dorfman. City Limits, 18 July 1991. Rpt. in London Theatre Record, 16-29 July 1991, 883.

Silbert, Roxana. “Roxana Silbert Traces the Background to Putting Two and Two Together.” London International Festival Theatre 91 brochure.

Taylor, Laurie. “Pick of the Week; Radio.” Times (London), 3 September 1994, SP, 4.

Taylor, Paul. “Fear and Loathing.” Independent, 12 July 1991, 17.

“Torture Back in Fashion.” The European, 8-11 October 1992, 23.

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Weales, Gerald. “Go Ahead, Shoot.” Commonweal, 8 May 1992, 21.

Weschler, Lawrence. “Artist in Exile.” New Yorker, 5 December 1994, 88-107.

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Barbara Mujica (review date March 2001)

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SOURCE: Mujica, Barbara. “Into the Labyrinth of Truth and Fiction.” Americas 53, no. 2 (March 2001): 60-2.

[In the following review of The Nanny and the Iceberg, Mujica maintains that Dorfman presents“ample food for thought in a rich, complex, and sometimes hilarious text.”]

In his convoluted but highly entertaining new novel [The Nanny and the Iceberg], Ariel Dorfman returns to his favorite subject—not sex, as the suggestive cover and bildungsroman format might lead you to believe, but the author's native Chile. Composed as a long suicide note from a young Chilean, Gabriel McKenzie, to an American friend, the novel explores the tensions between post-Pinochet Chile and the ideals of the past, Gabriel writes from Seville, where he is planning to celebrate his father's birthday by blowing up a giant iceberg being displayed by the Chilean government at the World's Fair, and himself, his father, and his father's best friend along with it.

Gabriel is conceived in October 1967, just as Ché Guevara is being buried. The next day Cristóbal McKenzie and his best friend, Pablo Baron, both born on the same day, make an outrageous bet. With Cris's brother Pancho as the only witness, Cris wagers that he will make love with a woman every night until his fiftieth birthday in 1992, never sleeping with the same woman twice except his wife, Milagros, while Pablo bets that by then, he will be the most powerful man in Chile. When Pinochet comes to power, Milagros and her son, Gabriel, go into exile in New York. Cris stays in Santiago operating a detective service that retrieves runaway boys. Pablo and Pancho work for the overthrow of Pinochet.

Raised with stories of Cris's extraordinary sexual prowess, Gabriel grows up feeling inadequate. He believes he will be unable to divest himself of his virginity until he confronts his father, but Milagros refuses to return to Santiago until democracy has been reestablished. A sixties leftist, she has tried to instill her values in her son, but Gabriel is more interested in sex than the fatherland. In 1991, he is twenty-three years old, and Chile has an elected president. Now they can return home.

Both Cris and Pablo are close to complying with the terms of their wager. Cris's exploits have made him a sexual legend, while Pablo is an important minister in the Aylwin government—a position he achieved by declining to prosecute Pinochet's officials. Uncle Pancho, who refused to compromise his ideals, languishes in jail. At the moment, Pablo's primary concern is securing and transporting the iceberg, a feat that will establish Chile as an innovative, technologically advanced country. However, someone is threatening to blow it up. Periodically, Pablo receives threats from a Commander You-Know-Who, and puts Cris on the case. Cris has been distant toward Gabriel, but the mission brings the two closer.

Before long, Gabriel has several leads, including Cris himself (who may want to bring Pablo down and make him lose the bet), Pablo (who may want to incapacitate Cris and make him lose the bet), Pablo's beautiful daughter Amanda Camila, and, bizarrely, the nanny—the Indian woman who has been nursemaid to Milagros, then Amanda Camila, and then Gabriel. As it turns out, one of Pablo's ancestors had massacred Indians while building up his meat-exporting business in Patagonia, and, according to Gabriel, the nanny may be seeking revenge. Or, she may be covering up for someone else.

Eventually, Cris becomes the nurturing, supportive dad the young man has always craved. He gives Gabriel tips on how to seduce women, and soon Gabriel feels ready to put the lessons to use. The problem is, the one girl he wants is the one girl he is forbidden to touch: Amanda Camila. For years, Gabriel agonized that whatever woman he was with, his father had been there before, and that fear blocked his ability to make love. However, Gabriel knows that Cris has never been with Amanda Camila because when she was born, Cris promised Pablo that he would never seduce her. Upon his arrival in Chile, Pablo made Gabriel promise the same thing. But the certainty that Amanda Camila has never been with his father makes her irresistible. Soon the young couple has an affair, and Amanda Camila is expecting a baby.

The pregnancy is catastrophic. Pablo reveals that he had once had an affair with Milagros and that Gabriel is really his son, so that Amanda Camila and he are siblings. Then Uncle Pancho alleges that Cris, not Pablo, is really Amanda Camila's father. The only person who knows the truth is the nanny, who has since died. In a terrible state of confusion, Gabriel leaves with the whole group for Seville, where the iceberg will be exhibited. Cris and Pablo are planning a birthday celebration, and Gabriel has offered to prepare a cazuela according to the nanny's secret recipe. Then he will destroy the iceberg, himself, and the two men, one of which is his father. Or will he?

Dorfman is playing here with myths and images. The constant references to the Don Juan plays and to Mozart's Don Giovanni serve to focus on sexual issues, including father-son relationships, in cultures that glorify machismo. The legendary Ché, whose picture adorns Milagros's apartment in New York, incarnates the ideals of the sixties.

Throughout, conflicting views of Chile collide and realign like images in a kaleidoscope. Both the iceberg and the nanny are symbols of the country. Yes, progress has been made, but, Dorfman suggests, Chile still has a long way to go. Gabriel's search for his father is a search for his Chilean identity, and that identity has not been defined.

The nanny recalls Chile's autochthonous heritage—Indian wisdom, traditional dishes, century-old traditions. But the nanny disappears. At the end, Gabriel hears her voice, along with Ché Guevara's, from beyond the grave—but can she save him or is it only a delusion?

Brilliantly conceived and crafted, The Nanny and the Iceberg asks more questions than it answers—deliberately. Dorfman does not offer solutions. What he does is supply ample food for thought in a rich, complex, and sometimes hilarious text.

Lynne Sharon Schwartz (review date May 2001)

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SOURCE: Schwartz, Lynne Sharon. “Corporate Sinners and Crossover Saints.” New Leader 84, no. 3 (May 2001): 35-6.

[In the following excerpt, Schwartz regards Blake's Therapy as a “nightmarish social parable.”]

In a 1989 interview in Salmagundi, the Chilean writer and political activist Ariel Dorfman described one of his characters as caught in “the anguish of not being able to distinguish between his fears and his everyday life.” Anyone who knows Dorfman's prodigious body of work—novels, plays, social criticism, and the memoir, Heading South, Looking North (1998)—will infer a context of political repression, especially in Chile under General Augusto Pinochet. But in Dorfman's latest and harrowing novel, the anguish is equally severe in an American corporate culture turned phantasmagoric. “If you lose your values,” Dorfman went on, “you will not be able to tell the difference between your inner and your outer life, between the fictions that others weave around you and your own consciousness.”

This is precisely what happens to Graham Blake, CEO of a vast empire, and hero (as well as villain and victim) of Blake's Therapy. Dorfman is too shrewd to make Blake a stereotypical avatar of greed; on the contrary, his company, Clean Earth, is a “leader in biodiversity, global excellence, responsibility. ‘We Change Mother Earth Without Hurting Her.’” In a sly satirical echo of a former General Motors president, Blake declares in all earnestness, “What's good for the earth, is good for the Company.” Blake hasn't utterly lost his values, but the enigmatic, invisible ruling powers (the same that loom in Kafka and Orwell) are doing their utmost to see he does. Thus his “therapy,” an excruciating concoction of intrigue and torturous manipulation.

Dorfman has devoted his writing life to revealing and excoriating the grosser forms of torture. Born in Buenos Aires and raised in the United States until the age of 12, he became a naturalized Chilean citizen in 1964, and wrote, taught, and produced radio and television programs under the Salvador Allende government. In 1973, when Allende was ousted and succeeded by Pinochet, Dorfman was forced into exile. He returned to the United States, where he teaches at Duke University.

Of necessity, Dorfman was bicultural (and bilingual) before it became fashionable. He was also one of the earliest writers to apply political analysis to popular culture: How to Read Donald Duck (1975, written with Armand Mattelart) and The Empire's Old Clothes (1996) decipher capitalist and imperialist subtexts in Disney characters, or Babar and the Lone Ranger, among others. (Nowadays such deconstructions are no longer surprising; the only surprise is that anything at all significant is still found in Disney's inanities.) Dorfman's acclaimed 1991 play, Death and the Maiden, is a painful exploration of how a restored democracy in Chile should best deal with the ex-torturers. His novels range from the vast and sprawling, streaked with the magical realism of his fellow Latin Americans (The Last Song of Manuel Sendero, 1987, Mascara, 1988) to the short and stark (Widows, 1983, discreetly set in Greece but actually about Chile's disappeared). Blake's Therapy is in the short, stark mode; despite some marring confusions and anomalies, it is a powerful shock to the system, like being plunged into a vat of ice.

Graham Blake is coming apart when we meet him. He trembles, hasn't slept in three months, suffers from a perpetual headache. And all because, under pressure to downsize, he has made the difficult, unpopular, yet seemingly humane decision to maintain the small, old-fashioned plant in Philadelphia left to him by his father. This was the germ of his empire and remains his nostalgic connection to a simpler past. The choice leaves Clean Earth Corporation in danger of a takeover by an unscrupulous rival, and frustrates Blake's associates, especially his partner and ex-wife, Jessica. She is the scientific brains behind the corporation, while Blake is the managerial know-how, the charm, the public relations—and the would-be benevolent dictator.

Enter Dr. Tolgate, the evil genius and latter-day Virgil who guides Blake through the stages of a treatment designed for corporate executives beset by moral crisis (the epigraphs to the novel's three sections are from Dante, but its path descends from deep to deeper inferno). Tolgate whisks Blake off to Philadelphia and installs—strictly speaking, confines—him in an apartment with hidden cameras trained on the other side of the wall. Next door lives Roxanna, a beautiful young Puerto Rican nurse who works in the factory in question, and her family. Roxanna, Tolgate announces, will be Blake's therapy. She and her family have been specially selected to fit his psychological needs, like joints in their sockets. Though a virtual prisoner, Blake has a staff at his command and full power to control the family's fate according to his whims. He yearns to be a good man, or rather, to feel he's a good man. Here is his chance, says Tolgate, to learn his true nature. Given the opportunity, what kind of God will Blake choose to play?

At first, like the many executives who have preceded him, Blake refuses: The plan is immoral, he's leaving. But once the camera shows Roxanna, whose slow grace and natural healing powers signify the antithesis of corporate culture, he is hooked. Watching her in bed with her boyfriend leaves him so fraught with sexual jealousy that he arranges for the man to be arrested on the spot, on phony drug charges. And so it goes. Soon Blake has Roxanna's father fired from his security job, ruins her mother's food stand, and banishes an idle family hanger-on. Ultimately, he assures himself, he'll give them all a happy ending. Meanwhile, he grows to relish the allure of power and full surveillance.

Blake comes to his senses only when his machinations drive Roxanna to a suicide attempt he witnesses through the hidden camera. Overcome with remorse, he crosses the forbidden barrier into the next apartment to save her and to confess—only to find the entire scenario has been just that: a series of scenes performed by actors, to elicit and test his moral fiber. He is cured, Tolgate proclaims. Blake has proven himself a good man who would do no lasting damage. He can go home to carry on his corporate duties with a clear conscience.

Blake believes his therapy is over, but it has just begun. Now he finds himself addicted to surveillance. He places hidden cameras everywhere, spies on his lover, his children, his colleagues. Still entranced by Roxanna—or by the idea of Roxanna—he returns to Philadelphia to find the real woman she was based on. Rose Montero, from Colombia, is not quite as beautiful as the actress who played Roxanna, but far more authentic. Disguising his identity, he befriends her family; this time he will use his power for good, to improve their lot. But events eerily accelerate. When a strike at the factory threatens, Jessica implores Blake to behave sensibly (that is, corporately), not sentimentally. The early scenario repeats itself as Rose attempts suicide and again Blake runs to the rescue.

Are Rose and her family actors too, merely another phase of Blake's therapy? It appears that way. “Everybody in the world is acting out some sort of role, Mr. Blake,” Tolgate tells him. “The question is who writes our words: if we write them or somebody else does. Is there any doubt that this is the matter we really need to address: who is in control?”

So the layers of deception, control and surveillance are unfathomable. Dorfman has set up a conundrum that brings Blake to the point where he cannot distinguish between his “inner and … outer life, between the fictions that others weave around [him] and [his] own consciousness.” Yet even in the grip of Tolgate and the powers he reports to (possibly Blake's business rival, or his best friend, or Rose's father, or Jessica, or none of the above), Blake tries to protest: “I deal with, affect, millions of people around the world. You deal with just a few.” “Yes,” says Tolgate, “but the few I deal with determine what happens to those millions.”

Armed—or weakened—by this knowledge, Blake heads into the crucial corporate meeting that will settle the fate of the factory, indeed of Clean Earth itself. Does he stick to his humanitarian guns and keep the factory open? Do the businesslike thing and close it? Or, just as likely, jump out the window in despair? You, dear reader, must decide. Dorfman has spoken in interviews of his taste for open-ended fiction, but Blake's Therapy is a bit too open-ended. Gratifying as it is to see so timely an issue nailed and dramatized, it would be even better to know where Dorfman thinks it is headed.

The teasing conclusion and a few needlessly baffling passages are irritating. Nevertheless, Blake's Therapy enriches the genre of nightmarish social parable; like the best such works, it unfolds in an ambiance of unbearable anxiety, where fragile individual identity is crushed by huge abstract power. Its corporate setting happens to be supremely pertinent for our age, but this novel's real and enduring locale is the darkness within.

Chad W. Post (review date fall 2001)

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SOURCE: Post, Chad W. Review of Blake's Therapy, by Ariel Dorfman. Review of Contemporary Fiction 2, no. 3 (fall 2001): 203.

[In the following review, Post contends that Dorfman constructs a playful and effective narrative in Blake's Therapy and notes that the novel solidifies “Dorfman's place within the grand tradition of experimental Latin American novelists.”]

Most of Ariel Dorfman's work to date has addressed the detrimental effects of dictatorships upon the body and mind (Hard Rain,Konfidenz,Death and the Maiden), but in his newest novel, he leaves Latin American politics behind to explore the corruptive power of corporate culture. The premise of Blake's Therapy is simple enough: Graham Blake, the marketing mastermind behind Clean Earth Inc., is suffering from chronic insomnia, forcing him to check into a radical psychological institute designed to treat wealthy businessmen. Blake's therapy resembles an insane “reality TV” show—he is assigned a family that he can monitor twenty-four hours a day. Beyond that, he is given a godlike opportunity to change their lives forever, because the true “therapy” occurs when all of his whims (both good and bad) are enacted on the family. Blake immediately becomes obsessed with one member of the family, Roxanna, a young Latino girl, and orchestrates a string of misfortunes with the hope of winning her love after the treatment is completed. Then Blake finds out that the family is actually a set of actors and actresses, and the metaphorical rug is yanked out from under both him and the reader, transforming the very structure of the book into a playful (and deceptive) exploration of truth and falsity. The post-therapeutic Graham Blake is no saner than the man who entered therapy; he becomes more and more obsessed with retaining control of his life, friends, and business, primarily by videotaping all of his acquaintances and spending sleepless nights pouring over their interactions. After discovering that Roxanna was modeled after a real worker at one of his factories, Blake grows increasingly paranoid that someone may be behind the scenes, controlling his life. Both Blake and the reader are drawn into a complex quest to uncover what is real, what is a simulacrum, and who's truly calling the shots. Although the plot of this novel is not as compelling as some of Dorfman's earlier works, the mastery with which he manages to dupe the reader time and again gives rise to his main concern—the nature of narrative and its manifold possibilities. The games that he plays with both the style and framing of his story line recall the writings of Borges and Cortázar, solidifying Dorfman's place within the grand tradition of experimental Latin American novelists.

Stephen Grecco (review date winter 2002)

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SOURCE: Grecco, Stephen. Review of Speak Truth to Power: Voices from beyond the Dark, by Ariel Dorfman. World Literature Today 76, no. 1 (winter 2002): 150-51.

[In the following review, Grecco asserts that, despite its admirable subject matter, Speak Truth to Power is “dramaturgically inert and does little to further the cause to which it aspires.”]

Best known for Death and the Maiden, his 1991 play (and later film) about terrorism and torture, Ariel Dorfman has once again returned to a topic that informs a good deal of his writing: human-rights abuses. The awkwardly titled Speak Truth to Power is based on Kerry Kennedy Cuomo's Speak Truth to Power: Human Rights Defenders Who Are Changing Our World. The book by the daughter of the late Robert Kennedy features interviews with a wide range of activists, both famous and lesser known, through which Dorfman has sifted and extracted passages that became the basis for this dramatized version.

The play had its world premiere at the Kennedy Center in September of 2000 with a star-studded cast of Hollywood actors, including Alec Baldwin, Kevin Kline, Alfre Woodard, Sigourney Weaver, Rita Moreno, John Malkovich, and Julia Louis-Dreyfuss. The European premiere was staged nine months later at the Playhouse Theatre in London, featuring such notables as Rupert Graves, Janet Suzman, and Rufus Sewell. Unfortunately, all of the star power behind these highly publicized productions cannot hide the fact that Speak Truth to Power is dramaturgically inert and does little to further the cause to which it aspires.

Technically speaking, Speak Truth to Power is not really a play but an elongated recitation that often sounds like the author reading Kennedy Cuomo's book aloud. Although over fifty rights activists are quoted in the work (the Dalai Lama, Vaclav Havel, and Marian Wright Edelman, to name just a few), none of the voices gives any hint of individuality, and the dozens of characters are invariably defined with lugubriousness and heroic resolve, often to the point of tedium taken alone, each story narrated by a particular activist is disturbing, but when strung together and delivered in this journalistic fashion, these numerous tales of abuse quickly lose their impact.

Ostensibly about the enigma of evil, Speak Truth to Power does little to examine the metaphysical nature of wrongdoing, instead, it hints broadly that evil is largely political in origin and can be overcome with knowledge and determination. It's instructive to compare this work with Harold Pinter's Ashes to Ashes, a two-character one-act play that explores similar territory, but in a far more philosophically effective and esthetically satisfying manner. Pinter's play, rich in subtext, is emotionally resonant, whereas the Dorfman work is basically a horizontal, consciously conceived thesis that appeals primarily to the mind. The main problem with this kind of intellectual approach in the theater is that it more often than not provides the audience with a painlessly acquired feeling of moral superiority simply by their being present at the production.

Publishers Weekly (review date 7 October 2002)

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SOURCE: Review of Exorcising Terror: The Incredible Unending Trial of General Augusto Pinochet, by Ariel Dorfman. Publishers Weekly 249, no. 40 (7 October 2002): 65.

[In the following review, the critic commends Exorcising Terror as an “accessible” and “powerful” look at modern Chilean politics.]

Acclaimed Chilean novelist Dorfman (Blake's Therapy, etc.) offers a work slim but dense with emotion [Exorcising Terror: The Incredible Unending Trial of General Augusto Pinochet]. The author follows the appeals, victories and defeats involved in Spain's, and then Chile's own, attempts to try Augusto Pinochet for crimes he committed as president of Chile in the 1970s and '80s. The tale begins when Dorfman, about to board a plane for San Francisco, first hears the news of Pinochet's detention by Scotland Yard and of Spain's call for extradition to try him for crimes against humanity. As Dorfman follows the case (listening by radio, watching live Webcasts and even sitting in the audience of the House of Lords) and leads readers through appeal after appeal, he dives deep into the history of Pinochet's ascension in 1973 and provides heartbreaking and horrific accounts of torture and murders committed by Pinochet's men under his command. All the while, with a philosophical scalpel, the author cuts away at the question. How did Pinochet come to be? How did he move from the man who, before the coup, was “servile and fawning,” to the man who called for the torture and murder of people who had counted him a good friend? Though the question is never fully answered in the end, and Pinochet is not tried by either Spain or Chile (for reasons of mental incapacity), the book finishes on a positive note, citing the Serbian uprising against Milosevic as influenced by the Pinochet episode. All in all, this is an excellent, quick and powerful read, accessible to everyone.

Ana Maria Hernandez (review date July-September 2003)

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SOURCE: Hernandez, Ana Maria. Review of Blake's Therapy, by Ariel Dorfman. World Literature Today 77, no. 2 (July-September 2003): 76.

[In the following review, Hernandez compliments Dorfman's timely examination of ethics and corporate politics in Blake's Therapy.]

Ariel Dorfman is not only a master of fiction but a master of timing as well. Written in English and copyrighted in 2001, the completion of Blake's Therapy synchronistically paralleled—and anticipated—the Enron/Cisco/Worldcom debacles and prefigures the ethical questions raised in their wake. Kafkaesque in tone, flawless in structure, seamless in narrative technique, the novel presents a nightmarish world where the virtual, the real, and the imaginary morph and blend into one another.

Plagued with insomnia, impotence, and a bad conscience after contemplating the closing of one of his Clean Earth products factories, Graham Blake checks into the Corporate Life Therapy Institute, apparently run by the suave and devious Dr. Carl Tolgate, who has prepared a most unusual form of therapy. Blake is given a family—the family of one of his employees, with whom he instantly falls in love—to control or destroy as he wishes. Spying on them twenty-four hours a day by means of video cameras and one-way mirrors, he makes decisions about their lives and futures through his peculiar “staff,” placed at his service to execute his whims instantly. After a month, the $3 million-dollar therapy completed, Blake goes back to his former life, still obsessed with Roxanna, the actress hired by the Therapy Institute to play his employee and aid in his recovery. Gradually, he begins to realize that the fictional family, with whose destinies he allegedly played for a month, is based on the real family of a real employee named Rose, to whom he transfers his amatory obsession. Setting up cameras and one-way mirrors once again, this time on his own, he begins to doubt whether these might be actors as well, whether Tolgate is the real director of the institute or a screen for a more sinister character, and whether the purportedly palliative effect of the therapy might not have more sinister goals.

The novel is structured in three parts with three chapters each and an epilogue. The chapters in each section alternate points of view: Blake's, Tolgate's, direct dialogue with no narrative commentary, and the mysterious “sir,” who appears to be the real boss behind the Corporate Life Therapy Institute. Blake believes that the boss is his rival, Hank, and that his real goal is to destroy his enemies so he can take over control of the corporate world. The entire nightmarish world so recently glimpsed in the media about the inner workings of corporate machinations and the omnipotence of big money is here portrayed with a vengeance with no need for suspension of disbelief—not after 2001. Who is real? Who is playing a part? What is the real agenda of a friend who apparently wants to help you? Who is acting on his own? Who has been paid to act in a certain way? Are we being monitored and taped? The novel gives no straight answer to these questions, since the reader gets the same multiplicity of viewpoints as Blake and is thus equally incapable of deciding on one version of events over another.

Dorfman's best work—both fiction and essays—has always had political and social relevance. The novel's open ending leaves us with the image of Blake entering his corporate headquarters in Houston and defying the board in order to save the antiquated, deficit-producing factory he inherited from his father so he can preserve the jobs of Rose, her father, and other members of her immigrant community. By having Blake fight a battle he couldn't possibly win, Dorfman implies that even in the media- and technology-manipulated third millennium, there are still ethical choices to be made.

Naomi Lindstrom (review date July-September 2003)

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SOURCE: Lindstrom, Naomi. Review of In Case of Fire in a Foreign Land: New and Collected Poems from Two Languages, by Ariel Dorfman. World Literature Today 77, no. 2 (July-September 2003): 147-48.

[In the following review, Lindstrom praises the poetry collected in In Case of Fire in a Foreign Land: New and Collected Poems from Two Languages, asserting that the volume presents “distinguished examples of both exile writing and what is sometimes categorized as ‘literature of human rights.’”]

The Chilean Military Regime that began with the 1973 coup and lasted through the 1980s is well known for such practices as holding citizens in undisclosed locations, subjecting them to torture, and disposing of their bodies, while withholding information from relatives. The aftereffects of those years are still being felt in Chile, where the proceedings against the former dictator, General Augusto Pinochet, have been playing out slowly. A few creative intellectuals have become determined to keep alive the memory of the years of military rule. Film director Patricio Guzman recently drew attention to this painful episode in Chilean history with his much-acclaimed documentary The Pinochet Case, which features interviews with the survivors of the military's detention centers. The writer most associated with the effort to preserve the memory of the years of military rule is Ariel Dorfman. Probably best known in the United States for his play Death and the Maiden, whose protagonist is a torture survivor, Dorfman is also a poet, novelist, literary and social critic, and a professor at Duke University. He was one of the estimated one million Chileans who went into exile in the months following the coup.

In Case of Fire in a Foreign Land is a collection of poems centered on the experiences of exile and of living in a country where citizens are being taken away and left unaccounted for. While it does contain new material, it is in considerable measure a republication of texts to which Dorfman's readers have already been exposed. Some of the texts have been in circulation for quite a while. Many of them appeared in English in Last Waltz in Santiago and Other Poems of Exile and Disappearance (1988) and before that in Pastel de choclo (1986) and other Spanish-language publications. (Duke University Press properly acknowledges the high proportion of republished texts.) Some of the poems have received further exposure by being read aloud at public events concerned with issues of human rights. This volume does not contain a great deal of material that will come as a surprise to Dorfman's English-language readers, especially since the new poems are in the same vein as those of Last Waltz in Santiago. Nevertheless, the spare, understated texts are distinguished examples of both exile writing and what is sometimes categorized as “literature of human rights.” In Case of Fire is a bilingual edition with the Spanish and corresponding English text on facing pages. The translations, jointly credited to the bilingual Dorfman and the veteran literary translator Edith Grossman, are natural-sounding and accurate.