Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 997

From the time of its debut, the international reception of Death and the Maiden was largely positive, extending Dorfman's reputation as an important writer and intellectual. Reviews of the Broadway production were less enthusiastic, but critics differ on whether the weaknesses were the result of failings in the play, the performances (Glenn Close, Richard Dreyfuss, and Gene Hackman), or the direction of Mike Nichols. English and American audiences lacked the political experience of a recent return to democracy, shared by so many emerging nations in this era, yet the play is easily accessible to them. Matt Wolf wrote in the Times of London that the play was an unlikely success given its topic, but "Dorfman argues that its time is now. 'It clearly has touched some sort of nerve, some sort of centre."' As "a play about the empowerment of women," Death and the Maiden grounds the anger of Paulina in concrete historical circumstances, yet universalizes it. "Her rage," Dorfman stated to Wolfe, "comes out of something ... that can be understood as the product of a system. At the same time, she is clearly speaking for more than torture victims.''

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Also inspired by the excellence of the London production, Andrew Graham-Yooll commented in Index on Censorship, "The conflict between the three characters, the suspect's denial, the woman's search for revenge, and the husband's need for justice, create gapping, thrilling and intense theatre." The Times Literary Supplement's Butt, meanwhile, called the play "harrowing." He observed that Death and the Maiden might draw some criticism for failing to provide any solutions to the moral dilemma it presents, any "easy answers to the question of how the new democracies should deal with the criminals in their midst.'' The critic, however, found this dramatic choice to be more true to experience and a real strength of the play: "In fact, the play's depressing message is that none of the three characters can offer a solution because all are still re-living the past."

In citing negative aspects of the Broadway production, Frank Rich of the New York Times nevertheless praised the strength of Dorfman's play. What makes it "ingenious," he wrote, is the playwright's "ability to raise such complex issues within a thriller that is full of action and nearly devoid of preaching." Rich found that despite the heavy star power of the Broadway production, its light tone diminished the inherent strengths of Dorfman's complex play. Rich wrote that "it is no small feat that the director Mike Nichols has managed to transform 'Death and the Maiden' into a fey domestic comedy. But what kind of feat, exactly?" Rich found the direction and characterizations flat and one-dimensional, producing an ironic and "tedious trivialization of Ariel Dorfman's work." Nichols took a similar approach in his film version of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? noted Rich but there produced a "funnier though still valid alternative'' to the play."But what exactly," wondered Rich about the current production, "is the point of his jokey take on a play whose use of the word death in the title is anything but ironic?''

Mimi Kramer in the New Yorker similarly criticized the Broadway production in comparison to the London one but found the inadequacies to be a product of Dorfman's "obvious" and "flaccid" play. "The questions raised by 'Death and the Maiden' have been oft before but ne' er so ploddingly explored,'' she wrote. The play takes too long to set up its central conflict, Kramer felt, dwells too long on the irony of Paulina contemplating doing just what her tormentors did to her, and "never gets much beyond that idea." Thomas M. Disch of the Nation also found that the weaknesses of the play and of the production reflected one another. "The plot is all too simple," he wrote, the...

(The entire section contains 997 words.)

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