Death and the Maiden

by Ariel Dorfman

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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.''

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...

(This entire section contains 997 words.)

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gets much beyond that idea." Thomas M. Disch of theNation also found that the weaknesses of the play and of the production reflected one another. "The plot is all too simple," he wrote, the characters "generic and hollow," and Dorfman "neither engages one's emotions nor thinks through the situation with any rigor.'' The director cannot be blamed for the result, Disch concluded, "nor yet can the cast, who do no more and no less than Hollywood stars usually do—play themselves, for lack of any better-defined roles.''

In concert with Kramer, John Simon identified weaknesses in Dorfman's play. He wrote in New York magazine of the "unconvincing" devices which establish the dramatic situation in the play, and other flaws of technique. "Yet these are small matters," he continues, "compared to the basic insufficiency of reducing a national and individual tragedy to a mere whodunit." For Simon, the play fails because of this trivialization. And whereas Butt found the lack of resolution in the play to be a strength, Simon argued that because the play "avoids coming satisfactorily to grips with the one question it raises," it cannot succeed as a whodunit, either.

Jack Kroll of Newsweek also argued that Dorfman lessened the impact of his play by turning it into a "whodunnit." One effect of his choice was that it allowed the director, quoted as saying "God preserve us all from a true political play," to turn the production into a "domestic imbroglio." Kroll's assessment falls somewhere in between Simon, who found the play a failure, and Rich, who argued its strength despite the nature of the Broadway production. Death and the Maiden remains "a fiercely political play," Kroll commented, and if Dorfman had only forced his character Miranda to face his own guilt, this one change could have produced the "masterwork" that many critics have called the play, and enabled the star actors"to reach an emotional focus that they only glancingly hit in this production."

Apart from reviews of the premiere productions and interviews with Dorfman, there exists yet little criticism of Death and the Maiden. Most articles and other extended works on Dorfman focus on his novels, poetry, or his experience as a critic and artist in exile. One exception is Stephen Gregory's lengthy article for Comparative Drama, which explores parallels between Dorfman and British playwright Harold Pinter.


Critical Context


Essays and Criticism