Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1458
Ariel Dorfman observed in an interview with Carlos Reyes on the Amnesty International website, "Memory is a constant obsession for me. I deal often with people who are fighting against those who would obliterate others, who would forget them, ignore them, neglect them, erase them from the earth." Memory becomes an obsession in the context of a society confronting the legacy of a repressive regime, where painful individual memories of past injustices are often eradicated by a government which wants to forget the past or even deny that such violence ever occurred.
In Dorfman's Death and the Maiden, it is years after Paulina's abduction and torment, yet her memory of the experience remains crystal clear. She concludes without a doubt in her own mind that Roberto Miranda is the doctor who tortured and raped her, drawing on particular details such as the Schubert quartet, Miranda's quoting of Nietzsche, his smell, his voice, and the feel of his skin. Gerardo questions the value of Paulina's evidence and Miranda calls her memories "fantasies of a diseased mind," but Paulina remains resolute. While a few details of her experience had initially appeared fuzzy, Paulina reveals in the course of the play that she obscured information in order to protect her loved ones from pain or possible danger. Gerardo, for example, has always believed that Paulina does not remember how many times she was raped in captivity: "I didn't count, you said." But Paulina confronts him with the fact that she always knew exactly—she merely hid the fact from Gerardo because he was so obviously uncomfortable with the details of her experience.
Death and the Maiden unfolds simultaneously forward and in reverse; in fact there is very little forward movement of plot in comparison to the unfolding of the past which occurs in the course of the play. Dorfman's primary theme of the past affecting the present is also a central stylistic device built into his play's technique. The two threads are intricately bound: just as a country cannot move forward by forgetting its history, the play's present tense narrative depends utterly on the events of the past. There is the painful legacy of Paulina's abduction and the question regarding Miranda's role in her rape and torture; Gerardo's affair with another woman while Paulina was in captivity is another painful memory that is revealed as the play's narrative progresses. Paulina's perception of the past is clear, but she struggles with the issue of just how she should remedy these injustices. Indeed. John Butt observed in the Times Literary Supplement that "the play's depressing message is that none of the three characters can offer a solution because all are still re-living the past." Like the society of which they are a part (probably, but not exclusively, Chilean), all three must find a productive way to move forward.
In a play contrasting the ideal and the practical, Paulina and Gerardo differ in their respective concepts of justice under the present circumstances. Consequently, they also differ in their notions of how both individuals and society at large can address their painful memories of the past and what, exactly, can be done with this knowledge. Gerardo believes in the efficacy of the commission (and the country's new "democratic" government) to which he has been appointed, feeling that justice will be served by faithfully investigating human rights abuses and then turning the findings over to the country's courts. He sees Paulina as emotionally trapped by memories that she must somehow put behind her. "You're still a prisoner," Gerardo tells Paulina, "you stayed behind with them, locked in that basement." Gerardo encourages her to "free yourself from them" in order to put her mind at rest.
While the play is...
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