Death and the Maiden

by Ariel Dorfman

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The Relationship Between Personal and Institutional Memories

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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...

(This entire section contains 1458 words.)

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basement." Gerardo encourages her to "free yourself from them" in order to put her mind at rest.

While the play is not largely sympathetic to Gerardo or his point of view, Dorfman explained in the Amnesty International interview that he can understand the political value of Gerardo's perspective: "In a transition to a democracy as in Chile, Bolivia, South Africa, there are different reasons why people do not want to remember. They say, 'Look, if we keep on stirring up the past it's going to destroy us.' This includes many who were themselves repressed, hurt or part of the resistance." Seeking to turn the page and move into a productive future, individuals like Gerardo hope that their society can reach a consensus and doing so often requires "excluding those who continue to remember."

Paulina is insulted by Gerardo's implication that her only option is to forget her pain; in her mind, justice cannot possibly be served through the channels which presently exist, so she takes the law into her own hands. To Gerardo, Paulina's actions "open all the wounds,'' but Paulina's wounds have been festering for years, and her action is the beginning of a process of healing. She mocks Gerardo's suggestion that she merely let Miranda go, so that years from now "we see him at the Tavelli and we smile at him, he introduces his lovely wife to us and we smile and we all shake hands and we comment on how warm it is this time of the year." Gerardo, meanwhile, perceives himself as realistic and does not mean to trivialize Paulina' s pain and anger when he states: "basically, yes, that is what we have to do" in order for society to begin its process of healing.

The question of whether Miranda is the doctor who tortured and raped Paulina is the central dramatic confiict in Death and the Maiden, but the play contains the larger thematic issue of how a society should confront a violent and repressive past, specifically reconciling conflicting memories of what occurred in this era. Establishing a history of the victims will be a valuable step towards national reconciliation, and the tape recording Paulina makes for Gerardo is an important trial run for his work on the commission. It is an interview much like the ones he will conduct in a professional capacity, but the process also has strong implications for the couple putting their own personal demons to rest. "That's the way," Gerardo states, "that's how we'll get out of this mess—without hiding a thing from each other, together." Dorfman himself believes in the importance of truth commissions such as the one to which Gerardo has been appointed, for even if they have little or no power to punish the guilty, they do establish a social or institutional memory. "The previous regime," Dorfman told Reyes, "lived by telling this falsity: This never happened to you.'' The commissions can be crucial, therefore, because they "are able to establish certain truths in a public way, to become part of official history." Just how satisfying such a process can be to Paulina and others like her, however, lingers as one of the more difficult issues presented in the play.

When the mirror is lowered near the conclusion of Death and the Maiden, a powerful image is introduced which implicates the audience in the play's central social conflict. "The point about the play is that it works in the grey zone of ambiguity," Dorfman related to Andrew Graham-Yooll in Index on Censorship. "It allows each person in the audience, or each reader, to ask themselves who they are in relation to each character." To assess one's own investment is part of the process of rectifying different memories, conflicting narratives of what occurred in the past. "In Chile, everybody has lived that situation. How do you make the truth, how do you pervert one truth to bring out another?" Certainly, the image of the mirror functions somewhat ambiguously, as indeed does the conclusion of the play itself. Dorfman's characters are forced to move forward, putting the past at rest without necessarily resolving it. What is a personal issue for them is reflected in the social quandary faced by countries like Chile or Argentina, in which the process of investigation goes on despite the promise of a clear resolution any time in the near future.

Dorfman commented to Matt Wolf in the London Times that the impact of Death and the Maiden stems largely from the fact that "there are few plays about the real difficulties of the transition to democracy and few plays about violence and memory that work in this way." Indeed, it is a tribute to the strength of the play, and to Dorfman's experience as a novelist as well, that the playwright was able to explore the implications of the past so fully while still meeting the theatre's requirements for an exciting and dramatically viable plot. The play's intriguing treatment of memory is thus at the center of both its current political topicality and its lingering literary value.

Source: Christopher G. Busiel, for Drama for Students, Gale, 1998

The Guary Apes

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Ariel Dorfman, the Chilean writer, brings us his Death and the Maiden, a drama set in a country that, the program coyly tells us, "is probably Chile." A long era of dictatorship has yielded to a new democracy, and Gerardo Escobar, a lawyer, has been appointed to the presidential commission investigating political crimes. Driving back to his beach house, he blows a tire and, having neither a spare nor a jack (much is made of these two unconvincing circumstances), gets a stranger, Dr. Miranda, to give him a lift home. By an even less persuasive device, Miranda drops in after midnight, and Gerardo's wife, Paulina, recognizes him (or so she thinks) as the man who, fifteen years ago, participated in torturing her and repeatedly raped her. But she keeps mum.

Miranda accepts Gerardo's invitation to spend the night (more stretching of credibility), and while he sleeps, Paulina knocks him out, drags him into the living room, ties him to a chair, and gags him. In the morning, she is seated beside him with a gun. She tells her flabbergasted husband that they will hold a trial; Gerardo is to be the defense, Paulina the witness, prosecutor, and judge. Miranda, when he does get a chance to speak, flatly denies being that doctor. Paulina, we gather, has been mentally unbalanced since those terrible events: Is she capable of determining what's what? And how will she deal with Miranda if he is found guilty?

But we do not get enough of the Escobars' home life to infer just how crazy Paulina is. Or enough about this society to deduce whether Miranda's loving Schubert's famous quartet and quoting (or misquoting) Nietzsche constitute enough grounds for identifying a person. We don't even know what to make of the fact that former evildoers are to be ferreted out but granted amnesty. Yet these are small matters compared to the basic insufficiency of reducing a national and individual tragedy to a mere whodunit. For despite the little grace (or disgrace) notes of humorous squabbles and troubled personal relationships, the play is really all is-he-or-isn't-he, did-he-or-didn't-he: too trivial for the amount of suffering on which it is predicated. Can you imagine Hamlet if its only real concern were whether Claudius did or did not poison his brother?

Yet even as a whodunit, Death and the Maiden fails because it avoids coming satisfactorily to grips with the one question it raises. Would Agatha Christie leave a murder unresolved and then pride herself on her ambiguity? And it isn't as if the wit, pathos, or language here were good enough to carry the play or even a half-pound paperweight. Mike Nichols's direction does not seem to achieve more than anyone else's would, and the acting does rather less. Gene Hackman is a believable Miranda, perhaps because he is spared the excesses of Dorfman's fancy writing. But Richard Dreyfuss's lawyer is only Richard Dreyfuss, take it or leave it. As for Glenn Close, she is not exactly bad but seems, as usual, miscast. For Miss Close is almost always a bit too much this or not enough that; with rare exceptions, her performances leave you undernourished or overstuffed. Personally, I would have loved to see Mary Beth Hurt or Laila Robins in the part, or indeed Lizbeth Mackay, Miss Close's talented standby.

Curiously, Tony Walton, perhaps having shot his wad on Baboons, has under—or misdesigned—the scenery, which is sparse and a bit bewildering. And Jules Fisher's lighting (no doubt at Nichols's behest) turns illicitly stylized for a naturalistic play. But Ann Roth's costumes are suitably understated. Last time, I reviewed a terrible play by Richard Caliban. Here, despite an Ariel and a Miranda, things are not appreciably better.

Source: John Simon, "The Guary Apes," in New York, March 30, 1992, pp 87-88.

Go Ahead, Shoot

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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 conceit 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.

Source: Gerald Weales, "Go Ahead, Shoot," in Commonweal, Volume CXTX, no. 9, May 8, 1992 , p. 21.


Critical Overview