Death and the Maiden

by Ariel Dorfman

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Death and the Maiden Analysis

  • Ariel Dorfman models the setting of Death and the Maiden after Chile in the wake of Augusto Pinochet's reign. Paulina was abducted by Pinochet's regime, and her experiences reflect the brutality of authoritarianism. 
  • At the beginning of the play, Paulina is startled by the sound of a strange car in her driveway. Throughout the play, she becomes increasingly agitated, and it becomes clear that she suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. 
  • Instead of showing Paulina killing Miranda, the play ends with the lowering of a mirror so that the audience members can see themselves and reflect on what choice they would make. 

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On April 6, 1975, Paulina Salas, then a university student, was abducted by agents of her country’s right-wing government. For more than two months, she became one of Latin America’s many “disappeared”; she was interrogated, tortured, and raped in order to elicit from her the name of a leader of the leftist opposition: Gerardo Escobar, then her lover, later her husband. The play takes place fifteen years later, just hours after Gerardo has been appointed head of the new, democratically elected government’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The commission is charged with investigating those human rights abuses by the previous government that resulted in the death, or the presumption of death, of the victim. After waiting fifteen years for justice, and after years spent nursing the physical and psychological wounds that have left her pathologically apprehensive and unable to enjoy sex or bear children, Paulina views Gerardo’s appointment as a vindication of the pain she endured but also a mockery of her suffering: The commission’s mandate demands that victims’ pain remain private and the wrongs they suffered unheard and unredressed.

The fear with which Paulina responds to the sound of an unfamiliar car pulling up to the couple’s isolated beach house at the beginning of the play establishes the fragile nature of both her emotional state and the newly elected government. The fragility of her marriage is established as Gerardo blames her for the indignity, vulnerability, and loneliness of being stranded on the way home after his meeting with the president. He holds Paulina responsible not because of his punctured tire but because she had failed to have the spare repaired and had loaned their jack to her mother. Fortunately, a good Samaritan, the medical doctor Roberto Miranda, stopped and drove him home. The marital tension increases as Paulina in turn accuses him of lying to her, pretending to “need” her approval, her “yes,” before accepting the commission appointment that he has already accepted.

Late that night, Gerardo and Paulina are awakened by a knock at their door—just the kind of knock they feared during the earlier regime’s reign of terror, and continue to fear. However, the visitor is Miranda, who, having heard on the radio of Gerardo’s appointment, has come to return Gerardo’s flat tire and, in this “small way,” facilitate Gerardo’s important work. The two men talk rather freely about that work and engage in a bit of sexist banter before Gerardo invites Roberto to stay the night. However, the sound of Roberto’s voice, a particular line of Nietzsche he quotes, the tape of Austrian composer Franz Schubert’s Death and the Maiden quartet she finds in his car, and later, the smell of his body convince a distraught Paulina that he is the man who presided over her torture fifteen years before. She knocks the sleeping doctor unconscious, ties him up, and puts him on trial. Appalled by what his “unrecognizable,” pistol-wielding wife has done yet powerless either to stop her or to convince her of the harm she is doing to herself and their cause (as well as his career), Gerardo reluctantly accepts the role she assigns him, defending Miranda.

Because Paulina will free the doctor only if he confesses to having committed wrongs of which he claims his innocence and ignorance, Gerardo believes it necessary to betray Paulina in order to save her, his innocent guest, his newly elected government, and his own ideals and career. He plays the part of good cop in order to elicit from her the story that will become Roberto’s confession. In one of the play’s most startling moments, with the stage...

(This entire section contains 911 words.)

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darkened, Paulina’s harrowing narrative of abuse segues into Miranda’s contrite narrative of abuse inflicted. As the lights come up, it becomes clear that the words the audience hears are part of Miranda’s tape-recorded confession, which he is now writing down.

Although the confession ostensibly satisfies the terms established for Miranda’s release, Paulina now claims that having anticipated Gerardo’s ploy, she incorporated mistakes into her account, which Miranda unwittingly corrected and thus proved both his guilt and her right to punish him. It is unclear whether Paulina really did outwit Gerardo or whether she merely pretends to have outwitted him, but her actions point to how desperate and unstable she is. Other events are left open for interpretation, including whether Paulina does finally shoot Miranda and if she does, whether doing so brings her any relief. With Gerardo sent to fetch the doctor’s car, Paulina and Miranda confront each other, he proclaiming his innocence and refusing to yield further (least of all to a woman), and she threatening to kill him while asking why it is that people such as herself always have to compromise and asking “What do we lose by killing one of them?”

The play’s final scene deepens the ambiguity. Set “some months later,” after the commission has made its final report, it shows Paulina able for the first time in fifteen years to listen to the music she had come to associate with her torture, Schubert’s Death and the Maiden. Paulina is silent throughout the entire scene, including the intermission when Gerardo, once again in command and his star still rising, talks continuously and confidently, even as Roberto—or his ghost—enters the hall and locks eyes with Paulina while the music “plays and plays and plays.”

Dramatic Devices

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The effectiveness of Death and the Maiden derives from Dorfman’s combining elements from a wide range of dramatic forms to create a wholly successful and typically (if unobtrusively) postmodern form of political theater. Critical of those who have extolled Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel García Marquez and others as consummate metafictionists and Magical Realists while downplaying, even eliding, South American political realities, Dorfman here (and elsewhere in his writing) uses postmodern techniques to political advantage in a play in which parodic recycling underscores rather than undermines the work’s dramatic intensity and political urgency. Thus in this play (and elsewhere in his writing) Dorfman uses postmodern techniques to political advantage, parodying his contemporaries to underscore, rather than undermine, the work’s dramatic intensity and political urgency.

Death and the Maiden is at once a whodunit and a psychological thriller. It is a problem play in the Henrik Ibsen tradition but just as clearly a revenge drama in the Elizabethan mold, with a touch of the film Fatal Attraction (1987). The three-act structure creates a momentum and sense of inevitability worthy of classical tragedy but lacks any anagnorisis (recognition) or catharsis. Instead of purging the emotions and restoring order, Death and the Maiden raises questions and introduces uncertainty at every level, probing such issues as honesty in people, both with themselves and others, and effective solutions to dual psychological and political dilemmas.

Drawing on the familiar Latin American genre of the testimonial (one rooted in the region’s turbulent political realities), in which the victim of political or sexual torture tells a story that those in power wish to suppress (or have the victim repress), Death and the Maiden seems decidedly, painfully realistic, but this is realism that blends into ritual, as its documentary approach takes on a haunting, incantatory power. It is a problem play that turns into a nightmare that is at once personal and collective.

While the play’s dramatic devices contribute to the overall theme of uncertainty without allowing the audience to escape into relativism and abstraction, the spotlights that play over the audience at the end of act 3, scene 1, and the mirror that descends immediately after, in effect implicate the audience, forcing passive observers to become active participants. They are forced to imagine themselves implicated in the crimes, to place themselves in the position of those in Chilean society who continue to forge a collective amnesia of the violent political events in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Thus the audience is singled out, just as Paulina was fifteen years before, and Miranda was just a few months earlier.

Historical Context

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Ariel Dorfman carefully specifies in his stage directions that Death and the Maiden is 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.'' There is both a specificity and a universality to the play, as many critics have noted, making it extremely topical in the late-twentieth century era of tentative political transformation. Frank Rich of the New York Times, for example, called the play a "mousetrap designed to catch the conscience of an international audience at a historic moment when many more nations than Chile are moving from totalitarian terror to fragile freedom." John Butt similarly found the play "timely," saying that it catches the audience "in a neat moral trap'' by making them "confront choices that most would presumably leave to the inhabitants of remote and less favoured countries."

Among the many Latin American countries which in recent decades have similarly experienced periods of military rule (Guatemala, Brazil, Bolivia), Argentina and Chile are often compared to one another because of their shared history and close geographical proximity in the "Southern Cone'' of South America. Both Chile, following Augusto Pinochet's military coup, and Argentina, in the years of the military's "Dirty War," were characterized by civil repression, extra-judicial abductions and "disappearances," torture, and murder. Familiarity with the modern history of these two countries provides a good basis of understanding for the context of Death and the Maiden.

Throughout the first half of the twentieth century in Chile, the political climate swung often between right and left with no government strong enough to effect large scale change. Infrastructure developed slowly and rural poverty became an increasing problem, along with rapid urbanization as desperate populations flooded the city. Some social reforms were achieved in the 1960s, but Chile's politics became increasingly polarized and militant Salvador Allende crept to presidential victory in 1970 with a leftist coalition of socialists, communists, and extremists. Allende's sweeping economic reforms included the state takeover of many private enterprises; the United States was angered by the confiscation of U.S.-controlled copper mines and Chile's openly friendly relationship with Cuba, a country with whom America had ceased diplomatic and economic ties.

The Chilean military, in a coup orchestrated by General Augusto Pinochet, seized power on September 11, 1973, using air force jets to bomb the presidential palace. (U.S. support of the coup through the Central Intelligence Agency [CIA] has been documented.) Allende died, apparently a suicide, and thousands of his supporters were killed. Pinochet, at the head of a four-man ruling junta (a group or council that controls a government), dissolved Chile's congress and repressed—often violently—political opposition. His government maintained power for the next decade and a half, frequently resorting to terror (including the abduction/tortures to which Paulina was subjected) in order to suppress dissent.

A peaceful transfer of presidential power was achieved in 1990 but considerable tension continued between the military and the government concerning the human rights violations of the Pinochet era. Under a constitution written during his regime, Pinochet himself remained army commander until stepping down in March, 1998. Yet after that time he still retained congressional influence with the title of senator for life. Chilean society continues to struggle with the violent legacy of its past, although current president Eduardo Frei has sped the process of reconciliation by accelerating human rights tribunals and inquiries into Chile's "disappeared" (through commissions like the one to which Gerardo has been appointed in Death and the Maiden).

Chile's neighbor, Argentina, has likewise seen frequent suppression of democratic processes. The country experienced its first coup in 1930, the government falling toacoalitionof military officers and civilian aristocrats who established a semi-fascist state following the growing trend of fascism in Europe. The military undertook a more forceful coup in 1943, one which set out to restructure Argentine culture totally. The goal this time was not the mere suppression of political radicals but the complete eradication of civilian politics. There were to be five more coups between 1943 and 1976, the year in which the military initiated the brutality known as the Dirty War. During this period, Argentina's most influential ruler was Colonel Juan Peron, first elected to the presidency in 1946.

Peron was different from his military predecessors in that he sought to integrate the urban working class into his party, although his government retained a strong hand on more hard-line radicalism. Peron's partner in everything during the early years of his presidency was his mistress, later his wife, Eva Duarte—known popularly as Evita (composer Andrew Lloyd Weber and lyricist Tim Rice would immortalize her in their 1978 musical Evita). She had cunning political instinct, upon which Peron grew to rely. When the military threw Peron over in 1955, many of the social changes he and Evita had initiated remained in place. The legacy of Evita (she died of cancer in 1952), combined with the knowledge that Peron was alive in exile, empowered many to adhere to Peronist ideals, despite the military's attempts to suppress them. Peron was resurrected in 1973 as the economic situation in Argentina continued to worsen, and the public, looking for some positive way out of the military regimes, enthusiastically welcomed his return; he died a mere eight months into his new term as president.

A coup on March 24, 1976, overthrew Peron's widow Isabel, president since his death, and a military junta composed of the three commanders in chief of the armed forces installed itself as the government. In the years between the coup and the resumption of democratic elections in 1983, the military fought a vicious and covert war against the people of Argentina, totally restructuring society to eradicate any political consciousness. A system of clandestine concentration camps, numbering over three hundred at their peak, provided the center of an all-out policy of abduction, torture, murder, and disposal. Estimates of the dead run as high as thirty thousand, and the lives of the survivors were left destroyed in other ways. As in Chile, following a tenuous return to democracy Argentine society at large continues to struggle with the issue of how to rectify the violence of the past. Activists such as Las Madres de Plaza de Mayo (who daringly initiated protests against the military government while it was still in power) maintain pressure on the current government to investigate human rights abuses, although punishment for many of the perpetrators remains unlikely.

Literary Style

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Death and the Maiden is highly realistic in form and structure, with a plot that rapidly unfolds in linear progression, characters that are fully-realized individuals, and a fixed, recognizable setting. Dorfman breaks with this basic structure only at the end of the play, when the setting jumps to a concert hall several months later. At this point, the playwright introduces an expressionistic device, a mirror aimed at the audience, to bring thematic unity to the piece. A fully realistic play would present some kind of resolution to the dramatic conflict but this is hardly possible in Death and the Maiden. Indeed, the play suggests precisely the difficulty of resolving the social issue which is at its heart: how can a society reconcile itself with its violent past and, somehow, move forward?

While it is the tendency of most theater critics to compare the work of different playwrights in order to give their readers a point of reference for a particular work, this has rarely been the case in the published criticism of Death and the Maiden. Critics have not been so focused on applying labels to Dorfman's theatrical technique, perhaps because they do not consider Dorfman—an intellectual and academic internationally known for his essays, novels, and poetry—to be primarily a playwright. Additionally, the content and political context of Death and the Maiden being so novel to English and American audiences, critics have focused more on these elements than on categorizing Dorfman's dramatic style.

As an exception to this tendency, one playwright with whom Dorfman is often related is Harold Pinter. The British playwright has remained an important touchstone for Dorfman; his first book was an academic study of the politics of oppression in Pinter's early play The Room, and he dedicates Death and the Maiden to Pinter. The connections between the two writers, however, are related more to their political investments than their dramatic techniques. An article by Stephen Gregory in Comparative Drama, for example, suggested how a retrospective reading of Dorfman's study of Pinter illustrates "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." Dorfman hardly works in the style of Pinter, a playwnght associated with the Theatre of the Absurd.

Literally meaning "out of harmony," the term absurd was the existentialist Albert Camus's designation for the situation of modern men and women whose lives lack meaning as they drift in an inhuman universe. Death and the Maiden explores a political context which could properly be described as absurd, as a military regime prevents individuals from exerting any control over their own destiny. In terms of theatrical technique, however, Dorfman's play remains realistic in form without the stylistic exaggeration of Pinter's work, or that of other playwrights, such as Samuel Beckett (Waiting for Godot) and Eugene Ionesco {The Bald Soprano), who are usually labeled as absurdists.

While Death and the Maiden resists comparison with the work of contemporary playwrights, many have observed that it functions something like Greek tragedy. "More than one critic," wrote John Butt in the Times Literary Supplement, "has commented on this production's formal perfection, the way it unwinds with a remorseless inevitability that recalls the finest classical tragedy." In form, of course, the play differs from tragedy on many levels: it lacks, for example, the downfall and death of a hero or heroine and the "anagnorisis'' or self-recognition on the part of that character about the mistake that led to his or her demise. Still, the parallels exist; Mimi Kramer noted in the New Yorker that "the play observes classical rules about unity of time and place, and about offstage violence."

Dorfman himself has used the term tragedy to refer to the work, responding to the suggestion that the play functions as political propaganda by saying in Index on Censorship that "tragedies are never propaganda, ever." This comment is merely a suggestion of the thematic and dramatic complexity of the work, but Dorfman has explored the idea of tragedy further by examining the concept of catharsis, the social function of classical tragedy by which audiences would purge themselves of certain emotions. "The play," Dorfman stated in the same article, "is not just a denunciation of how bad torture is. It aims to help purge ourselves of pity and terror." In Greek society, the catharsis of tragedy helped to unify people, and Dorfman implies a hope that his play might serve the same role in Chilean society, further enabling the process of reconciliation with that country's past atrocities.

The device of the mirror at the conclusion of the play contributes most strongly to the process of catharsis. In an interview in the London Times, Dorfman said, in reference to the audience, that Death and the Maiden "is not a play about somebody else, it's a play about them." The mirror coming down is a device which implicates them in the moral dilemma. "People are going to watch themselves and ask: 'what would I do, who am I in the midst of all this?'" The mirror is also the element which separates the play from its realistic form and structure; it leaves the audience with a powerful image at the conclusion of a play whose central conflict remains otherwise unresolved

Compare and Contrast

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1992: Augusto Pinochet, who handed over the Chilean presidency in 1990 to democratically-elected Patricio Aylwin Azocar, remains commander in chief of the army.

Today: Pinochet has stepped down as army commander but in March, 1998, was bestowed the title of senator for life, despite widespread protest.

1992: With Pinochet still their commander in chief, the Chilean armed forces continue to wield a good deal of autonomous power in Chilean society.

Today: There is still considerable tension between the government and the military concerning the human rights violations of the Pinochet era. Although current president Eduardo Frei has accelerated human rights tribunals and inquiries into Chile's "disappeared," punishment of the perpetrators remains extremely difficult.

1992: The era of Apartheid is gradually drawing to a close in South Africa, with whites voting two to one in a referendum to give President F. W. de Klerk a mandate to end white-minority rule. A June massacre in a black township, however, and charges of police involvement in the case, suggest the pressing need for more rapid transformation.

Today: While many political, social, and economic difficulties remain for South Africa, the peaceful transfer of power to President Nelson Mandela makes the country an excellent example of how a society can make the difficult transition to democracy.

1992: Peru's President Alberto Fujimori suspends the Constitution April 5, and assumes dictatorial powers in the fight against corruption and Maoist guerrilla group Sendera Luminosa ("Shining Path"). The United States suspends aid to Peru.

Today: On April 22, 1997, President Fujimori orders a military attack against a group of leftist guerrillas who have held hostages for several months in the Japanese embassy in the capital of Lima. All fourteen of the guerrillas are killed, along with two soldiers, and one of the hostages; many others are wounded. Fujimori's actions are celebrated internationally, but nagging issues remain, including damaged relations with Japan (who had pushed for a peaceful negotiation to end the standoff), and accusations that Fujimori has used government intelligence forces to investigate political opponents. Throughout Latin America, the continued existence of guerrilla activity combined with hard-line government policies suggest the continued fragility of many of the region's democracies.

Media Adaptations

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Death and the Maiden was adapted as a film in 1994, directed by Roman Polanski, and starring Sigourney Weaver as Paulina, Ben Kingsley as Miranda, and Stuart Wilson as Gerardo. Novelist Rafael Yglesias (Fearless) and Dorfman wrote the screenplay based on the original play.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Butt, John. "Guilty Conscience?" in the Times Literary Supplement, February 28, 1992, p. 22.

Disch, Thomas M. Review of Death and the Maiden in the Nation, May 11, 1992, pp. 640-43.

Dorfman, Ariel. Afterword to Death and the Maiden, Penguin (New York), 1992, pp. 71-75.

Kramer, Mimi. "Magical Opportunism'' in the New Yorker, March 30, 1992, p. 69.

Kroll, Jack. "Broadway Mind-Stretchers" in Newsweek, March 30, 1992, p. 65.

Reyes, Carlos, and Maggie Patterson. "Ariel Dorfman on Memory and Truth" on the Amnesty International Home Page,

Rich, Frank. "Close, Hackman and Dreyfuss in 'Death and the Maiden'" in the New York Times, March 18, 1992, p. C15.

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

Wolf, Matt. "Power Games at Home" in the Times (London), November 4, 1991, p. 14.

FURTHER READINGContemporary Literary Criticism, Gale Vol. 48, 1988, Vol. 77, 1993.
This resource compiles selections of criticism; it is an excellent starting point for a research paper on Dorfman. The selections in these two volumes span Dorfman's career up to 1993 (criticism of Death and the Maiden is found in Volume 77). Dorfman is also covered in Hispanic Writers, Hispanic Literary Criticism, and Volume 130 of Contemporary Authors.

Graham-Yooll, Andrew. "Dorfman: A Case of Conscience" in Index on Censorship, Vol. 20, no. 6, 1991, pp 3-4.
An interview with Dorfman in which the playwnght discusses Chile's transition to democracy and his own plays Reader and Death and the Maiden.

Gregory, Stephen. "Ariel Dorfman and Harold Pinter. Politics of the Periphery and Theater of the Metropolis" in Comparative Drama, Vol. 30, no. 3, 1996, pp. 325-45.
An article that fleshes out the "string of contingencies" between these two writers. Gregory's article presents "a summary of the writers' respective political involvements and commitments," continues with an analysis of several plays (including Death and the Maiden), and concludes "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."

Guzman, Patricio. The Battle of Chile (re-release), First Run/Icarus Films, 1998.
A documentary, produced in the years 1973-1976, which is still banned in Chile to this day. The film presents a leftist perspective on Salvador Allende's presidency, the coup of Pinochet, and the first "years of terror" following the installation of the dictatorship. Guzman's more recent work also includes the film Chile: The Persistent Memory.

Skidmore, Thomas E. and Peter H. Smith. Modern Latin America, fourth edition, Oxford University Press (New York), 1997.
A comprehensive, general resource on the interrelated political histories of this vast region. It is particularly useful in understanding the context of Dorfman's play, applicable to Chile as well as to a number of other Latin American countries who have experienced periods of military repression. Students interested specifically in the history of modern Chile may investigate some of the many books on the topic, such as Mark Falcoff s Modern Chile, 1970-1989: A Critical History (published by Transaction, 1989).


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Sources for Further Study

Barsky, Robert F. “Outsider Law in Literature: Construction and Representation in Death and the Maiden.” SubStance 26 (1997): 66-89.

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

Gregory, Stephen. “Ariel Dorfman and Harold Pinter: Politics of the Periphery and Theater of the Metropolis.” Comparative Drama 30 (Fall, 1996): 325-345.

Morace, Robert A. “The Life and Times of Death and the Maiden.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 42 (Summer, 2000): 135-153.

Pinet, Carolyn. “Retrieving the Disappeared Text: Women, Chaos, and Change in Argentina and Chile After the Dirty Wars.” Hispanic Journal 18 (Spring, 1997): 89-108.




Critical Essays