Death and the Maiden by Ariel Dorfman

Death and the Maiden is the three act play written by Ariel Dorfman in response to the social, economic, and political events surrounding the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet in Chile and its eventual overthrow and governmental shift to democracy. 

Set in a country (presumably Chile, but never specified) that has recently returned to a democracy. Paulina Salas waits at home for her husband, Gerardo Escobar, a lawyer recently named to the Commission in charge of investigating the crimes of the old regime, to return home. When Gerardo returns accompanied by Roberto Miranda, a doctor who has stopped to give Gerardo a ride after his car gets a flat tire, Paulina believes she is again hearing the voice of the man who raped and tortured her years before. Taking matters into her own hands, Paulina detains Roberto, seeking the justice that has been denied to her.

I must confess that I do not know much about Chilean history or the dictatorship of Pinochet, except what little I have picked up in my effort to provide my students with some historical context for this play. I think the background of the author and the historical context of the play are important element to understanding this play, but it can also be read and understood without them. What I most appreciated about this play is not the historical connections, but rather the more universal themes it addresses, which were wonderfully summed up by the author in the Afterword:

Death and the Maiden is “not only about a country that is afraid and simultaneously needful of understanding its fear and its scars, not only about the long-term effects of torture and violence on human beings and the beautiful body of their land, but about other themes that have always obsessed me: what happens when women take power. How can you tell the truth if the mask you have adopted ends up being identical to your face? How does memory beguile and save and guide us? How can we keep our innocence once we have tasted evil? How to forgive those who have hurt us irreparably? How do we find a language that is political but not pamphletary? How to tell stories that are both popular and ambiguous, stories that can be understood by large audiences and yet contain stylistic experimentation, that are mythical and also about immediate human beings?”

Dorfman style is simplistic, but deliberate. Each word, each action, every nuance has a purpose. He does some pretty amazing things with symbolism, particularly with the use of silence and sound, and light and darkness. It is through these things that Dorfman artfully explores the issues of power, forgiveness, and justice. What I appreciated most about the play is that Dorfman does not thrust his bias down your throat, but leaves it up to you to make your own decisions. I found myself sympathizing with different characters at different points in the play, sometimes shocked at myself for sympathizing with characters that I previously scorned. The end is ambiguous, leaving the audience to decide what is justified in the end.

Be warned that this play does include sensitive topics, such as rape and torture, and does contain language that may be considered inappropriate. Nevertheless, I do think it is a worthwhile read and I would love to see it performed one day. There is a movie adaptation, but I have been told that it deviates from the play.

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