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Death and The Maiden

By Ariel Dorfman

Death and The Maiden had a reading at the Institute for Contemporary Art in London on 30 November 1990 followed by a workshop production in Santiago, Chile, on 10 March 1991.  The official world premiere took place at The Royal Court Upstairs on 9 July 1991 with Juliet Stevenson as Paulina.  The American Broadway premiere the following year featured Glenn Close, Richard Dreyfuss and Gene Hackman as Roberto and was directed by Mike Nicholls.  In 1992 Death and The Maiden won the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Play and in 1994 it was filmed by Roman Polanski starring Sigourney Weaver and Ben Kingsley.

Rather than write our thoughts, it seems sensible to re-print Dorfman’s own words, as written when the play was revived in London at The Harold Pinter Theatre to celebrate its 20th anniversary:

“The play I wrote 20 years ago about Chile’s torture and trauma has a painful, global relevance today.  It happened yesterday but it could well be today. A woman awaits the return of her husband as the sun goes down. The dictatorship that plagued her land has just fallen, and everything is uncertain. The woman is full of fear, gripped by a secret terror that she only shares with the man she loves. During the night and the day that follows she will have to confront that fear, she will bring to justice in her living room the doctor she believes is responsible for having tortured and raped her years ago. Her husband, a lawyer in charge of a commission investigating the deaths of thousands of dissidents under the previous regime, must defend the accused man because without the rule of law the transition to democracy will be compromised; if his wife kills that doctor, the husband will not be able to help heal a sick and wounded land.

When Death and the Maiden opened in London at the Royal Court Upstairs, the country where that woman, Paulina, awaited a constantly delayed justice, was my own Chile or the Argentina where I was born. Or South Africa. Or Hungary. Or China. So many societies that back then were being torn by the question of what you do with the trauma of the past, how to live side by side with your enemies, how to judge those who had abused power without destroying the fabric of a reconciliation necessary to move forward.

Today, its main drama is echoed in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Iran, Nigeria, Sudan, Ivory Coast, Iraq, Thailand, Zimbabwe and now Libya. In fact, because torture became widespread after the criminal attacks on New York on 9/11, because the most powerful nations in the world, and particularly the US, justified or were complicit in egregious abuses of human rights in order to make themselves feel safe, because they unleashed terror to fight and avenge terror, it could be ventured that the core dilemmas of Death and the Maiden are more relevant today than they ever were.

It was not something I had anticipated, this planetary weight and import, when I wrote the play in Santiago. My goals were far more modest. Returning to my country after 17 years in exile, I saw this work as my gift to its turbulent transition. The dictator was no longer in power, but his influence, his disciples, his corrupting shadow invaded every aspect of political life. Just as today in Egypt (or Russia, for that matter), those who had benefitted from decades of privileges and oppression continued to occupy enclaves from where they controlled the economy, the judiciary, the military, and threatened to return and murder and plunder and banish.

It seemed to me the obligation of a writer was to force the country to look at itself, at what all those years of mendacity and dread had wrought. Death and the Maiden plunged its finger into the wound of Chile by showing that the executioners were among us, smiling on the streets but also interrogated the democratic elite, wondering what ideals they had forced themselves to sacrifice. Neither did I let the victims off the hook. Paulina, the woman who had been raped and tortured and betrayed, was the most violent person on that stage, so the question for her was not any easier: are you going to perpetuate the cycle of terror, how can you forgive if the price they are demanding is that you forget? But one does not create such a transgressive play in a country still reeling from many years of pain without suffering the consequences oneself. The elite of Chile hated what I had done, reviled it.

I’m thrilled that Death and the Maiden has not aged, that it still moves people to tears, confronts them with a tragedy that has no clear solution, that it speaks to our world today with the same passion it embodied yesterday. I’m thrilled that the relations between men and women that I explored, the intricacies of memory and madness, the aftermath of violence, the uncertainty of truth and narrative, continue to capture the imagination of so many. Thrilled, yes, but it is also sobering to realise that humanity has not managed to learn from the past, that torture has not been abolished, that justice is so rarely served, that censorship prevails, that the hopes of a democratic revolution can be gutted and distorted and warped.

I can’t help but ask if 20 years from now I will be writing this phrase all over again: this story happened yesterday, but it could well be today.”

Poster - Death and the Maiden

The playwright - Ariel Dorfman

Ariel Dorfman was born in Buenos Aires on May 6, 1942.  Shortly afterwards he and his family moved to the United States and then, in 1954, to Chile. He attended and later taught as a professor at the University of Chile, marrying Angélica Malinarich in 1966 and becoming a Chilean citizen in 1967. From 1968 to 1969, he attended graduate school at the University of California at Berkeley and then returned to Chile.

From 1970 to 1973, Dorfman served as a cultural advisor to president Salvador Allende. During this time he co-wrote a critique of North American cultural imperialism, How to Read Donald Duck. Forced to leave Chile in 1973, after the coup by General Augusto Pinochet and the suicide of President Salvador Allende, he subsequently lived in Paris, Amsterdam, and Washington, D.C. Since 1985 he has taught at Duke University, where he is currently Walter Hines Page Research Professor of Literature and Professor of Latin American Studies.
Dorfman’s work often deals with the horrors of tyranny and, in later works, the trials of exile. In an interview in BOMB Magazine, he said, “I’m constantly trying to figure out how you can be true to an experience which in fact very few people in the world would understand, such as having most of your friends disappear or be tortured, and at the same time finding a way of telling that story so other people in other places can read their own lives into that.”

His thesis on the absurd in plays of Harold Pinter was published in Santiago, Chile, in 1968 and Pinter later became a personal friend as well as an influence on Dorfman’s work and political thinking.

Dorfman’s works have been translated into more than 40 languages and performed in over 100 countries. Besides poetry, essays and novels, he has written short stories, including My House Is on Fire, and general nonfiction including The Empire’s Old Clothes: What the Lone Ranger, Babar, and Other Innocent Heroes Do to Our Minds. He has won various international awards, including two Kennedy Centre Theatre Awards. In 1996, with his son, Rodrigo, he received an award for best television drama in Britain for Prisoners in Time. His poems, collected in Last Waltz in Santiago and In Case of Fire in a Foreign Land, have been turned into a half-hour fictional film, Deadline, featuring the voices of Emma Thompson, Bono, Harold Pinter, and others.

He is also the subject of a feature-length documentary, A Promise to the Dead, based on his memoir Heading South, Looking North, directed by Peter Raymont. The film had its world premiere at the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival. In 2011, his play “Purgatorio” had its Spanish language premiere at the Teatro Español in Madrid, starring Viggo Mortensen and Carme Elias.

Dorfman currently has several film projects in development and also writes regularly for such publications as The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The Guardian (where he has a featured blog), Le Monde and L’Unità. He is a member of L’Académie Universelle des Cultures, in Paris, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Ariel Dorfman