Not all plays come across well on the page, but from the first time I read it I have found Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden electrifying. Dorfman’s play asks the difficult questions about what happens, what should happen, and what could happen otherwise, in the wake of revolution. With its cast of three and single location until the final scene, it renders these broad questions stifingly, claustrophobically personal, and I would love one day to feel the full effects of this in a staged performance.
Dorfman shows us the slower, limited, bureaucratic side of revolution, the story grounded inescapably in time and place. The play is set in an unnamed South American country, closely based on Chile, in the wake of a revolution that has replaced a totalitarian regime with a fledgling democracy.
The characters each speak to more than a single person’s experience: from Paulina, who saved lives during the regime by smuggling people out of the country, and was caught, tortured and raped; to her husband Gerardo, who did the same but wasn’t caught, and now works for the new government; to Roberto, a newcomer whom Paulina identifies as her torturer. These characters form a powerful kind of synecdoche throughout the play for the conflicts and uncomfortable coexistences that are being played out throughout the nation. This is not to say that they are allegories, and indeed it is their specific, personal experiences that are foregrounded: they are representatives of wider groups, not representations of something other than themselves.
We see in rawly individual ways how the rhetoric of compromise – arguably crucial in saving the young democracy from the lurking threat of the disempowered old order – becomes oppressive. As Paulina declares, acknowledging the shared nature of her experience with a plural pronoun, ‘We’re going to suffocate from so much equanimity.’
Gerardo, heading a commission to investigate the crimes of the old regime, explains that ‘the commission is not supposed to identify the authors of crimes.’ Running scared, he places the healing of the nation as an abstract whole and political entity before that of individual victims (including his wife) without a second thought, accepting on their behalf that they will never receive justice. We see this dynamic patterned throughout, as he continually makes decisions that affect Paulina without consulting her, such as taking on the commission, and inviting Roberto to stay the night at their house, insisting, ‘Paulina will be delighted.’ He tells her, ‘You’re still a prisoner, you stayed there behind with them, locked in that basement,’ using her trauma as evidence of her irrationality, and therefore his mandate, as the ‘rational’ one, to make decisions for the both of them. He treats her trauma as a sign of the need for her to ‘move on’ (by accepting that she will never receive justice), rather than as a real problem that this new society should be addressing.
The way in which Dorfman builds this dynamic, and then introduces Roberto as a catalyst for the explosion of tensions between the couple, must be incredible to watch played out on stage. The cracks in Gerardo’s self-image as the embodiment of moderation and fairness begin to show, as Paulina points out the inherent injustice of his tiptoeing adherence to due process: ‘And why does it always have to be people like me who have to sacrifice, why are we always the ones to make concessions?’
This, truly, is the problem that drives the play. In its desire for self preservation, the new government fails to use its institutions to protect and support its citizens. In Death and the Maiden we watch the pursuit of vengeance, but only because the pursuit of justice is rendered impossible. Through its confinement to the intimately, excruciatingly personal, Death and the Maiden plays out with chilling clarity the implications of the political, particularly in terms of what comes next after revolution.