I first read Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden years ago when I was just out of college. Then there was the movie with Ben Kingsley and Sigourney Weaver and today a chance to revisit this powerful, political text.
Dorfman wrote the play when Pinochet was no longer Chile’s dictator and the new government was trying to reconcile the past so that its people could start to heal and move on. He was a Chilean writer living in exile when the idea first came to him but he hadn’t known how to make it work until Pinochet lost power and a Commission was announced to look into those disappearances and tortures that had ended in death. Dorfman had found a way to make the story work, but it wasn’t the novel he’d imagined, it was a play.
The story: Gerardo has been appointed as a member of the new Investigating Commission. On his way home his car breaks down and a stranger stops and offers him a lift. The stranger is Roberto, a doctor, and when he comes to Gerardo’s house, Gerardo’s wife Paulina is sure that she recognises him.
PAULINA: It’s his voice. I recognised it as soon as he came in here last night. The way he laughs. Certain phrases he uses.
GERARDO: But that’s not …
PAULINA: It may be a teensy-weensy thing, but it’s enough for me. During all these years not an hour has passed that I haven’t heard it, that same voice, next to me, next to my ear, that voice mixed with saliva, you think I’d forget a voice like his?
Paulina believes Roberto is the doctor who, after she’d been kidnapped and blindfolded, tortured her for months. It was fifteen years ago but Paulina has never recovered or forgotten. That doctor played Schubert’s ‘Death and the Maiden’ while he oversaw her rape and torture and now, when she finds the tape in his car, she finally has a chance for revenge.
One of the things I like most about this disturbing play is the way that Dorfman keeps it ambiguous. You feel for Paulina and Gerardo and even for Roberto, because you’re never sure whether he is innocent and Paulina as deluded as he claims or whether he’s lying to cover up his terrible crimes.
ROBERTO: I need to know what it is I did, you’ve got to understand that I don’t know what I have to confess. If I were that man, I’d know every – detail, but I don’t know anything, right, so … if I make a mistake, she’ll think I’m – I’ll need your help, you’d have to tell me so I can – invent, invent, based on what you tell me.
In writing Death and the Maiden, Dorfman has beautifully created the anxiety and tension in a society where so many ‘disappeared’ and so many others took the brutal path. How can you possibly recover or trust again when your neighbour could have been a torturer and you’ll never know what happened to your family?
This is riveting, edge-of-your-seat drama made all the more powerful because its fiction is based on the events that shattered a country.
Publisher: Nick Hern Books
Cast: 2M, 1 F