Read and Review: Death and the Maiden

by Alima Nurmukhamedova

Death and the Maiden is a play by Chilean author and human rights activist, Ariel Dorfman. Published in 1990, the initial idea for the play was conceived in 1970s, when Dorfman was in political exile. Being a product of the literary mind persecuted under Pinochet’s oppressive regime, the play deals precisely with issues of human rights, violence and freedom of speech as well as examining how private matters in an extremely hostile political situation are no longer private, but are more closely than ever linked to a political welfare of a country. Its immediacy and enduring relevance had earned the author worldwide critical acclaim and praise from fellow writers concerned with issues of human rights. Indeed, Salman Rushdie called the author “one of the most important voices coming out of Latin America”.

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Death and the Maiden narrates the story and the struggle of its characters from a new starting point: the newly established democracy that had previously been under a long period of dictatorship. The play posits questions that Dorfman not only asks in his afterword but questions that the whole of Chilean public were concerned about when Pinochet was forced out of power. Enquiring into the true nature of democratic government such as whether “those who tortured and those who were tortured [could] coexist in the same land”, and whether “a country that has been traumatised by repression” could be healed when “the fear to speak out is still omnipresent everywhere”, the play’s ambition is perhaps not to answer these questions but to establish a dialogue with an audience that had been silent for far too long, in order to come up with possible solutions together. This is not surprising, for the play was written as the government was changing in Chile and is therefore a passionate outcry and a way of processing through the experience of a suppressive regime; it is understandably too preoccupied with the still fresh pain and suffering to be able to offer any concrete ideas.

The play, then, is highly thought-provoking. Designed not only to express the people’s anguish as they went through the imposed hardships, Death and the Maiden attempts to reinvigorate Chilean consciousness, and to stimulate it into addressing existing political issues now that it has the opportunity to do so. Paulina and Gerardo, two of the three characters, find themselves in a political limbo, seek justice and, although the government seems to be willing, there is no legal path for them to go by. Paulina’s anger and frustration – which results from the inability to see justice dealt with legally as the investigative Commission considers only those cases of political mistreatment that ended lethally or almost lethally – reflects the frustration of the general public in Chile. She seeks help from her husband, Gerardo, to put her offender Roberto on trial, and the couple’s relationship vividly exposes how even deeply private social institutions such as love, family and sex not only underpin the political complexity of their existence but are also forcibly politicised by the totalitarian government.

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Dorfman’s dramatic techniques do a superb job in bringing these issues out. Dialogue between all of the three characters with its sudden changes in subject matter and mood – in which it incidentally resembles Schubert’s string quartet Death and the Maiden that can be heard in the play – represents the way that the private and the political have been merged together in the time of crisis. Such dialogue is emotional and conveys immediacy and importance of the situation the characters find themselves in, a tension which is heightened even further as the action takes place over the duration of one day.

The play’s most powerful moment, however, is perhaps its final scene as the fourth wall is broken down almost completely and in a symbolic manner. The instance in which the characters and the audience become one whole body, watching themselves in the giant mirror cannot but call for reflection. The audience, and the readers for that matter too, ask themselves the same questions that the characters have been trying to solve during the course of the play. Most importantly, these questions, although so specific to the situation in Chile, are of global significance too, which is made possible in the play by Dorfman’s first stage direction which defines the setting as any country that has been recently relieved of an oppressive regime. How do we forgive but not forget the past? Where does the truth actually lie? Can violence be avoided? These issues, among many others that are still relevant today in many countries, are examined in the play encouraging engagement and dialogue between those who read it or see it performed since any discussion can be a step; a “teensy-weensy” step towards finding the right solution.

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One thought on “Read and Review: Death and the Maiden

  1. Pingback: ‘Death and the Maiden’ performance in York | University of York's English PEN Society

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