Throughout Ariel Dorfman’s play Death and the Maiden, the theme of oppression is explored through the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet that devastated Chile in the preceding years to the play. Dorfman uses symbolism to portray the destruction that the dictatorship caused in Chile and that ultimately left the country suppressed, holding its people in great hardship. Towards the beginning of the play the audience see Gerardo ‘[take] an enormous nail out of his jacket pocket’, cursing that ‘this is the son of a bitch that gave [him] a flat’ tire (Dorfman, 1994: 2). This ‘nail’ can be viewed as a symbol of the dictatorship of Pinochet that devastated Chile, like Gerardo's destroyed tire, and still oppressed it when the play is set, after the ‘country… has given itself a democratic government’ (Dorfman, 1994), due to the damage it caused. However, the nail can be viewed as a symbol of freedom from oppression as it is removed from the tire much like the dictatorship was ended in the country of Chile. Furthermore, the nail has connotations of the nails that pinned Jesus Christ to the cross. Jesus' sacrifice promises a freedom from the oppression of one's sins, symbolising the Chilean people's freedom from the oppressive dictatorship of Pinochet. This symbol of the oppressive dictatorship is also relevant to Paulina’s oppression in the play, as Gerardo appears to play the role of her dictator.
The audience is witness to Gerardo reducing Paulina’s character and thus oppressing her. In the opening few moments of the play, Gerardo addresses Paulina as ‘poor little love’ (Dorfman, 1994: 1), which portrays his depreciation of his wife with her only being ‘little’ and of small value. This display of a husband belittling his wife mirrors Ibsen's characters Torvald Helmer and Nora in A Doll's House as Torvald repetitively refers to his wife, Nora, as 'little' (Ibsen, 2013: 6). Similarly, Dorfman's use of the word ‘poor’ places Paulina in an inferior position to Gerardo, as she is labeled as weaker than her husband who has the ability to cast such a judgment on his wife. The fact that Gerardo, like Helmer, places Paulina in this position of inferiority displays his oppression of her and characterises him as a dictator figure that suppresses his wife. Moreover, the use of the curse ‘son of a bitch’ (Dorfman, 1994: 5), which is repeated in the first scene, belittles the female’s role of mother and consequently places women in a further place of oppression.
However, this exploration of female oppression is challenged as Dorfman reverses the roles of the oppressed and the oppressor, displaying ‘the terrifyingly slight distance between persecutor and persecuted’ (Kellaway, 2011) in the play. Paulina challenges her husband’s oppression of her through Dorfman’s reversal of the female and male roles. Paulina holds ‘her gun’ (Dorfman, 1994: 13), which displays her taking the phallic and stereotypically male symbol of the weapon in her hands. Dorfman’s use of the personal pronoun ‘her’ shows the completed reversal of gender roles as it has become entirely her own, as well as portraying her liberation from her oppression as a female. Once again, Dorfman's work links with that of Ibsen's as Paulina's character mirrors Nora's due to their bold and powerful decisions to take supposedly manly decisions into their own hands, such as violent decisions displayed through Paulina's gun and Nora's 'shutting' (Ibsen, 2013: 66) the door behind her as she leaves her home and family to live her own life. Furthermore, this escape from oppression that is explored in Dorfman's play is heightened as Paulina uses her femininity to break away from her oppression through torturing her oppressor, the male figure. Dorfman achieves this as ‘she takes off her panties [and] stuffs it into ROBERTO’s mouth’ as a gag (Dorfman, 1994: 13). The use of the very specifically female symbol of the ‘panties’ highlights Paulina’s recently developed power as a female as it draws attention to her gender, therefore enhancing her liberation from oppression and the power that is invested in her as a consequence for the audience.
Another device Dorfman uses in the play is lighting. Throughout the entire play light is being used to create suspense, mystery and tension but also "enlightens" the audience by drawing attention to certain objects or elements. One example for this change of lighting can be observed in the stage directions of scene two: "Then the headlights light up the room, are switched off…" (Dorfman, 1995: 19). In the very first scene of the play, Paulina is sitting in "the light of the moon" (Dorfman, 1995: 1). The "semi-darkness" might stand for the liminal state of the country between the destruction caused by the dictatorship and the reconstruction of the future. Furthermore, moonlight seems to be the only light Paulina feels comfortable in. The reason for that might be that natural lighting does not remind her of the electrical shocks she had to endure whilst being tortured. The second reason might go back to Greek mythology where the moon – or Luna – was said to be the protector of women due to its connection with the female nature. Yet, in the beginning of the play, Paulina hides behind the curtains (Dorfman, 1995: 1) as soon as the unnatural lighting of a car starts "blasting her" (1). The bright lights seem to victimise her, putting her in the spotlight and revealing her tortured mentality. Therefore, light could be considered a representation of the power of fascism, which still haunts her up to the present days.
Like the light, the mirror in Dorfman's play is being used to raise awareness within the audience:
“Paulina and Roberto are covered from view by a giant mirror which descends, forcing the audience to look at themselves.”(Dorfman, 1995: 44-45). Similiar to Shakespeare's Hamlet, the mirror is supposed to have a moral function:
Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this
special observance, that you o'erstep not the modesty of nature:
for any thing so o'erdone is from the purpose of playing, whose
end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold as 'twere the
mirror up to nature: to show virtue her feature, scorn her own
image, and the very age and body of the time his form and
pressure. (Hamlet Act 3, scene 2, 17-24).
The mirror makes the audience realise their virtues and faults as well as reality. Ít can be seen as an interactive element which invites –or even forces – the audience to question the debate of whether revenge is justified. It might even lead to the effect of the audience – that is becoming part of the action – feeling uncomfortable since they are being encouraged to question whether they are being oppressed as women or even by a dictatorship within their own family as it is the case with Gerardo and Paulina. On the contrary, it could also function in an accusatory way, making the audience question themselves and whether they were in some way guilty of oppressive behaviour against others.
Dorfman, Ariel. Death and the Maiden. London: Nick Hern Books, 1994. Print.
Kellaway, Kate. “Death and the Maiden – review: Harold Pinter theatre, London”. The Observer 30 October 2011. Web.
Ibsen, Henrik. A Doll’s House. Marston Gate, Great Britain: Amazon.co.uk, Ltd.: 2013. Print.