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Geographical and Spatial Context


Geographical Context

In the afterword to Death and The Maiden, Dorfman highlights how Chile is ‘far from the centres of power but… near the quick centre of suffering’ (Dorfman 50). Looking at Chile’s geographical position, it is clear that it is far from a centre of power, but one also gets a sense of how Chile is cut off from all of its surroundings, enclosed by the natural world in all directions. To the North of Chile lies the Atacama Desert, the driest non-polar desert in the world. Chile is bordered to the West by the imposing mountain range of the Andes, and to the East by the Pacific Ocean. In the south of Chile is one of the wettest regions in the world. All around, then, conditions are harsh, unaccommodating, so that the country itself strikes an observer as being self-contained, separate from the wider world.

One gets the sense that – due to its geographical seclusion – what happens in Chile stays in Chile. The atrocities committed in Chile by the Pinochet regime can be seen as closed off from the wider world. Only in the play are they coming to light, from within the country itself. In this way, the unaccommodating conditions of Chile’s surroundings take on another meaning, as the harshness of nature mirrors the wild, unpredictable nature displayed by the play’s characters – particularly Paulina. This is a play that takes a look into the heart of darkness, of what people are capable of under murderous regimes, as well as the violent repercussions of such atrocities. Chile’s geographical surroundings therefore make for a good backdrop to the play’s action. The setting also complements this, as the play itself is set off the beaten track, in a ‘beach house’ (2) near the sea. This secluded space, separate from society, enables Paulina’s interrogation, where answers about past atrocities can be brought to light.

Significantly, Dorfman also stresses, in both the afterword and at the beginning of the play, that the action could be taking place in Chile, but could just as well be taking place in ‘any country that has given itself a democratic government just after a long period of dictatorship’ (Dorfman n.p). Another way to read Chile’s geographical seclusion, or its self-contained nature, then, is to see Chile as a kind of world in and of itself, a microcosm of more worldwide concerns and issues. Studying the way the country and its people are portrayed in this play affords audiences from all around the world with a glimpse of their own historical situations, and gives those countries ‘far from the centres of power but… near the quick centres of suffering’ an opportunity to recognize their own struggles.

Spatial Exploration

The ways in which the characters move across the stage are used to represent the relationships between them, and how these relationships develop through the course of the play. One of the most interesting aspects of the movement is how Paulina’s movements through the space change through the events of the play. In her opening discussion with Gerardo, her movements are unimportant, as Dorfman describes repeatedly how Gerardo “takes her in his arms” (6), suggesting a male dominance and ownership, as he tries to protect and comfort his wife. Even when Paulina does move, for example when she listens to Gerardo and Roberto’s conversation, it is described that she “edges” (8) onto the terrace, a liminal zone between the security of the inside and the danger of the outside, a verb which suggests uncertainty and apprehension, as she is fearful of being discovered by her husband and the stranger. However, in the next scene, when she becomes certain that Roberto is the man who raped her, Paulina’s movements are transformed; she moves with confidence and purpose, only when she is completing a practical task such as when she “takes a key from the inside of the door, locks it” (13), where the simple description of her actions suggests certainty in the justice of her torturing of Roberto. She even takes to controlling the movements of Roberto and Gerardo, for example when she “gestures to Gerardo, who takes the gag off Roberto” (20), inverting the control Gerardo earlier seemed to have over his wife.

Another interesting aspect of the spatial relationships between the characters is the parallels set up between Gerardo and Roberto. For example, as they leave at the end of the second scene to go to bed, it is described how “Both Gerardo and Roberto exit in different directions to their respective bedrooms”, an image which sets the two characters up to be directly compared as oppressors of Paulina, as they move together, but to opposite sides of the stage. In addition, when Gerardo feeds Roberto soup and they discuss Paulina’s plans for Roberto. As both characters are sitting at the table, it gives the impression that they are of equal status within the scene, except of course Gerardo has the power to move, though he chooses not to, which Roberto does not, as he is tied to a chair, a fact the audience is constantly reminded of as Gerardo continues to feed Roberto throughout their dialogue. Also, unseen by Gerardo and Roberto, but in full view of the audience, Paulina stands on the terrace listening to their conversation, turning the liminal zone into a space of power, acting as a silent observer with the potential to intervene using violence.

One particular moment which is interesting to consider is the final scene, where Paulina and Gerardo attend a concert. It is suggested by Dorfman that in taking their seats at the concert Paulina and Gerardo could in fact sit “in the audience itself” (45). This immersion into the theatrical audience, combined with the mirror presenting a reflection of the audience, highlights the active thinking encouraged within the audience, as they are suggested that they find parallels to the plot within their own countries, and forced to decide which characters they most associate with. When Roberto then appears in the scene, he moves only in relation to Paulina’s movements, waiting for her to find her seat before moving himself, and even then “always looking at Paulina” (47). This could be used to suggest that Roberto truly is simply an “illusion in Paulina’s head” (47), and that she has in fact killed him, though this is left deliberately ambiguous, as it is not to focus of the scene; as through her revenge, whether or not it was carried through to murder, Paulina is now able to listen to Death and the Maiden with a peaceful mind, making the outcome for Roberto seem almost relatively insignificant.

Dorfman, Ariel. Death and the Maiden. 2nd ed. London: Nick Hern Books. 1994. Print.