'The time is present and the place, a country that is probably Chile but could be any country that has given itself a democratic government just after a long period of dictatorship.'
The long period of dictatorship that Dorfman is almost definitely referring to is that of the military junta headed by General Augusto Pinochet in Chile, after overthrowing President Salvador Allende in a US-assisted coup on 9th September 1973. Death and the Maiden was written in 1990, the same year that the military dictatorship of 16 years ended in Chile.
The mining sector of Chile currently stands for over 1/3 of the government income. Prior to Allende’s election, Chile’s mining industry was heavily controlled by US companies. The major mining sectors, El Salvador and Chuquicamata, were owned by Anaconda Copper Company in Montana, whilst El Teniente was under the ownership of a corporation in Utah.
As Noam Chomsky – American scholar, activist, and political commentator – explains in an interview with Dave Barsamian, Allende was a social democrat. It was he that finalised the nationalisation of the Chilean copper industry that began under the government of President Carlos Ibánes del Campo. In 1971, a law promulgated that all present and future copper fields be transferred to state control – this causes the country to become further isolated from the world economy and consequently exaggerated political polarisation in Chile, the USA’s reaction was fearfully anticipated.
There were many attempts by the US to prevent his election as it was Allende’s intention to improve the national economy by furthering Chile’s independence from foreign (predominantly United States) economic control. The 1973 Chilean coup d’état was justified as a ‘national reconstruction’. Those who instigated it claimed that Allende’s government was facing economic crisis but in reality the President was in the midst of improving the nation’s social order:
“He was calling for a minor redistribution of wealth, to help the poor […] one of the things he did was to institute a free milk programme for half a million very poor, malnourished children. He called for the nationalization of major industries like copper mining, and for a policy of international independence - meaning that Chile wouldn’t simply subordinate itself to the US” – Noam Chomsky.
“As Helms [CIA director] reported in his notes [from a meeting with US President Nixon], there were two points of view. The ‘soft line’ was, in Nixon’s words, to ‘make the economy scream’. The ‘hard line’ was simply to aim of a military coup” (Chomsky). These ideas shortly became a harsh reality for the Chilean population. After President Allende was killed, reportedly by suicide, the military junta took control and the country plunged into oppressive dictatorship.
Salvador Allende's last words recorded by Noam Chomsky:
Concentration camps were created and thousands of supposed leftists were imprisoned and tortured. The official report (The National Commission on Political Imprisonment and Torture) approximates 200,000 civilians forced into exile, and 35,000 victims of human rights abuse, 28,000 of which were tortured, 2,279 executed and 1,248 ‘disappeared’.
When Paulina relays fragments of her memory regarding her detainment, and forced Roberto to recount his perception, they both refer to the use of “electric current” in the torturing process. This is a direct reference to events during the Chilean dictatorship, where a common method of physical torture known as ‘The Grill’ involved attaching metal rods to body parts of the naked victims and passing an electric current through them.
Ariel Dorfman describes the political polarisation of his nation as “the battle for the soul of Chile”. In ‘Memories of Hope’, he recounts the 1988 referendum to determine whether Pinochet would remain in control for a further eight years, to which “Trembling, I marked my vote NO”. It is clear that the situation deeply affected the writer, and we can see allusions to real-life events in Death and the Maiden.
The play was not well received by the Chilean public as it made them uneasy, perhaps because each member of the audience was forced to directly consider the horrific events of the dictatorship that had occurred but not acknowledged, simply brushed under the rug. The play is no less important for modern audiences.