Death and the Maiden is a play written 1990 by Chilean playwright, Ariel Dorfman. It had its world premiere on 9th July 1991 at the Royal Court Theatre, London. It played the Upstairs theatre at the Royal Court, before moving to the Main Stage in November of the same year. The play is set in present day Chile and deals with the after effects of a totalitarian dictatorship in which the female protagonist, Paulina Salas, was made a political prisoner and was subjected to much suffering and torture. The play explores how justice can be best served in these situations.
Paulina lives in an isolated house near to the seaside with her husband, Gerardo Escobar. Gerardo has a chance meeting with a stranger named Dr. Miranda, who stops to assist him when Gerardo gets a flat tyre on his way home from a meeting with the President. Dr. Miranda drives Gerardo home and returns later to help Gerardo change his tyre after recognising him as being a member of the new president’s Investigating Commission. Paulina recognizes Miranda's voice and mannerism as that of the man who tortured and raped her, and takes him captive in order to put him on trial and extract a confession from him. Unconvinced of his guilt, Gerardo acts as go-between for Paulina and Miranda, attempting to save his life. After hearing the full story of her captivity from Paulina, Gerardo writes a confession for Roberto in order to set Paulina free from her past. Paulina records the entire confession and has Roberto write it out and sign it. She sends Gerardo out to get Miranda's car so he can leave. While they are alone for the last time, Paulina accuses Roberto of being unrepentant and guilty beyond any reasonable doubt. Throughout the play it is uncertain whether Paulina’s recollections and accusations are truly evidence of Roberto's guilt or the effects of Paulina's paranoia and the trauma she went through. At the end of the play it is unclear whether anyone is truly innocent.
Dorfman says of his own text that the action “happened yesterday but it could well be today” and that the place where the action takes place “was my own Chile or the Argentina where I was born. Or South Africa. Or Hungary. Or China. So many societies that back then were being torn by the question of what you do with the trauma of the past, how to live side by side with your enemies, how to judge those who had abused power without destroying the fabric of a reconciliation necessary to move forward.” He goes on to bring his play into a modern context saying that the action is “echoed in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Iran, Nigeria, Sudan, Ivory Coast, Iraq, Thailand, Zimbabwe and now Libya. In fact, because torture became widespread after the criminal attacks on New York on 9/11, because the most powerful nations in the world, and particularly the US, justified or were complicit in egregious abuses of human rights in order to make themselves feel safe, because they unleashed terror to fight and avenge terror, it could be ventured that the core dilemmas of Death and the Maiden are more relevant today than they ever were.”
Dorfman goes on to say that “Death and the Maiden plunged its finger into the wound of Chile by showing that the executioners were among us, smiling on the streets but also interrogated the democratic elite, wondering what ideals they had forced themselves to sacrifice.” and that he felt it was the “obligation of a writer was to force the country to look at itself, at what all those years of mendacity and dread had wrought.” He was a writer whose heart was at the centre of the events and his writing was born out of a desire for justice and reconciliation. He also talks about how he is “thrilled” that his play still has a profound effect on people who watch and that his story still compels people. However, he also recognises that “it is also sobering to realise that humanity has not managed to learn from the past, that torture has not been abolished, that justice is so rarely served, that censorship prevails, that the hopes of a democratic revolution can be gutted and distorted and warped.”
Dorfman, Ariel. Death and the Maiden's haunting relevance. The Guardian, 14 October 2011. Available at http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2011/oct/14/death-maiden-relevance-play. Web.