Death and the Maiden

(Nash Theatre)


I recently read a couple of Amnesty International case studies depicting torture and human rights violations that at one stage were all too common in Chile.

In one, a young ex-military officer was arrested and imprisoned by men claiming to be intelligence agents. During 21 days of incarceration he endured numerous beatings and torture with electric currents to his ears, lips and testicles. He was subjected to sleep deprivation, psychological torment and hypnotism.

In another case a young female social work student was arrested and subjected to 19 days of brutal interrogation involving beatings, electrical torture, sexual torture including rape and threatened violation by animals. She was confined to a room with a decomposing corpse and another filled with rats.

It is these types of accounts that were systematic in Chile for around a decade from 1973 that provide the focus of Ariel Dorfman’s play, Death and the Maiden.

Born in Argentina and raised in the United States and Chile, Dorfman was a part of the democratic movement that brought Salvador Allende to power in Chile in 1970. He subsequently became cultural advisor to the presidential chief-of-staff.

However a military coup on 11th September 1973 saw the end of democracy and the beginning of a brutal dictatorship under Augusto Pinochet, who introduced the kind of atrocities already outlined. Dorfman was forced into exile, an experience that defined much of his subsequent writing.

Death and the Maiden was written in 1992, two years after Pinochet lost the presidency. Although the play is contextually non-specific, it discusses the aftermath of such a toxic regime.

Central characters are Gerardo and Paulina Escobar (Paul Robins and Anke Willems) who have been active members of the resistance movement fighting to undermine the fascist regime. Seized by the government, Paulina is tortured to reveal the whereabouts of her publisher de-facto. During her incarceration she is deceived by a “physician” who first gains her confidence and appears to show compassion while utilising Schubert’s composition “Death and the Maiden”, only to then take part in her violation. Paulina however remains absolute in her loyalty to her soon to be husband, and they are reunited after her release. The play begins with Paulina waiting in the dark for the return home of Gerardo, now a lawyer, who has been selected to chair a presidential commission dedicated to unearthing the human rights violations of the previous regime.

Because Gerado’s car has a flat tyre he is given a lift by Dr Roberto Miranda who is invited to the house for a drink. Paulina is convinced she recognises Miranda’s voice and his scent as that of her assailant so many years before and she decides he cannot leave until she has extracted her revenge.

A major theme of the play is the lasting physical and psychological damage Paulina and Gerardo must live with as a result of the violence they have experienced. When there is a knock at the door late at night, Gerardo is still fearful of the possibility of abduction. In addition Paulina continues to experience many fears that affect her relationship with her husband, and indeed her view of herself. She speaks of her inability to feel closeness and pleasure with her husband, and associates terrible sickness with a once cherished piece of music, Schubert’s song.

Willems is relentless in her portrayal of Paulina in pursuit of justice. She captures Paulina’s eagerness to unleash the demons she has suffered for 15 years in an endeavour to force a confession from Dr Miranda. Unaware of the full extent of her trauma, Gerardo is reluctant to dig too deeply into the past. Ironically, he refers to his new position promoting human rights, “…just when you have a chance to begin all over again, you start opening up all he wounds.”

Robins plays a compassionate, though somewhat complacent Gerardo. He is eager to please and hesitant to be confronting. His character would seem to be symptomatic of the bigger question that looms throughout the play how does a society function when the playing field is levelled and victim and assailant are forced to coexist?

Noordenburg is appropriately inoffensive as Roberto Miranda. He conducts himself with measure, asserting his humanity throughout an onslaught of accusation. As Paulina attempts to bleed a confession from him, Miranda gives a ghastly account of a man’s journey into atrocity, reminding the audience of the power of circumstance.

Stage manager Beck Moon has done a good job with the set, providing a simple, yet effective backdrop for the action. As a small cast, chemistry is essential and all three performers work relatively well together. Each character is clearly defined. However this does create a lack of depth in some instances. Paulina’s moments of delicacy are minimal, losing contrast when she does let fly with fire. This is slightly alienating, making it more difficult to empathise with her condition. There also seemed to be a tendency to plough through the text resulting at times in the loss of nuances.

Death and the Maiden is certainly a play a worth seeing. It’s just a shame its confronting subject matter is not fiction.

— Damian Sommerlad
(Performance seen: Wed 15th October 2003)