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Ariel Dorfman

An Interview With the Creator of Death and the Maiden


By John Barry | Posted 11/8/2006

Any theatergoer with a moderate attention span recalls that somewhere around the middle of last month Congress approved the use of coercive interrogation tactics in selected cases. Ariel Dorfman's Death and the Maiden takes place in Chile, another country where, when things got a little unstable, a strong executive decided that the courts did not have jurisdiction over prisoner interrogation.

Dorfman was 31 years old when Gen. Augusto Pinochet took over in 1973. A member of the Salvador Allende government, Dorfman managed to escape Chile just in time--largely because he was a recognized, award-winning writer. For years, as a playwright and writer, he tried to work around that era. In 1990, after returning to Chile--shortly after Pinochet was removed from power--he came up with Death and the Maiden, which deals with a Chilean woman confronting the man she believes interrogated, tortured, and raped her. Now 64, Dorfman is currently in Qatar working on the Arab-language version of his human-rights play Speak Truth to Power: Voice From Beyond the Dark, which is based on Kerry Kennedy's book and will be transmitted by Al Jazeera as part of its 10th anniversary, but he took time to offer a few thoughts via e-mail about looking at his Death and the Maiden today.

City Paper: In a Washington Post op-ed ("Are We Really so Fearful," Sept. 24) you wrote in response to recent events that the use of torture affects bystanders as much as victims. Is American theater engaging what may be a turning point in our own identity?

Ariel Dorfman: I would have to see more American plays to be able to answer this, but there seems to be the start of some sort of awakening. The question is not only if the playwrights do the work, but if the audience is prepared to ask itself hard and painful questions.

CP: Can you compare the general response--or lack of thereof--to the use of torture in the U.S. and that of the general population in Chile in 1975?

AD: As in Chile in 1975, far too many Americans seem willing to condone terrible violence inflicted on their fellow human beings in order to feel secure. Far too many looking to one side. Far too many who don't care if somebody else's body is subjected to the worst horrors as long as their own bodies are safe. But there is also, in the U.S. today, a healthy outpouring of indignation at the fact that their own government--in spite of everything it may say, all the rhetoric to the contrary--now has proclaimed that it can detain and torture whomsoever has been decreed to be an "enemy."

CP: I've seen three plays recently, including Bonhoeffer and your own Picasso's Closet, in which interrogations are elaborately staged. Death and the Maiden could also be described as an extended interrogation. Does that dynamic of aggressive questioning work particularly well onstage?

AD: You could add my Purgatorio, as well. There is nothing more dramatic than one person trying to extract information from another, the other trying to hide that information. I tend to use that technique, perhaps because of my own experience, perhaps because it is a form which does work well onstage, both parties so intensely engaged in the present, trapped in a room and a relationship from which there is no easy escape.

CP: How has your relationship to Death and the Maiden changed over the years?

AD: I tend not to see this play anymore, as I have spent so much time with it. And yet, it always offers me a surprise, always brings something new to the surface.

CP: How do you as a playwright try to overcome that distance between victim and audience?

AD: I try to use obliqueness and indirectness. The word "torture" is only mentioned in Death and the Maiden halfway through the play, and it has to be extracted from Paulina: She does not want to even say the word. And remember, this play is not really about torture, but about memory, forgiveness, betrayal, dignity, uncertainty, love, intimacy, darkness. I try to keep the audience at a distance and then plunge them into the psyche and dilemma of the characters; or I let them journey into those inner depths and then pull them out, offer a perspective from a bit farther away.

CP: If you wanted audience members to leave Death and the Maiden asking a question, what would it be?

AD: It's always dangerous to leave the audience with only one question, because it in fact simplifies what is or at least should be a complex, contradictory experience. But I certainly want the members of that audience to feel that they have been portrayed in some way on that stage and to ask themselves why there are no good choices for all those characters, why have we built a world where all the answers are so limiting to our humanity. Paulina has no good solution to her sorrows; whatever she does, the past cannot be erased, the pain cannot be eradicated. Only her fierce dignity, her discovery that she is not like the man who destroyed her body. Not a bad thing to take away from a night at the theater.

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