Ariel Dorfman has made no secret of the fact that he wrote Death and the Maiden to study what happens when a dictatorship transitions into a democracy, and moreover how the public relates to this shift in authority. As is written at the start of the play, “the time is the 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.” That is, while Dorfman is clear that the play “probably” takes place in Chile, the play’s message is more universal. In particular, Death and the Maiden holds up to the light the idea of collective responsibility, asking how wrongdoing must be held to account and by whom. As with the other themes in this play, there are no easy answers, making the important point that these issues are difficult, complex, and need input from all in society—authority can and does do wrong, and each individual needs to consider their relationship to society as a whole.
The play’s final scene holds the key to understanding Dorfman’s intentions. Up until this scene, Death and the Maiden is realistic in style and abides by traditional dramatic principles such as the unity of place (it all happens in one location). The conversation is natural and the way the play unfolds is believable. This lures the audience into a kind of comfort zone, even if the content of the play is challenging. It’s theater, and the audience “consumes” the play as it would any other. But in the play’s closing scene, Dorfman completely undermines the realism of what’s come before by bringing down a giant mirror in front of the audience and having Gerardo and Paulina sit amongst the crowd.
This technique is about breaking the so-called “fourth wall” (the divide between performance and audience), imploring the audience members to truly confront what they have seen instead of absorbing it passively. Dorfman takes inspiration from Bertolt Brecht, who espoused the virtues of “alienating” the audience in order to properly engage them with the theatrical material. The mirror is, of course, an obvious symbol of reflection. In fact, it’s a literal object of reflection, projecting the crowd members’ faces back upon them. This radical act by Dorfman provokes the audience, asking them to think deeply about how they themselves relate to what they’ve seen in the play. The ending, then, forces a reconsideration of what’s come before.
Dorfman clearly views theater as more than mere entertainment. He wants the audience to properly involve themselves in what they’ve seen, to relate to it. That is, he makes the argument for collective responsibility, suggesting that everyone—not just the characters on stage—is somehow responsible for what has happened and, crucially, what will happen in the future.
With the above scene in mind, then, it becomes clear that the entire play is about collective responsibility. The mirror asks the audience to respond to the attitudes and beliefs of the characters, all three of which show different and not necessarily consistent positions on how individuals relate to society as a whole. The country that the play is set in is in a period of transition and trying to come to terms with the horrors of its past. Systematic torture, rape, and murder are hopefully now consigned to that past, but that doesn’t mean that their after-effects have suddenly gone away. Moreover, many of the people involved, both perpetrators and victims, are still around. Dorfman poses this problem to his audience, asking them how a society can best move on from the horrors that came before.
In keeping with this theme, Gerardo notably has just been given a new job as the head of a human rights commission that will look into the crimes of the past. Roberto visits Gerardo and Paulina’s house to wish Gerardo well with the new work, but it’s also possible that he is checking up on Gerardo, worried that his own (alleged) crimes might be discovered.
However, this commission will only focus on cases that resulted in death and, depressingly, will not prosecute anyone—it exists only in order to establish and maintain a record of what happened. Though this is a valuable cause, this clearly isn’t enough for Paulina and doesn’t offer any peace to her suffering. Dorfman’s mirror thus asks the audience to see things from her perspective and question whether they would be satisfied by Gerardo’s bureaucratic inquiry. Furthermore, it pushes the audience members to examine their own role in society. It asks them what they would do under a similar regime as has just fallen in the play. Hanging above the audience, it seems to argue against apathy and imply that citizens who do nothing about wrongdoing in society must also accept a degree of complicity in what happens.
Death and the Maiden poses difficult ethical problems throughout, but certainly one of its main concerns is how members of the public relate to the power structures of their society. Without shirking the complexity of the issue, it suggests that everyone in society must take some degree of responsibility for their world, and it’s up to them to use it wisely in order to create and sustain an environment in which they want to live.
Authority, Society, and the Public ThemeTracker
Authority, Society, and the Public Quotes in Death and the Maiden
GERARDO: If I were to accept, I must know I can count on you, that you don’t feel . . . if you were to have a relapse, it could leave me . . .
PAULINA: Vulnerable, yes, it could leave you vulnerable. Stripped. You’d have to take care of me all over again.
GERARDO: That’s unfair.
Are you criticizing me because I take care of you?
PAULINA: And that’s what you told the president, that your wife might have problems with . . .
GERARDO: He doesn’t know. Nobody knows. Not even your mother knows.
PAULINA: Find out what happened. Find out everything. Promise me that you’ll find everything that . . .—
GERARDO: Everything. Everything we can. We’ll go as far as we . . . (Pause.) As we’re . . .
GERARDO: Limited, let’s say we’re limited. But there is so much we can do. . . . We’ll publish our conclusions. There will be an official report. What happened will be established objectively, so no one will ever be able to deny it, so that our country will never again live through the excesses that . . .
PAULINA: And then?
GERARDO is silent.
You hear the relatives of the victims, you denounce the crimes, what happens to the criminals?
GERARDO: That depends on the judges. The courts receive a copy of the evidence and the judges proceed from there to—
PAULINA: The judges? The same judges who never intervened to save one life in seventeen years of dictatorship? Who never accepted a single habeas corpus ever? Judge Peralta who told that poor woman who had come to ask for her missing husband that the man had probably grown tired of her and run off with some other woman? That judge? What did you call him? A judge? A judge?
As she speaks, PAULINA begins to laugh softly but with increasing hysteria.
GERARDO: Oh, it’s you. God, you scared the shit out of me.
ROBERTO: I’m really so sorry for this—intrusion. I thought you’d still be up celebrating.
GERARDO: You must excuse my . . . — do come in.
ROBERTO enters the house.
It’s just that we still haven’t got used to it.
ROBERTO: Used to it?
GERARDO: To democracy. That someone knocks on your door at midnight and it’s a friend and not . . . —
ROBERTO: No, I am telling you, and this is said straight from the heart, this Commission is going to help us close an exceptionally painful chapter in our history, and here I am, alone this weekend, we’ve all got to help out—it may be a teensy-weensy gesture but—
GERARDO: Tomorrow would have been fine.
ROBERTO: Tomorrow? You manage to get to your car—no spare. Then you have to set out and find me. No, my friend,— and then I thought I might as well offer to go fix it with you tomorrow with my jack—which reminds me— what happened to your jack, did you find out what—
GERARDO: My wife loaned it to her mother.
ROBERTO: To her mother?
GERARDO: You know women. . . .
ROBERTO (laughing): All too well. The last mystery. We are going to explore all the frontiers, my friend, and we will still have that unpredictable female soul. You know what Nietzsche once wrote—at least I think it was Nietzsche? That we can never entirely possess that female soul. Or maybe it wasn’t him. Though you can be sure that old Nietzsche would have if he’d found himself on a weekend road without a jack.
GERARDO: Please, Paulina, could we start being reasonable, start acting as if—
PAULINA: You be reasonable. They never did anything to you.
GERARDO: They did things, of course they did things—but we’re not competing for some horror prize here, damn it— let’s try and be reasonable. Even if this man was the doctor of those terrible events—he isn’t, there’s no reason why he should be, but let’s say he was—even in that case, what right do you have to bind him like this, baby, look at what you’re doing, Paulina, think of the consequences of—
PAULINA: You don’t know anything about Gerardo, do you?—I mean you never knew a thing. I never breathed his name. Your—your colleagues, they’d ask me, of course. “With that twat, little lady, don’t tell you haven’t got someone to fuck you, huh? Come on, just tell us who’s been fucking you, little lady.” But I never gave them Gerardo’s name. Strange how things turn out. If I had mentioned Gerardo, he wouldn’t have been named to any Investigating Commission, but would have been one of the names that some other lawyer was investigating. And I would be in front of that Commission to tell them how I met Gerardo—in fact I met him just after the military coup, helping people seek asylum in embassies—saving lives with Gerardo, smuggling people out of the country so they wouldn’t be killed. I was wild and fearless, willing to do anything, I can’t believe that I didn’t have an ounce of fear in my whole body at that time.
PAULINA: Oh, my little man, you do fall for every trick in the book, don’t you? Gerardo, you have my promise, as solemn as it can be, that this private trial will not affect you or the Commission. Do you really think I’d do anything to trouble the Commission, stop you from finding out where the bodies of the missing prisoners are, how people were executed, where they’re buried. But the members of the Commission only deal with the dead, with those who can’t speak. And I can speak—it’s been years since I murmured even a word, I haven’t opened my mouth to even whisper a breath of what I’m thinking, years living in terror of my own . . . but I’m not dead, I thought I was but I’m not and I can speak, damn it—so for God’s sake let me have my say and you go ahead with your Commission and believe me when I tell you that none of this is going to be made public.
GERARDO: Even in that case—I have to resign no matter what, and the sooner, the better.
Gerardo and Paulina sit in their seats. Roberto goes to another seat, always looking at Paulina. Applause is heard when the imaginary musicians come on. The instruments are tested and tuned. Then Death and the Maiden begins. Gerardo looks at Paulina, who looks forward. He takes her hand and then also begins to look forward. After a few instants, she turns slowly and looks at Roberto. Their eyes interlock for a moment. Then she turns her head and faces tire stage and the mirror. The lights go down while the music plays and plays and plays.