Death and the Maiden seeks to highlight the way in which the threat of, and capacity for, violence lurks beneath the surface of civilization. It asks the viewer to notice the inherent instability of society’s culture and civility and provokes them to think about their own capacity for violence. In doing so, the play functions as a kind of warning—a portent of mankind’s tragic ability to revert to violence and moral depravity.
Though Paulina, Gerardo, and Roberto live in a world full of culture and civility, the audience is given the impression that these are a thin veneer over the world, masking the violent side of mankind’s nature. The country that the characters live in has just transitioned from dictatorship to democracy, a supposedly more civil and just form of society. But it’s clear that this newfound stability is precarious, perhaps best evidenced by Gerardo’s initial hesitation to answer a knock at the door late at night.
Despite the extremely tense main scenario of the play—Paulina’s entrapment of Roberto in order to make him confess to his former crimes—the three characters maintain a nervously poised peace between them. The audience witnesses no real violence, with Paulina’s gun only going off one time and that being accidental. But it’s made clear over the course of the play just how brutal—and recent—the actions of the previous regime are. By demonstrating the precariousness of the relative peace in which the play takes place, Dorfman shows how society depends upon a difficult, delicate balancing act. To further reinforce this idea Dorfman uses classical music and the play’s closing concert hall scene to show that the two worlds—society at its most brutal and society at its most civil—are not as far apart as people think. Schubert is considered one of the greatest artists to ever live—but what use is his art, Dorfman asks, if society descends into violence.
Roberto’s confession, in which he chronicles his mutation from caring doctor to callous torturer, becomes all the more important in light of the above—whether, in fact, it is real or not. Even in the unlikely event that he isn’t Paulina’s abuser, the testimony that he recounts on tape in front of the audience is the true experience as lived by Paulina (and undoubtedly countless others). Making the audience listen to it, then, is to make them bear witness to its horrors and confront the violent capacity that lurks underneath society’s surface of civility. It’s worth noting here that Dorfman used real accounts from people who suffered under the Pinochet regime in Chile as inspiration and material for the Paulina’s horrific experiences.
Between Paulina’s retellings and Roberto’s confession, the audience is given an unflinching account of mankind at its violent worst. Most important to this account is the way it details one person’s transition from being a civilized member of society to a depraved abuser who gains pleasure from another’s suffering. Whoever raped and tortured Paulina was a doctor; doctors are meant to care for people and represent mankind at its most caring and civilized. This is exemplified by a line from the Hippocratic oath, often taken by new doctors at the start of their careers: “I will remember that I remain a member of society, with special obligations to all my fellow human beings.” But the doctor in Paulina’s case abuses his authority, looking after his “patients” only as far as to make sure the torturers don’t accidentally kill them and miss out on any useful information. Roberto’s “confession,” spoken partly in tandem with Paulina as a way of emphasizing the truth of the account, if not confirming the guilt of Roberto, details the “brutalisation” that the doctor figure underwent as “the mask of virtue” gave way to opportune sexual tyranny: “My curiosity was partly morbid, partly scientific. How much can this woman take? More than the other one? How’s her sex? Does her sex dry up when you put the current through her?”
For the audience, any sense of horror at the gruesome details is equaled only by the terrifying fact that, though they are hearing this in the civilized setting of a theatre, the account has the ring of truth to it when considered in the context of mankind’s most despairing moments. The descent from civility into cruelty, for example, is a fair way to describe much of what happened to Jewish people at the hands of the Nazis in World War II (among many other examples). Dorfman’s play, then, gives a credible account of how civility and community can easily give way to depravity and violence, imploring the audience to consider how that might happen and, moreover, the role individuals have to play in those wider societal shifts.
The shock of Death and the Maiden is not in the nature of the violence gestured to within; it’s in how plausibly real it all seems. The play’s closing scene thus takes on great importance for the overall message: as a large mirror descends from the rafters, the audience members are asked to take a good look at themselves and turn the play’s question inwardly—to investigate their own capacity for violence.
Civilization and Violence ThemeTracker
Civilization and Violence Quotes in Death and the Maiden
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 . . . —
PAULINA: It’s his voice. I recognized it as soon as he came in here last night. The way he laughs. Certain phrases he uses.
GERARDO: But that’s not . . .
PAULINA: It may be a teensy-weensy thing, but it’s enough for me. During all these years not an hour has passed that I haven’t heard it, that same voice, next to me, next to my ear, that voice mixed with saliva, you think I’d forget a voice like his?
(Imitating the voice of Roberto, then of a man)
“Give her a bit more. This bitch can take a bit more. Give it to her.”
“You sure, Doctor? What if the cunt dies on us?”
“She’s not even near fainting. Give it to her, up another notch.”
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.
ROBERTO: (coughs, then in a rough, hoarse voice): Water.
PAULINA: He wants water, Gerardo.
Gerardo rushes to fill a glass with water and brings it to Roberto, giving it to him to drink. Roberto drinks it down noisily.
PAULINA: Nothing like good fresh water, eh, Doctor? Beats drinking your own piss.
ROBERTO: Escobar. This is inexcusable. I will never forgive you as long as I live.
GERARDO: But then, what are you going to do to him? With him? You’re going to—what? What are you going to—and all this because fifteen years ago someone . . .
PAULINA: Someone what? . . . what did they do to me, Gerardo. Say it.
You never wanted to say it. Say it now. They . . .
GERARDO: If you didn’t say it, how was I going to?
PAULINA: Say it now.
GERARDO: I only know what you told me that first night, when . . .
PAULINA: They . . .
GERARDO: They . . .
PAULINA: Tell me, tell me.
GERARDO: They— tortured you. Now you say it.
PAULINA: They tortured me. And what else? What else did they do to me, Gerardo?
Gerardo goes to her, takes her in his arms.
GERARDO (whispering to her): They raped you.
PAULINA: How many times?
GERARDO: More than once.
PAULINA: How many times?
GERARDO: You never said. I didn’t count, you said.
PAULINA: It’s not true.
GERARDO: What’s not true?
PAULINA: That I didn’t count. I always kept count. I know how many times.
PAULINA:I would imagine pushing their head into a bucket of their own shit, or electricity, or when we would be making love and I could feel the possibility of an orgasm building, the very idea of currents going through my body would remind me and then—and then I had to fake it, fake it so you wouldn’t know what I was thinking, so you wouldn’t feel that it was your failure—oh Gerardo.
GERARDO: Oh, my love, my love.
PAULINA: So when I heard his voice, I thought the only thing 1want is to have him raped, have someone fuck him, that’s what I thought, that he should know just once what it is to . . . And as I can’t rape—I thought that it was a sentence that you would have to carry out.
GERARDO: Don’t go on, Paulina.
ROBERTO: Playing roles, she’s bad, you’re good, to see if you can get me to confess that way. And once I’ve confessed, you’re the one, not her, you’re the one who’s going to kill me, it’s what any man would do, any real man, if they’d raped his wife, it’s what I would do if somebody had raped my wife. Cut your balls off. So tell me: you think I’m that fucking doctor, don’t you?
Pause. Gerardo stands up.
Where are you going?
GERARDO: I’m going to get the gun and blow your fucking brains out. (Brief pause. Angrier and angrier) But first you sonuvabitch I’m going to follow your advice and cut off your balls, you fascist. That’s what a real man does, doesn’t he. Real macho men blow people’s brains out and fuck women when they’re tied up on cots. Not like me. I’m a stupid, yellow, soft faggot because I defend the son of a bitch who screwed my wife and destroyed her life. How many times did you screw her? How many times, you bastard?
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.