Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden is a harrowing play that centers on Paulina, a woman attempting to come to terms with having been abducted, tortured, and raped under her country’s previous dictatorial regime. Having suffered unspeakable horrors at the hands of her abductors, Paulina is forced to confront her trauma when her husband, Gerardo, is visited by Roberto, a man whose voice and habitual phrases seem to match those of the doctor who blindfolded and repeatedly raped her. Dorfman’s play argues that memory, trauma, and the senses are inextricably linked. The play specifically shows the difficulties of coming to terms with trauma when its sensory impact is permanently etched into victims’ memories, readily reappearing when those same senses later receive similar stimuli; for instance, the sound of Schubert, which her rapist played during her torture, continues to make Paulina physically ill.
When confronted by stimuli that reminds her of her torture, Paulina shows a distress which, though she tries to hold it back under a projection of calm, is never far from the surface. Importantly, the emphasis on the senses also makes the experience more visceral for the audience, bringing them painfully closer to Paulina’s trauma. When Roberto comes to Gerardo and Paulina’s house, on the pretext of wishing to congratulate Gerardo on his new governmental position, Paulina, hidden from view, recognizes the sound of Roberto’s voice. She quickly becomes extremely agitated, tying Roberto up at gunpoint in order to put him “on trial” as the doctor who systematically abused her. Later in the play she tells Gerardo that she is sure Roberto is her torturer because she also remembers the specific smell of his skin. This detail foregrounds the violent intimacy—the violation of her senses—that Paulina’s rape represents to her.
The audience comes to learn that Paulina was blindfolded when she was tortured. While this was obviously intended to make her less likely to be able to identify her attacker, it also heightened her other senses, which explains her intense reaction to Roberto’s voice. After tying Roberto up, Paulina puts on Schubert’s quartet “Death and the Maiden.” This, she explains, is what the doctor would play when raping her and, as she finds the cassette tape in Roberto’s car, contributes to her certainty that he is the same doctor. It was once one of her favorite pieces of music but has since come to make her feel “extremely ill” whenever she hears it. The psychological link between the music and her torture has understandably ruined Paulina’s enjoyment of Schubert, showing the integrated relationship between the senses, memory, and trauma.
Playing the quartet back to Roberto while she has him tied up and fearing for his life is an attempt by Paulina to reclaim Schubert for herself, targeted at that particular aspect of her trauma. Later Paulina takes this thought further, saying that she might kill Roberto “so I can listen to my Schubert without thinking that you’ll also be listening to it, soiling my day and my Schubert and my country and my husband.” Dorfman, then, shows that extreme sensory experience constitutes a kind of memory in which traumatic events are stored.
Different strategies for dealing with trauma are presented throughout the play, but none of them seem to match the visceral horror of Paulina’s experience of rape and torture. Dorfman therefore argues that nothing can ever truly erase this kind of experience or, indeed, bring about a truly satisfying justice—the memory and trauma will always be there.
Paulina, sensing in Roberto’s chance arrival at her house an opportunity to bring some kind of closure to her trauma, is unsure how best to go about it. She changes her mind throughout the play. At one point, she expressly wants to enact the same kind of sensory terror on Roberto as she herself experienced. She tells Gerado, “when I heard his voice, I thought the only thing I want is to have him raped, have someone fuck him, that’s what I thought, that he should know just once what is to…” Later, Paulina seems like she would be satisfied with a remorseful confession from Roberto, before going on to decide that actually it might be best just to kill him. Gerardo presents an alternative strategy for dealing with trauma, imploring Paulina to leave the past behind—in essence, to forget about what happened.
None of these options seem to offer true closure to Paulina because she can never inflict the exact same experience on her torturer. To underscore this point, Dorfman ends the play on an ambiguous note: the audience doesn’t actually know whether Paulina kills Roberto or not. In the closing scene, a concert performance of “Death and the Maiden” which takes place a few months after the night of Roberto’s “trial,” Paulina sees a figure of Roberto that may or may not be real: he enters under “a light which has a faint phantasmagoric moonlight quality. He could be real or he could be an illusion in PAULINA’s head.” This sensory experience shows that, whatever did happen on that fateful night, Paulina’s trauma is still a very real presence in her life. Given the play’s setting in a country attempting to recover from a brutal dictatorship, this further suggests that a nation’s wounds cannot so readily be forgotten.
Memory, Trauma, and the Senses ThemeTracker
Memory, Trauma, and the Senses 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.
PAULINA: But here I am chatting away when I’m supposed to make breakfast, aren’t I, a nice breakfast? Now you like—let’s see, ham sandwiches, wasn’t it? Ham sandwiches with mayonnaise. We haven’t got mayonnaise, but we do have ham. Gerardo also likes ham. I’ll get to know your other tastes. Sorry about the mayonnaise. I hope you don’t mind that this must remain, for the moment, a monologue. You’ll have your say, Doctor, you can be sure of that. I just don’t want to remove this— gag, you call it, don’t you?—at least not till Gerardo wakes up.
PAULINA: D’you know how long it’s been since I last listened to this quartet? If it’s on the radio, I turn it off, I even try not to go out much, though Gerardo has all these social events he’s got to attend and if they ever name him minister we’re going to live running around shaking hands and smiling at perfect strangers, but I always pray they won’t put on Schubert. One night we were dining with— they were extremely important people, and our hostess happened to put Schubert on, a piano sonata, and I thought, do I switch it off or do I leave, but my body decided for me, I felt extremely ill right then and there and Gerardo had to take me home, so we left them there listening to Schubert and nobody knew what had made me ill, so I pray they won’t play that anywhere I go, any Schubert at all, strange isn’t it, when he used to be, and I would say, yes I really would say, he’s still my favorite composer, such a sad, noble sense of life. But I always promised myself a time would come to recover him, bring him back from the grave so to speak, and just sitting here listening to him with you I know that I was right, that I’m—so many things that are going to change from now on, right? To think I was on the verge of throwing my whole Schubert collection out, crazy!
(raising her voice, to Gerardo)
Isn’t this quartet marvellous, my love?
The real real truth is that you look slightly bored.
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—
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: 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.
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.
GERARDO: Roberto, I want to be honest with you. There is only one way to save your life . . .
I think we have to—indulge her.
ROBERTO: Indulge her?
GERARDO: Humor her, placate her, so she feels that we—that you, are willing to cooperate . . .
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.