Ariel Dorfman’s ‘Death and the Maiden’ is a cry for justice and humanity, that exposes the sinister facets of the human psyche. The play is set in a country that has escaped dictatorship and is in the transition towards democracy, and features three individuals each representing striking contrasts in society, and each embroiled in the same story of justice. The foundation of the play is a dark edifice of lies, on which both the audience and the victim, represented by Paulina, stand on in search of truth.
Although there are only three characters in the play, they each have multiple identities woven into their souls. This construct of identities creates dramatic tension and also makes the audience question their own identity, and which individual we most identify ourselves with. Paulina is a victim of rape, but she is also the wife of the head of the investigating commission. Gerardo, Paulina’s husband, manifests the symbol of law and Roberto Miranda, the ‘good Samaritan’ is not only a doctor who quotes Nietzsche and listens to Schubert on the beach, but also a torturer who raped countless women while listening to Schubert in a small dark room. The crucial aspect of these multiple embedded identities is that not all of them are revealed to the audience and the other characters, they are hidden and only unravel at the point where dramatic tension is most profound, instilling fear and loss of control in the audience.
Ultimately, it is this identity crisis that creates so much confusion as conflicting identities often seem impossible; how can a doctor who is designed to heal be the cause of suffering? How can a supposedly hysterical woman carry a gun with such confidence? And how can the head of an investigating commission for the tortured, be unable to investigate the case of his own wife? These paradoxical nuances in their characters creates ambiguity and a conflict between what they represent and what they are. They are all guilty; Gerardo for being powerless, Roberto for violating and torturing innumerable women when he has a family, and Paulina, who’s guilt lies in the lie itself; in the fact that she has been unable to hold her husband’s loyalty and protect herself from a heinous experience. These parallel identities cast more doubt and ambivalence onto the play, creating dramatic tension and fear.
Power is an overriding burden in the play. The fragility of the human condition is tainted by the lack of power despite the pretense of it. Gerardo is the head of the investigating commission, but he cannot investigate his wife’s case. He virtually has all the power required, but in reality, all he possesses is the authority in theory. Roberto says ‘She isn’t the voice of civilization, you are. She isn’t the president’s commission, you are.’ However Gerardo’s response to this is bitter rather than proud, as it elucidates his helplessness in the situation. He is in denial of accepting his wife’s accusation towards Roberto, as innately, he is aware that he will be compelled to take action if the allegation holds true. The power of the gun is extremely resonating, as although Paulina is never looked at with any importance, the moment she holds the gun she instills fear, respect and caution in the two men. This has an empowering effect, because it she becomes acutely aware of the debilitating impact it has to hold to ransom, her husband as well as her violator. This role reversal injects new exuberance and a surprise element to the scene.
The disparity between the genders is a significant cause for dramatic tension in the play. Gerardo treats Paulina with love, but often gets frustrated and angry and behaves in a condescending and almost chiding manner, treating her like a child. The first mention of Paulina is when Gerardo proudly tells Roberto about her ability to make a good margarita, and once again when he tells him that she will make them a good breakfast. Gerardo is proud of his wife’s ability as a homemaker. However, the stereotypical view of women being confined to kitchen and household chores is very prominent. They are definitely regarded as the weaker sex, and even in Roberto’s discussion with Gerardo about Nietzsche, he quotes the German philosopher’s chauvinist view by saying ‘We can never entirely possess the female soul.’ Their physical inferiorities are exploited, and even Gerardo, who is the voice of law and the symbol of justice, uses crude language with his wife and is caught sleeping with another woman while his wife is getting tortured. Even when he labels her ‘poor little love’ we see the stereotype of females as weak, as well as his protective instincts when it comes to women.
Perhaps the most blinding factor that eliminates sympathy towards Gerardo and Roberto is Paulina’s suffering. Her anguish has been the most crippling; not only has she lost her soul but she has also lost her ability to produce another soul; her right to be a mother has been snatched away from her. The most heartbreaking aspect is the fact that while she has been raped in the vilest ways, her husband has committed adultery. Her rape has been one of the mind, she has lost her life and she merely exists without living. There is a paralyzing sense of fear prominent in her mind that morphs into a kaleidoscope of madness and creates a monster of hysteria within her. Her instability, looked upon pityingly by her husband who terms behavior as symptoms of a ‘relapse’ and who Roberto labels ‘diseased’ is nothing but a reaction to the men who have destroyed her life. However, her hysterical state makes her more acute and perceptive, and she eventually manages to expose the truth. This trauma creates anxiety in the audience, and sustains the dramatic interest on the stage.
The play brims with contrasts, primarily the contrasts between light and darkness. Light signifies strength and the fight towards attaining justice and the dark symbolizes the fundamental darkness of the human condition. At the end of the play, when the mirror is lowered in front of the audience, Doorman challenges every one of us with a universal question; what are we capable of if we hold all the power in our control? Another significant insinuation centers around the idea that although he three characters seem at first glance starkly different, they all possess characteristics inherent in all of us and in each other. Essentially, each character is reacting to a stimulus creating a situation that spirals out of control.