Chilean playwright Ariel Dorfman’s 1990 play Death and the Maiden
had its world premier in London in July of 1991. The setting of the three-character play is an unnamed country, possibly representing Chile, which after having long been a dictatorship has adopted a democratic government. Considered Dorfman’s most important play, it has as its central theme the myriad challenges faced by a nation attempting to return to stability after governmental upheaval. While held captive by the government in power, former political prisoner Paulina Salas was raped by a doctor. She never saw his face, but during the rape he played “Death and the Maiden,” a piece by Schubert from which the play takes its title.
As the play opens, Paulina and her husband, Geraldo Escobar’s car breaks down at night. A stranger, Roberto Miranda comes upon them and offers to drive them home. Geraldo accepts the offer and once home, offers Roberto a room in which to spend the night. Paulina, however, upon hearing the man’s voice suspects that their Good Samaritan is in fact the doctor by whom she was raped and tortured after having been kidnapped and imprisoned by the secret police fifteen years ago. She found him to be the harshest among her captors because there were occasional hints of kindness and his playing of the Schubert composition while physically and sexually assaulting her.
During the night, Paulina decides to extract her revenge against Roberto. She kidnaps him and explains to her husband that she is putting him on trial for the atrocities she believes him to have committed. Geraldo is taken aback by Paulina’s actions. He has recently been named to an Investigating Commission under the country’s new democratic regime charged with looking into the crimes of the overthrown dictatorship. He cannot accept what he perceives as Paulina acting as a vigilante in the matter. He attempts to convince her to change her mind, in fear that she will endanger his position on the commission as well as the ability of the new government to procure justice for the citizens at large. She steadfastly refuses to back down, holds Roberto at gunpoint, and threatens to shoot him if Geraldo insists on interfering with her.
Roberto vows that he has never met Paulina before and that he is innocent of the charges she accuses him of. Paulina offers a deal to her husband, saying that she will release Roberto if he officially confesses to his misdeeds. Roberto rejects the offer but is eventually convinced by Geraldo that it is the only way his life will be spared, even if the confession is false. At Geraldo’s request, Paulina creates a record of her abduction and of the subsequent tortures to which she was subjected. Geraldo plans to pass the information along to Roberto, who will then have accurate details from which to formulate his confession. An additional conflict is introduced into the plot as when Paulina was freed, she found Geraldo at home with another woman. She still harbors significant anger towards her husband in spite of the fact that she forgave him at the time.
Roberto makes his confession in verbal and written forms, basing it on Paulina’s information given to him by Geraldo. Prompted by Geraldo to now live up to her side of the agreement, Paulina sends Geraldo to find Roberto’s car, which had been hidden by Paulina. Once Geraldo exits, Paulina tells Roberto that she is going to kill him. She does not believe that his confession represents any remorse on his part. Additionally, she had set Roberto up by including misinformation in the account she gave to Geraldo. Unconsciously, in making his confession, Roberto corrected the errors, proving his guilt to Paulina. Roberto persists in proclaiming his innocence; he pleads for his life to be spared, insisting his confession was contrived. Seemingly using their situation as a metaphor
for the recent events in their country, he begs her to stop the cycle of violence. She wants to know why it is always the victims who are asked to end it. As she is still holding the gun to Roberto’s head, a giant mirror is lowered onto the stage. This forces the people in the audience to look into their own faces rather than at the climactic moment taking place on the stage.
Several months pass and the setting is a concert. Geraldo is speaking with people in the audience about how the Investigating Commission he was on was successful. An image of Roberto comes to Paulina. As the lights fade, Paulina and Roberto look at each other, “Death and the Maiden” is played, and it is up to the audience to determine whether Roberto is real or is only in Paulina’s mind.