It fascinates me (in a dark sort of way, I’ll admit) when people who have been through something terrible have to find a way to live alongside the ones who committed terrible crimes against them. After the Holocaust, the Rwandan Genocide, Apartheid, and other crimes against humanity, there were so many criminals that it wasn’t possible to just through them all in prison or have them executed. In Ariel Dorfman’s wrenching play, Death and the Maiden, we see a trio of people faced with the impossible question of justice when there seems to be no options in the face of monstrous, systemic crimes.
Paulina Salas is a broken woman doing the best she can to keep herself together. She has a sympathetic husband who loves her, but it’s clear that the damage she suffered at the hands of the fascist Chilean government some years before the play opens. Just after she learns that her husband, Gerardo, has just been named to a national truth and reconciliation commission modeled on Chile’s Rettig Commission, Paulina comes face to face with the man who helped torture and rape her while she was incarcerated.
Roberto Miranda, by pure chance, helped Gerardo make it home after Gerardo blew a tire. In gratitude, Gerardo invites Roberto over for a drink. But then Roberto shows up in the middle of the night, hoping to have a warm bed and a bit of company, Paulina overhears him talking to Gerardo. Roberto’s distinctive way of speaking and pet phrases lead Paulina to remember him as the doctor who helped torture him. So, when Gerardo is asleep, Paulina ties Roberto up and puts him on trial for his crimes.
Gerardo is predictably horrified, but Paulina is determined and Roberto is frantic. The play shows us one way that the impossible question of justice and retribution might be answered. Can Paulina get justice? Will “convicting” Roberto give her some peace? What about the other people who were hurt and killed by the fascists? How do the survivors get justice without becoming just like the criminals they want to punish? This three-act play is gripping, tense, and full of hard choices. I was completely hooked.