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.
This morning I finished reading this collection of plays by Christopher Durang. A while ago, my brother turned me on to this playwright and I remember really liking the anarchic absurdity of it all. I also got to see my brother perform the lead role in The Actor’s Nightmare, and it was just hilarious.
This collection contains some of Durang’s most well-known works, like Titanic and Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You. I enjoyed reading this collection. But as I read it, I realized how hard it is to fully appreciate a play when you can’t see it being performed. There are stage notes and annotations that help, but a lot of Durang’s comedy really hinges on how it’s played on stage. There’s a lot of casual violence in here, and if you read it with out taking the notes and the intentions into account, it’s sometimes very hard to see how it could be funny.
My favorite piece in this collection is The Actor’s Nightmare. Durang explains that a lot of actors have a nightmare where they have to perform in a play they haven’t rehearsed or don’t know at all. In this play, George Spelvin finds himself in the middle of performances of Hamlet, Private Lives, a fictional piece by Beckett, and, I think, A Man For All Seasons. It’s really funny to see how Spelvin keeps trying to go along with it.
Considering what I’ve been reading lately, I don’t think you would have expected to see Molière here. But I decided to read him for two reasons. 1) I’ve heard that he’s a witty social commentator, and 2) I wanted to see if I still had the brain cells to understand four hundred year old literature.
Turns out, I do. 🙂
I really enjoyed reading The Misanthrope. Even though I don’t know much about seventeenth century court life in France, I think that I understood the social behaviors that Molière was skewering here. The play begins with the main character, Alcestes, explaining to a friend his reasons for giving up the social game of flattery, double-dealing, and outright lying. (These very behaviors get played out later in the play to great effect). Even though this play was about the sort of social actions that make me feel misanthropic, I didn’t have any trouble staying interested. Bonus.
I was impressed by some of the modern touches in Molière’s dialogue. He has characters interrupting (to great comic effect) and running over one another’s words. I can only imagine how funny this would be on stage. Some portions of the script, however, drag. After a while, I don’t care how important or amusing or illustrative what one character is saying after they’ve run on for four or more paragraphs. For me, it’s a bit like a musical–very unnatural. I only know one person how speaks in paragraphs and that’s because he’s been in academia since, I think, infancy.
But I think what I really liked was the ending. I think the standard happy ending–with multiple weddings and a moral or two–would have ruined what Molière was up to throughout the play.
I think I’m going to go on and read Tartuffe as long as I have this collection of Molière I checked out from my library. But I am also reading The Last Cato and, even though I am only a few chapters in, I find that I have a lot to say about it already.