Torture, Rape and a Gun

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Photo: Celeste Sloman

Death and the Maiden – a play by Ariel Dorfman

Wed 19 Oct 2011

The Byre Theatre

5 out of 5

This is a play that does not provide answers, but questions. It tackles frankly intimidating themes such as revenge, torture, repentance and justice that would require 7,000 words to explore thoroughly rather than 700.

The action takes place in post-dictatorship, cautiously democratic Chile. Brittle marital peace between Paulina and Gerardo Escobar is shattered by the arrival of an apparent stranger, Dr Miranda, who we learn has aided Gerardo when his car broke down – and who Paulina subsequently knocks out, ties up and gags with her own underwear. Keep up with me now.  We find out, piecemeal, that Paulina was subjected to torture and rape under the old regime, and despite being blindfolded throughout, recognises the voice, the ‘feel of his skin’ and the smell of her abuser as that of the Doctor.  The need to maintain national stability in Chile allows the investigation, but forbids the punishment of war criminals – ‘One is allowed to say what they want, as long as they don’t say everything they want’ – so Paulina decides to put her attacker on trial to achieve her own personal justice, forcing her lawyer husband to act as Miranda’s defence.

To put it mildly, this raises some immediate issues. Is Miranda guilty of the crime? Paulina is certain of it, and to a great extent I believed her.  However, the casting of Ollie Carr as Miranda intelligently avoids both stereotype and easy conclusions, something incidentally we are never given.  Carr has the verbal tic of repeating the phrase ‘teensy weensy’; and is also small, slight and physically vulnerable, easily overpowered by Adelaide Waldrop’s Paulina.  If Miranda was portrayed as 6’7, physically threatening and ominously silent, could we the audience more easily assume his guilt? The subversion of gender muddies the waters.

Is torture and abuse ever justified? Do the perpetrators of rape deserve themselves to be subjugated? Paulina forces Miranda to conclude his confession (at gunpoint) with ‘This I admit under my own free will’. Viewing this in a peaceful, comfortably democratic nation (bar occasional looting and the existence of Nick Griffin)  this harbours unease.  But in a country ravaged by war, is an eye for an eye the only way for victims to achieve absolution? See what I mean with the questions?

On a less grand scale, Death and the Maiden also deals with the dynamics of marriage and sex.  Gerardo’s misogyny is almost a caricature, repeated chastisements ‘Silly baby, silly girl’ and quips ‘My wife makes a mean margarita’ are darkened by the repressive ‘Never interrupt me’; and his reaction to Miranda’s ‘Can’t you impose a little order in your house?’ makes you wonder how modern this liberal, hot-shot lawyer is.  The ‘hysterical woman’ clearly needs to get back to mixing those margaritas.  The comment was made in reaction to Paulina’s gun rampage, so perhaps this is fair enough.  Has Paulina’s ordeal driven her mad? Is her admittedly convenient latching on to Miranda as perpetrator, the first stranger to walk in the door after fifteen years, evidence of ‘the ravages of a diseased mind’?  The extent of Paulina’s mental damage is uncertain, though Gerardo is certainly more focused on career and country – but is this a necessary sacrifice in order to retain civility in a fragile democracy? I promise I am trying not to turn this into an International Relations essay.

The title relates to a Schubert quartet, which was the soundtrack to Paulina’s abuse. Music is symbolized as both punishment and healing; for years Paulina is haunted and physically sickened by the melody, yet claims that after Miranda has confessed, she will once again be able to enjoy the work of her favourite composer.  A live rendition of the quartet finishes the play. This was beautiful, and added professional polish to an already sophisticated student production; however, awareness of the quartet’s purpose in the story added bitter undertones.  Was the music intended as soothing, or a punishing reminder?

The titular implications of rape symbolizing the ‘Death’ of a corrupted innocent, ‘the Maiden’ could apply to either Paulina or Miranda.  Paulina toys with the idea of not only blowing Miranda’s brains out, but also forcing her husband to ‘fuck him’.  Yet Miranda always maintains his innocence; is he the corrupted, subjugated victim of the title as well as Paulina? Perhaps I am over-thinking this, but I always see a serious mindf*ck as the sign of a very, very good play.

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