Death and the Maiden is a play written by Chilean author Ariel Dorfman in 1991, after he returned to the newly-democratic Chile from exile, with the country in an uneasy transition and Pinochet still in command of the armed forces. The Rettig Commission was carrying out its work, and Dorfman felt the need to break the self-censoring silence that still remained in everyday life, of victims and perpetrators living side-by-side, coexisting, and, he says, “never acknowledging the pain and the guilt, not to themselves, not to anybody.”
The play itself is provocative, moving, and extremely relevant to our class, but it and Dorfman’s explanations of its necessity in transitory Chilean society raise an issue that we haven’t discussed much: the role of art in transitional justice. Art, especially in the case of Death and the Maiden, addresses the plight of the individual, of the victim and the perpetrator as humans, and of the relationships that compose society and everyday life after a such a massive break in the social fabric as an authoritarian regime or mass atrocity.
I think that we’ve been hinting at the more individualized and psychological requirements of transitional justice on this blog, in the class, and in some of the readings, and the role of art gives us a new way to discuss them. Dorfman makes the case for raising art above the therapeutic role that it is typically assigned, and giving it an integral place in reconciliation. With all of the focus we have put on the truth, it is important to remember that before the truth can emerge, there has to be a way of breaking through silence.
In his afterward to Death and the Maiden, Dorfman explains his motivations behind writing the play, giving the reader insight into his personal experiences during the transition, and asking many of the questions with which transitional justice is forced to struggle. I’ve included a break with one of these passages:
“It was then [in 1990] and is now [in 1991] more than ever my belief that a fragile democracy is strengthened by expressing for all to see the deep dramas and sorrows and hopes that underlie its existence and that it is not by hiding the damage we have inflicted on ourselves that we will avoid its repetition.
As I began to write I found the characters trying to figure out the sort of questions that so many Chileans were asking themselves privately, but that hardly anyone seemed interested in posing in public. How can those who tortured and those who were tortured co-exist in the same land? How to heal a country that has been traumatised by repression if the fear to speak out is still omnipresent everywhere? And how do you reach the truth if lying has become a habit? How do we keep the past alive without becoming its prisoner? How do we forget it without risking its repetition in the future? Is it legitimate to sacrifice the truth to ensure peace? And what are the consequences of suppressing that past and the truth it is whispering or howling to us? Are people free to search for justice and equality if the threat of a military intervention haunts them? And given these circumstances, can violence be avoided? And how guilty are we all of what happened to those who suffered most? And perhaps the greatest dilemma of them all: how to confront these issues without destroying the national consensus, which creates democratic stability?
Three weeks later, Death and the Maiden was ready.”
(Dorfman, Ariel. Death and the Maiden. New York, NY: Penguin, 1992.)