Death and The Maiden is back in the West End at the newly named Harold Pinter Theatre twenty years after its original run at the Royal Court. Gary Naylor talked to the play's author, Chilean-American writer, human rights activist and academic, Ariel Dorfman.
Fellow South American Jorge Luis Borges has written of how texts' meanings shift over time - how has the play changed since 1991?
The play's text is the same - word for word - but Borges says, very rightly, that the text reads you as well. It depends on where you are and how you are - and this happens to me all the time. Just to give an example: if I read Antigone today, it's very different from when I first read it when I had never been in exile, I had never had friends who weren't able to bury the bodies of loved ones and I'd never been submitted to tyranny. After the repression through which I lived in Chile and my exile, Antigone became more of a realistic drama than a mythical one for me.
What we can say about Death and The Maiden today, in stark terms, is that I think it's untenable to hold the narrow view that claims, "Oh, this is happening in Chile twenty years ago". Because you know what? The governments of the USA and UK are complicit in extraordinary rendition - they have taken prisoners who have not been tried, who are merely suspected of illegal acts and simply put them in the hands of people who could torture them. The relevance of the play is different today and the complicity of parties in relation to the play's issues is different. The audiences of today will find the play a less distant story than it was twenty years ago, though I believe it was quite close to people even then, in talking about the human condition.
Twenty years ago, the play worked a little against history, as the fall of the Berlin Wall and rise of new democracies in Europe were still fresh in the mind. Now the implicit consent of Western democracies' sub-contracting of torture gives the audience a different perspective, so is the message still as strong?
It turns out by coincidence, but it's not really by coincidence, that today there's a fresh wave of rebellions and transitions to democracy in the Arab Spring, in Thailand, in Myanmar and in Africa. The transitions to democracy right now echo those of twenty years ago which in turn, echo those of twenty years earlier and those echoed the fights against colonialism. The play deals with a moment in time when a new regime comes in that wants democracy, but does not have the strength or the will (as represented in the play by Gerardo), to instil the justice that some of the victims need. The situation in the play is almost exactly as it is in Egypt today - which speaks well of the play, if ill of Egypt.
A question that leads on from that observation is whether a writer or a play can make a difference in these great tides of history?
I am wary of believing that literature or plays are activities that produce immediate results. They labour in the fields of emotion, of feeling, of self-revelation and understanding. I have had a lot of people say to me that they are moved by the play because it forces them to ask themselves difficult questions for which the play does not provide answers. Other people who speak to me are victims of abuse, of torture, of rape - not just at the hands of political regimes, but of domestic violence. They tell me that the play has helped them to find a voice of their own and a given them a chance to deal with the past.
Over the last twenty years, the rise of twenty-four hour news, Punch and Judy political interviews and the fact that anyone with an internet connection is able to post their opinion online, has led to a simplification of issues in the media. How does the play reach an audience many of whom will be conditioned to expect trite soundbites as answers to complex political questions?
The political thing to do in relation to simplification is to make things complex and ambiguous - not provide the easy answer that does people's work for them. No matter how painful it may be to go into some of these questions, it's a good pain - the pain of tragedy. It's also a dramatic decision on my part - I do it in my novels and in my other plays and in my memoirs (Feeding on Dreams). I'm trying to find ways to make the audience and readers co-participants in my own quest. I don't have answers myself. One of the great maladies of our times is the reduction of everything to formulas, to easy responses which gets us off the hook of confronting our own relationship with what is actually happening. That is both political and dramatic, aesthetic and to do with the body politic.