Is Revenge Ever Justified?
A Preview of Lakeside Little Theater’s Next Play
By Kelly Hayes-Raitt
When Argentine-Chilean playwright Ariel Dorfman penned Death and the Maiden nearly 30 years ago, little did he dream that the play would today still be a timely reflection on revenge, reconciliation and restoration.
Set in an unnamed country, but reminiscent of Augusto Pinochet’s violent overthrowing of Chile’s socialist leader Salvador Allende, for whom Dorfman served as cultural advisor during the early 1970s, the play opens with a reclusive Paulina recognizing the voice of a good Samaritan who had rescued her stranded husband and driven him home: The stranger is the man, she is convinced, who tortured and repeatedly raped her while she was detained – blindfolded – in a military barracks under the brutal regime.
Despite democracy’s restoration and her husband’s appointment to investigate the regime’s slaughter of thousands of dissidents, Paulina seeks personal revenge on her torturer in an act that introduces several of the play’s intricate moral conflicts.
“So many societies back then  were torn by the question of what you do with the trauma of the past, how to live side by side with your enemies, how to judge those who had abused power without destroying the fabric of a reconciliation necessary to move forward,” Dorfman wrote in The Guardian in 2011 during his play’s revival in London’s West End.
At what point does a new, fragile democracy put its past behind in order to move forward? How vital is it that individual grievances be heard? “We’ll die from too much truth,” Paulina’s husband laments, even though his new job requires him to uncover the truths buried beside the bodies. Conversely, what is the cost of silence?
Following a traumatic period like the society depicted in this play, should the Paulinas and their pasts be given carte blanche to dominate the conversation? To drag their society back through the trauma in order to dredge up the horrors? Or should the investigators be allowed to band-aid the past in order to put as much distance between the horrors and the future?
And what about personal vengeance? Can it be justified when the vestiges of deep wounds linger?
“If the victims of police-state crimes take the law into their own hands, do they sink to the level of their former oppressors and endanger their nation’s new prospects for democracy?” asked Frank Rich in his New York Times review of the play’s Broadway premiere in 1992. “Yet if they fail to take that revenge, do they invite the historical amnesia that might allow fascism to take root again someday?”
What if the torturer is following orders to avoid being tortured and repents? Or are some acts beyond forgiveness?
“I wrote the play in Santiago,” Dorfman wrote in his Guardian op-ed. “Returning to my country after 17 years in exile, I saw this work as my gift to its turbulent transition. The dictator was no longer in power, but his influence, his disciples, his corrupting shadow invaded every aspect of political life.”
When I visited Santiago in November 1988, Pinochet was still in power. He had, just seven weeks before my arrival, lost a plebiscite ending his 16-year reign, but it was unclear whether he’d honor the outcome in which 98% of those eligible voted. I was struck by the ubiquitous political graffiti I saw: It was a simple Sí or No on the question of whether Pinochet should retain power. I counted as many Sís as Nos.
Death and the Maiden will be performed at Lakeside Little Theatre January 13–22, starring Jacinta Stringer, Jim Ryan and Paul Kloegman.
To further explore the play’s provocative questions, audience members will have the opportunity to participate in a “talk-back” discussion I’ll facilitate following the matinee performance on Saturday, January 14, with a panel of experts.
The panel includes Carolyn Cothran, Barbara Hildt and play director LB Hamilton. Cothran earned an MA degree in Alternative Conflict Resolution from Southern Methodist University, where she focused on studying Restorative Justice. Hildt, after serving five terms in the Massachusetts legislature, spent 15 years creating violence prevention programs with youth.
Hamilton, who has personally wrestled with some of Death in the Maiden’s searing questions, holds an MFA and degrees in Behavioral Science/Psychology and Theatre Arts. She’s worked with non-profit organizations, theater companies and universities to develop and facilitate workshops and curricula that combine social/emotional learning with creative arts to deal with bullying, surviving abuse, conflict resolution, social justice and peace studies.
“[Death and the Maiden] is a mousetrap designed to catch the conscience of an international audience at a historic moment when many more nations than Chile are moving from totalitarian terror to fragile freedom,” Rich wrote 25 years ago in his NYT review, following demonstrations for democracy around the world from Poland’s shipyards to Mongolia’s Sukhbaatar Square.
“What makes Death and the Maiden ingenious is [Dorfman’s] ability to raise such complex issues within a thriller that is full of action and nearly devoid of preaching.”
Since the 1991 premiere of Death and the Maiden, the world has seen Rwanda’s genocide, ethnic cleansings in the Balkans, and sectarian wars in Syria and Iraq. While Dorfman’s play – and the questions it raises – remain relevant a generation after it was written, the real question we should be asking is: “For the next generation, how do we make these questions irrelevant?”
For more information visit www.lakesidelittletheatre.com or call 376-766-0954.
(Kelly Hayes-Raitt has facilitated and participated in several audience discussions following plays that explore the impacts of war on Iraqis and she was the Los Angeles moderator for then-First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton’s national town hall meeting “What Every Woman Needs to Know About Social Security.”)