Genevieve Sirois and Paul Rainville in Death and the Maiden. Photo by David Whiteley.
In a sense, Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden marks a return to the enduring theme of one of the oldest masterpieces of drama ⎯ the work that, arguably, defined for two millennia what theatre could do better than any other form of art ⎯ The Oresteia of Aeschylus. Both the very old trilogy and the much newer play treat the difficult question of vengeance and its relation to justice. But whereas Aeschylus places the question of retributive justice in a complex context of multiple and conflicting moral and religious imperatives, Dorfman has pared that question down to its starkest dimensions: the establishment of guilt and the question of what to do about the guilty.
Still, lurking behind these questions in Dorfman’s play lies another, one that is perhaps still more disturbing: the question of who we are as human beings, once the constraints of law enforcement and practical responsibility for the consequences of our acts are removed. Given absolute power over the life of another person, what would we do with that power? Such circumstances present the ultimate existential laboratory: with unlimited power to define ourselves, the mask of civility dropped, we might be revealed as monsters, as angels, or as anything in between. The question strikes to the very heart of who we are, who we want to be, and the sort of world in which we want to live.
In Canada, we may feel ourselves to be comfortably removed from any urgent necessity to personally address such questions. And yet we have a government that, on our behalf, has expressed its intentions of imprisoning more of our population for longer periods of time, and its willingness to accept information extracted from prisoners under torture. What is done, then, will be done for us, and is therefore our moral responsibility, and it is only by a willful self-deception that we can pretend to shrug such matters off.
Meanwhile, there is the unpleasant but unavoidable fact that each of us lives under a natural sentence of death anyway. So, while the consolations of any sense of justice that does not include revenge are, perhaps meagre, so are the consolations of justice that DOES include revenge. Our past suffering cannot be obliterated by the fresh suffering of another, and there is no escape from death for either the victim or the oppressor.
This is a play about someone who has been forced to become prematurely intimate with death at the hands of another, and about the question of what to do about that encounter. Intimacy of that sort cannot ever be erased entirely, so to look here for magical versions of justice that vanquish death would be naïve. But it is perhaps possible that, by fully addressing some of the questions this play raises, we can learn something about how to live.