Clemency Wells

Death and the Maiden: torture, revenge and the cycle of violence

on 25 October 2011


Thandie Newton as Paulina

On Monday night a team from Reprieve went to see Death and the Maiden by Ariel Dorfman at the Harold Pinter Theatre in London. 

In the play, Paulina Salas – played by the impossibly beautiful Thandie Newton – was brutally raped by a doctor who played Schubert’s string quartet Death and the Maiden while he tortured her.  We watch events unfold in Salas’ home between Paulina, her human rights lawyer husband and a mysterious doctor who she believes is her tormentor. 

Set in post-Pinochet Chile, Dorfman uses the play to expose the use of torture as a tool for…what, exactly?  Revenge?  Why does anyone torture?  This is a question to which the play has no answer.  Instead, Dorfman shines a light on the irrationality – the sheer madness of it. What do we achieve with torture?  When victims become perpetrators, what exactly can they - and the rest of society - get back by inflicting their ordeal on another human being? 

At Reprieve we work daily on cases of torture.  We have seen the physical, mental and political scars it leaves, and the social havoc it wreaks.  The US and its allies have tortured countless people ‘suspected’ of being terrorists in their global ‘war on terror.’  And to what end?  Further radicalisation, this time caused by our abandonment of our own values. 

Yet we also know that the cycle of violence is not inevitable. Take Rais Bhuiyan, who was shot and nearly killed by Mark Ströman in Texas.  Mark was sentenced to death for his crimes and he was executed this summer.  Despite what Mark had done to him, Rais campaigned tirelessly for Mark’s life to be spared.  It was an extraordinary act of forgiveness.

Schubert wrote the stunning music after which Death and the Maiden is named when he realised he was dying.  It is about the terror but also the comfort of death. Unlike life, death doesn’t demand forgiveness nor acceptance - two monumental challenges for victims who must live on, haunted by the terrible crimes committed against them. 

For anyone interested in the ‘war on terror’, torture or revenge, Death and the Maiden is a must-see. Its message – that torture as vengeance is as senseless and destructive an act of violence as any other – is as difficult as it is inspiring. 

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