Ariel Dorfman's Death and the Maiden is a psychological thriller about a woman who, in a country newly released from dictatorship, seeks revenge on the man she believes to have been her torturer. Translated by Dorfman from his original version in Spanish, La Muerte y la Doncella, the play was first performed as a reading at the Institute for Contemporary Art in London on 30 November 1990, before receiving its world premiere at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs on 4 July 1991. It was later turned into a feature film directed by Roman Polanski and starring Sigourney Weaver and Ben Kingsley.
The play is set in a beach house in a country that, according to a note in the script, is 'probably Chile but could be any country that has given itself a democratic government just after a long period of dictatorship'. Years have passed since political prisoner, Paulina Salas, suffered at the hands of her captor: a man whose face she never saw, but whom she can still recall with terrifying clarity. Tonight, by chance, a stranger, Roberto Miranda, arrives at the secluded beach house she shares with her husband Gerardo Escobar, a human rights lawyer and member of the Commission set up to investigate the terrible crimes perpetrated under the dictatorship. Paulina is convinced the stranger was her tormentor and believes he must now be held to account.
The play's first performances took place soon after Chile's return to democracy following the end of General Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship. In an Afterword to the published edition of the play, Dorfman explains that, although he'd had the idea for the play some 'eight or nine years' before, 'It was not until Chile returned to democracy in 1990 and I myself therefore returned to resettle there with my family after seventeen years of exile, that I finally understood how the story had to be told'.
The first reading at the ICA in London was directed by Peter James, with Penelope Wilton as Paulina, Michael Maloney as Gerardo and Jonathan Hyde as Roberto.
A workshop production was staged in Santiago, Chile, on 10 March 1991directed by Ana Reeves, with Maria Elena Duvauchelle as Paulina, Hugo Medina as Gerardo and Tito Bustamente as Roberto.
The world premiere at the Royal Court Upstairs on 4 July 1991 was directed by Lindsay Posner with Juliet Stevenson as Paulina, Bill Paterson as Gerardo and Michael Byrne as Roberto. The production moved to the Main Stage at the Royal Court on 31 October 1991, with the same cast and director.
The play then transferred on 11 February 1992 with the same cast to the Duke of York's Theatre in the West End.
The American Broadway premiere opened at the Brooks Atkinson Theater on 17 March 1992 directed by Mike Nichols, with Glenn Close as Paulina, Richard Dreyfuss as Gerardo and Gene Hackman as Roberto.
A feature film version followed in 1994, directed by Roman Polanski with a screenplay by Rafael Yglesias and Ariel Dorfman, starring Sigourney Weaver as Paulina, Ben Kingsley as Roberto and Stuart Wilson as Gerardo.