Plays by Ariel Dorfman

Death and the Maiden

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

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.

audio Death and the Maiden

LA Theatre Works
Type: Audio

"Generally, it's the tortured who turn into torturers."

Carl Gustav Jung

Suspense mounts when Paulina and her husband offer hospitality to a stranger. Paulina thinks she recognizes, in their guest, the man who tortured her in prison, and she subsequently takes him hostage to find out the truth. A stunningly blunt and compelling play, Death and the Maiden explores brilliantly the issues of torture, power, vulnerability, ethics, and trust. An award-winning play by Chilean writer Ariel Dorfman, forced into exile in 1973.

An L.A. Theatre Works full-cast performance featuring John Kapelos, John Mahoney, Carolyn Seymour and Kristoffer Tabori.

Featuring: John Kapelos, John Mahoney, Carolyn Seymour, Kristoffer Tabori


Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Ariel Dorfman’s Purgatorio is a claustrophobic two-hander about revenge and redemption, with echoes of Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1944 play Huis Clos and Euripides' Medea. It was first performed at the Seattle Repertory Theatre, Seattle, USA, on 2 November 2005. (An earlier version was first performed in a rehearsed reading at the Criterion Theatre, London, on 30 November 2001).

Two characters – a 'Man' and a 'Woman' – are trapped in a soul-less white room. Each is interrogated in turn by the other. Each is groping for forgiveness and contrition. Finally the woman is forced to confront her past actions. Above all, she has to acknowledge that, after her partner abandoned her to marry another woman, she murdered their two children.

Purgatorio's premiere at Seattle Repertory Theatre was directed by David Esbjornson and performed by Charlayne Woodard and Dan Snook.

The play was first performed in the UK at the Arcola Theatre, London, on 15 January 2008 in a production directed by Daniele Guerra. The performers were Adjoa Andoh and Patrick Baladi.


Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Ariel Dorfman’s play Reader is a thriller about a censor who discovers that the novel he is about to ban bears a close resemblance to his own life. It was first performed at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, on 28 July 1995.

Daniel Lucas is a government censor in an unnamed country in the ‘near future.’ Nicknamed the 'Pope' for his infallibility, he has been shaping all subversive literature so that it falls in line with the current political regime. Under his watchful eye, many texts have been beaten into submission to make them palatable for the oppressed masses. However, when he discovers that one of these novels bears an uncanny resemblance to his own life and hints at the terrible fate that awaits his son, Nick, he desperately tries to hunt down its author. Unable to bring himself to ban the book, he is ultimately forced to confront his past crimes.

The play's Traverse Theatre premiere was directed by Ian Brown and designed by Tim Hatley, with a cast including Clive Merrison as Daniel Lucas and Dugald Bruce-Lockhart as Nick.


Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Ariel Dorfman’s play Widows is about a political protest in a country ruled by a military junta. It was written in collaboration with playwright Tony Kushner (the author of Angels in America), and based on Dorfman’s 1983 novel of the same name. The play was first presented by the Traverse Theatre Company at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 5 March 1997. (An earlier version of the play was first performed at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles in July 1991).

A brutal conflict has come to an end, with the ruling class victorious and the military in firm control. In a country village women await news of the dozens of men taken captive by the army, supposedly for being involved in the rebellion or for holding dissident views. But the only sign of the lost is a corpse that floats down the river one day. Decomposing and disfigured by torture, the faceless man is claimed by Sofia Fuentes, a grandmother who has lost a father, husband and two sons to the violence. A soldier in charge of keeping the peace in the area fears that if she is allowed to claim the body, uncomfortable questions will be raised about the man’s death. He burns it in secret. When the river gives up another body, it is claimed by all the widows of the town as a protest against the army’s refusal to answer questions about the whereabouts of their men.

The premiere at Cambridge Arts Theatre was directed by Ian Brown and designed by Mark Leese with a cast including Edith Maccarthur as Sofia Fuentes.

Picture of Ariel Dorfman

© Sergio Parra

Ariel Dorfman is considered one of the twentieth century’s most important literary voices, especially as a forceful example of cross-cultural writing. Dorfman, of Argentine-Chilean origin, details his life of exile and bicultural living in his acclaimed memoir Heading South, Looking North.

Besides his work as a poet, novelist and essayist, Dorfman has built up an impressive body of work. His books have been translated into more than forty languages and his plays performed in over 100 countries. His plays include Death and the Maiden (Royal Court, 1991), which won the Laurence Olivier Award for Best Play, and was made into a film by Roman Polanski; Reader, which opened at the Traverse Theatre as part of the Edinburgh Festival in 1995; Widows (co-written with Tony Kushner, Traverse Theatre Company, 1997) and Purgatorio (Seattle Repertory Theatre, 2005 and Arcola Theatre, 2008). He has written non-fiction as well, including The Empire’s Old Clothes (1996), Exorcising Terror (2004) and Other Septembers, Many Americas (2005). He has won numerous international awards, including two from the Kennedy Center. In 1996, with his son Rodrigo, he received an award for best television drama in Britain for Prisoners in Time. His poems Last Waltz in Santiago have been turned into a fiction film, Deadline, featuring the voices of Emma Thompson, Bono, Harold Pinter and others.

Dorfman’s human rights play, Speak Truth to Power: Voices from Beyond the Dark (based on interviews with human-rights defenders by Kerry Kennedy), premiered at the Kennedy Center in Washington in 2000 starring Kevin Kline, Sigourney Weaver, Alec Baldwin and John Malkovich, among others. It has gone on to many performances around the world, including a production in Martin Luther King’s church in Atlanta, with Martin Sheen, Sean Penn, Robin Wright and Woody Harrelson, among others.

Other plays include The Other Side and Picasso’s Closet and other novels include Blake’s Therapy and Americanos: Los Pasos de Murieta. He also wrote a libretto for the musical Dancing Shadows (with Eric Woolfson, lead composer and singer of the Alan Parsons Project), which garnered five Korean Tony Awards after its premiere there in 2007. He is also a regular contributor to major newspapers around the world. He currently holds the Walter Hines Page Chair of Literature and Latin American Studies at Duke University.