Widely considered to be Ariel Dorfman's most influential play, Death and the Maiden explores the challenges of restoring democracy and stability to a country recovering from an oppressive military dictatorship. Even though the play never specifically names Chile as its setting, Dorfman's inspiration for Death and the Maiden came from his experiences as an exile from his native land after General Augusto Pinochet's military coup and his subsequent return to Chile after Pinochet's defeat.
Dorfman began meditating on the idea of Death and the Maiden in the early 1980s when he was in exile and Pinochet was still the dictator of Chile. He wanted to create a dramatic situation in which a trio of characters is forced together years after some shared traumatic event. He imagined one character deciding to put another on trial for real or imagined abuses from their past. However, Dorfman remained unsure about what kind of structural mechanism could bind his three characters together.
Meanwhile, Pinochet was facing increased opposition to his years-long military dictatorship in Chile and legalized political parties in 1987. Later that year, he called for a vote to determine whether or not he would remain in power until 1997. When the opposition won with 55.99% of the vote, Pinochet agreed to step down. A 1989 vote named Patricio Aylwin the new democratically-elected President of Chile, but transitional provisions kept Pinochet in power as Commander-in-Chief of the Army until 1998. Pinochet supporters continued to occupy significant areas of power in the judiciary and the senate; his proponents could be found in town councils all around Chile.
Although many supporters of the new democracy in Chile were eager for Pinochet and his supporters to be brought to justice for years of human rights violations, Aylwin was under great pressure to find a way to do so without alienating the many Pinochet followers who still served in the government and held prominent positions in society. Aylwin's solution was to form a commission - the Rettig Commission - that would investigate the crimes of the dictatorship, but would neither name the perpetrators nor judge them. Additionally, the commission would only investigate crimes that ended in death or the presumption of death. Many Chileans were uneasy about this compromise. The terror that defined Pinochet's rule would finally be made public and official, but the commission could not even begin to address the traumatic experience still haunting hundreds of thousands of survivors - which meant that true justice might never be served.
The tension between those Chileans who wanted their new government to openly disclose the past and those who wanted to bury it forever gave Dorfman the final inspiration to complete Death and the Maiden. He crafted his trio, which consists of a man, his wife, and the stranger who helps the man when his car breaks down. Grateful for the assistance, the man invites the stranger to his home for a drink, and his wife recognizes - or imagines that she recognizes - the voice of the stranger as that of a doctor who tortured her years before when the previous government's secret police held her in captivity for her resistance efforts.
Once complete, Death and the Maiden was workshopped in 1990 and had its world premiere at the Royal Court Upstairs in London, England on July 9, 1991. It was directed by Lindsay Poser; Juliet Stevenson, Bill Paterson, and Michael Byrne played the roles of Paulina, Gerardo, and Roberto. It had an extremely successful run and won the Olivier Award for the Best Play of the London season. Death and the Maiden premiered on Broadway in New York City at the Brooks Atkinson Theater in 1992. This version was directed by Mike Nichols with Glenn Close, Richard Dreyfuss, and Gene Hackman headlining. In 1994, Roman Polanski directed the on-screen version of Death and the Maiden for Fine Line Features from a script by Rafael Yglesias and Ariel Dorfman, starring Sigourney Weaver, Ben Kingsley, and Stuart Wilson.