Death and the Maiden

Death and the Maiden Summary and Analysis of Act 3, Scene 1


Just before evening, Paulina and Gerardo sit on the terrace while Roberto is still tied up inside. Gerardo attempts to convince Paulina to tell him the complete story of her abduction and imprisonment, which he believes will help them to "move on." However, both Gerardo and the audience know that he is asking Paulina for these details so he can pass them on to Roberto and Roberto can accurately "confess" to being Paulina's torturer. 

The conversation between Paulina and Gerardo quickly devolves to an argument over what happened fifteen years before. The night that Paulina was freed, she sought refuge with Gerardo, only to discover that he was in the midst of cheating on her with another woman. Paulina is still furious about this betrayal, and demands that Gerado admit exactly how many times he slept with the woman while she was in captivity. 

Gerardo, beside himself with guilt, begs Paulina's forgiveness. He also warns her that if she cannot move past this incident, he will eventually be so distraught that he will have no choice but to leave her. He reminds her that she already forgave him for his infidelity many years before and pleads with her to move on. 

Paulina agrees to record a testimony of her abduction and torture, and after Gerardo turns on the tape recorder, she begins recounting the events of April 6, 1975. Three men surprised her on the street, she recalls. They placed a gun to her back and forced her into an unmarked car. She admits that she still regrets not shouting or putting up more of a fight when these men took her. If someone had heard her and and been able to stop the abduction, Paulina could have spared herself from the torture that was to follow.

Paulina explains she first encountered her "the doctor" three days later. She was exhausted and in pain from being tortured, and suddenly hearing Schubert's beautiful "Death and the Maiden" gave Paulina some psychological relief in the midst of so much darkness. 

The lights on the stage go down, Paulina fades out, and a recording of Roberto's voice begins to play. He picks up the story where Paulina left off, providing a complete "confession" for his crimes. It is now hours later, and presumably Gerardo has shared Paulina's story with Roberto, enabling him to accurately make this "confession." Roberto explains why he played Schubert for his prisoners; he thought it would make them see him as a "good guy." He goes on to say that initially, he was approached to act as a sort of consultant for the torture sessions. He was supposed to teach the torturers how to keep their prisoners from dying. 

Roberto explains that his brother, who worked in the secret service, encouraged him to take the job as a way to "pay back" the communists for the stroke Roberto's father suffered when a group of peasants took over his land. Roberto, however, insists that the reason he actually took the job was (initially) a humanitarian one; he often encouraged the torturers to stop even when the victim was at no immediate risk of death, simply to spare the victim pain. 

But slowly, he explains, his role became much more sinister. He began to get a perverse sort of excitement out of the experience. He enjoyed seeing how much he could get his victims to "take." The unconditional power he had over his victims was seductive and a sort of "brutalization" started to govern his actions. He describes how the other torturers, including one called Stud, would encourage him to be more vicious and taunt him when he wasn't. Roberto concludes by insisting that despite his crimes, none of the 94 people he helped to torture (including Paulina) actually died. 

As Roberto's recorded testimony comes to an end, the lights rise to show Roberto finishing a lengthy written confession. Gerardo reminds Paulina that she must now free Roberto. She agrees, but asks that Gerardo fetch Roberto's car first. Although he is hesitant to leave Paulina alone with Roberto, she insists that he go. 

After Gerardo leaves, though, Paulina points her gun at Roberto, revealing that she intends to kill him. Roberto reminds her that promised to release him if he confessed. She explains that when she made that promise, she still had the tiniest sliver of doubt about Roberto's guilt. Now that he has confessed, she is certain of his identity and cannot let him live. 

Roberto counters that the confession is false; he insists that Gerardo gave him all the details from Paulina's recorded testimony so that it would sound authentic. However, Paulina responds that she knew Gerardo would do just that and deliberately included some incorrect details to see if Roberto would correct them - including naming one torturer as "Bud" although his name was actually "Stud." Not only did Roberto correct Stud's name, but he corrected most of the other false details, as well. 

Paulina says that she cannot forgive Roberto because she doesn't believe that he is repentant. She raises the gun to shoot him, counting down from ten, warning him that unless he truly repents in time, she will kill him. Roberto refuses, claiming that even he if did "repent," she would kill him anyway. He begs her to stop the cycle of violence that began with her torture and will continue with his death. Paulina responds by asking why it is always people like her who must be the ones to stop and be selfless. This time, she insists, she's going to put herself first; she will proceed with her pursuit of justice at any cost. 

At this point, Roberto and Paulina freeze onstage while Mozart's "Dissonant Quartet" starts to play. A huge mirror descends in front of them, revealing the audience, who are able to look at themselves in the mirror while a spotlight roams over them. 


Before the play's climax in the final act, Dorfman reveals a major secret: Gerardo's affair. Although the characters hint at his infidelity during earlier scenes, it is not until the beginning of Act 3 that Gerardo and Paulina finally discuss one of the major rifts in their relationship: the fact that Gerardo had an affair with another woman while Paulina was being tortured in captivity. 

Gerardo's extreme guilt over his actions helps to explain much of his reticence to discuss the past. Although he is not guilty of torture or murder, he nevertheless carries around the heavy burden of regret. If Paulina is a victim and Roberto is a perpetrator (if we are to believe Paulina's story), then Gerardo is somewhere in between: he is both victim and perpetrator at once. Although he fought against and was victim of the dictatorship, he must also atone for his own crimes. 

However, Gerardo insists to Paulina that he has already apologized for his affair and has taken care of her every day in the fifteen years since, but still, the question remains as to whether or not that is enough. Clearly, Paulina still feels hurt and betrayed by Gerardo's actions. This is a minor example of one of the play's major questions: are there are crimes so extreme that atonement is impossible? In the case of Roberto's alleged crimes, Paulina refuses to forgive him because she does not believe that he truly feels any regret. In the case of Gerardo's crime, however, he demonstrates extreme repentance, and yet Paulina still struggles to forgive him. Dorfman leaves the matter of whether or not Paulina finally pardons Gerardo at the end of the play to the audience's interpretation. 

Gerardo implores Paulina to move on, reminding her that "we'll die from so much past, from so much pain and resentment," and "people can die from an excessive dose of the truth." This illustrates another one of the play's central conflicts - are stability and peace best achieved by unearthing the past or by keeping it buried? Although Paulina is convinced that the only way for her to move on and find peace is through a full excavation of her torturers' crimes, Gerardo feels that too thorough an investigation of the past will keep them trapped there forever. This is not only applicable to Paulina and Gerardo's relationship, but to the country as a whole. As a member of the new Investigating Commission, Gerardo must attempt to find a balance between those who want the past examined and those who want to forget.  

Death and the Maiden never fully affirms or denies Roberto's guilt. Although Paulina is convinced that Roberto is guilty because he corrects certain details she has deliberately misrepresented, he maintains his innocence until the end. This is a deliberate choice on Dorfman's part to force his audience members to draw their own conclusions and decide for themselves whether or not Roberto is guilty and whether or not Paulina's actions are justified. 

This shift of responsibility from the playwright onto the audience is emphasized by the stage directions at the end of this scene. For the first time, the play departs from realism and a giant mirror descends, forcing the audience to stare directly at themselves at the moment of the play's climax. Paulina has a gun to Roberto's head and is about to shoot him, and instead of watching that moment play out, Dorfman instead confronts the audience with their own images, compelling them to consider the play's most urgent questions of responsibility, justice, and complicity. 

By forcing the audience to look at themselves rather than letting the climax unfold in a traditional manner, Death and the Maiden asks its spectators to consider not only their own responses to the questions it poses, but also to observe the responses of their fellow audience members during this moment of "public" self-reflection. Meanwhile, Mozart's "Dissonant Quartet" plays in the background. This piece from 1785 is known primarily for its divergence from the standard rules of harmony from that time, which adds another layer of discomfort and disquiet to the final moments of the scene. For Dorfman, the action of the scene is less important than having the audience take the time to consider their own stances. Where do they stand on such urgent issues of justice? Would they sit silently while acts of violence are perpetrated in front of them? In what injustices have they been complicit in the past - and what injustices might they be complicit in right now?