The following forty lines from Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden (1990), take place in scene 1 of Act 3, after Roberto has been tied up by Paulina and threatened with being tortured the same way as she had been, and then shot. In response to Paulinaï¿½s threats, Roberto begins confessing the brutality of his actions and his motives. This confession may be true; however, Gerardo has advised Roberto to indulge Paulina, to confess as this would save his life. Whatever the case, the extract is important because it portrays how a man can slide into brutality, without initially meaning to. Second, the extract is important because it helps expose the iniquities of dictatorial military governments. Finally, it is also important because it gives us an idea of Roberto’s character and personality.
In this extract we clearly see the stages by which a respectable doctor became a brutal sadistic torturer. Though Roberto’s brother told him that helping the torturers could be a way to “pay the communists back for what they did to [his] dad,” Roberto stresses that he accepted the job for “humanitarian reasons.” Firstly, he wanted to help the prisoners who “were dying” from the tortures as “someone to help care for them, someone they could trust.” Later on, however, Roberto became involved in more “delicate operations” and was asked to “sit in on sessions where [his] role was to determine if the prisoners could take that much torture.”
This indicates that he was there while the prisoners were tortured, watching these brutal scenes. Roberto thought this ” was a way of saving people’s lives,” as he “ordered them to stop or the prisoner would die;” however, watching brutalized him, and slowly the “virtue [he] was feeling turned into excitement.” Soon, “brutalization took over [his] life” and he began “to truly like what [he] was doing,” so much so that, from an observer, he became a participant.
Torture became a “game” for him, a game that was “partly morbid, partly scientific,” as he tortured women to find out things like “How much can this woman take? More than the other one? How’s her sex? Does her sex dry up when you put the current through her? Can she have an orgasm under those circumstances?” By the end, Roberto had become a sadist totally obsessed with “carry[ing] out all [his] fantasies” of sexually torturing women who were “entirely in his power,” women with whom he could do “whatever [he] want[ed].” So, stage by stage, we see in the example of Roberto how men can slide from positions of respectability and motives of kindness and compassion to becoming human monsters, men who delight in the sufferings of others.
The tragedy of Robertoï¿½s slide from being a humanitarian to being a torturer is emphasized by the style of his speech, which reveals that he is an intelligent, educated, insightful man. Firstly we see how Roberto’s diction indicates his intelligence and level of education. Words such as “brutalization” and “morbid,” and phrases such as “he lost his capacity for speech,” “humanitarian reasons” and “install a totalitarian dictatorship” clearly manifest his ability to speak articulately and in a high register. We also see how analytically capable Roberto is, as he does not just describe his own actions but explains why they occurred, carefully dissecting his his motives for working with the torturers, not to “pay the communists back” but “for humanitarian reasons.”
He can organize his account in clear, logical stages, with phrases like “It was slowly, almost without realizing how,” “At first,” “But afterwards,” “By the time,” “I began to,” and “It became.” Additionally, even in the circumstances in which he is giving this confession, in fear of his life, Roberto uses figurative language, suggesting that he has good rhetorical abilities. He uses euphemism, for example, in calling torture sessions “delicate operations,” and he uses metaphors when he refers to his brutalization as “the mask of virtue fell off,” and to his descent into sadistic torture as “the swamp.” So, we see how Roberto’s use of language clearly reveals his high level of education and intelligence, and this makes us even more horrified at how such a sophisticated man could have become a brutal torturer of women.
More than exposing the degeneration of individual men, exemplified in Roberto, however, this extract also exposes the iniquities of military dictatorships, like the Pinochet regime in Chile, which Dorfman himself had to flee from. We see how military governments divided families: though Roberto became a doctor devoted to saving lives, his brother, determined to “pay the communists back for what they did to [their] father,” took another path, joining the military dictatorship and becoming a “member of the secret services.ï¿½” We also are given the impression of how military dictatorships can convince people to support them by manipulating their sufferings under previous governments, promising some kind of compensation, as Robertoï¿½s brother joined the dictatorship to “pay the communists back for what they didï¿½ to his father ï¿½the day the peasants took over his land at Las Toltecas.”
Such governments also persuade people to support them, as Roberto did, by deceit and lies, getting Roberto involved in torture by saying the prisoners needed “someone they could help care for them,” but actually slowing criminalizing Roberto as a torturer. The fact that “they” have had such an enormous influence on Robertoï¿½s personality shows just how psychologically manipulative such regimes can be. Finally, the fact that, throughout his speech, Roberto refers to the government only as “they” evokes the way in which such governments work in the shadows, secretly and anonymously, to torture and terrorize. Thus this extract does not only show how Roberto and men like him deteriorate when they become involved in torture; it also shows how dictatorial regimes can manipulate such men, facilitating and enabling this deterioration to occur.
In conclusion, this extract is very important as, whether Robertoï¿½s confession is true or feigned, it reveals how even the best of men may slide into such brutality and how military governments can create vile monsters out of exemplary human beings. Through the details of Robertoï¿½s confession, Dorfman is inviting his audience to consider how a man becomes sub-human. If a respectable doctor, a benefactor to the community, could turn into such a monster because of the effects of such a regime, then what would happen to the rest of society? Dorfman tries to make the reader consider that this incident that has turned Roberto’s life into a monster might happen to anybody in our society; especially in a switch of regime.