A Message from the Playwright, Ariel Dorfman

Ariel Dorfman

ARIEL DORFMAN, the Chilean-American writer and human rights activist, is a distinguished professor at Duke University and has written books in Spanish and English that have been translated into more than 40 languages. His plays have been staged in over 100 countries and have received numerous awards, including the Laurence Olivier Award (for “Death and the Maiden,” which was made into a feature film by Roman Polanski). His latest novel is Americanos: Los pasos de Murietta, and Houghton Mifflin will bring out the second volume of his memoirs in 2011. In July 2010 he had the honor of delivering the Nelson Mandela Lecture in South Africa.

It has not been easy for these voices to reach us. First, they had to overcome fear. There is always fear at the beginning of every voyage, fear and its malignant twin, violence, at the beginning of every voyage into courage.

The bodies that housed these voices either suffered that violence personally or they witnessed that violence being visited upon another human being, a group, a nation. Some saw a father or a son or a wife abducted in the night and taken away. Others saw children made into warriors and forced to kill at an early age. Each one of them saw something intolerable: a man killed because of the color of his skin or the color of his opinions, people taken into airless chambers and executed in cold blood, soldiers turning their guns against the people, women hated because of their sexual choices. They saw ancestral lands being stolen from their owners, forests devastated, languages forbidden. They saw books censored, friends subjected to torture, youngsters made into slaves. They saw lawyers jailed and exiled because they defended the victims.

And then something happened. Something extraordinary and almost miraculous. They found a way of speaking out, decided that they could not live with themselves if they did nothing, they could not stain their lives by remaining silent. And as they spoke out, they discovered that not the violence, but the fear, slowly disappeared. When they spoke out and found others on the road with them, other voices, from near and far, they began to find ways of controlling that fear instead of letting the fear control them.

I had been preparing all my life for the chance to become a bridge for them. Ever since I was a child and was moved by the injustices I saw around me, and then as an adolescent as I realized that those outrages existed in far more grievous forms beyond my immediate horizon. Then as a young man when it was my turn to see a dictatorship take over my country, Chile, and watch my friends persecuted and murdered while I was spared, when it became my turn to go into exile and wander the globe and everywhere remark the same inequities mirrored in land after land, when it became my turn to try and figure out how I could write stories and find the words that explored the vast heart of human suffering and the vaster complexity and enigmas of evil, ever since then I had been waiting for the occasion to put my art yet one more time at the service of those who had kept me warm in the midst of my own struggles.

And I have been fortunate enough to have received those voices like you receive a blessing in the dark and to have given them a dramatic form. It took me my whole life to find a voice of my own to accompany these voices.

Take the voices home with you, carry them into the world. It is a world that needs changing. Knowing this, knowing this: the world does not have to forever be the way it is now.

Some Staging Suggestions from the Author

It is our hope that the process of staging this play will lead to research into the lives of the human rights defenders who inspired it as well as of the problems they have been trying to solve in their countries and across the globe. It is recommended to try and help those who attend the play or those who stage it read further on these matters. We can offer some suggestions as to further reading which might help and inspire this sort of investigation.

There are, of course, other, more practical, issues to be dealt with as the play is staged and the following pages try to answer some of the possible dilemmas and questions that directors, actors, actresses and others involved in the production may encounter.

Speak Truth to Power: Voices from Beyond the Dark has been written for ten voices and that is the ideal number for its performance. It can, however, be staged with less or more actors. If less, it probably would make sense to have at least five (two male defenders, two female defenders, one male as the Man-antagonist). It is not absolutely necessary, albeit recommended, to have each voice correspond to the gender of the original human rights defender. In a crunch, three actors could do it, but the rhythm of the play might be lost and such an alternative is not endorsed by the author. On the contrary: it is probable that the play would gain immensely from having dozens of voices and participants, as long as those who have the longer speeches also get to speak some of the shorter, more lyrical lines, so that the flow and cadence of the play is not disturbed. If the play is to be staged with only one actor playing the opponent and antagonist to the defenders, it should always be a male (as historically, men have tended to be those who find themselves acting as oppressors), but it is recommended to have these roles filled by a man and a woman.

The play calls for a screen where the names of the defenders are shown and, if there is the possibility, their photographs. This can be substituted by less high-tech means: a blackboard upon which the names are written, large boards that are brought onto the stage, etc: anything that allows the name to be seen and identified and also enhances the power of the MAN and the WOMAN (or SECOND MAN) and, later on, the power of the defenders to name themselves.

The stories told by the protagonists are inherently emotional and do not need to be delivered in overly dramatic (or melodramatic) ways. Let those voices speak for themselves, flow through the bodies of the actors and actresses in a natural manner. In other words, be wary of “acting out” the story. Each actor and actress is not pretending to be that person, but is the channel through which that person is reaching the audience. That is why it is not a good idea to attempt to create accents (Asian, African, Latino, Slavic) to add identity to the voices.

We have found, in our professional stagings, that the character of the MAN and the WOMAN needs some further explanation. They have been conceived by the author as an almost mythical incarnation, Evangelists of multiple evils, who remind us by their words and presence what the defenders are up against. The start of the play establishes them as dangerous, in the sense of the physical damage they can inflict, a lurking presence in the State and society that is ready to spring into action, but as the voices themselves show that they cannot be stopped by this sort of intimidation (jail, torture, exile), the Man and the Woman become the embodiment of something more perverse and pervasive and closer to home, closer to those who stage this and those who watch it: the forces of indifference and apathy that end up being the worst enemies of the struggle for a better world. And they couch their attack upon the activists less with threats than with mockery and derision. After all, if the world does not care, why should these defenders be sacrificing their lives? In that sense, the Man and the Woman become, in a strange way, a projection of the inner fears of the human rights activists themselves, the doubts they may allow to creep into their souls as they take their stand.

Our protagonists have the courage to face death. The question is, do they have the stamina (and the solidarity among them) to face the deep desolation of unconcern. Those who hold power give lip service to human rights but this theoretical anxiety about the sorry state of the world all too often, when it comes down to the wire, when we need something more than words, does not translate into real action.

So the play asks if the men and women who face physical death in order to further their cause have the courage to face the more hidden death in the human soul that numbs us to the suffering of others? And the play does not give an easy answer to that dilemma, but stages the conflict itself, returning the question to the audience, precisely through the Man and the Woman who should therefore present themselves in a certain matter-of-fact preciseness, saturating their words with both a nightmare and an everyday quality that presumably fits in well with the general lyrical thrust of the piece, its rhythm, etc.

The Man and the Woman can also be staged in an active way. They can be shown directing cameras–if there are cameras–moving people, affixing photos. It is possible, for instance, that they could both roam over the stage space while the victims remain fixed so that when they suffer a transitory “defeat” through humor and solidarity, this can materialize in a visual equivalent. But these Antagonists cannot really be banished from our dreams until we ban this Man and this Woman from our lives, through work for justice in the day-to-day world that surrounds us near and far, that world which could be other and another for each and every one of the human beings that inhabits this planet.