Evening Standard 15.1.98
Publicity article by Ariel Dorfman
READER began life as a short story.
I came to it after having spent many years, like most exiles do, exploring the minds and bodies of the victims of terror, wondering how to give a voice to what was being suppressed back home. A voice and, ultimately, a place on stage: it was that obsession that was to give birth to two other plays of mine. Remember Paulina, the protagonist of DEATH AND THE MAIDEN, a woman who, after fifteen years of silence and madness due to her torture as a political prisoner, attempts to force society - through the two men who have power over her in that society and in her life - to recognise her pain and, indeed, her very existence. She manages a sort of victory in the struggle to have this version of her own life confirmed, though it is made ambiguous by the fractured world of history she cannot abolish. Another protagonist, the illiterate and impoverished Sophia Fuentes, in WIDOWS has a similar fierce desire not to let the past be buried, not to allow the State to eradicate her family and her memories from the Earth.
In READER, for the first time, I wanted to focus on somebody entirely different, someone who, instead of being a captive of terror, is one of the many wheels in the machinery of established power that creates victims, that crushes and forbids the words of others: yes I invented a censor to live at the core of this story I wanted to tell, glad to have one of my oppressors in my fictional hands, in my all-too-real hands, I submitted that man to an experiment, the sort of trap Paulina would have gleefully forced on the Doctor, that Sophia would have planned for the Captain if she had found the means to do so. What would happen, I asked, if that book that censor is supposed to ban, turns out to be about him, the past he wants to hide, but also the future he cannot avoid? What if the book begins to come true in front of his eyes? What if he cannot quell his imagination? What if there is a woman like Paulina, a woman like Sophia, in his past, and she will not be quiet?
As I began to answer these question, first in the short story and then, over the years, in many drafts and versions of the play, I discovered that READER has depths and dilemmas that went beyond my original idea where an agent of
the State has to confront the terrible truth that if I destroy another human being I will end up destroying my own self as well. By forcing the protagonist to face the splits and cracks of his inner world, I also was inevitably probing, as I do in my latest novel, KONFIDENZ, and my memoir HEADING SOUTH, LOOKING NORTH, the questions of identity and trust in a world such as ours and asking myself and the audience about the fountains of creativity itself, the role of art in our times. And so the play ended up wondering how stories can be told at the end of this millennium, not only in societies that are miserable enough to suffer dictators, but also in more affluent lands where other more subtle forms of censorship prevail, where a few omnipotent technicolor men in offices decide amongst themselves what the rest of the populace are going to read and see and hear, in other words how is reality itself constructed for us and by us and without us, how can we tell what is true and what is false if we do not simultaneously question power, if we have lost our capacity to separate good from evil?
So it is clear that if READER started out as a sort of prankish revenge against the censors who, in Chile, were banning my own work and that of so many other writers, it needed in its newest incarnation to reach audiences in other apparently faraway places. It is a drama that, in some startling sense, like DEATH AND THE MAIDEN, and like WIDOWS, is happening now, anywhere in the world where lives are being twisted and diminished, where the people are trying to take control of their lives and cannot do so until they are willing to see themselves in the mirror of others.
I hope this play, therefore, turns into further proof that my Latin American experience can speak to audiences around the globe, that my literature continues to be a bridge between people and a way of joining them together. But more than that, I have another, more secret desire: perhaps a hidden censor or two will read this story, will see this play, will buy this book or steal it from a lovers house, perhaps he will discover with horror and wonderment that this is his life, that the truths he has been trying to suppress are irrepressibly alive in these pages I wrote for him and myself and everybody else in the world.