Interview: Ariel Dorfman ~ theatre notes

Friday, July 17, 2009

Interview: Ariel Dorfman

Ariel Dorfman is by any standard a distinguished writer. The Chilean-American author of many novels, plays, poems, essays and films in both Spanish and English, he's been called a “literary grandmaster” (Time) and “one of the greatest living Latin American novelists” (Newsweek). His books have been translated into over 40 languages and received many international prizes. His best known play – performed in more than one hundred countries - is Death and the Maiden, which has won dozens of best play awards around the world, including England's Olivier award.

An expatriate from Chile since the 1973 military coup against the government of Salvator Allende led by General Pinochet, Dorfman has been active in the defense of human rights for many decades, and has addressed the General Assembly of the United Nations and the main forum of UNESCO in Paris. He teaches half the year at Duke University, where he holds the Walter Hines Page Chair of Literature and Latin American Studies. He has received numerous honorary degrees and is a member of The Académie Universelle des Cultures in France and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Following their Australian premiere of Franz Xaver Kroetz's Tom Fool, independent company Hoy Polloy are premiering Dorfman's Purgatorio, written in 2000. It opens at the Brunswick Mechanics Institute on August 8. Click below the fold to read a fascinating interview with this complex and humane writer, in which he shares some insights into his work.

As a writer, you've worked in a bewildering number of ways, as a human rights activist, novelist, playwright, poet, essayist, critic. Is there a unifying obsession in your work?

It’s been bewildering to me as well. Part of the explanation may be in a sort of boundless energy and insatiable desire to explore anything new (I was an attention deficit disorder child, though I’d suggest, as would my loving parents, that my Attention was simply Ordered in a different way and that this was not a deficiency but a Proficiency). Another possibility is that this incessant transmogrification of genres and activities originates in my wandering life, the fluid existence created by my relentless exiles, so that I flit from one literary quest to the next one, as if I were shifting countries (or languages).

As to a unifying obsession there seem to be many, repeated across whatever I write and also in my search for justice. I guess we could call it, a term used in the title of a book about to published on my work, my Aesthetics of Hope, the certainty that one must find small corners of hope in the midst of times of terror and sorrow, a hope that has to be wrestled into an existence through an unremitting need for the truth, not to lie. Even in a play like Purgatorio, where the protagonists seem beyond redemption, where they have done to each other what many would consider unforgivable acts, and trapped as they are in a cycle and vertigo of possible eternal recurrences, even there, but especially there, what ultimately sustains me is my compassion, my expectation that if the characters are brave enough to appear naked, to unmask their fears, they may be able to see each other, truly, deeply see each other, and risk some hint of resurrection. So: hope, but only if we accept the ambiguity and uncertainty of the struggle, that there’s no guarantee we will find a way out of the labyrinth. Not to lie. I think that’s probably my literary credo.

Since you work across different literary forms - essays, plays, poems, fiction - you must have thought about the differences between them. What prompts you to form one idea as an essay, another as a play, another as a poem? Which came first? Or have they emerged together, each sparking the other?

I never know, before I start writing, what genre will choose me (I’m not arrogant enough to presume that I’m the one making that choice: I really do feel like a vehicle for some madness floating, some glorious voice floating nearby). I tend to have, buzzing and fevering in my mind, a jumble of several hundred ideas, characters, atmospheres; and then, something happens, a couple of words stringed together, a sort of flash inside, like a seed that falls finally into fertile ground, and as soon as the words are out there, I know, I simply know, what genre those words contain, are channeling.

There are times when that genre is fixed and immutable. Purgatorio, because of its almost primeval, inherent drama, for instance, was always going to be a play. But Death and the Maiden started as a novel and only became a play when circumstances forced me to write it in a Chile just out of dictatorship that was trying to deny what I imagined happening in that room, and it became clear that this needed to be staged, and staged as soon as possible.

In other cases, what starts as a poem about an old woman berating a captain about how she can identify a body that appears in a river, becomes a novel called Widows and then a play of the same name (that I was blessed to be able to write with Tony Kushner as my co-author). Or take My House is On Fire. It’s a short fictional film about two children playing house without knowing if their games about the enemy coming to get them will end up being true. I co-directed this short with my son Rodrigo and we set it in Durham North Carolina (where I live), and made the kids the son and daughter of illegal immigrants. But it had been originally a poem where I conjured up that situation but under a dictatorship: children who must grow up, much too fast, in the midst of fear in a place like Chile. But I had also written it as a short story, where I basically explored how that sort of relationship could reveal how the boy has been trained to be a macho, how his very identity is under siege by not knowing how to react to friend, to foe, how to distinguish between the two.

As a bilingual writer, you write in both Spanish and English. What prompts the decision to write in one language or the other?

For many years – and it’s a long story I’ve told in my memoir, Heading South, Looking North – I was adamantly monolingual, fending off the other language, demanding an almost fanatical devotion to only one tongue (and behind that, of course, the anhelo, the longing, for only one identity, one nation, one allegiance). History – and the gentler winds of literature – taught me that this was not who I was, how I should write, and I eventually became this adulterer of languages I am now, in love with them both. Today they share me, my English and my Spanish, and it really depends on what words will first spring into my mind, who the immediate audience will be, that determines which of the two rides (writes) shot-gun.

The main condition of such courtesy on the part of one or the other of my lover languages is that the one left behind should subsequently (and promptly) receive affection and attention from me, so that as soon as I finished writing Purgatorio (in English), my Spanish demanded her opportunity, his interlude with me, and then I used that Spanish version to correct and ameliorate (I hope) the English. It’s exhausting but enriching: it means that I have something like a translator inside all the time, shaping what either language says with the contours of its rival and collaborator. Su rival y colaborador.

I find it fascinating that your first book was a study the theatre of Harold Pinter. You've spoken about how, after seeing The Dumb Waiter, "something in my work and life changed forever". What was it in Pinter's work that spoke so directly to you? What have you learned from him as a playwright?

I hope you don’t mind if I quote myself, in the Washington Post, two days after my friend died (though I know so many people supposedly alive today who are for more lifeless than Pinter!):

“He showed me how dramatic art can be lyrical without versifying, can be poetic merely by delving into the buried rhythms of everyday speech. He whispered to me that we often speak in order to hide, and perhaps avoid, what we are really feeling and thinking. He was not afraid of silence or letting his characters lapse into stuttering or inscrutability. He understood that if you push reality hard enough, it will end up exposing under its surface another dimension -- fantastic, absurd, delirious. He suggested that the worst hallucinations of fear are not immune to the pendulum of humor.

“But all of these lessons in dramatic craftsmanship pale next to what he taught me about human existence and about -- dare I say the word? -- politics.

“From that very first play, I felt that Harold Pinter was unfolding a world that was deeply political. Not in the overt sense (as would happen later, beginning in the early '80s, in several of his dramas) that his creatures were affected by who governed them, whether this or that man controlled the army or gave orders to the police. No, these figments of Pinter's psyche, at least back in the '60s, did not care to dispute the public arena, were uninterested in changing the world for better or for worse. They were, on the contrary, sad citizens of intimacy, obsessed only with their own survival.

“And yet, by trapping us inside the lives of those men and women, Pinter was revealing the many gradations and degradations of power with a starkness I had not noticed before in other authors who were supposedly dedicated to examining or denouncing contingent politics. All power, all domination and liberation started there, he seemed to be saying, in those claustrophobic rooms where each word counts, each slight utterance needs to be accounted for, is paid for in some secret currency of hope or suffering. You want to free the world, humanity, from oppression? Look inside, look sideways, look at the hidden violence of language. Never forget that it is in language where the other parallel violence, the cruelty exercised on the body, originates.”

It would have been impossible to write Purgatorio without that unique inspiration. In fact, if I had not already dedicated Death and the Maiden to him, I most certainly would have added his name next to Angelica’s (my wife) at the front of Purgatorio. He loved this play and wanted to direct it. His sickness blocked that aspiration of his and mine. When we next open in London, my dream is that his dear wife, Antonia Fraser, will be sitting by our side.

How do you see your involvement in theatre as a writer?

If you mean, how does it help (or hinder) to be a novelist, poet, essayist, etc., I think it allows me great freedom. I’m not scared of narrative or the lyrical or even the analytical, as long as it prods along the tension, keeps people on the edge of their seats and, more crucially, on the edge of their minds (I almost wrote: on the edge of their sanity). If you mean, how much do I intervene in the production: after the first premiere, once the play is set, not at all. I’ll answer questions from directors or actors (once in a while, because you can’t live your whole life looking back – though recently, for instance, I had a very interesting exchange with the director who was opening Death and the Maiden in Pakistan; and a long collaboration with a Colombian director of my Speak Truth to Power play in Rome, at the Eliseo Theatre, an important production because we’re taking the play into hundreds of schools in Italy as a way of bolstering interest among the young about human rights).

How important has your critical work been to the evolution of your creative work? Or is it a separate activity altogether?

In one sense, you put your critical faculties in a parenthesis or stuffed away in some faraway pocket when you’re writing; you don’t want a voice inside saying, ah, but that does not agree with what good old Wittgenstein (just an example: I’ve never read a word of his) would think about this matter. On the other hand, obviously, I am informed by my previous intellectual adventures. The one rule: don’t interfere with your characters or where they are going, even if they are breaking the parameters or paradigm (or para anything, parapluies) you hold sacred.

How crucial was the 1973 coup against Allende as a spur to your work? Was it a watershed?

I hate to think that all that suffering made me a better writer, though I may have emerged as a less pure human being, but maybe that also made me a better writer. What’s certain, is that the coup changed everything for me, sent me into an exile that I have been unable to escape, and plunged me into the deepest despair and discover the wells of resistance everywhere, forcing me to ask myself about my responsibility to the word and the spirit and the struggle to not forget.

Chilean human rights archivist Eugenio Ahumada says your work is at the "centre of the struggle for memory". Is that how you think of it?

I blush.

What does it mean for art to be political? Are the demands of political commitment ever at odds with those of art?

They are like traveling companions who are chained to each other (at least, for me, perhaps I’m the chain) and who should never pretend there is not an inevitable tension between them. What I’m wary of is of art as “serving” a cause; not because I don’t believe that we have the right, and often the obligation, to feed our ideas and activities with our artistic talents, but because the best art generally comes out of uncertainty, not knowing where you are going, an acceptance of the extraordinary complexity of the human condition. An example: I’ve spent years fighting for the rights of migrants and refugees, but when I wrote a play, The Other Side (where a barbed wire wall cuts through the house of a man and a woman, and even their bed), I did not let my ideas of what was right or wrong interfere with what the characters said or did, I avoided in that dark comedy any speechifying, any attempt to tell the audience what should or should not be, leaving them to draw their own conclusions.

In the Spanish-speaking world, the place of a writer in the wider culture and particularly in the political world seems, from the outside at least, to be very different from that of an English-speaking writer. Poets from Quevedo on were often directly involved in politics and of course, you were cultural attache to Allende's government. What causes that difference? And what effect does it have on how writers perceive their world and their place in it?

I just suggested that we shouldn’t simplify – and yet, and yet, here goes. It’s possible that when you belong to a nation that is malformed or deformed or not quite functional, the void created by this lack, by this twist and turn of history, forces you to think and feel the moment and the future and the role of art as a language that puzzles out reality, well, to think and feel all this in a different way. However, I would like to point out that there are moments in English-speaking history when a crisis looms or explodes, and then you have novelists like Steinbeck or essayists like Thoreau or poems like the sort pouring from the serene desolation of Auden. I could add some Australian examples, if it weren’t impolitic and unfair to all my friends whose work originates in your country/continent.

You now live and work in the US and have said you no longer consider yourself an exile, but an expatriate. Do you ever contemplate returning to Chile?

I return there, physically, from time to time; and mentally and emotionally, all the time. I even write whole books about those trips (for instance, my Desert Memories, which National Geographic commissioned, on the driest desert in the world, in the North of Chile). But I feel comfortable with distance. It allows me to write with joy, keeps me away from the false loyalties to fatherland or territory and closer to a deeper faithfulness to humanity. That distance (not to be confused with remoteness or indifference) nourishes my ability to break down barriers. For instance, in my most recent play, Picasso’s Closet, I explore how the famous painter dealt with life under the Nazi occupation of Paris, but I am, undoubtedly, also commenting obliquely on Chile’s period of repression and my own dilemmas, do you stand aside when terror invades your community, stand aside in order to save your art; or do you plunge in because human lives and human dignity are at stake, even if you are risking death or prison?

Can you tell us a little about Purgatorio?

I can’t exaggerate how important this play is to me. I have been working on it for quite a number of years now, whittling it down from its original two and a half hours, trying to figure out, I suppose, what I meant when I conceived it. It goes to the very core of my work and my life, asking questions that have no easy answers.

I had been wondering for a long time about the terrible things we humans do to one another and how – indeed if – there can be some sort of reparation, and I wanted to take this out of the directly political arena (an agent of the state executing or torturing or censuring victims or hiding bodies) and into the one on one relationship where lasting damage is done (because it always comes down to one human being facing another one, always starts there, at times ends there). And then, one morning, I had a vision of a man and a woman in an austere room and she wanted to escape and he held the key and wished to help her but there was also something in him that was enraged, that he was concealing, and something in her that gave her immense power over him (like so many of my woman characters). And I didn’t know who they were and was determined to find out – and the only way to do this was to have them start talking.

It was only after they beat around the bush of each other for a while that it began to dawn upon me what their identity might be and where they were located. And it turned out that I had been meaning to write something for many years about that mythical woman and also that for longer than I can remember I have been fixated on the afterlife (my last four poems are written by the dead, Columbus, Picasso, William Blake, Hammurabi, possessing my tongue to warn us about our contemporary blindness, cruelty and folly). And it all began to come together once I realized that this would also be an exploration of time, that I could play tricks on the audience just as the characters are trying to play tricks on each other and on me.

I particularly loved the challenge of writing a piece that transpires in the landscape of the mutual mind, meaning that what we are seeing is the place where two souls meet and fight and discover they will always be lonely and, simultaneously, that they will always have the other close by, waiting, twinned for eternity. I love challenges! I hope that audiences, now in Australia and very soon in other countries, also believe that to be challenged is the most thrilling aesthetic experience.

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