Originally published on Jakarta Globe by Grace Susetyo
Rape represents “a virtually universal symbol of terror for the entire female gender,” K.G. Neill writes in the Journal of International Women’s Studies.
At almost any point of history in any country, rape has been used as an instrument of domination and intimidation of women, or the political groups they represent, some feminists argue.
In “Death and the Maiden,” Chilean playwright Ariel Dorfman presents a discourse on rape as a weapon of political terror and the inner turmoil it causes survivors and their families.
“Maut dan Sang Perawan,” an Indonesian adaptation by Laksmi Notokusumo, was staged by Teater Satu in Teater Salihara, South Jakarta, last Friday and Saturday.
Set in an unnamed country, “Death and the Maiden” centers around Paulina, a middle-aged woman raped 15 years earlier, during a coup d’etat in which a Communist government was overthrown by a new democratic one.
“I was happy to receive the script and stage the production because the play’s geopolitical situation was similar to Suharto’s 1965 revolution against communism here in Indonesia,” director Iswadi Pratama said. “Many activists fell victim to violence then, and we [at Teater Satu] refuse to forget.”
The play starts with Paulina (Desi Susanti) in distress as she hears her husband Gery (Budi Laksana) coming home late at night with the assistance of a friendly stranger, Dr. Miranda.
Due to a flat tire, Gery was severely delayed on the way to submit papers for his application to join the Judicial Commission. A lawyer reprimands Paulina for taking the jack out of the car and gives credit to Miranda for his help. Gery reveals that he has invited Miranda over for dinner on the weekend.
After they fight, Gery assures Paulina that the reason he is running for the Judicial Commission is to pursue justice for the victims of military violence.
Paulina says there has never been justice, and only people who died because of the violence are acknowledged as victims.
In the early hours of the morning, Miranda (Iswadi Pratama) delivers a spare tire to Gery, because on the way home he heard Gery’s name announced on the radio as a new member of the Judicial Commission. The men intelligently discuss the pursuit of justice and truth. Miranda takes his leave, but Gery insists he stays for the night.
As both men retire, Paulina enters the guest room with a gun, beats up Miranda, and ties him to a chair with her panties stuffed and duct-taped into his mouth.
“Good morning, Dr. Miranda. We finally meet again,” Paulina greets him a few hours later at daybreak. “Every time I make love to Gery, it’s your voice I hear.”
Paulina reveals that Miranda was her rapist.
Her eyes were blindfolded, but she remembered his voice, his scent, and the way his skin felt. Miranda, then a health-care consultant for military intelligence, raped Paulina to the sound of her favorite song, Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden.”
Because of the rape, classical music that formerly was Paulina’s delight had become a symbol of trauma and terror. But now Paulina triumphs as she terrorizes Miranda at gunpoint to the sound of the same song.
Gery is horrified to find his guest tethered and asks his raging wife to surrender her gun. Paulina refuses.
The rest of the play becomes a moral debate on democracy. In the previous regime, people could be randomly accused and punished of crimes they might not have committed, and were denied the opportunity to prove their innocence.
Like many survivors of political violence, Paulina only wants the cruelty she endured to be acknowledged and perpetrators to apologize. Instead, for years she has heard mostly denials, and at best, politically motivated formal expressions of regret. So she takes matters into her own hands with a vengeance.
Iswadi said: “If Paulina gets what she wants, it would put Gery’s commission in jeopardy. If Miranda dies, it would prompt individuals formerly associated with the military regime to retaliate and sabotage the transition to democracy. And sometimes, cases like these are indeed silenced with the pretense of defending democracy.”
From an outsider’s perspective, Miranda is a good doctor helping stranded motorists and less fortunate children, listening to elegant classical music and reading Nietzsche.
And Paulina is just a psychopath that brings nothing good to society. But nobody knows or dares to acknowledge the disturbing realities that made Paulina the broken and angry woman she has become.
Budi delivered a commendable performance as Gery, portraying a caring husband whose love is tainted with divided loyalties.
Gery’s scenes ranged from refined career-oriented conversations and picking fights over trivial matters that aren’t so trivial underneath the surface, to physically threatening the man who damaged his wife and melting at the gaze of the woman he loves as if silently promising to make things better.
Budi shaped all these elements into a complexly cohesive character to whom many members of the audience felt connected.
Iswadi said: “Gery tends to play it safe because he wants to have it all: a smooth transition to democracy, advancement in his career, the love of his wife, the presumption of innocence until one is proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt, but ironically, also justice for the unproven suffering of his wife. But that is exactly why he’s feebly torn among these issues.” Nevertheless, it is this vulnerability that makes Gery a likable character despite his flaws.
In contrast, Desi’s portrayal of Paulina felt tense, hurried, and overall rough around the edges. Given the protagonist’s demons are already obvious, the actress could have performed better with a more toned down and poised interpretation, saving the outbursts of fury for selected scenes only.
Instead, almost every appearance of Paulina felt like a constant torrent of bitterness and spite, with hardly any identifiable climaxes.
Nevertheless, Paulina’s character is well-written and believably reflects the struggles, disappointments, and rage many rape victims feel toward their rapists, society, and the justice system that have failed to facilitate proper reconciliation. Interpreted differently, Paulina could be portrayed as a more multidimensional character whose resilience generates sympathy, rather than as a one-dimensional angry and misunderstood outcast.
By staging this play, Iswadi said he hopes to invite the audience — both ordinary civilians and institutions of authority — to look at rape and other crimes against humanity through the eyes of the people involved.