profile; Ariel Dorfman; Death and the writer

Andy Beckett on the liberal hero who shuns straightforward outrage oodless aesthete or challenger of simple outrage? Andy Beckett reports Sterile aestheticism or a refusal to pander to emotion? Andy Beckett reports
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ARIEL DORFMAN is feeling the pressures of his righteous celebrity. In Edinburgh to promote a new polemic about political oppression, the Chilean playwright is standing in a hot queue. By accident he has bought a cheap stalls ticket for a concert; his conscience forbids him from using his clout to demand better; so he edges forward, lanky and sneakered and fretting as any American tourist, while the good seats disappear to those ahead of him. Finally, he gets to the front. Someone barges in. "Excuse me, there is a queue here," Dorfman says, harsh as a New Yorker. The man retreats; in softer Chilean tones, Dorfman finds a lesson: "Life is full of queue jumpers - many of them in more serious ways than this."

Across the city at the Traverse Theatre, queue jumping is the only way to get into Dorfman's new play. And Reader is no crowd pleaser, but a two-hour labyrinth of fictions within fictions, melting identities, and archly Post-Modern authorial interventions. At its centre is a relatively simple story about a censor who, one day, finds a novel about himself landing on his desk; around this Dorfman spins enough dramatic devices to dizzy even the Traverse's traditionally adventurous audience. But they thrill to it. "I reject the idea that complex plays, structurally, and experimental theatre are only for an elite," says Dorfman.

Yet his appeal, and thus to a large extent Reader's too, derives from an earlier, much plainer work. Death And The Maiden was first performed at the ICA five years ago; since then its claustrophobic chamber drama has been re-enacted on stages from Poland to South America. In it Dorfman reconstructed Pinochet-era Chile's architecture of fears and repressions - the tiny, everyday betrayals, the heart's leap at a knock on the door - then made them universal, by embodying them in a trio of characters: an ex-torturer, his vengeful ex-victim and her mediating husband. "It had three star parts and a political content that appealed across the political spectrum," says Lindsay Posner, who directed Death And The Maiden at the Royal Court. "And it read like a Hollywood thriller."

The play went from the Royal Court, where it starred Juliet Stevenson and won an Olivier Award, to Broadway, where it won a Tony Award. Earlier this year it became a Roman Polanski film. And at some point in its rising trajectory it became something rather ambiguous: everybody's favourite play about torture.

"Death And The Maiden works at a very easy level," admits Dorfman. Gradually, this has made some people uneasy: first with the Broadway production's smoothing out of the play's awkward questions about revenge and relative evils, then with the whole notion of such a subject being made into such pleasing drama. "We who are outside [Chile] are living off this vicariously," says Richard Gott, a South American correspondent of the old left. "We say, 'Was it really like that?' - and you're left with a very human drama."

And Dorfman benefits too. He has international theatrical fame, and a professorship at the prestigious and liberal Duke University in North Carolina, where he spends half the year. "I've rejected three Hollywood script offers in the last year and a half," he says. With his gravitas born of experience ("I myself have lived this"), his dramatist's flair, his charm and his handsome aquiline features - people crowd round him to take his picture - Dorfman has become the liberal literary hero.

THE truth of Dorfman's life and intentions is more complex than the theatre programme version. Chilean by adopted nationality only, he was in fact born in Argentina into a family of Jewish immigrants from Odessa in 1942. His parents were left-wing academics; by 1945 the Peron regime's increasingly fascist tilt forced them to leave the country for America. After 10 years there, they were forced to leave again, this time by McCarthyism. "My life has been made out of fleeing from repression," says Dorfman.

He finally arrived in Chile in 1955. As the country slowly liberalised, he educated himself and began to write novels and poetry. Then in 1970 Chile elected a democratic Marxist called Salvador Allende as president. Dorfman, whose first name came from the free spirit in The Tempest, was suddenly energized: "The years that I spent in the Chile of Allende were the most important years of my life. I did everything: I wrote four books, and I had two TV programmes, and I was teaching at the university, and I was taking poetry into the slums. I was working in street painting ... It was just a wonderful time."

The wonderful time came to an end in 1973, when the CIA backed a bloody military coup to topple Allende and install General Pinochet. Freedom of expression was out: Dorfman saw copies of his anti-American cultural critique, How To Read Donald Duck, being burned in the street. He hid in the Argentinian embassy while the death squads roamed outside.

Another book saved him: an experimental Marxist novel called Hard Rain won a big literary prize in Buenos Aires, and the Pinochet regime was persuaded that murdering Dorfman would be bad for its image. Dorfman went back to America, obliged to seek refuge in the country that had just undermined his adopted homeland."I would go through Washington DC and say, 'I can't believe that on the other side of those walls are the people who conspired to bring me here. On the other hand, I'm free to do what I want ...'"

Dorfman knew his position - protected by celebrity from the same fate as his fellows because he wrote about that very fate - was contradictory. So he called it "very interesting" and made similar ambiguities the basis of his work. He began Death And The Maiden as a simple play about political repression, writing while Pinochet was still in power in the mid-Eighties; but it was not until democracy returned to Chile in 1990, that Dorfman could finish the play. Despite its billing, it ended up as more about another kind of repression: the wilful amnesia and cover-ups that national reconciliation seemed to require. The characters found it very hard to say the word "torture".

"Pain is simple," says Dorfman, gesticulating grandly. "But the consequences of the pain, the causes of the pain, and the shifting perspectives around the pain are not simple at all." Last Tuesday his BBC play Prisoners In Time reprised this favourite theme. Using the true story of a British ex-POW who returned to Thailand to seek out his Japanese tormentor 50 years later, it drew out the former's angry memories and the latter's evasions into a slow but compelling hour of television. It climaxed with another Dorfman obsession - the ex-tormentor's confession. "The memory of suffering is often kept private," he says. "Only by making it public - even between two people - can it pass into history."

One consequence of Dorfman's concern with the ambiguities of aftermaths is his complexity of style. Prisoners In Time chopped back and forth between different stages of the ex-POW's quest; Reader is even more fractured. The latter has not met with uniform approval from critics: words like "tricksy" and "showing off" have dampened reviews. Dorfman is sensitive about this - "If Strindberg and Ibsen could do it 80 years ago, why shouldn't we be able to do it now?" - partly out of relative newness to the theatre (Death And The Maiden was his first proper production), but also because being "tricksy" was part of his plan.

"Just because the pain is real doesn't mean that the method has got to be realistic," he says. "On the contrary, I feel that complexity is the only real way." Dorfman is aiming for a fusion between gut-level substance and cerebral Post-Modern style, usually the vehicle for sceptically apolitical, or even politically conservative art. When he stops complaining about the critics, he realises that this makes Reader difficult for some people to swallow. "They expected this of me, the author of Death And The Maiden: if I'm going to give them censorship, I'm going to give them unadulterated censorship, not Ariel Dorfman, Chilean expert in these matters, dealing with such things as imagination and construction and deconstruction of reality."

At times, as he warms to this theme, the gut-level Dorfman of previous repute slips from view almost completely. He talks of the political repression that stalks all his work as "a good way of submitting characters to a test ... to see what they're going to do." He says he never decides the endings of his plays, and thus their dramatic morality, until the last minute, and then immediately wants to change them. Asked to declare his politics, he hedges, then comes up with "respect and tolerance".

But then you watch Reader and see that, for all its bewildering tricks, the action is constantly, unambiguously darkened with the paraphernalia of political oppression: chairs are for tying people to, scarves are for gagging, mirrors are always two-way. Arguing that Dorfman is abandoning his past and beliefs for bloodless aesthetic experimentation becomes difficult. Instead, this very experimentation seems like a refusal to pander to his audience - the latest move of a defiant life. As Dorfman says, staring with his green eyes and his film-star jaw, "I don't like safety."