From a young age, Ariel Dorfman was determined to be a writer. Since that time, he has become one of the most accomplished writers of our time, penning a number of novels, articles, scripts and more recently, librettos for opera.

Anna Lozynski interviewed Dorfman before the Australian premiere of his work, Purgatorio, presented by Hoy Polloy.

Ariel DorfmanWhat distinguishes Purgatorio from other works you have written for the stage over the course of your career?
Purgatorio is a pivotal work for me. Although it takes up many of the themes that have been central to my previous work (the dilemmas of forgiveness and retribution, the uncertainty of memory, the search for some ray of hope in times of terror and betrayal, the problem of identity in a world of false fundamentalisms), those themes were explored primarily in a historical moment and brought into focus by some primeval form of violence (torture in Death and the Maiden, censorship in Reader, disappearances/desaparecidos in Widows, an array of forms of repression in Voices from Beyond the Dark: the Speak Truth to Power play), it is in Purgatorio that I plunge for the first time into the naked (and masked, of course) human relations without an immediate political context. In that sense, it is a play that asks us all questions about redemption and myth and above all if it is possible for love to prevail when terrible things have been done to us and, far too often, by us. Everything I have written since then has deepened this exploration.

What inspired the name for the piece?
At first I wasn’t sure where the confrontation between that man and that woman happened, but slowly realized that it was the afterlife, and that they needed each other’s absolution to be reincarnated or simply to be purged of what they had done. Although the place I have imagined is not quite the Christian Purgatory, and certainly not Dantesque, inasmuch as there seems to be no God who can deliver these two from each other (in fact, it seems to echo Buddhism, if anything at all), I loved the idea of calling it Purgatorio, also a name that works in many languages, another thing I am fascinated with as a bilingual author.

How do you expect the audience in Australia will ‘read’ the script?
I have no expectations, ever, just that they approach the experience with open minds, open hearts, and trust the words and the characters. There may be something special about Australia, nevertheless, because the play does have echoes about colonialism, about men who come from afar to a land that is not theirs and the women who receive them and cross over to the foreign culture only to then be betrayed by their invader/lovers, so that this might resonate in your country in ways that could be singular.

Which moment in the work was most challenging to write?
Just before the ending. I always (sort of) knew how I wanted it to conclude, but how to get the characters to that recognition of each other, that was really hard to create. I struggled through many readings and several workshops, and was even rewriting small snippets of the end of the play the very day we premiered at the Seattle Rep in the United States. And even so, there was still something missing, a slight twist and turn, that I only solved recently, when I was preparing the play for its Spanish staging in Madrid (Purgatorio was written in English originally) and, during an intensive three or four days of work with the actors, Viggo Mortensen and Ariadna Gil, and the director Josep Maria Mestres, I was able, with their help, to finally find what I hope is a satisfying finale to this odyssey of self-discovery.

You have chosen to delve into complex themes of the human condition, such as revenge and redemption and love and hate, explored by two characters, Man and Woman. Which character would you choose to play, and why?
Both of them. I have no idea how I create, meaning from what wells of joy and despair the words come from; but it’s clear that I write from a deep empathy with my characters, no matter what terrible things they (and I) might have done. The play really transpires in the mutual mind of them both – they are as joined as a Moebius Strip, looping into each other, entangled in ways that we all are with those we love (and also, paradoxically, with those we hate), so I could not be one if I were not the other.

Tell us about how you came to be a professional writer?
It’s a story I have told at some length in my memoir, Heading South, Looking North, so I am concerned about simplifying the process excessively. But ever since I was able to string some lines together, at the age of nine, I was determined to be a writer. I don’t like the term professional, because the fact that I can make a living from what I’m able to imagine is less important than the constant sense of wonderment at being able to live in the imagination and for the imagination, that I spend my days communing with the immense pleasure of being able to communicate.

How does your Argentinean/Chilean heritage influence your writing?
It took me many years to understand that I was meant to be a bridge, that history had offered me the chance, because of the English I speak and write and because I have spent all these decades away from Latin America, to reach out with themes and a style and obsessions and experiences that are not always current or manifested easily in the more developed world I reside in. Just an example from Purgatorio: though the myth the characters inhabit is Greek in origin, there are resonances of Hernán Cortés and La Malinche (the first translator and native lover of the conquistador of Mexico), so the play can be said to have been conjured up from a profound meditation about the origins of Latin America and yet, it is able to cross frontiers, and reach out to so many global others.
{xtypo_quote_right}If I had discovered all that back then, without any real effort, my work would not have the incessant thrill of discovery, the tension of striving that comes out of not knowing{/xtypo_quote_right}
Which human relationship has been most influential in your professional career?
The love I share with my wife and my sons and with my departed parents. There would be no writing at all if not for those wondrous human beings, especially Angélica (to whom Purgatorio is dedicated, as are almost all my books and plays). As to writers, I have been privileged to be a younger brother to two of the great authors who have most influenced my literature: Julio Cortázar and Harold Pinter.

As an accomplished writer of poems, essays, novels, newspaper articles, among other, you have been touted as a “literary grandmaster”. What do you know now that you wish you had discovered at the beginning of your career?
Not a thing. If I had discovered all that back then, without any real effort, my work would not have the incessant thrill of discovery, the tension of striving that comes out of not knowing. One must learn to be patient and embrace the road not taken as well as the road of learning one eventually did take.

Finally, tell us one thing people are always surprised to learn about you.
That depends. Many are surprised that I’m not a woman, because my female characters couldn’t, people keep insisting, be created by a man. Most of those who meet me are also astonished that I’m full of joy and jokes and not angry or gloomy. They somehow think that if my plays are dark then I must also be a prince of darkness (or at least a lackey of the darkness). Everybody was astonished when I wrote a comedy (dark comedy, ‘tis true) called The Other Side, where peace breaks out between two countries at war and the new border agreed to by the former adversaries passes straight through the bedroom (and the bed itself) of an old couple, so that the man must ask for a visa to go and piss in his bathroom and the woman must get a work permit to cook for her husband. They are separated by a psychotic border guard who has the typical tic of the perfect comic character: absolutely rigidity in interpreting a complex world. It opened in New York a few years ago with the extraordinary Rosemary Harris as the woman separated from her husband, and I hope that someday soon it may find a home in Australia. It will be a chance to surprise those who think they know me yet again. As Purgatorio probably will as well.

Hoy Polloy Theatre's production of Purgatorio by Ariel Dorfman opens August 8 at the Mechanics Institute Performing Arts Centre, Brunswick. Further details»

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