Dorfman Limns a Tangle of Ethics in 'Picasso'

Mitchell Hebert, Katherine Clarvoe and Saxon Palmer in Ariel Dorfman's
Mitchell Hebert, Katherine Clarvoe and Saxon Palmer in Ariel Dorfman's "Picasso's Closet," now in its world premiere at Theater J. (By Stan Barouh)
By John Barry
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, June 30, 2006

In the United States, where simplicity is generally considered a virtue, Chilean playwright Ariel Dorfman is probably not going to win elective office. That became clear the night before this interview, as Dorfman spoke before a full auditorium of rapt listeners at the DC Jewish Community Center. The topic: did his Jewish background have anything to do with his art? The answer: Maybe. When pressed for a more definite answer, he became even more elusive.

"Well," he laughed, "when someone comes up to me and tells me that I'm going into an anthology of the best Jewish writers of the 20th century, I'm not going to tell them I'm not Jewish."

That's about as close to a pigeonhole as Ariel Dorfman will allow himself to be taken. If you're looking for easily packaged answers to difficult questions, you've come to the wrong playwright.

The next morning, Dorfman is across the table waiting for his next question. He's been up since 4 a.m. writing, and he's been through a gantlet of interviews since arriving for rehearsals of the world premiere of "Picasso's Closet," which the DCJCC's Theater J is producing. Hands carefully folded and eyes focused, he explains why he doesn't mind leaving his audience a little unsatisfied.

"I want to make people aware of complexities, and to stage them. The more complex we are in our responses to our times, the easier it will be finally to find a way out. It's only through deep thought and going through the valley of uncertainty that we can reach a certain height of understanding."

Dorfman's biography alone is full of complexities. Born in Argentina in 1942, he's Chilean and Jewish (the family emigrated when he was a child). He's a Latin American writer who speaks English like an American. He's an essayist, a playwright, a novelist and a poet. He's an avant-garde writer who has enjoyed popular success as author of the play "Death and the Maiden," which was later made into a Hollywood film. He was a member of Salvador Allende's government in 1970, spent decades in exile and now teaches at Duke University.

"Well, I thrive on contradictions," he laughs when pressed about certain inconsistencies in his r?sum?. Walt Whitman, he points out, contained multitudes, so why shouldn't he? "Without them, I wouldn't be able to write anything."

It's no surprise, then, that Dorfman's latest play, "Picasso's Closet," leaves his character in a situation without easy answers. Picasso, an internationally regarded modernist painter in his sixties, is placed in occupied Paris, in the year 1944, when art is the last thing on most people's minds. At that moment he is known as the painter of "Guernica," one of the most eloquent antiwar statements ever painted; Franco's government considers him a national treasure and has persuaded the Nazis to leave him alone. Many of his best friends, meanwhile, including the Jewish poet Max Jacob, are dying. Picasso himself is living with his lover, Dora, who is protecting him, and whom he's ready to dump for a younger woman. And as the war drags on, Picasso isn't sure what, as an artist, or as a human being, he's supposed to do.

Dorfman doesn't offer a way out, but he's quick to add that, as an artist, he's been in a similar predicament himself. At the age of 28, he was an active supporter of the socialist government of Chile's Salvador Allende. When Allende was overthrown in 1973 by the military junta of Augusto Pinochet, Dorfman found himself without an exit visa, in a country where thousands of leftist intellectuals were being rounded up and shot. As a writer whose first novel, "Hard Rain," had just won a major literary award in Buenos Aires, he was finally allowed to leave. So his art may have saved him. But as he puts succinctly, "I have a lot of dead friends."

"Thirty-five years later, I've come back to some of the same questions. At times of revolution, or of war, what does a writer do? Should you actually be writing when you can create a new world? Should you be writing when people are being massacred? The answer is yes. But it's not an easy yes."

"Picasso's Closet," Dorfman points out, brings that tension between art and politics to the fore. As the Americans descend on Paris, and the Nazis and their French collaborators grow increasingly vicious, the painter is forced to either back the Resistance or risk becoming known as a fellow traveler. It's what Dorfman considers a moment of truth.

"We all find ourselves in that position," Dorfman says. "Let's say you have something really important to do, perhaps you're going to propose to the woman of your dreams. And you see a man beating a woman on the street. Do you get involved?"

He lets the question hang. As a playwright, re-creating difficult situations is his art. As human beings, it's our responsibility to face those predicaments ourselves.

"But humanity has got to be earned. I used to say that paradise was just around the corner. There's been a lot of pain and uprooting. But if there's a reason for hope, you've got to hold on to it. There are certain things playwrights can do -- and I'm not talking about using plays as propaganda. I think that the more we delve into the dilemma, the more human we are, and the more human our responses are."

Picasso's Closet Theater J 800-494-8497 Through July 23

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