Out of the Wings

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Emma (2008), Maxi Rodríguez

English title: Emma
Notable variations on Spanish title: Gemma Suns
Date written: 2008
First publication date: 2010
First production date: October 2008
Keywords: violence > crime, violence > revenge, identity > sexuality, family > parents and children, violence > suicide, power > inter-personal/game play
Genre and type: tragedy, magic realism

Grief can be violent, angry and vengeful. In Emma, based on a short story by Jorge Luis Borges, it leads a young woman to commit a terrible act of revenge. Years later, still haunted by her actions, Emma is trapped by her guilt and her memories, desperate to expiate herself from the sins of the past.


Emma takes place over one night – yet strangely also over decades – as the lead character Emma takes her student (the Man) on a journey back in time to a terrible point in her own past. The Man, much younger than Emma, starts off bemused by her story, only to become gradually more involved in it.

As the play begins, Emma instructs the Man to read from an old letter. This letter contained the earth-shattering news that Emma’s father had committed suicide. At the time of his death Emma was just 18 years old, and the tragedy changed the course of her life. Even now, years later, Emma’s grief is still palpable. However, Emma is not just haunted by her father’s suicide, but also by the reason behind it. As she starts to tell her story to the Man, the action moves magically into the past. Emma becomes a young child. She watches as her father hurriedly packs his bags, facing imprisonment for embezzlement. He insists to the young Emma that he is innocent, although she is unsure if he is telling the truth. Her doubts disappear when her father whispers the name of the real culprit in her ear. Emma has kept this name to herself for many years. Now, she wants to share the secret, much to the Man’s confusion. Despite being intrigued by Emma’s story, he does not understand why she is telling it to him. He is only there for lessons. But, as Emma explains, her story is the evening’s lesson: it is a lesson about revenge.

Emma tells the Man how her thoughts turned to revenge immediately after her father died. She had been deprived of him for years because of a false accusation, and it appalled her that the real culprit was still alive. In fact, at the time of her father’s death, this culprit was the owner of the very factory in which she then worked. And so, as we move back in time once again, the young Emma hatches a plan to avenge her father. As typical 18-year-old girls, all her friends have boyfriends. Emma, in contrast, has a morbid fear of men. Nevertheless, the night that she plans to exact her revenge, she puts on a sultry tango dress and goes to a bar alone. She is soon picked up by a stranger who forces her to dance a tango. This is Emma’s first taste of men. The dance gets more and more violent and Emma eventually loses her virginity in a sordid room.

The stage goes dark and we leave the young Emma in bed. Back in the present day, the older Emma explains how, after the sexual encounter with the stranger, she went to meet the factory owner whom she held responsible for her father’s tragic life and death. Earlier in the day Emma had phoned him pretending that she wanted to betray her colleagues over a planned factory strike. Now, she goes to confront this man, whom she finally names as Aaron Loewenthal.

As the action moves back into the past once again, the Man transforms into old Mr Loewenthal. He keeps a gun in his desk drawer, unaware that Emma knows this. She asks for a drink of water and, when Loewenthal goes to get it, Emma seizes his gun. When he returns, she pulls the trigger. But Loewenthal does not die quietly. He hurls insults, forcing Emma to shoot him several more times. She stands over his dying body, wanting him to know why she has killed him. But it is too late. Loewenthal dies before he can hear Emma’s triumphant tale of revenge. Emma goes to the telephone and calls the authorities. She deliberately puts on a shocked voice, claiming that Loewenthal raped her and that she killed him in self-defence. We now realise that the rough sexual encounter earlier in the evening was deliberately engineered, just so that Emma’s rape claim would be believed. Indeed, she was never charged for her crime, and she has kept the murder a secret ever since.

Returning to the present day, a strange and tense atmosphere has developed between Emma and her student. Suddenly, the Man is eager to leave. But Emma has more to say. She tells the Man that as soon as she learnt that he existed, she made it her business to find him. He was just a baby when his father was murdered. The Man’s father, of course, was Aaron Loewenthal. Emma takes out a gun and gives it to the Man, begging him to take revenge on the woman who killed his father. But the Man is not like Emma: he does not want to be haunted by guilt as she has been. He goes to leave, unaware that Emma now has the gun pointed at his back. A shot is heard, the Man turns round. Emma lies dead on the floor having taken her own life. For a moment, the Man hesitates. Then he picks up the telephone and phones the authorities - injecting the right amount of shock into his voice, just as Emma did all those years before when she murdered his father.


Emma is inspired by the short story Emma Zunz, written by the Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986). In Borges’ story, 18 year-old Emma learns that her father has committed suicide. In his lifetime, Emma’s father was convicted of embezzlement. He had told his daughter that Aaron Loewenthal, her employer, in fact committed the crime. Emma sets up an elaborate plan to take revenge on Loewenthal, shooting him dead while ensuring that she will not be blamed. Maxi Rodríguez’s play is a theatrical reimagining of this tale, set long after the event. He frames the story in such a way that Emma tells it herself to an unnamed man, years later, still haunted by what happened.

Critical response

After its premiere in Avilés, the 2008 production of the play toured round Asturias, León, Cantabria and Galicia. It featured an Argentinean actress, Cecilia Hopkins, in the role of Emma. Her strong performances impressed a number of critics.

The play attracted particular interest in Argentina because it is based on the story Emma Zunz by Jorge Luis Borges. Productions were very well received, as once again the physicality and grace of Cecilia Hopkins’ performances impressed audiences and critics.

  • Rodríguez, Maxi. 2010. ‘Emma’, Revista ADE Teatro, 133 (November-December)

Useful readings and websites
  • Borges, Jorge Luis. 2000. The Aleph and Other Stories, trans. Andrew Hurley. London, Penguin

Entry written by Gwynneth Dowling. Last updated on 21 February 2011.

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