‘NN’ is an abbreviation of the Latin term ‘Nomen Nescio’, which is used to refer to an unknown person.
All over the world, mass graves contain the secrets of people who once had hopes and dreams. Many of these victims are never identified. Their remains are labelled ‘NN’, name unknown. But even identification does not always bring peace to the dead or to the living, as past atrocities continue to haunt victims, their families, and the perpetrators.
Twelve bodies have been found in a mass grave, undiscovered for almost 30 years. Each one is designated ‘NN’, their names unknown. A young forensic pathologist is working to identify NN12, the only woman among the bodies. So far, she has ascertained that the woman had given birth just a few days before she was shot. These are the first steps on the journey to find out who NN12 was and what happened to her. It is a journey that the pathologist will take with Esteban, a young man who grew up in an orphanage and who now is searching for his parents among the bodies that lie in mass graves up and down the land. A fellow traveller joins them. This is NN12 herself. Like a ghost, she is almost – but not quite – sensed by those around her. NN12 may think that she already knows everything that happened to her, but even she will encounter new details about her death.
On another part of the stage, an elderly man reads the newspaper. From time to time the lights go up on his side of the stage, as he reads and dozes in his comfortable home.
While the pathologist examines the skeleton before her, NN12 begins to remember her past. She does so falteringly, as if learning to speak once again. NN12 is both curious and fearful about what the pathologist might find out. Her fear turns to shock when she learns why Esteban is interested in her remains. The body of NN12 was discovered alongside a piece of jewellery with the initials P.L.A. on it. The pathologist has managed to locate Esteban’s birth certificate. His mother was called Patricia Luján Alvares, the same initials found on NN12’s jewellery. It is very likely, then, that NN12 is Esteban’s mother. This news shocks NN12, since to her knowledge she never had a child who survived childbirth.
Even when she is not officially working, the pathologist is haunted by NN12’s story. She is struck by a poignant series of photographs. All of them show a smiling blonde woman, surrounded by family, or else standing proudly with a class of students. After further investigation into NN12’s past, the pathologist reveals to Esteban that his mother was not pregnant when she was arrested and taken away from her loving family. Esteban’s father must therefore have either been a prison guard or a fellow prisoner. However, while Esteban really wants to know the truth, NN12 herself worries about him finding out more. She is unable to stop the inevitable, as the pathologist uncovers a number of revelatory letters written by one of NN12’s fellow inmates. This woman, who survived prison, wrote to NN12’s parents to let them know they had a grandson growing up in an orphanage. Sadly, NN12’s parents were unable to trace the boy in their lifetime.
NN12 is shocked and saddened by the confirmation that Esteban really is her son. She had indeed become pregnant in prison, by one of the prison guards, Ernesto. NN12 was told that the baby had died right after it had been born. Soon after this, she was taken away and shot, never knowing that her son had survived. NN12 remembers how the prison guard Ernesto treated her like his very own Marlene Dietrich. Sometimes he would be cruel, sometimes kind, so that she lived a tortured existence never knowing what was going to happen. NN12 sings Lili Marlene, just as she was forced to do in prison. As she does so, the elderly man gets up from his chair, as if able to hear her, unlike anybody else on stage.
Once Esteban discovers the identity of his father, he considers visiting him. The pathologist tells him that his father is now old, with children and grandchildren of his own. If his past were to be revealed, it would have terrible repercussions for his family. Resolved, Esteban goes to meet his father, posing as a journalist. This man turns out to be the elderly man who has become increasingly distracted by the presence of NN12 over the course of the play. The elderly man – Ernesto – refuses to acknowledge that he has ever heard of Patricia Luján Alvares, or NN12. When he realises that Esteban is NN12’s son, Ernesto stubbornly holds on to his claims of ignorance, reacting angrily to the young man’s insistence that the truth will eventually be revealed.
Esteban’s visit leaves Ernesto shaken. He rips up the copies of the incriminating letters about his dark past as a prison guard who sexually abused NN12 and fathered her child. But the past is not willing to let him go so easily. NN12 confronts him about what he did. She listens as Ernesto remains defiant, claiming he was only following orders. He insists he protected her from the other soldiers – that she needed him. In turn, NN12 gets increasingly angry when she remembers what he did to her. She rails against him, attacks him and turns her back on him as he continues to justify himself. Returning to the pathology lab, the pathologist promises NN12’s remains a proper burial. NN12 thanks her.
The pathologist places NN12’s remains in a box. She picks up another box of bones, yet another ‘NN’ with its own tragic story to be discovered.
The idea for the play came to Gracia Morales while she was on a flight, reading a newspaper article called ‘The Voice of the Bones’, about the Argentinian Forensic Anthropologist Team. One of the photographs in the article struck her: the image of a female pathologist studying skeletal remains. Morales was fascinated by this encounter between the living scientist and the dead victim, and decided to explore how this situation might work on stage. Although inspired by the forensic work being carried out on graves in Argentina, Morales does not set the play anywhere specific. Rather, the events are meant to relate to similar atrocities that have taken place in the past (Nazi Germany, Rwanda, Argentina, Spain, etc.) and might take place in the future.
In prison, NN12 remembers how Ernesto used to call her ‘Marlene’ after Marlene Dietrich. In scene 10 she sings the German song Lili Marlene. Marlene Dietrich recorded a popular version of this song during the Second World War.
The play was awarded the Sociedad General de Autores y Editores (SGAE) Prize in 2008. Performances have been well-received. Critics have noted how the play resonates with Spain’s own history of violence and civil war, which many are still struggling to come to terms with. Despite the fact that the play deals with shocking events, a number of reviewers were impressed by its muted tone. Ignacio del Moral, for example, liked the fact that the encounter between Esteban and his father was not treated as a ‘big scene’, but rather that things were left unresolved (2011: 44).
del Moral, Ignacio. 2011. ‘NN12 de Gracia Morales’, Las puertas del drama, 39, 44 (in Spanish)
Morales, Gracia. 2010. NN12. Madrid, Fundación Autor
Morales, Gracia. 2010. ‘NN12’, CELCIT: Dramática latinoamericana, 353, http://www.celcit.org.ar/publicaciones/dla.php?cat=numero [accessed August 2011]
NN12 on Remiendo Teatro, at http://nn12.es/nn12.html (Online Publication) (Moving images) (in Spanish)
Plays whch are marked by a sense of desolation, with characters wandering ghost-like through apocalyptic settings, or else dealing with traumas that have devastated the inner landscapes of their minds.
Entry written by Gwynneth Dowling. Last updated on 28 October 2011.