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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 9, No. 10

The Handmaid's Tale's: Restless Modernity

by Julius H. Grey / July 13, 2004

Version française...

La Scena Musicale takes you to the opera!

The Canadian Opera Company presents the Canadian premiere of composer Poul Ruders The Handmaid's Tale in September / October 2004; the libretto by Paul Bentley is based on the novel by Margaret Atwood.

The critically acclaimed 2000 world premiere by the Royal Danish Theatre was released on Dacapo records and

is distributed in Canada by Naxos.

Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale is one of the best and most chilling of "dystopian" novels, a genre that includes such masterpieces as Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, George Orwell's 1984, and Jean-Christophe Ruffin's Globalia. These works tell of worlds existing in the not-too-distant future that are entirely unappealing in terms of their political scenarios. Unlike works of science fiction, these novels concentrate on political and social evolution and the fragility of our notions of individual freedom rather than technological advances. The Handmaid's Tale is particularly powerful as an indictment of America's Christian right and a warning about possible reactions against feminism and secularism. It sends a shiver down one's spine to learn that a novel written 15 years ago had foreseen the imposition of tyranny through emergency laws promulgated as a reaction to acts of terrorism.

Yet The Handmaid's Tale is more than a political parable. It is a novel of dark romanticism, sexual desire in a bleak universe, friendship, and resistance.

The heroine, whose real name we never learn, has lost everything--her daughter, her husband, and her freedom. In the course of several months her universe has fallen apart and she has become a procreative tool for the sons of Jacob, leaders of the religious-fascist Republic of Gilead, which has replaced the secular United States. Through her eyes the reader sees the leaders of the new regime, the collaborators, and the shadowy but irrepressible resistance. She continues to yearn, to desire, and to think, and in the course of the story her daydreams solidify into defiance, resistance, and escape.

It is a particularly poignant aspect of the novel that the time separating Gilead from our own epoch is so very short. Only a few years earlier, the heroine had been living a normal, middle-class life. The past is constantly present in her thoughts, as she moves from the harsh reality of Gilead to the refuge of her earlier life with a facility that can only be explained by their temporal proximity. It is difficult for the reader to escape the fear that a political catastrophe could happen so suddenly and decisively. One detail is particularly chilling: the imposition of the new repression of women happens in one day when their credit cards become invalid. The centralization of data through computer technology makes this type of state action entirely plausible and, indeed, fears of loss of all privacy through the monitoring of credit cards have become common in recent years. Atwood showed keen foresight in imagining such events 15 years ago!

One of the novel's greatest strengths is the depth of characterization. The people associated with the regime, like the commander and his wife, are not cardboard villains but living individuals, subject to desire and envy, and are even nostalgic for a gentler past. The sexual desires and repression apply as much to the rulers of Gilead as to its victims, and this makes the characters all the more credible. Nor is the resistance composed of intrepid heroes and heroines, but of imperfect and frightened persons who learn to reach out to each other and find courage.

Despite a deeply passionate atmosphere and style, mordant humour is not absent from the work. It is present in the chapters dealing with social scientists who describe the Gileadan regime after its fall in typically pseudo-scientific language, entirely without the moral indignation the regime merited; and, more wickedly, in the numerous passages where government agents use modern feminist jargon to justify the repression of the women under their care. This was perhaps a warning about the abuse of language, a topic that so far has not been fully appreciated.

Yet, despite such fleeting humour, the overall impression of the society of Gilead is that of a nightmare of fear, repression, cruelty, and injustice. For instance, there is the routine use of capital punishment carried out by the regime. Intermittent moments where life, streets, and people appear normal or familiar serve only to underscore the horror.

One can draw parallels between The Handmaid's Tale and a darkly passionate literary and artistic movement in early 20th century Europe: Expressionism. Expressionist works such as Lulu were often successfully adapted to the operatic stage and it is therefore not surprising that The Handmaid's Tale, with its powerful political message, its emotional intensity, and its pervasive sexuality, has also been turned into a libretto. Librettist Paul Bentley's adaptation is very faithful to the novel; indeed, as the novel employs considerable dialogue, many of the passages are taken directly from Atwood's text.

With The Handmaid's Tale, Atwood has produced one of the unquestionable masterpieces of Canadian literature. Although the novel takes place in the United States, among Americans, Canada is constantly present, both as the distant beacon to which one can try to escape, and more subtly as a vantage point. The Republic of Gilead and its religious oppression represent a very Canadian fear of certain American trends. But in the end, both the political analysis and the passion are universal, and this explains the novel's popularity throughout the world.

Version française...

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