We slept in what had once been the gymnasium.
- Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale
Welcome to the Lavietes Pavilion on the campus of Harvard University, the world’s second oldest basketball court. It may be true that novelist Margaret Atwood had exactly this spot in mind in The Handmaid’s Tale when she described what she called the Red Center, the place where all of Gilead’s Handmaids are trained as potential breeders. According to Atwood, the Secret Service of Gilead was housed in the Widener Library and it was the Harvard Yard wall where she imagined the hanging bodies of the executed. In Atwood’s novel, fertile women are taught how to act and how to present themselves at the Red Center. This is also the place where they are told that, because they were women, they no longer have the agency to make any personal choices.
Imagine if you will, living in a world that tells you what to wear, where to live, what your position and value to society is and how to procreate. What would happen if choice was taken away from you? In Atwood’s story, which she wrote in the early 1980s while living in Berlin, the United States has undergone a coup that transformed the democracy into what she called “a literal-minded theocratic dictatorship.” Due to a polluted environment, the population has shrunk, and toxic chemicals and abuses of the human body have resulted in many men and women becoming sterile. The Gilead regime has declared martial law and has systematically eliminated gay people, prioritized a specific mode of procreation, and subjugated women. The Handmaids are women who are still fertile but are no longer treated as individuals. They are condemned to a life of servitude and they are cultivated like livestock to reproduce for the elite. Domestic surveillance abounds and the patriarchal hierarchy carries out severe modes of control and maintains order. There is no free speech, no self-expression. The Handmaids are indoctrinated into captivity and they are not allowed to do anything that would grant them any power independent of the system. They are not allowed to read, possess money or own anything. Even their names are taken away from them.
The country of Atwood’s Gilead is built upon the foundation of the 17th-century Puritan roots that, one could argue, have always lurked beneath modern-day America. Atwood has pointed out that Harvard actually began as a Puritan theological seminary and was eventually repurposed into what is now seen as a bastion of liberalism. In the novel, she imagines that a new repurposing could happen, turning the campus into a patriarchal hub based upon a literal, fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible, where its inhabitants are indoctrinated, where control and order is maintained.
Nothing in Atwood’s story is pure fiction. All of the atrocities have already happened at one time or another in history, from the ancient Greek practice of sparagmos, a ritual at which the limbs of a victim were torn off his body, to the sorts of human degradation found throughout history in Germany, Cambodia, Afghanistan, Argentina, Romania, the Philippines and far too many other parts of the world, including the United States. I believe that the novel is a warning and the author’s message is this: It has happened before, and it could happen again. Our rights and freedoms are not rigid and cannot be assumed.
The Handmaid’s Tale has been translated into over 40 languages, made into a ballet, a graphic novel and a film, as well as a popular TV series, and of course, an opera. Composer Poul Ruders and librettist Paul Bentley originally wrote the opera version in 2000. The libretto is remarkably true to Atwood’s novel and the score is deliciously rich and variegated. Ruders’ composition is highly original, but it also draws from the European expressionist traditions with echoes of Alban Berg as well as sweeping passages of minimalism, sampled digeridoo and some traditional tunes and pop sources. The music is at times beautiful and haunting; at other times comic and satirical; and often chilling. The layering and weaving of the many musical strands feel appropriate and echo the nature and structure of the novel. The piece demands ferociously virtuosic singers, and the artists of this cast have become extraordinary stewards of the layered, iconic characters and story.
How remarkable that since the original conception of the Ruders/Bentley opera, the relevance of The Handmaid’s Tale has increased exponentially, and the story has simply become part of the public conversation. Women wearing Handmaids’ garb are appearing in political arenas everywhere to make a variety of political points. Since the 2016 presidential election, Handmaids’ costumes have become common at protests and staged guerilla attacks on legislative convenings. In 2017, women wore Handmaids’ outfits into the Ohio legislature to protest a new restrictive abortion bill. The signature white bonnet and red cloak have come to refer directly to women’s oppression. The most quoted phrase from the book is the one scratched, presumably by Offred’s Handmaid predecessor, on the wall of her room’s cupboard: Nolite te bastardes carborundorum. Don’t let the bastards grind you down. It has become such a feminist rallying cry that many women had the phrase tattooed on their bodies.
“Never has American democracy felt so challenged,” said Margaret Atwood upon receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Critics Circle in 2017. I can easily imagine that theater and opera would be outlawed in the land of Gilead. We gather in this school gymnasium—a space that, in each of our own communities, might be used for a polling place, a town hall meeting, or other public gathering—as witnesses, and participants. Let us keep vigilant and awake to the current changes in our cultural and political arenas. Let us engage.
Anne Bogart, Stage Director, is a Co-Artistic Director of the ensemble-based SITI Company, head of the MFA Directing program at Columbia University, and author of five books: A Director Prepares, The Viewpoints Book, And Then You Act, Conversations with Anne and What’s the Story. With SITI, Ms. Bogart has directed more than 30 works in venues around the world, including The Bacchae, Chess Match No. 5, Steel Hammer, The Theater is a Blank Page, Persians, A Rite, Café Variations, Radio Macbeth, American Document, Bobrauschenbergamerica, and Hotel Cassiopeia. Recent opera works include Handel’s Alcina, Dvorak’s Dimitrij, Kurt Weill’s Lost in the Stars, Verdi’s Macbeth, Bellini’s Norma, and Bizet’s Carmen. Her many awards and fellowships include three honorary doctorates (Cornish School of the Arts, Bard College and Skidmore College), a Duke Artist Fellowship, a United States Artists Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Rockefeller/Bellagio Fellowship, and a Robert Rauschenberg Foundation Residency Fellowship.
This article was originally published as part of the program book for The Handmaid's Tale.