San Francisco Opera | The Handmaid's Tale Synopsis



A.D. 2195—We are present at a worldwide video conference: the Twelfth Symposium on the Republic of Gilead. In the first half of the 21st century the Bible Belt garroted America. Appalled by widespread pollution—physical, moral and spiritual—and above all by the low birth rate, right-wing fundamentalists assassinated the President and the Congress and installed their own Bible-based dictatorship, the Republic of Gilead. They denied women the right to work or possess property, to read or write. More: all women of childbearing age living in sin or second marriages were forcibly separated from their families and sent off to indoctrination centers, run by "Aunts." There the women became Handmaids, due to be posted to selected childless households and ritually impregnated by the husband in the presence of his wife. Professor Pieixoto of Cambridge University introduces a recently discovered diary, recorded on audiocassettes by a Handmaid in hiding. He plays the first tape, and we hear her telling her tale… She is torn from her husband, Luke, (it was his second marriage) and their five-year-old daughter and is taken to the Red Center.


Here the classes are run by Aunt Lydia. Our Handmaid’s friend, Moira, is dragged back after a failed escape attempt. Another woman, Janine, breaks down and thinks she is a waitperson again. Moira escapes a second time. The other Handmaids graduate.


Three years later our Handmaid, who has not yet borne a child for Gilead, transfers to her third posting, where she is known as Offred (Of Fred), after the Commander of the house. She recognizes the Wife as Serena Joy, a Gospel singer in the Time Before. Offred goes shopping paired with another Handmaid, Ofglen, and they meet Janine, now heavily pregnant. When Offred visits the doctor he offers to impregnate her. She declines, fearfully. Back "home" handyman Nick tries to chat and the Commander approaches Offred’s bedroom—both illegal acts. The household assembles for Forepray, and Offred undergoes her monthly ritual impregnation. Afterwards Nick tells her the Commander wants to see her privately. Highly illegal. Next day all the Wives and Handmaids of the district meet at the Red Center to celebrate the birth of Janine’s baby. Back home Offred visits the Commander in his study at night. Afterwards in her bedroom Offred collapses, laughing hysterically.


Next morning the servant Rita finds Offred still prone and over-reacts. Offred visits the Commander again and begins to relax; but then he caresses her during the next ritual impregnation and she is terrified Serena Joy will notice. Offred and Ofglen go prayer shopping and discover they are both rebels. Ofglen reveals that there is an underground movement. Janine (whose baby turned out to be defective and was exterminated) joins them but breaks down again. Guards take her away to be hanged. Offred’s night visits to the Commander continue. He explains things—why Rita over-reacted, for instance. Child-hungry Serena Joy secretly bribes Offred to try getting pregnant by Nick. The bribe is a photo of Offred’s missing daughter. The Commander smuggles Offred into Jezebel’s, a private brothel for top-ranking men in Gilead. She meets Moira there. Back home Offred and Nick make love. Often. Then Wives and Handmaids meet to witness the hanging of "criminals." The Handmaids are allowed to destroy a "rapist." Ofglen starts by kicking him unconscious to spare him pain—he was in fact part of the underground. That afternoon Offred finds she has a new shopping partner. Back home Serena Joy has learned about Offred’s affair with the Commander. As Offred, Joy, the Commander and Rita react to this, the secret police, the “Eyes of God,” arrive to arrest Offred and take her away.


A.D. 2195, Professor Pieixoto tells us that the ultimate fate of Offred and the men in her life is unknown.