Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood

Hag-Seed is Margaret Atwood’s modern re-telling of The Tempest, part of a series of Shakespeare reinterpretations by best-selling authors. Atwood sets hers in a prison theater program, with a disgraced director who used to run a Stratford-like festival. The novel is faithful and creative in its interpretation of Shakespeare, giving laymen an appreciation for The Bard’s exemplary plots and characters, while giving the sagest of ivory-tower-academics fresh critical analysis of the play’s oft-studied themes and subtexts.

(Photo: Amy Attas)

Before the story even begins, readers must flip past an imposing two-page spread of Atwood’s previously-published works. Fifty-five books. It is proof of her diamond-sharp mind, boundlessly inventive, and also of her wildly productive work-ethic. It also made me wonder, though, with such a mass of products, was something getting lost? Hag-Seed comes across as a brilliant idea, layered and intricate, but also rushed down on the page. At times it reads like a rough draft, a sketch to be filled-in later. This draft shows Atwood’s fantastic ideas, but at the sentence-level – the tense-choice, the word-choice, the structure – it is nothing remarkable. Not, I think, because Atwood lacks the skill to carve out a pristine sentence, but just because she lacks the time.

“He scans the room. Familiar faces, veterans of his previous plays: these nod at him, offer half-smiles. New faces, blank or apprehensive: they don’t know what to expect.”

There is a story in the forward to the writer’s handbook The Elements of Style about one of its authors, E. B. White (who is most famous for Charlotte’s Web but spent most of his time writing a weekly editorial for The New Yorker). White agonized over these weekly essays of a few hundred words, and when the deadline required that he reluctantly send one off, he’d remark “I wish it were better.” When the published issue showed up a few days later, he’d re-read his own work and say “Well, at least I got the elements right.” Now, White’s content was fine, just as Atwood’s elements are fine; all I’m saying is their obsessions were different.

“Tony had been all too eager to liberate Felix from the rituals Felix hated, such as the attending of cocktail functions and the buttering-up of sponsors and patrons, and the hobnobbing with the Board, and the facilitating of grants… That way – said Tony – Felix could devote himself to the things that really mattered, such as his perceptive script notes and his cutting-edge lighting schemes and the exact timing of the showers of glitter confetti of which he had made such genius use.”

But it doesn’t really matter that Hag-Seed has clunky prose, because Atwood’s re-interpretation of Shakespeare is nothing short of a tight-rope walk between the magically-resurrected Twin Towers whilst juggling fire and letting a mosquito bite your nose. Felix, the once-king of the Stratford-esque theatre festival, exiles himself to a remote farm cabin where he dons the pseudonym Mr. Duke, and obsesses over his revenge. In The Tempest, Prospero, the once-Duke of Milan, is exiled to an actual desert island where he obsesses over his revenge. Shakespeare’s Antonio and Atwood’s Tony mirror each other’s conniving and sinister political maneuvers. All of Shakespeare’s key characters have modernized doubles, both texts contain a play-within-a-play, and Atwood even stays faithful to the five-act structure plus pro- and epilogue. It is a true and exact re-imagining.

A friend recommended Hag-Seed to me after I mentioned seeing the William’s Head Correctional Facility’s annual play, written and performed by inmates. But in Atwood’s retelling, the inmates are, I think, the weakest characters. She clearly has insider knowledge of theatre productions, with helpful details about backstage politics, cast parties, and props departments,  but the prison feels like cardboard in comparison. This may just be the way I’m reading it though – since the writing feels more like a script than a novel, perhaps the inmate dialogue would come across as genuine if performed. Maybe it’s my imagination that’s clichéd.

Perhaps the William’s Head Correctional Facility could put on a play of Atwood’s novel inspired by Shakespeare’s play. A play within a play within a play within a play.

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