Beatrice & Virgil tells an allegorical tale about the Holocaust premiering at Toronto’s Factory Theatre
Yann Martel, the beloved Canadian author of Life of Pi, had a hard time writing his third book, Beatrice & Virgil. At least, if the story is as autobiographical as it appears — it follows an author struggling to complete a new novel after the global success of his bestselling animal allegory … sound familiar? — then we can believe it was a difficult journey.
And no wonder: Beatrice & Virgil is an allegorical story about the Holocaust, once again involving animals. There are easier subjects, and safer ways to treat them. Theodor Adorno warned that writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric, and here we have a monkey and a donkey talking about genocide. It’s risky.
The Factory Theatre has taken up Martel’s daring literary project with a new stage adaptation of the novel premiering on April 17. It stars Damien Atkins and Pierre Brault playing two characters each. I sat down with Atkins last week to talk about the failure of language, and how we can try to understand evil and still retain the ability to judge it.
The novel Beatrice & Virgil was originally conceived as a two-sided flipbook that would meet in the middle: one half was supposed to be a piece of fiction, the other a non-fiction essay. Martel narrates the rejection of this plan through the experiences of Henry, his alter-ego in the book. Henry labors to complete the novel, but his publishers squash it when he turns in the first draft.
Reeling from the rejection, Henry abandons writing and instead pursues other interests, such as theatre and music. He seems to find a contented life, until one day he receives an enigmatic letter from one of his readers, a creepy old taxidermist living nearby, who happens to be writing a very strange and gripping play about two traumatized animals.
The play Beatrice & Virgil, adapted from Martel’s novel by first-time playwright Lindsay Cochrane, reproduces the taxidermist’s script, as well as Henry’s encounters with this troubling man. If it’s anything like the novel, the play unfolds at a beautiful rhythm, each turn arriving at just the right moment. I would hate to ruin a single revelation with any more information than this.
But just as the book was for Martel, Beatrice & Virgil is a problem play: firstly, the taxidermist approaches Henry because he has a problem — he can’t figure out an ending; but more importantly, the play itself is problematic. How do you talk about something like the Holocaust? “Part of what the play discusses is the inadequacy of words to chart our experiences,” says Atkins.
“It is a hopeless task to represent with enough honesty and enough truth and enough intelligence these big things, but it is important to try nonetheless,” Atkins observes. “Even if it is a hopeless task. Even if we are constantly failing. So in that sense, the problem is not resolved … but it is an affirmation of the intent.”
Martel isn’t Jewish, and he didn’t write Beatrice & Virgil to preserve or affirm a connection to his own heritage. But that apparent disconnection is NOT one of the play’s problems, according to Atkins:
“As the days and the months and years go by and it gets further and further away from us, it is our duty to keep a personal connection with that event, however we can, in a respectful way. We have to personally implicate ourselves, even if we have no connection. Because that is the only way that such a thing can be prevented from happening again.”
The key to avoiding these horrific outcomes is learning to recognize evil early on. “Part of the problem is hope!” says Atkins. “We don’t want to believe that some people are bad, or that their motives are dark, or that things can get worse.”
Part of the danger of writing about the Holocaust is the risk of making it more palatable. “Beatrice & Virgil is not a book that in any way excuses anything,” Atkins explains. “By looking at these difficult stories, we actually strengthen our commitment and our ability to make judgments. It doesn’t water down that ability: it actually strengthens it.”
Though based in a history of terror and cruelty, the two title characters — Beatrice the donkey, Virgil the monkey — are uniquely empathetic beings. We steel our hearts for stories about evil, but these two speak to us from a place of grace. It’s irresistible. No doubt the play at Factory Theatre will disturb and trouble audiences, but it will also beckon toward something beautiful. Maybe even hope.
- Beatrice & Virgil runs from April 17 to May 11 at Factory Theatre (125 Bathurst St.)
- Shows run Tuesday through Saturday at 8pm, with matinees on April 20 & 27, and May 3, 4, 10, & 11 at 2pm.
- Tickets start at $23 (plus applicable service charges), with limited tickets for pay-what-you-can Sunday, and can be purchased here.
Photo of Damien Atkins and Pierre Brault by Joanna Akyol