When Lindsay Cochrane first read Beatrice and Virgil she was immediately convinced the novel had to be made into a play – and that she was the one to do it. The idea might seem plausible enough: The 2010 novel by Canadian author Yann Martel includes long passages of scripted dialogue, and Cochrane has a masters degree in English literature.
On the other hand, the Toronto schoolteacher had never written a play before – and the characters engaged in that dialogue are a monkey and a donkey.
"I never had any aspirations to be a playwright," Cochrane said in a recent interview. "I read the book and just had this incessant thought that the book had to be a play. … So, I e-mailed Yann Martel."
It took several e-mails but eventually Martel, best known for his earlier animal novel Life of Pi, took a look at scenes Cochrane was writing and agreed she could go ahead. Four years later, after three drafts and two workshops, the results will be unveiled Thursday at the Factory Theatre in Toronto.
"I was wary; I didn't jump to it," Martel said by phone from his home in Saskatoon. "I didn't want to see it fail."
He said he was eventually swayed by Cochrane's enthusiasm, but it's easy to see why he might have hesitated. Beatrice and Virgil, a fable about representing the Holocaust in art, is a complex book that has proved much less popular with readers than Pi, which was turned into a movie in 2012.
The novel features a writer named Henry, something of an alter ego for Martel, who has failed to interest his publishers in a novel that includes a long essay about the Holocaust and art. Living in some unnamed city, Henry receives a letter and a play script from some unknown source and eventually traces them to a mysterious taxidermist.
The script he has been sent features a dialogue between Beatrice, a donkey, and Virgil, a monkey, in which they eventually refer to past events they call "the horrors."
Martel explains that he wrote the scenes as dialogue in part because he thought first-person, verbal accounts of the Holocaust are the most powerful.
"In all my reading about the Holocaust … amidst all the expository prose from witnesses and historians, what spoke most were not explanations, but the things people said, however unwitting and incoherent. … Things actually said stood out."
Having decided on a form that would reproduce the spoken word, he then decided to present that dialogue as a play because he felt that would force the reader to imagine the action in a more universal place than Europe of the 1940s: "Few of us do it, but when you read a play, you immediately see two people speaking, you see a bare stage. We over-root the Holocaust in central Europe, where, of course, it happened, but it could have happened elsewhere."
Cochrane was not only attracted by the idea of turning the play script included in the novel into an actual play, but also by the encounter between Henry and the taxidermist, which she felt was inherently dramatic.
"Silence, being silenced and finding a voice again, I thought those ideas would communicate themselves well on stage," she said. It took some courage to approach the best-selling novelist out of the blue, but she found it in the parallel situation in his novel, where the taxidermist sends Henry his unsolicited script seeking literary advice.
"It came as a surprise, but it didn't strike me as wildly inappropriate," Martel recalled of Cochrane's theatrical idea. "But a difficulty presented itself: Did you really want a guy with big ears scampering around like a donkey?"
Of course, Martel knows what computer-generated animation can do to bring his fictional animals to three-dimensional life after director Ang Lee conjured up his famous tiger for the film version of Life of Pi. However, the theatre is both more real than the cinema and, as a result of that, less literal.
"The stage, because their means are more limited, they are forced to be more imaginative," he said.
Just how imaginative? Cochrane is not telling much about how the animals will be evoked on stage, except to say one of the most important decisions that she made with dramaturge Iris Turcott after her second draft was that the same pair of actors would play both Henry and the taxidermist, and the donkey and the monkey.
Martel, who attended preview performances last weekend but returned to Saskatoon before Thursday's opening, says he was happy to hand over the book and let theatre take over: "I don't think you are going to have Eeyore."