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Beatrice Chancy

by George Elliott Clarke

Beatrice Chancy defies categorization. On the surface, it’s an adaptation of a well-known murder story from 16th-century Rome. In 1598, a young woman named Beatrice Cenci killed her father after he raped her. Subsequently, her story inspired many writers, including Shelley, who in 1819 turned it into a verse drama. In 1837, Stendhal turned the story into fiction, and in 1971, Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera made it into an opera.

George Elliot Clarke, writing at the top of his form, has set his version of the story in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley in 1801, a time when slavery was still a cruel fact of life in Canada. Beatrice Chancy, the daughter of a slave who was raped by her white master, has just returned from a Halifax convent where she was sent to learn “white” ways.

Beatrice Chancy is a powerful verse play, a libretto for an opera that has been staged in Banff and Toronto, and it is also a remarkable collection of rich and resonant poetry about cruelty and suffering.

But as surely as the ghosts of the slaves who lived, worked, and died in Nova Scotia haunt these memorable pages, so does the ghost of the theatre artist Antonin Artaud. In Paris, in 1935, Artaud used the Cenci story to demonstrate something he called the “Theatre of Cruelty.” His intent was to “address ourselves to the eyes, not to the direct emotion of the mind” while creating “a certain psychological emotion in which the most secret recesses of the heart will be brought into the open.” This is the spirit of Clarke’s Beatrice Chancy, with its richly textured words, sounds, and dreamlike stage imagery that evokes famous paintings. For example, Chancy’s body sprawls, shocked “like the subject of [David’s] Marat assassiné,” and the Bosch-like “skeletal men trundle a cart heaped with skulls to market.”

Clarke’s Annapolis Valley is a place of rage and suppression. In the distance, the plantation owner’s “coral-and-ivory mansion glimmers, its Grecian columns confronting the succulent, disobedient wilderness near Paradise.”

For booksellers uncertain about shelving this with plays or poetry, neither is apt. Beatrice Chancy is a singular creative work that should be shelved under tour de force or must read.