James Reaney Essay - Critical Essays


James Reaney has said “William Blake’s poetry is the kind of ideal I have in which there’s painting and dance and rhythm and poetry and sound, a whole world on various levels. . . . I’m not interested in writing a play that’s two dimensional. It’s got to have references to your whole psyche.” Reaney had fulfilled his vision of multidimensional drama in his masterpiece, the Donnelly trilogy, by the time he made this statement in 1976. In retrospect, one can see that it is a vision equally applicable to his earliest attempts at stage drama.

The Killdeer

The original three-act version of The Killdeer, produced by the University College Alumnae Association in Toronto in 1960, brought Reaney national acclaim as a playwright. This work is an excellent model for investigating the Reaney universe of themes, symbols, characters, and techniques common throughout his drama. A study of The Killdeer has this to recommend it as well: The play was rewritten in a more economical two-act version in 1968 at a time when Reaney began mulling the task of turning the legend of the Black Donnellys into a major stage presentation, a project that took nearly ten years of writing and research to complete.

Both versions of The Killdeer share elements of romance, mystery, and melodrama. In the original three-act version, the structure of the play hints strongly of a “well-made play” formula, with a third-act trial scene in which a deus ex machina figure delivers previously unknown evidence that resolves the plot complications.

The story concerns two families who are inextricably bound through generations of greed, lust, love, and murder. At the center of attention are two innocents—a young boy, Eli, who raises angora rabbits, and a girl, Rebecca, who delivers farm eggs to the townsfolk. Rebecca and Eli are about to marry. They are the offspring of two half sisters and share a common history of horror. Eli’s mother, Madam Fay, is responsible for the death of Rebecca’s mother and brothers, and her own husband, who was Eli’s father, and she is also responsible for the mental breakdown of Rebecca’s father. Both youngsters have grown up essentially as orphans (a favorite Reaney character-type). Rebecca’s hope is that their marriage will be “love’s solution to the puzzle of hatred.” As she says, “Eli and I will untie the evil knot.”

Unbeknownst to Rebecca, she and Eli are trapped in separate but intersecting worlds of malevolence and horror that threaten to destroy the beneficent, regenerative power they represent. A hired man named Clifford, who has reared Eli, plots to destroy them both. Rebecca’s other dilemma is that she is in love with Harry Gardner, a young bank clerk whose life is dominated by his overpowering mother, just as Rebecca’s life is dominated by her sense of duty. What is common to all is that they cannot follow their true instincts; circumstances that are the legacy of the previous generation force each character into a loveless, death-in-life existence that leads irrevocably to violent death.

As in all Reaney plays, the strong narrative line of The Killdeer implies that his primary concern is to resolve the mystery and to allow virtue to triumph, but a close examination of his works reveals another purpose. Reaney is interested in exploring the subtext, the subconscious realm of imagination and instinct. He probes inside the human and social psyche, looking beneath the surface of settings that are often romantic, pastoral, and idyllic. There, he finds greed, lust, hatred, malice, and fear, but also love.

Appropriately, the first characters that one meets in The Killdeer are Mrs. Gardner and Madam Fay—two mothers, starkly contrasting types. Reaney is both fascinated and repelled by the power of motherhood. Typical of most of Reaney’s married women, Mrs. Gardner and Madam Fay are widows who stand alone against the world. They are strong personalities, powerful obstacles in the way of their children’s happiness and development into adulthood.

Mrs. Gardner is a typical small-town, churchgoing woman whose veneer of good manners conceals her narrow-mindedness, her ambition, and her fascination with things sinful and evil. She has dominated her son into a state of compliance and despair. Madam Fay, at the other end of the spectrum, is the local bad girl, talking tough, feeling nothing but contempt for the holier-than-thou townsfolk. She has knowledge of the real world and therefore no use for its false pretenses to civility and manners. She wears her sordid past as if it were a badge of honor.

Madam Fay is an interestingly drawn character (of a type that recurs throughout Reaney’s works): She appears to have no sense of right and wrong, no guilt. She is in no way the conventional “whore with a heart of gold.” She admits responsibility for the deaths of her half sister, two nephews, and husband. She reveals that she abandoned her own son and cares nothing for him. She laughs at her part in the mental breakdown of her illicit lover. Yet despite her confessions, the viewer is intrigued rather than repulsed by her character, wanting to know the motivation behind such action; thus, the author creates the curiosity that moves the play along to its dramatic conclusion.

In addition to the dominating hypocrite (Mrs. Gardner) and the demoniac yet honest primitive (Madam Fay), the play presents other character-types that recur throughout Reaney’s works. Rebecca is exactly what one would expect of the heroine of a melodrama and much more—she is candid, untainted, naïve, loving, calm, brave, loyal, and bright. Most important, she is an orphan, and like the other orphans of Reaney’s world (including Madam Fay), she is independent, intelligent, and self-sufficient. Like Polly in The Easter Egg and Susan Kingbird in The Sun and the Moon (two other young heroines), when confronted with the necessity to sacrifice her own needs for the betterment of those around her, Rebecca is willing to make the sacrifice—made with no hint of martyrdom or melodrama, as one might expect. Reaney seems to be saying that such women are necessary to absolve the play world of the sins of the other characters. To ensure ultimate justice, none of his heroines has to live long with her sacrifice: Justice is restored by the end of the play.

Two more significant figures are introduced before the canvas is complete. Eli, the unwilling bridegroom, and his mentor-tormentor, Clifford, one of Reaney’s finest villains, appear next. Eli is half man, half child, emotionally stunted by the traumatic experiences of his past and mesmerized by Clifford’s evil. Clifford...

(The entire section is 2760 words.)