Mr. Reaney's comedies demand of their audience, at least temporarily, a capacity to believe that the weapons of human consciousness—religion, art, thought, and love—can defeat all destructive powers. His plays are not for cynics, nor for those too sophisticated to let themselves play games if necessary to exorcise the black enchantments laid on them in childhood. The measure in which we feel these resolutions silly, or too far-fetched, is the measure of our own Malvolio-like nature. If the art of the comedy has done its work—and Mr. Reaney's plays have this art in abundant measure—our emotions of sympathy and ridicule have been raised and cast out…. (pp. 132-33)
Alvin Lee, "A Turn to the Stage: Reaney's Dramatic Verse" (copyright by Alvin Lee; originally published in Canadian Literature, Winter, 1963), in Dramatists in Canada: Selected Essays, edited by William H. New, The University of British Columbia Press, 1972, pp. 114-33.
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As a playwright Reaney has tended to be a fine lyric poet. In certain respects the qualities of his verse enhance the plays. Genres, however, are not interchangeable and too often his early attempts at drama point up the defects of his strengths. The mode of theatre itself has sometimes seemed inhospitable to Reaney's genius. The public forum aspect of all stage production is not easily reconciled with the singular inwardness of his idiom. Certainly the conventional act and scene arrangement he adopts for The Killdeer or The Easter Egg serves him badly. This structure requires the shaping of materials over a sustained period, a long-range control of action, tone and climax. Reaney's, however, is a short term art of quick insights and volatile moods. The Killdeer breaks up into a collection of fragments, some of them brilliant. However, the effectiveness of one frequently weakens the impact of another and all suffer from the linear framework in which they are set. In a word, Reaney's problem as a dramatist has been to arrive at a form to suit his matter. In Colours in the Dark he finds it.
The play comprises some forty brief scenes, each one a self-contained minidrama. Each has its caption and, in a sense, its message. In most things Reaney is the antithesis of Brecht; what, however, he creates in this play is an epic theatre to the buried consciousness. The technique perfectly accommodates his quest for...
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Judging from a sampling of recent critical commentary on his collected Poems, Reaney's reputation is in [a slump] …; which is a shame. Any poet who has created an original body of work, especially one of such uniqueness, power, peculiarity and, sometimes, unprecedented weirdness as Reaney's deserves better treatment. A critic might begin by attempting to actually read the poems, as opposed to reading into them various philosophies and literary theories which the poet is assumed to have. If you start this way, with the actual poems, one of your first reactions will almost certainly be that there is nothing else like them.
I'd never before read most of the uncollected single poems,… so I was most intrigued by sections I, III and V of this volume. I was especially struck by the early appearance of a number of Reaney images which crop up again and again, variously disguised, in his later work. The fascination with maps and diagrams ("Maps", 1945), the collections of objects ("The Antiquary", 1946), the sinister females, both mechanical ("Night Train", 1946) and biological ("Madame Moth", 1947), and that nightmare, the Orphanage, already present in "Playbox", 1945—all foreshadow later and more fully realized appearances.
But what became clear to me during a chronological reading of this book is that most commentators—including Reaney himself, and his editor and critics—are somewhat off-target...
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The plays of James Reaney … have a background of religious and philosophical concern behind them. The survey of philosophy in Reaney's "September Eclogue," in A Suit of Nettles, ends significantly with Heidegger and with games of magic taken from The Golden Bough; and Reaney's plays in general are shot through with a kind of religious-philosophical excitement that tells us there is much going on privately in that area. But he is a solitary exile in an empty land, almost unique in being troubled deeply and seriously with such questions; therefore his plays have a peculiar dislocation and feeling of unreality in the context of Canadian society. (p. 322)
[The] proposition that James Reaney's charming theatre is somehow a distant relation to, first, Bernard Shaw and, second, W. B. Yeats, may sound far-fetched, but I think it can help us to understand what is going on in the plays. In most of these plays of Reaney,… Canada has at last come in for sharp social satire. It was naturally made for it, from the beginning, we suspect, but no playwright would have dared to undertake a full-scale satirical view of Canadian life before World War II. The soul has to be moved to satire by revulsion, and there must be a solid stone somewhere, on which the foot can lean while shaking off the muck. Reaney may be said to possess both these requirements: a major "criticism of life", and a strong intellectual conviction personally achieved....
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It was reassuring to find that the text [of Sticks & Stones] does not lose the original spirit of live theatre. The secret behind this is the way the directions for stage movement have been so carefully integrated into the poetry of the play; they are not merely instructions but a spur to the imagination of the actor or director to discover the pattern of movement best suited to the rhythm of the language and the mood of the particular incident. This is most important because Reaney's stage world is a simple open space scattered with everyday objects (sticks, stones, ropes, ladders) and, through quick changes of rhythm and shape, this space has to be transformed in the reader's imagination into whatever the situation demands of it. These transformations are surely the key to Reaney's strengths as a playwright, for they bring about an essential fusion of his poetic and his theatrical imagination; the images draw from his language at the same time as they become a part of the physical action on stage. Two examples come to mind: the image of the Donnellys hemmed in by concession lines and neighbours expressed through patterns of rope or wood on the floor of the stage as well as through the rhythmic chanting of the roads of Biddulph and the names of the neighbours; and the heroic journey of Mrs. Donnelly from Biddulph to Goderich to appeal her husband's sentence, expressed physically through the climbing of pyramids of ladders and verbally...
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[In] spite of the positive qualities one may find in this long overdue selection of Reaney's verse [Selected Shorter Poems], in spite of the evidence of growth, the poetry remains disturbingly eccentric—eccentric not in the sense of being merely odd or whimsical, but in the way it often seems removed from a common centre of human experience. Tarzan of the Apes, the Katzenjammer Kids, fantastic crows, choughs and woodpeckers, Spenser, Yeats, Blake, Isabella Valancy Crawford, the Brontës, Antichrist, Granny Crack—these are some of the figures who jostle in a private mythology which many readers are likely to find more perplexing than illuminating. The alternative vision which Reaney has substituted for the "great sad real" world may, after all, be only an evasion of that reality, not a transformation of it.
Doubts of this sort are likely to be provoked by A Suit of Nettles…. The poem is described by the author as, among many other things, a satire on "all the intellectual institutions of the age," but Reaney can deal with this overlarge subject only by oversimplifying the issues involved…. [His Canadian history, for example, is] seen from the limited perspective of Southern Ontario, perhaps not the best place for a satirist to be standing. Philosophy, too, is disposed of in a charmingly off-hand manner. We are given a merry-go-round ride through the history of the subject, from Parmenides to Heidegger, and end...
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