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.
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...
(The entire section is 456 words.)
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 about the much-discussed influence of Frye on his work. I have long entertained a private vision of Frye reading through Reaney while muttering "What have I wrought?" or "This is not what I meant, at all," and this collection confirms it. Reaney is to Frye as a Salem, Mass. 17th century tombstone is to an Italian Renaissance angel: Reaney and the tombstone may have been "influenced", but they are primitives (though later in time) and their models are sophisticates. The influence of Frye, however, was probably a catalyst for Reaney rather than a new ingredient; let me do a little deductive speculation.
The world presented to us in the early poems, up to and including The Red Heart (1949), does not "work" for the poet on any level. The people in them are bored and trivial, like "Mrs. Wentworth", or they are actual or potential orphans, loveless, lost or disinherited, like the speaker in "Playbox"…. The reverse side of the melancholy state of being an orphan—hate for and disgust at the rest of the world and the desire for revenge—is explored in two other orphan poems, "The English Orphan's Monologue" and "The Orphanage"…. In these "social" poems, Reaney does not analyze, he dramatizes; and, like a dramatist, he counterpoints. Thus to the smothered longing of the provincial in the "Canadian" poems he opposes the sneering of a cosmopolite who has escaped the Fathers of Confederation [and] is reading Tristram Shandy and Anais Nin…. If this poem had been written by anyone else but Reaney, everyone would have called it savage socialist satire; in fact it's a good deal more savage and socialist than much that passes by that name.
In these early poems the objects—and the poems bulge with objects—create the effect of a kind of rummage sale, partly because the objects are lacking in all but personal significance…. The speaker can rarely make "sense" of them by relating them to anything else; all he can do is record them, and the effect is a still-life, captured and rendered immobile…. (pp. 113-15)
In the early poems on "love"—and there are quite a few of them—the love is either unconsummated, as in "Platonic Love", or it turns into sex, which is as inextricably linked with death as it is in the poetry of Al Purdy. This is sex observed through a child's eyes, foreign and monstrous. At times Reaney manages a kind of queasy humour…. More often it is simple horror, mixed with revulsion, as in "The Orphanage"….
Reaney's early world, then, is an unredeemed one,...
(The entire section is 1638 words.)
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. The satirical strain, however, is the lesser part of his purpose—I was going to say "lesser half", but it isn't anything like half—and the other part branches out rather discordantly from the first. This satirical part, however, is dramatically most reliable, and has the most dependable precedents, so that it tends to be theatrically more successful. The first act of several of his plays, as in The Killdeer, The Sun and the Moon, and Three Desks—the part of the play which is closest to social satire—comes off very well. (p. 323)
But the second and third acts of a Reaney play take a radical turn into strange territory…. In short, the play turns to the great romantic tradition, of transcendence, of magic, or religious implication, and here we are in the country of W. B. Yeats, Maurice Maeterlinck, J. M. Barrie and other visionaries of the "eternal return".
The satire itself springs from a very close personal response to provincial life: one has the impression of a very superiorminded young man cast by fate into a pathetic small-town environment and undergoing all the irritations of being forever trapped in a hen-house or a parsonage. (p. 324)
The strange infantilism of Reaney's poetry and plays is somehow related to this sense of the absurdity of life. The unkindest interpretation of this aspect of Reaney is that the painful prison of provincialism pressing on the mind of the gifted poet has produced a kind of "arrested development", in which the language and the fantasy-world of childhood remains the only imaginative and vital reality for him and the one to which he perpetually returns. A more sympathetic literary account would relate this infantile strain to Blake's theory of innocence and the general romantic idyllic myth of childhood.
William Blake was perhaps the first poet in history to offer infantile inanity and childish doggerel as serious poetry, and this to the eternal confusion of literature, since in his work abominable poetry is bound up with the most profound and far-reaching ideas…. The delusion that this sort...
(The entire section is 1464 words.)
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...
(The entire section is 798 words.)
[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...
(The entire section is 472 words.)