James Reaney Analysis

Other Literary Forms

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Since the late 1940’s, when James Reaney first distinguished himself as one of Canada’s most provocative writers, he has amassed an impressive list of publications in all areas of creative and scholarly writing. In addition to more than twenty-five plays produced on stage, radio, and television, Reaney has written four volumes of award-winning poetry (The Red Heart, 1949; A Suit of Nettles, 1958; Twelve Letters to a Small Town, 1962; The Dance of Death at London, Ontario, 1963). His individual pieces, published in a wide variety of literary magazines and academic journals, have been collected into three separate volumes by editor Germaine Warkentin (Poems, 1972; Selected Shorter Poems, 1975; Selected Longer Poems, 1976). With composer John Beckwith, Reaney developed skills as a librettist, setting his poetry to Beckwith’s music for radio broadcast in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s.

Like his drama, much of Reaney’s poetry concerns the power of language as a redemptive catalyst in a corrupt and evil world. Geographically set in his native region of southwestern Ontario, his poetry is essentially lyric pastoral with characters, situations, and the landscape transformed by the imagery and such diverse poetic structures as eclogues, dialogue, and prosaic narrative. Reaney’s poetry is a testament to his fascination with the musical patterns of rhyme and rhythm, demonstrating the author’s talent for iambic pentameter, doggerel, rhyming couplets, blank verse, and lyric stanzas.

Reaney’s short stories, written between 1946 and 1955, are also set in small-town Ontario. Young women with disturbing and unresolved emotional conflicts dominate the action of these stories. Beneath the calm, romantic façade of domesticity, Reaney’s heroines hide a passionate intensity, which is revealed in the often surprising climaxes to the stories. Two juvenile novels and a journal of the cross-country tour of the Donnelly trilogy fill out his creative dossier. As a highly respected professor of literature, Reaney has published works on a variety of scholarly and literary topics in numerous academic publications.

James Reaney Achievements

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

A distinguished poet, playwright, and scholar, James Reaney has won three Governor General’s Awards for poetry and drama, as well as a Chalmer’s Award for drama. His first major dramatic work, The Killdeer, collected five of the top awards at the Dominion Drama Festival in 1960 for Reaney, Pamela Terry (director), the designer, and two performers. The numerous awards and accolades garnered during his career are but one measure of Reaney’s impact on modern Canadian literature. The success of The Killdeer thrust Reaney into the limelight of a small, elite group of contemporary Canadian writers who had a marked effect on the growth of professional theater (and dramatic literature) in Canada.

Reaney has been involved in theatrical production since his high school days, and the sheer number of plays that he has written and had produced (more than twenty-five) is an enormous achievement in a country whose theatrical traditions began to reach maturity more than twenty years after he began writing drama. One of his early goals was to provide Canadians with a portrait of their own unique experiences. As he said in a 1977 interview with University of Western Ontario News, “We need new plays, and Ontario is a very fascinating place.”

Besides the significant contribution that Reaney has made to Canadian literature, he has also been influential in his role as teacher. Through his children’s literature, his courses in creative writing, and his Listeners’ Workshops, Reaney has led a new generation of young Canadians to an appreciation of poetry, drama, and their own unique history.

James Reaney Bibliography

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Dragland, Stan, ed. Approaches to the Work of James Reaney. Downsview, Ont.: ECW Press, 1983. Northrop Frye’s influence on Reaney is the subject of two essays presented here.

Grandy, Karen. “Playing with Time: James Reaney’s The Donnelleys as Spatial Form Drama.” Modern Drama 38, no. 4 (Winter, 1995): 462. Explores some of Reaney’s unique techniques for dealing with time—both linear history and a circle of myth.

Lee, Alvin A. James Reaney. New York: Twayne, 1968. A dated but still helpful biography from the Twayne’s World Authors series.

Lee, Alvin A. “A Turn to the Stage: Reaney’s Dramatic Verse.” In Dramatists in Canada: Selected Essays, edited by William H. New. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1972. Offers “a description of the major writings in an attempt to show something of his [Reaney’s] development as a verse dramatist.” Deals with The Red Heart, A Suit of Nettles (briefly), and the chamber opera Night-Blooming Cereus. Long discussion of The Killdeer and The Easter Egg.

Parker, Gerald. How to Play: The Theatre of James Reaney. Toronto: ECW Press, 1991. Three long chapters explore the importance to Reaney of Canada and Ontario, the symbolic and visual elements in his...

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