Critical Context

The Killdeer, The Sun and the Moon (wr. 1959, pb. 1962, pr. 1965), and The Easter Egg (pr. 1962, pb. 1972) are considered apprenticeship pieces. In these works, Reaney was learning how to adapt his poetic gifts to the demands of dramatic form. The Killdeer, the most impressive of these early plays, won the Governor General’s Award for the best Canadian drama published in 1962. There Reaney established many of the devices and themes that have reappeared in subsequent plays such as Colours in the Dark (pr. 1967, pb. 1969), his most innovative and multilayered play, and what is perhaps his most convincing dramatic achievement, the Donnelly trilogy: Sticks & Stones (pr. 1973, pb. 1975); St. Nicholas Hotel, Wm Donnelly, Prop. (pr. 1974, pb. 1976); and Handcuffs (pr. 1975, pb. 1977).

Colours in the Dark was Reaney’s first play to explore extensively the rich possibilities of using multimedia devices to engage and expand the viewer’s imagination; it was also his first play to abandon conventional plot and to provide cohesion through an intertwining and overlapping of times, places, and characters. Like The Killdeer, Colours in the Dark is embedded in Reaney’s native southwestern Ontario, and it similarly, if more readily, transcends the regional and national through its grand design, encompassing the history of humankind as told in the Bible and probing humanity’s collective past and ancestral memory.

In the Donnelly trilogy, based on the murder of a family in southwestern Ontario in 1880, Reaney again employs multiple forms—poetry, song, dance, mime, marionettes, and screens—but he more effectively integrates the poetic and the dramatic, the mythic and the historical, the symbolic and the realistic, the static and the suspenseful.

Reaney’s subsequent plays, such as Baldoon (pr., pb. 1976), based on a poltergeist story, and Wacousta! (pr. 1978, pb. 1979), a melodramatic retelling of John Richardson’s novel Wacousta (1832), have been less successful. In spite of this falling off, Reaney, who has won two other Governor General’s Awards in addition to that for The Killdeer, has secured for himself a position as one of Canada’s most innovative and outstanding playwrights.