Colours in the Dark shows the extent to which each human individual is the accumulation of a host of personal, historical, and mythic factors. Pa’s growth is portrayed through a recounting of a barrage of personal experiences but also through the histories of his immediate ancestors, his people, his country, and humankind. Events in Pa’s life are recurringly paralleled, juxtaposed, or intermingled with incidents in world history and Canadian history. His birth, for example, is described in terms of the Adam and Eve story and of the scourge of original sin; Bible Sal significantly completes copying Genesis immediately after the birth of the protagonist. In the scene where the schoolmaster whips the children, Tecumseh, the Shawnee Indian chief, who was flogged by the Yankees in the nineteenth century, makes an appearance. Fighting between the Roman Catholic and the Protestant children suggests the French-English conflict in Canada. Act 1 ends with Pa as a boy trying to cross a bridge; he is pulled by people on one side and by the Bear and Lady Death on the other. This tug-of-war symbolizes the child’s reluctance to cross into the world of adulthood, where he will lose his naïveté and innocence and become responsible for his decisions. The appearance of Adolf Hitler in this unit indicates that, like humankind, the child could become cruel should he forget his parental and ancestral values once he leaves home.
The play is, on the most obvious level, a study of the spiritual growth of a particular individual—Pa—whose experiences closely parallel the author’s. Pa’s growth from innocence to experience is an important aspect of the play, at the end of which he comes to believe in the prominence of the imagination over reason and the importance of love and compassion in human relationships; further, he recognizes that death and disease are a part of life but that man is capable of rejuvenating and revitalizing himself and triumphing over death.
On other levels, the play is about humankind’s beginnings and early history as rendered in the Bible and about its later spiritual and moral history. It is also about the formation of the Canadian ethos. As James Reaney says, the viewer of the play is seeing his “whole life” as well as “all of life.” Though these levels are observable and distinct in the play, they are evidently also intended to be complementary to Reaney’s study of the multiplicity of factors that go into the making of each human being.