Colours in the Dark

by James Reaney

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Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 490

Colours in the Dark was a milestone in James Reaney’s career as a dramatist: It gave him his first professional success when it was produced at Stratford, Ontario, in 1967, Canada’s centennial year. It was his first play to explore extensively the rich possibilities of using multimedia devices to engage and expand his viewers’ imagination, and it was his first play to abandon almost altogether conventional narrative and plot, providing cohesion instead through an intricate reticulation of dramatic and poetic images and an intertwining and overlapping of times, places, and characters. In both earlier and later plays, he has eschewed the conventional and the realistic, but not to the extent that he does in Colours in the Dark.

Like many of his other plays, Colours in the Dark is embedded in Reaney’s Southwestern Ontario, but it is the play that most readily transcends the regional and national through its grand design of encompassing the history of humankind as told in the Bible and of probing humankind’s collective past and ancestral memory.

The play occupies a place between two phases in Reaney’s development. In such earlier works as The Killdeer (pr. 1960), The Sun and the Moon (pb. 1962), and The Easter Egg (pr. 1962), many of the devices and themes of Colours in the Dark are evident. There one finds the free verse of poetic drama, the dramatic and poetic imagery that functions both literally and symbolically, and the strange unrealistic world. There are also the themes of innocence confronting experience, the potential for violence, the power of imagination, and the emphasis on love and sympathy. These early plays, however, lack the richness of devices and themes found in Colours in the Dark, and though they are impressive plays, particularly The Killdeer, in relation to Colours in the Dark, they are considered by some critics to be apprenticeship pieces.

These early plays and Colours in the Dark can be seen as a preparation for what is perhaps Reaney’s most convincing dramatic achievement, the Donnelly trilogy: Sticks & Stones (pr. 1973, pb. 1974), St. Nicholas Hotel, Wm Donnelly, Prop. (pr. 1974, pb. 1975), and Handcuffs (pr. 1975, pb. 1976). Here, as in Colours in the Dark, Reaney again employs multiple forms—poetry, songs, dance, mime, marionettes, and screens—but he effects a more persuasive fusion of the poetic and the dramatic, the mythic and the historical, the symbolic and the realistic as he portrays the murder of the Donnelly family, an event that actually occurred in 1880 in Southwestern Ontario.

Reaney’s subsequent plays, such as Baldoon (pr., pb. 1976), based on a Southwestern Ontario poltergeist story, and Wacousta! (pr. 1978, pb. 1979), a melodramatic retelling of John Richardson’s novel Wacousta (1832), are not as successful as what came before. Reaney, who has won three Governor General’s awards, has secured for himself, through works such as The Killdeer, Colours in the Dark, and the Donnelly trilogy, a position as one of Canada’s most innovative and outstanding playwrights.

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