James Reaney describes Colours in the Dark as a “playbox,” in which the protagonist, Pa, reviews his life, pulling from his playbox of memories a host of events that are important to his development. This two-act play contains forty-two scenes or units—twenty-one in each act—which singly or in clusters relate these incidents. They are presented with little or no narrative sequence or cohesion, with characters playing multiple roles, and with places shifting into and interchanging with one another.
The play begins with a simple domestic scene: a family birthday party. The projection screen at the back of the stage shows colors. In the foreground, a game of musical chairs is in progress; both adults and children are taking part. Pa, whose fortieth birthday it is, is blindfolded and is identifying people and colors correctly. The others try to trick him, but he continues to guess correctly and is pressed into revealing how he became so adept at establishing colors in the dark. As he blows out the candles on his cake, the stage becomes dark and the scene shifts to Pa as a ten-year-old boy sick with measles. The boy’s mother bandages his eyes and keeps the room in total darkness to help his recovery. The boy keeps his coloring book and crayons and colors in the dark, hoping later to see if he can get colors right without light. The mother and boy disappear and Pa reappears with two Sundogs, who are identified as his mother and father, one on each side of him. They evidently are supporting and sustaining him.
Subsequent units or scenes of act 1 relate the boy’s gradual growth from innocence to experience while living with his parents. The scenes recount common, everyday occurrences, whose complex and multiple significance is indicated by colors and images flashed on backdrop screens evoking historical and mythical incidents which parallel those in the boy’s life. In one unit, the grandmother is hanging clothes on a line, helped by children who fight one another holding fir and maple branches; in another, a bear carries off a child, who soon reappears and with other children forms a family-tree pyramid (a prominent motif of the play), chanting that it takes hundreds of ancestors to make a child. Other units tell of children breaking dishes, making paper boats, fighting in the street, seeing the king and queen of England on a tour of Canada, visiting a general store, and trying to dance like Shirley Temple and Orphan Annie.
As Pa grows older, he encounters many adults who exert more influence on his life than his parents did, such as the harsh schoolmaster who whips children for spelling a word incorrectly. The schoolmaster is later brought before the courts to stand trial for cruelty, but in spite of testimony from the children with red welts on their backs, the adults conspire to confuse the children, and the schoolmaster is acquitted. The children somehow gain strength and whip the schoolmaster, the lawyer, and the judge—indicating perhaps that the children will be equally tyrannical as adults.
In act 2, Pa, as a youth, leaves the protection of home to enter the “World of Experience.” In the early scenes, he is tortured by insecurities, self-doubts, and inner conflicts. Pa and Son take on the roles of two youths, Boy 1 and Boy 2, who evidently represent conflicting aspects of the psyche of Pa as a youth. The two boys take antithetical stances on several issues: one, for example, is for sexual permissiveness while the other is not; one affects sophistication and dismisses the small town while the...
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other sees it as a world of warmth and honesty.
Several units are set in Toronto, where Pa attends the university, and Winnipeg. In these cities, he acquires various insights and experiences and gradually matures. On the death of his mentor, the primitive poet and hermit, Mr. Winemeyer, he feels alone and abandoned. He would like to follow the reincarnated Mr. Winemeyer as a luna moth but is told that he cannot do so yet; he is assured that the luna moth will be there to guide him as he makes his way in the big cities. In another scene, he and Bible Sal, who in act 1 is shown copying the Bible from cover to cover, challenge the rationalism and cynicism of the learned university professor Dr. Button, affirming Pa’s belief in the prominence of the imagination.
Perhaps the most important scene in act 2 is unit 16, “The Fable of the Babysitter and the Baby,” in which Pa confronts a deformed child, born without arms and legs. His first response is revulsion and disgust, but as the child pleads for his help, he eventually arrives at a mature understanding of and an ability to accept disease and death as part of human life, and he learns to cope with these realities with compassion and love.
After this experience, Pa is now ready for marriage. The marriage scene is followed immediately by one which shows death threatening the couple’s baby. The children save the baby by raising a lightning rod to create thunder and lightning that cause the baby to cry and rouse the parents to come to his rescue. The screen shows a child triumphant over death.
The final unit returns the play to the birthday party and the guessing game—where Pa is explaining to all how he became so skilled at guessing colors in the dark. The sick ten-year-old child is seen with his mother. He has been ill for forty days, but is now well. Winter has turned to spring, the grass is green, and leaves are on the trees—all symbolic of regeneration. The play ends with the players forming a huge family-tree pyramid, a concluding image of the many individuals and factors that go into the making of a single human being.
The form and techniques of Colours in the Dark amplify the theme of the individual as the sum total of a host of personal, ancestral, historical, and mythic experiences. There is little narrative flow or linearity. The main action—if it could be described as such—takes place in the mid-twentieth century, but time past and present constantly fold into, overlap, and parallel each other. Though the play is set primarily in Ontario’s Perth County, Winnipeg, and Toronto, these spatial settings, like the temporal, shift and fade into one another throughout the play. Whatever narrative there is, then, is clearly intended to be taken both literally and metaphorically—another feature that underscores the idea of multiplicity.
The six players introduced in the opening scenes have many roles, suggesting the composite nature of the individual. Pa’s psyche draws on those of his parents, and as he grows up he has the potential to be any number of persons—the roles that he is called upon to play. Some critics feel that this form of characterization deprives the play of emotional depth and hinders the viewer’s involvement with the action.
A barrage of dramatic and poetic images further underlines the individual’s multiplicity. These images themselves often have multiple associations; they are fairly obvious when the text is read but demand close attention when presented on the stage, where they could easily become too dense. Colors feature prominently, with white, comprising the various colors of the rainbow, evincing diversity as well as unity. Other image patterns are associated with vegetation, animals, the solar system, the seasons, the calendar, diseases and plagues, numerology, and songs. These images appear in the language of the text as well as on the stage as objects and on the backdrop screens, which are important devices in the play. The use of multiple forms—dialogue and action, songs and poems, illustrations and diagrams, slides and screens—constitutes yet another means of conveying the theme of the complexity of the individual’s spiritual composition.
Sources for Further Study
Dragland, Stan, ed. Approaches to the Work of James Reaney. Downsview, Ont.: ECW Press, 1991.
Lee, Alvin A. James Reaney. New York: Twayne, 1968.
Parker, Gerald D. How to Play: The Theatre of James Reaney. Downsview, Ont.: ECW Press, 1991.
Reaney, J. Stewart. James Reaney. Agincourt, Ont.: Gage Educational, 1977.
Tait, Michael. “Everything Is Something: James Reaney’s Colours in the Dark.” In Dramatists in Canada: Selected Essays, edited by W. H. New. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1972.
Warkentin, Germaine. “The Artist in Labour: James Reaney’s Play.” Journal of Canadian Fiction 2 (Winter, 1973): 88-91.
Woodman, Ross. James Reaney. Toronto, Ont.: McClelland and Stewart, 1975.