Colours in the Dark Analysis
by James Reaney

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The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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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 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...

(The entire section is 1,422 words.)