James Crerar Reaney, born in 1926 on a small farm in Fundamentalist southwestern Ontario (about ninety miles from the major cultural center of Toronto), grew up in a family and a community that was predominantly Irish and Scottish. The family broke with the conventional teachings of their congregation, Gospel Hall, and conducted prayer meetings at home. As Reaney grew older, he was sent to attend an Interdenominational Sunday school and later a combination Presbyterian and Congregational Sunday school, where the evangelical nature of the teachings had a dramatic effect on his imagination. The gothic tones and melodrama of the church teachings are clearly evident in his early plays The Killdeer, The Sun and the Moon, and Listen to the Wind.
By the time Reaney was graduated from high school, he was an accomplished musician and linguist. On a scholarship, he moved to Toronto to study Greek and Latin at the country’s most distinguished college, the University of Toronto. It was during his study of classical languages that Reaney began his exploration of the alphabet and his fascination with the creative possibilities of a flexible language. He began to experiment with word lists as a way of developing an inventory of life, imagination, and experience; these word lists grew into volumes of highly acclaimed poetry. The underlying concept of the word catalogs is an iconography of the imagination—a concept that came to fruition with the founding of an unusual literary journal, Alphabet, published from 1960 to 1971. Reaney’s experimentation with language as an integral part of dramatic structure is demonstrated in his 1967 play Colours in the Dark but shows itself in its most mature form in the Donnelly trilogy, written between 1968 and 1974. The trilogy brought Reaney national acclaim as one of Canada’s foremost playwrights.
By 1947, Reaney had already achieved national notoriety as a provocative young talent with the publication of his short story “The Box Social” in the July 19, 1947, issue of New Liberty Magazine. This macabre story, which tells of a young man whose girlfriend presents him with a stillborn fetus during a church social, set the tone for much of his early writing. Reaney’s world is an unsettling mixture of good and evil where pastoral romance, rural realism, and strong strains of melodrama are held together by the common thread of childhood experience, simultaneously innocent and corrupt.
While completing his M.A. at the University of Toronto in 1949, Reaney published his first volume of poetry, The Red Heart, which won the Governor General’s Award, the most prestigious literary prize in Canada (comparable to the Pulitzer Prize). It was also during this time that the young writer came under the influence of Northrop Frye, the internationally acclaimed scholar and literary critic whose pioneering study of William Blake, Fearful Symmetry (1947), was to revolutionize modern literary analysis. Although Reaney was not yet a student of Frye, he was very much a part of the literary elite at the university who were preoccupied with discussion and analysis of Frye’s important work. Fearful Symmetry provided Reaney with an archetypal vision of the Bible that became the impetus for much of the imagery and metaphor in both his poetry and drama. As Ross Woodman says in his excellent introduction to James Reaney (1971), Frye’s work transformed “in a comprehensive and systematic way Reaney’s earlier evangelical world into a literary one.”
With his M.A. completed and the Governor General’s Award in hand, Reaney accepted a position at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg (the gateway to the Canadian West) to teach English and creative writing. The years in Winnipeg (until 1956) were difficult for Reaney, who felt isolated from the creative activity of southern Ontario, but it was also a time when he forged important friendships with people such as stage director John Hirsch (who later founded the Manitoba Theatre Centre, one of...
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