Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1987
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 Canada’s leading performing arts facilities) and playwright Tom Hendry. Both men, along with Keith Turnbull of the NDWT (Ne’er-Do-Well-Thespians) Company, would have an important influence on Reaney’s development as a dramatist.
It was also during this period that Reaney began writing librettos for composer John Beckwith, whom he had met as an undergraduate at the University of Toronto. Their first coproduction, Night-Blooming Cereus, was also Reaney’s initial attempt at dramatic writing and was produced on radio by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) in 1959 and staged in 1960.
Each summer during the Winnipeg years, Reaney returned to Stratford to write and to take part in an important cultural event in his hometown. Internationally famous actor/director/producer Tyrone Guthrie had come to Stratford (from London, England) to found the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. The festival began in a large marquee in the early 1950’s and had grown by the late 1960’s to encompass the Festival Theatre (a Shakespearean thrust stage), the Avon Theatre (a proscenium arch theater), and the Third Stage (a flexible, experimental space). Reaney’s participation in the formative years of the Stratford experiment solidified his desire to write for the stage. His first attempt at a full-length play, “The Rules of Joy” (later rewritten and retitled The Sun and the Moon), was conceived with the Festival Theatre stage in mind, but it was not until 1967 that the festival commissioned Reaney to write a major work for the Stratford stage. Colours in the Dark, which was performed at the Avon Theatre in 1967, was not only a watershed piece in Reaney’s evolution as a dramatist but also a celebration of the nation itself—written to commemorate Canada’s one hundredth birthday.
At home in Stratford for Christmas of 1951, Reaney married Colleen Thibaudeau, an accomplished poet of Irish and Acadian French background whom he had met during his years at the University of Toronto. Both had been members of a small literary group at the university, and Reaney respected both her accomplishments and her advice on his writing. Thibaudeau, whose poetic style was very different from his, had a substantial impact on the tone and quality of Reaney’s writing. The often negative view of marriage and family life presented in his early works changed and mellowed after their marriage and the birth of their first son, James Stewart, in 1953. The Reaneys had another son, John Andrew, in 1954, and a daughter, Susan Alice, in 1959. While Reaney was in rehearsal with one of his most romantic plays, Listen to the Wind, John Andrew died at the age of eleven. The published version of Listen to the Wind is dedicated to Reaney’s son.
In 1956, Reaney took a two-year sabbatical from the University of Manitoba and returned to the University of Toronto in 1956 to write his doctoral thesis, “The Influence of Spenser on Yeats.” He enrolled in Northrop Frye’s course on literary symbolism and finally came under the direct influence of the great scholar when Frye became Reaney’s thesis supervisor. His studies with Frye brought together the many facets of literature and myth that Reaney had been exploring for decades. His love of nursery rhymes, fairy tales, and all other literary paraphernalia of childhood began to take on a new meaning: Childhood fantasy, evangelism, and the magic of pastoral romance merged with marionettes, children’s games, and his growing understanding of the many possibilities of stage business. Reaney, who had bicycled more than one hundred miles to see the opening of Walt Disney’s Fantasia (1940), was on the brink of creating his own very personal vocabulary for poetry and drama.
With his doctorate completed, Reaney returned to Winnipeg and to the business of teaching and writing. In 1958, his second volume of poetry, A Suit of Nettles, was greeted with critical enthusiasm and, in 1959, a second Governor General’s Award. In Winnipeg, Reaney began work on his first major play, The Killdeer, the story of an emotionally retarded young man and the young lovers who help him reach both maturity and reality. Reaney had difficulty restraining the narrative to fit the dramatic structure. He sent the play to Toronto to his friend Pamela Terry (who was later to marry composer Beckwith), and with her assistance the play was rewritten and finally produced, with Terry as director, in 1960. This first version of The Killdeer won five awards at the Dominion Drama Festival, and in 1962, the play and Reaney’s radio poem, Twelve Letters to a Small Town, won for him a third Governor General’s Award.
The year of The Killdeer was a new beginning. Reaney began dedicating more and more time to his dramatic writing. He returned from Winnipeg and accepted a professorship at the University of Western Ontario, in London, Ontario. The year 1960 also saw the first volume of Alphabet: A Semiannual Devoted to the Iconography of the Imagination and the flourishing of his scholarly writings in such esteemed academic and literary journals as Tamarack Review, Canadian Literature, Canadian Forum, and the University of Toronto Quarterly.
Reaney understood that it was essential to develop actors, directors, and creative support-staff simultaneously with the evolution of his writing style—artists whose diverse approaches to theater would enhance his writing. To this end, he established the Listeners’ Workshops , which began at the Alphacentre in London, Ontario, in 1967. The workshops were a joint project of many in the artistic community who believed that performers need to relearn how to play and to be inventive in the way children are as they engage in make-believe. Children and adults, amateurs and professionals all participated in the Saturday morning sessions, directed by Reaney, which explored sound, music, movement, poetry, play, myth, and magic in an effort to develop a vibrant ensemble theater. The freedom of imagination that evolved in the workshops redefined for Reaney the meaning of ensemble playing. From the workshops grew a core of fiercely loyal, creative people who ultimately formed the nucleus of the NDWT Company, the troupe with which Reaney worked on the Donnelly trilogy.
Reaney continued to write both poetry and plays. In the mid-1960’s, he was particularly influenced by a performance of the Beijing opera, where mime, movement, and masks replaced traditional properties and stage sets. Fascinated by the circus-like nature of the production, Reaney assimilated the experience and began work on his major opus, the Donnelly trilogy, which was to take nearly ten years to complete. The story of an outcast Irish family in rural Ontario at the turn of the century, the Donnelly plays brought to fruition the various threads of poetry, music, drama, dance, documentary, mime, circus, and magic that appear in embryonic form in the early plays. In 1974, The Donnellys: Part II, St. Nicholas Hotel, Wm Donnelly, Prop., the second of the three Donnelly plays, won the Chalmers Award for Drama, the prize for outstanding stage writing in Canada.
The success of the trilogy was unlike anything that had happened before in Canadian theater. Over a period of three years, each of the three plays was a huge box-office and critical success when it was first presented in Toronto. Even more remarkable was the reception of the trilogy tour across eight of the ten provinces—proving that Canadian audiences were as interested in poetry, drama, and local history as was the author. In 1975, Reaney and the NDWT Company took the three plays from coast to coast, ending the tour in Toronto, where all three plays were presented again. Audiences in Toronto had the opportunity to see the entire trilogy performed in one day (each play is more than three and a half hours long) with a break for lunch and dinner. This once-in-a-lifetime opportunity sold out. The experience of the tour has been recorded in Reaney’s book Fourteen Barrels from Sea to Sea (1977). With the tour complete, Reaney was awarded the Order of Canada in 1975. In the wake of this success, Reaney turned increasingly to dramas focused on the history and culture of southwestern Ontario, but such plays as Wacousta! and The Canadian Brothers met with mixed receptions.