James Reaney

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James Reaney has said “William Blake’s poetry is the kind of ideal I have in which there’s painting and dance and rhythm and poetry and sound, a whole world on various levels. . . . I’m not interested in writing a play that’s two dimensional. It’s got to have references to your whole psyche.” Reaney had fulfilled his vision of multidimensional drama in his masterpiece, the Donnelly trilogy, by the time he made this statement in 1976. In retrospect, one can see that it is a vision equally applicable to his earliest attempts at stage drama.

The Killdeer

The original three-act version of The Killdeer, produced by the University College Alumnae Association in Toronto in 1960, brought Reaney national acclaim as a playwright. This work is an excellent model for investigating the Reaney universe of themes, symbols, characters, and techniques common throughout his drama. A study of The Killdeer has this to recommend it as well: The play was rewritten in a more economical two-act version in 1968 at a time when Reaney began mulling the task of turning the legend of the Black Donnellys into a major stage presentation, a project that took nearly ten years of writing and research to complete.

Both versions of The Killdeer share elements of romance, mystery, and melodrama. In the original three-act version, the structure of the play hints strongly of a “well-made play” formula, with a third-act trial scene in which a deus ex machina figure delivers previously unknown evidence that resolves the plot complications.

The story concerns two families who are inextricably bound through generations of greed, lust, love, and murder. At the center of attention are two innocents—a young boy, Eli, who raises angora rabbits, and a girl, Rebecca, who delivers farm eggs to the townsfolk. Rebecca and Eli are about to marry. They are the offspring of two half sisters and share a common history of horror. Eli’s mother, Madam Fay, is responsible for the death of Rebecca’s mother and brothers, and her own husband, who was Eli’s father, and she is also responsible for the mental breakdown of Rebecca’s father. Both youngsters have grown up essentially as orphans (a favorite Reaney character-type). Rebecca’s hope is that their marriage will be “love’s solution to the puzzle of hatred.” As she says, “Eli and I will untie the evil knot.”

Unbeknownst to Rebecca, she and Eli are trapped in separate but intersecting worlds of malevolence and horror that threaten to destroy the beneficent, regenerative power they represent. A hired man named Clifford, who has reared Eli, plots to destroy them both. Rebecca’s other dilemma is that she is in love with Harry Gardner, a young bank clerk whose life is dominated by his overpowering mother, just as Rebecca’s life is dominated by her sense of duty. What is common to all is that they cannot follow their true instincts; circumstances that are the legacy of the previous generation force each character into a loveless, death-in-life existence that leads irrevocably to violent death.

As in all Reaney plays, the strong narrative line of The Killdeer implies that his primary concern is to resolve the mystery and to allow virtue to triumph, but a close examination of his works reveals another purpose. Reaney is interested in exploring the subtext, the subconscious realm of imagination and instinct. He probes inside the human and social psyche, looking beneath the surface of settings that are often romantic, pastoral, and idyllic. There, he finds greed, lust, hatred, malice, and fear, but also love.

Appropriately, the first characters that one meets in The Killdeer are Mrs....

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Gardner and Madam Fay—two mothers, starkly contrasting types. Reaney is both fascinated and repelled by the power of motherhood. Typical of most of Reaney’s married women, Mrs. Gardner and Madam Fay are widows who stand alone against the world. They are strong personalities, powerful obstacles in the way of their children’s happiness and development into adulthood.

Mrs. Gardner is a typical small-town, churchgoing woman whose veneer of good manners conceals her narrow-mindedness, her ambition, and her fascination with things sinful and evil. She has dominated her son into a state of compliance and despair. Madam Fay, at the other end of the spectrum, is the local bad girl, talking tough, feeling nothing but contempt for the holier-than-thou townsfolk. She has knowledge of the real world and therefore no use for its false pretenses to civility and manners. She wears her sordid past as if it were a badge of honor.

Madam Fay is an interestingly drawn character (of a type that recurs throughout Reaney’s works): She appears to have no sense of right and wrong, no guilt. She is in no way the conventional “whore with a heart of gold.” She admits responsibility for the deaths of her half sister, two nephews, and husband. She reveals that she abandoned her own son and cares nothing for him. She laughs at her part in the mental breakdown of her illicit lover. Yet despite her confessions, the viewer is intrigued rather than repulsed by her character, wanting to know the motivation behind such action; thus, the author creates the curiosity that moves the play along to its dramatic conclusion.

In addition to the dominating hypocrite (Mrs. Gardner) and the demoniac yet honest primitive (Madam Fay), the play presents other character-types that recur throughout Reaney’s works. Rebecca is exactly what one would expect of the heroine of a melodrama and much more—she is candid, untainted, naïve, loving, calm, brave, loyal, and bright. Most important, she is an orphan, and like the other orphans of Reaney’s world (including Madam Fay), she is independent, intelligent, and self-sufficient. Like Polly in The Easter Egg and Susan Kingbird in The Sun and the Moon (two other young heroines), when confronted with the necessity to sacrifice her own needs for the betterment of those around her, Rebecca is willing to make the sacrifice—made with no hint of martyrdom or melodrama, as one might expect. Reaney seems to be saying that such women are necessary to absolve the play world of the sins of the other characters. To ensure ultimate justice, none of his heroines has to live long with her sacrifice: Justice is restored by the end of the play.

Two more significant figures are introduced before the canvas is complete. Eli, the unwilling bridegroom, and his mentor-tormentor, Clifford, one of Reaney’s finest villains, appear next. Eli is half man, half child, emotionally stunted by the traumatic experiences of his past and mesmerized by Clifford’s evil. Clifford has forced Eli into the marriage as a way of getting possession of Rebecca and her land. Eli is the ultimate battered and abused child. His real tragedy is that he is intelligent and perceptive enough to understand Clifford’s machinations, but he does not have the power to stop him.

Eli’s powerlessness is important. He is as trapped by his history as Harry Gardner is by his mother’s conditioning. Eli and others like him (Kenneth in The Easter Egg, Andrew Kingbird in The Sun and the Moon, and Rogue in Listen to the Wind) are all trapped in a limbo between adolescence and manhood. Such characters need to be freed by the power of love, the power of language, the power of knowledge. In contrast to these brutalized and immature male characters, Reaney presents female characters who, despite common histories of childhood neglect and abuse, have grown to be mature and self-reliant. Repeatedly in Reaney’s plays, the maturation of male characters is facilitated by the strength of female characters.

In 1968, Reaney rewrote The Killdeer, telescoping the action and characters into two acts and making considerable changes in the plot line. Technically, the second version is more adventurous: Flashbacks, choruses, significant properties, and clarified symbols dominate the stage directions. The revision demonstrates that Reaney had gained considerable confidence in the interim between the two versions, teaching himself to simplify the poetry, the plot, and the stage business. He allows his characters to be more explicit, adding a sense of urgency and eliminating much of the melodramatic formula of the first version. What feels confessional in the first version becomes exciting, forthright dialogue in the second version. By looking at the two versions in combination, one can see much of the landscape of what has come to be known as Reaneyland. Both his thematic concerns and his fascination with developing a new, exciting vocabulary of stagecraft are manifest here, as are his striking character-types.

The revision of The Killdeer was an important step toward achieving an unencumbered drama. As Reaney’s stagecraft began to match his poetic skills and his visionary gift, as in such works as Colours in the Dark, Listen to the Wind, and the Donnelly trilogy, he began to experiment more and more with structure, language, and imagery, following his conviction that drama should be a process of dreaming.

Listen to the Wind

Listen to the Wind, which premiered in 1966, before the revision of The Killdeer, is one of Reaney’s most popular and successful plays. It was this work that brought him together with Keith Turnbull, the director who has made a significant contribution to Reaney’s career. Listen to the Wind is symbolic, romantic, and melodramatic. It depends on a play-within-a-play device that allows two separate yet similar worlds to intersect. Significantly, it developed out of the Listeners’ Workshops, where the ability to “pretend” was the most important talent necessary for the participants, both actors and audience.

The play is set in rural southwestern Ontario in the 1930’s. A young boy, Owen, is confined to bed by a serious and mysterious illness. At the same time, he is burdened by the knowledge that his parents’ marriage has come to an end. Thus, his malaise is both physical and spiritual. He is visited, for the summer, by three female cousins who want to cure both his body and his soul. The children decide to produce a play, The Saga of Caresfoot Court, in the hope that the adults not only will be entertained but also will get involved and therefore resolve their problems. Owen’s life parallels the life of the saga’s heroine, Angela: Both are surrounded by a terrifying world of indifference, neglect, and violence; both are innocent and naïve, overwhelmed by the evil around them.

The Caresfoot Court play focuses on Angela’s corruption in a debased world; her life attests the dictum that the sins of the parents are visited on the children. Owen tries to avoid Angela’s fate by writing alternative endings for the play—a happy and a tragic conclusion. Thus, he attempts to determine events in the real world (his parents’ divorce) by controlling the internal fantasy, wherein everything, including parental reconciliation, is possible.

Particularly noteworthy is the manner in which the play proper and the play-within-a-play interact, illuminating each other. As Jay Macpherson observed in a 1966 article in Canadian Forum, “They do so through numerous cross-references in image and situation, and through the revelation of the capacities of the characters of the outer story by the roles they play in the inner one. . . . While the outer story is slight, gentle, and touching, the inner one consists of a series of explosive confrontations.”

The device of using a play-within-a-play also allows Reaney to present both sides of the story at once—a technique that he used again in a more radical form in the medicine show of the Donnelly plays. This device juxtaposes Owen’s reality to the deeply sentimental world of the inner play and becomes Owen’s way of “listening to the wind.” The play was a giant leap forward in the development of Reaney’s craftsmanship. One sees here the beginning of a theater that relies on minimal directions, few properties, and a large cast, and one that requires the audience to be an active participant in the creative process. It is a dramatic world in which past and present are no longer clearly delineated.

Colours in the Dark

To re-create Victorian England, in the play-within-a-play of Listen to the Wind Reaney employed a brilliant theatrical device borrowed from ancient Greece, the chorus—in this play, composed of children—which can create anything possible within the scope of the audience’s imagination by chanting, singing, stomping, clapping, miming, dancing, and generally acting out, or making believe. This device led Reaney to a turning point in his career: Colours in the Dark, a landmark play, produced at the Stratford Festival in 1967. Reaney himself described the work as “a play box”; it is a collage of images, colors, objects (toys), songs, dances, myths, symbols, and sounds, culminating in the “existence poem” that is the central image of the play and the focus of its structure.

Colours in the Dark demands much of an audience. There is overlapping dialogue, and the same actors play several different parts. Multiscreen images are projected behind the action as the plot unravels in a linear and historically chronological fashion. To hold the many scenes together, the playwright uses scene codes—codes that are held up on banners labeling them by color and a related word. White is Sunday, but it is also a flower, a type of music, and a symbol of innocence and goodness. Color, word, and symbol are signposts to the action of each scene.

Colours in the Dark is Reaney’s testament to the power of language. It proposes that there are many nontraditional ways of interpreting the world. The story begins with a game in which a child is blindfolded so that he will have to develop other senses to guide him through the matrix of life. Without the use of his eyes, he must depend on touch, smell, sound, and imagination—leading the audience to the experience of synesthetic knowledge, whereby sensory perception creates a new vocabulary of equivalents, breaking down boundaries between word, symbol, and image. What Colours in the Dark achieves is a recapitulation of the history of civilization in the life of a single individual. It is a kaleidoscope that proves “our ancestors are we, our descendants are us, and so on like a sea.”

The Donnelly Trilogy

Reaney’s masterpiece, the Donnelly trilogy, was a logical next step. In it one sees much that has developed directly from Colours in the Dark: catalogs of names, the use of local color, important chorus sections, the juxtaposition of the real and absurd worlds, and much more. The trilogy is truly the fulfillment of Reaney’s artistic vision. In it, with help from Keith Turnbull and a talented, loyal crew of actors and technicians, he was able to synthesize poetry, dance, music, and movement to create a powerfully unified theater experience.

All three plays, The Donnellys: Part I, Sticks and Stones, The Donnellys: Part II, St. Nicholas Hotel, Wm Donnelly, Prop., and The Donnellys: Part III, Handcuffs, are consistent in their style of presentation, although each has separate symbols: sticks and stones, wheels and tops, grains and seeds. Reaney deliberately uses familiar props, stage furnishings, and styles in all three plays. The best description of this technique comes from critic Urjo Kareda in his review in The Toronto Star on November 26, 1973:The eleven performers, always present, using beautiful props which are always on view, work through choric chanting, songs, children’s games, soliloquies, plays-within-plays, indirect narration, mime, and even marionettes to express Reaney’s collage of history. The play has an exceptionally simple and evocative range of symbols and imagery; like the props, they are chosen from a common experience. The seven sons are represented by seven white shirts hanging on a line; horizontal country roads are seen as vertical ladders; the lieutenant-governor and his lady are dolls; a greedy fat woman is her “darling little laundry stove”; the Donnellys themselves are the solid stones, while their enemies are the dry, crackling sticks.

In the Donnelly trilogy, Reaney achieved the dream first hinted at in The Killdeer: He found a way to make his universal themes pertinent to the real history of the people in his community. The poetic language of the three plays reverberates with musical structures of duet, trio, and quartet. The structure is interwoven with symbol, myth, and significant props. Most important, Reaney’s vision has grown to accommodate documented, historical truth. What results is a smooth, rich mixture of language, action, structure, and stagecraft—a theater in which everything can be something.


Reaney, James