James Reaney

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Reaney, James 1926–

Reaney is a Canadian playwright, poet, children's author, and editor. His drama effectively draws together elements of fantasy, melodrama, and ritual. The Donnellys Trilogy is his major dramatic work. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 41-44, rev. ed.)

Alvin Lee

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Mr. Reaney's comedies demand of their audience, at least temporarily, a capacity to believe that the weapons of human consciousness—religion, art, thought, and love—can defeat all destructive powers. His plays are not for cynics, nor for those too sophisticated to let themselves play games if necessary to exorcise the black enchantments laid on them in childhood. The measure in which we feel these resolutions silly, or too far-fetched, is the measure of our own Malvolio-like nature. If the art of the comedy has done its work—and Mr. Reaney's plays have this art in abundant measure—our emotions of sympathy and ridicule have been raised and cast out…. (pp. 132-33)

Alvin Lee, "A Turn to the Stage: Reaney's Dramatic Verse" (copyright by Alvin Lee; originally published in Canadian Literature, Winter, 1963), in Dramatists in Canada: Selected Essays, edited by William H. New, The University of British Columbia Press, 1972, pp. 114-33.

Michael Tait

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As a playwright Reaney has tended to be a fine lyric poet. In certain respects the qualities of his verse enhance the plays. Genres, however, are not interchangeable and too often his early attempts at drama point up the defects of his strengths. The mode of theatre itself has sometimes seemed inhospitable to Reaney's genius. The public forum aspect of all stage production is not easily reconciled with the singular inwardness of his idiom. Certainly the conventional act and scene arrangement he adopts for The Killdeer or The Easter Egg serves him badly. This structure requires the shaping of materials over a sustained period, a long-range control of action, tone and climax. Reaney's, however, is a short term art of quick insights and volatile moods. The Killdeer breaks up into a collection of fragments, some of them brilliant. However, the effectiveness of one frequently weakens the impact of another and all suffer from the linear framework in which they are set. In a word, Reaney's problem as a dramatist has been to arrive at a form to suit his matter. In Colours in the Dark he finds it.

The play comprises some forty brief scenes, each one a self-contained minidrama. Each has its caption and, in a sense, its message. In most things Reaney is the antithesis of Brecht; what, however, he creates in this play is an epic theatre to the buried consciousness. The technique perfectly accommodates his quest for universal significance in a swirl of particulars. At the outset, he suggests we regard his drama not only as a play but as a play-box; that is, a structure which contains a miscellany of memory-objects. Having jettisoned linear plot, he is free to illuminate directly the rich chaos of darkest Canada: a national psyche shaped (and warped) by geology, history, weather, anonymous ancestors, King Billy, Queen Elizabeth, the Bible, the Devil, Little Orphan Annie and much besides. The range and variety of episodes make for instant entertainment. Reaney advertises a new play every two minutes, and he keeps his word…. (pp. 141-42)

Reaney's creation is sui generis, a luminous structure that invites but eludes classification. It is lyric in subjective intensity of mood; dramatic in the articulation of large conflicts; epic in its breadth of statement. Whatever the mode, the artist's transfiguring eye lights the scene and wrings a design from ignorant chaos.

"Everything is something." Indeed it is, and everything in Colours in the Dark is the...

(This entire section contains 456 words.)

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common stuff of "uniquely Canadian" experience. A rich thing, and our own. (p. 144)

Michael Tait, "Everything Is Something: James Reaney's 'Colours in the Dark'" (copyright by Michael Tait), in Dramatists in Canada: Selected Essays, edited by William H. New, The University of British Columbia Press, 1972, pp. 140-44.

Margaret Atwood

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Judging from a sampling of recent critical commentary on his collected Poems, Reaney's reputation is in [a slump] …; which is a shame. Any poet who has created an original body of work, especially one of such uniqueness, power, peculiarity and, sometimes, unprecedented weirdness as Reaney's deserves better treatment. A critic might begin by attempting to actually read the poems, as opposed to reading into them various philosophies and literary theories which the poet is assumed to have. If you start this way, with the actual poems, one of your first reactions will almost certainly be that there is nothing else like them.

I'd never before read most of the uncollected single poems,… so I was most intrigued by sections I, III and V of this volume. I was especially struck by the early appearance of a number of Reaney images which crop up again and again, variously disguised, in his later work. The fascination with maps and diagrams ("Maps", 1945), the collections of objects ("The Antiquary", 1946), the sinister females, both mechanical ("Night Train", 1946) and biological ("Madame Moth", 1947), and that nightmare, the Orphanage, already present in "Playbox", 1945—all foreshadow later and more fully realized appearances.

But what became clear to me during a chronological reading of this book is that most commentators—including Reaney himself, and his editor and critics—are somewhat off-target about the much-discussed influence of Frye on his work. I have long entertained a private vision of Frye reading through Reaney while muttering "What have I wrought?" or "This is not what I meant, at all," and this collection confirms it. Reaney is to Frye as a Salem, Mass. 17th century tombstone is to an Italian Renaissance angel: Reaney and the tombstone may have been "influenced", but they are primitives (though later in time) and their models are sophisticates. The influence of Frye, however, was probably a catalyst for Reaney rather than a new ingredient; let me do a little deductive speculation.

The world presented to us in the early poems, up to and including The Red Heart (1949), does not "work" for the poet on any level. The people in them are bored and trivial, like "Mrs. Wentworth", or they are actual or potential orphans, loveless, lost or disinherited, like the speaker in "Playbox"…. The reverse side of the melancholy state of being an orphan—hate for and disgust at the rest of the world and the desire for revenge—is explored in two other orphan poems, "The English Orphan's Monologue" and "The Orphanage"…. In these "social" poems, Reaney does not analyze, he dramatizes; and, like a dramatist, he counterpoints. Thus to the smothered longing of the provincial in the "Canadian" poems he opposes the sneering of a cosmopolite who has escaped the Fathers of Confederation [and] is reading Tristram Shandy and Anais Nin…. If this poem had been written by anyone else but Reaney, everyone would have called it savage socialist satire; in fact it's a good deal more savage and socialist than much that passes by that name.

In these early poems the objects—and the poems bulge with objects—create the effect of a kind of rummage sale, partly because the objects are lacking in all but personal significance…. The speaker can rarely make "sense" of them by relating them to anything else; all he can do is record them, and the effect is a still-life, captured and rendered immobile…. (pp. 113-15)

In the early poems on "love"—and there are quite a few of them—the love is either unconsummated, as in "Platonic Love", or it turns into sex, which is as inextricably linked with death as it is in the poetry of Al Purdy. This is sex observed through a child's eyes, foreign and monstrous. At times Reaney manages a kind of queasy humour…. More often it is simple horror, mixed with revulsion, as in "The Orphanage"….

Reaney's early world, then, is an unredeemed one, populated with orphans and spiritual exiles, littered with couples engaged in joyless, revolting and dangerous copulation, and crammed with objects devoid of significance. In it, babies are doomed as soon as conceived (as in "Dark Lagoon"), the "real world" is the one described at the end of "The School Globe", filled with "blood, pus, horror, stepmothers and lies", and the only escape is the temporary and unsatisfactory one of nostalgic daydreaming. If you believed you lived in such a world, you'd surely find the negative overwhelming. Anyone familiar with the techniques of brainwashing knows that all you have to do to convert almost anyone to almost anything is subject him to a nearly intolerable pressure, then offer him a way out. The intolerable pressures rendered with such verbal richness in the earlier poems are those of the traditional Christian version of this earth, but with Christ (and escape to Heaven) removed; sin with no possibility of redemption, a fallen world with no divine counterpart.

[Northrop] Frye's literary theories—this is a guess—would surely have offered Reaney his discredited childhood religion in a different, more sophisticated, acceptable form: the Bible might not be literally true, but under the aegis of Frye it could be seen as metaphorically, psychically true. Frye's "influence", then, is not a matter of the critic's hardedged mind cutting out the poet's soul in its own shapes, like cookie dough: "influence", for good poets, is surely in any case just a matter of taking what you need or, in reality, what you already have. (p. 115)

Horror remains and evil is still a presence, but a way past the world, the flesh and the devil is now possible. The redemptive agents are all invisible, internal: they are the imagination, the memory, verbal magic (Reaney has several poems about language, and many references to the magic tongue) and—I'm thinking here of the short story "The Bully"—dream. These elements are so important in Reaney's work because the hideousness of existence can be redeemed by them alone: it is the individual's inner vision, not the external social order, that must change if anything is to be salvaged.

It is this arrangement of priorities that surely accounts not only for some of Reaney's themes, but also for some of his characteristic structures, in the plays as well as the poems. The pattern I'm thinking of is that of the sudden conversion—a Protestant rather than a Catholic pattern. If you think of the Divine Comedy with the Purgatorio left out you'll see what I mean: we get the hellishness of the "earthly" situation and the quick turnabout followed by a transcendent vision, but we are never told how you get to the vision—what process you undergo, what brings it about. No indulgences sold here; it's Faith, not Works and you just somehow have to "see". (pp. 115-16)

In Reaney's work, the Songs of Innocence come after the Songs of Experience; in fact, you can take a number of figures or images from the earlier poems and follow them through the corpus, watching how the Lost Child gets found (most notably in Night-Blooming Cereus), how the sinister Orphan gets changed into the harmless comic-strip Little Orphan Annie, how the baby doomed from before birth is allowed more latitude …, and how the collection of random objects is permitted (or perhaps forced) to have universal significance…. (p. 116)

The problems I have with Reaney's work are both theoretical (I can't see certain pieces of evil, for instance Hitler and the Vietnam War, as angelic visitations or even unreal, no matter how hard I try; and I don't think that's a flaw in my vision) and practical—that is, some of the poems work admirably for me and others don't get off the ground at all. Reaney's best poems come from a fusion of "personal" and "mythic" or "universal"; when they lean too far towards either side, you get obscurity or straight nostalgia at one end or bloodless abstraction at the other. And at times, reading his work, I feel the stirrings of that old Romantic distinction between the Fancy and the Imagination, though I try hard to suppress it; I even hear a voice murmuring "Whimsy", and it murmurs loudest when I come across a concrete image linked arbitrarily and with violence to a "universal" meaning. If you can see a world in a grain of sand, well, good; but you shouldn't stick one on just because you think it ought to be there.

But this is a Collected rather than a Selected; it isn't supposed to be Reaney's best poems, it's all of his poems, and I can't think of any poet who produces uniformly splendid work. It's by his best, however, that a writer should ultimately be judged; and Reaney's best has an unmistakable quality, both stylistic and thematic, and a strength that is present only when a poet is touching on something fundamental. Certain of Reaney's poems do admirably what a number of his others attempt less successfully: they articulate the primitive forms of the human imagination, they flesh out the soul, they dramatize—like Blake's "Mental Traveller"—the stances of the self in relation to the universe. That sounds fairly heavy; what I mean is that Reaney gets down to the basics—love, hate, terror, joy—and gives them a shape that evokes them for the reader. This is conjuring, it's magic and spells rather than meditation, description or ruminating; Coleridge rather than Wordsworth, MacEwen rather than Souster. The trouble with being a magic poet is that when you fail, you fail more obviously than the meditative or descriptive poet: the rabbit simply refuses to emerge from the hat. But you take greater risks, and Reaney takes every risk in the bag, including a number of technical ones that few others would even consider attempting. (p. 117)

Margaret Atwood, "Reaney Collected," in Canadian Literature, Summer, 1973, pp. 113-17.

Louis Dudek

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The plays of James Reaney … have a background of religious and philosophical concern behind them. The survey of philosophy in Reaney's "September Eclogue," in A Suit of Nettles, ends significantly with Heidegger and with games of magic taken from The Golden Bough; and Reaney's plays in general are shot through with a kind of religious-philosophical excitement that tells us there is much going on privately in that area. But he is a solitary exile in an empty land, almost unique in being troubled deeply and seriously with such questions; therefore his plays have a peculiar dislocation and feeling of unreality in the context of Canadian society. (p. 322)

[The] proposition that James Reaney's charming theatre is somehow a distant relation to, first, Bernard Shaw and, second, W. B. Yeats, may sound far-fetched, but I think it can help us to understand what is going on in the plays. In most of these plays of Reaney,… Canada has at last come in for sharp social satire. It was naturally made for it, from the beginning, we suspect, but no playwright would have dared to undertake a full-scale satirical view of Canadian life before World War II. The soul has to be moved to satire by revulsion, and there must be a solid stone somewhere, on which the foot can lean while shaking off the muck. Reaney may be said to possess both these requirements: a major "criticism of life", and a strong intellectual conviction personally achieved. The satirical strain, however, is the lesser part of his purpose—I was going to say "lesser half", but it isn't anything like half—and the other part branches out rather discordantly from the first. This satirical part, however, is dramatically most reliable, and has the most dependable precedents, so that it tends to be theatrically more successful. The first act of several of his plays, as in The Killdeer, The Sun and the Moon, and Three Desks—the part of the play which is closest to social satire—comes off very well. (p. 323)

But the second and third acts of a Reaney play take a radical turn into strange territory…. In short, the play turns to the great romantic tradition, of transcendence, of magic, or religious implication, and here we are in the country of W. B. Yeats, Maurice Maeterlinck, J. M. Barrie and other visionaries of the "eternal return".

The satire itself springs from a very close personal response to provincial life: one has the impression of a very superiorminded young man cast by fate into a pathetic small-town environment and undergoing all the irritations of being forever trapped in a hen-house or a parsonage. (p. 324)

The strange infantilism of Reaney's poetry and plays is somehow related to this sense of the absurdity of life. The unkindest interpretation of this aspect of Reaney is that the painful prison of provincialism pressing on the mind of the gifted poet has produced a kind of "arrested development", in which the language and the fantasy-world of childhood remains the only imaginative and vital reality for him and the one to which he perpetually returns. A more sympathetic literary account would relate this infantile strain to Blake's theory of innocence and the general romantic idyllic myth of childhood.

William Blake was perhaps the first poet in history to offer infantile inanity and childish doggerel as serious poetry, and this to the eternal confusion of literature, since in his work abominable poetry is bound up with the most profound and far-reaching ideas…. The delusion that this sort of thing is high poetry … has led James Reaney to write pages of similar nonsense…. Who knows, some of [the] bathos in Reaney may derive from hymn-book quatrains, the bane of so much English poetry, even as Blake's namby-pamby style derived from the same source…. Also, it is one thing to write for children, as Edward Lear and Lewish Carroll have done—and as Reaney has in his specifically children's books—but quite another to be childish or stylistically insipid in a work written for adults. (pp. 324-25)

After all, one cannot put Reaney down as an idiot boy. The naive childlike style and childlike attitudes which are so recurrent in his plays are an affectation, perhaps with a secret self-indulgence, but nevertheless a conscious design aiming to simplify and to reach an indiscriminate audience. The plays could hardly occur on the stage in Paris or New York, though they might conceivably get there. They could only originate in a country like Canada, a hinterland as far as drama is concerned, where an audience in church basements and high schools must be gently prodded to participate in dramatics. The plays are conceived for a small parochial community—there is an aura of amateur theatre about the whole thing—and the audience, one imagines, is composed of children, nice pleasant provincial ladies, and placid hen-pecked husbands. (p. 326)

The ultimate aim of this simplified kind of play, a collage of children's games (Colours in the Dark), or a fairy tale for adults (Nightblooming Cereus), or a pastime for a sick boy (Listen to the Wind), is anything but trivial and simple. By means of would-be unpretentious play, purporting to gratify the very simplest audience, Reaney intends to achieve the widest possible scope of meaning, interpreting all life from birth to death, all human history, and touching on the major questions of religion and philosophy. His aim, in other words, is epic, and his intentions are those of a major poet, although this is concealed in the trappings of the nursery and of childhood imagination. (p. 327)

Much of the One-man Masque and Colours in the Dark reads like all the gists of Finnegans Wake, Ulysses and The Waste Land rolled into a ball. The vast ambition of this philosophical conception, as it stares through the child's play of the surface, seems at odds with the quirky simplicity of the means adopted.

A little higher on the scale than the nursery or child's play I would place Reaney's regressive attachment to melodrama and the plot-patterns of the Victorian romance. Here at least, we might say, we have a breakthrough—from infancy to adolescence! (pp. 327-28)

I see James Reaney's plays as essentially poetic or lyrical drama. The form of One-man Masque, which amounts to little more than a stage setting for a reading of Reaney poems—as does also a good deal of Colours in the Dark—reveals the strong lyrical bent of this drama. The interpretation of the plays should be directed to the poetic subjectivity of their method, and they should be studied in conjuction with Reaney's poetry,… although the ultimate goal will be a body of ideas, or a "vision", that will be objective and significant for itself. (pp. 329-30)

The plays are a strange and wonderful experience—though often an irritation—and they are a powerful contribution to the possibility of theatre in Canada. Much as I may disagree, having my own way of searching through the creation, I want to stand up to applaud a fine achievement. For my own taste, among the plays, I probably could do without The Killdeer, The Sun and the Moon, the Three Desks, and The Easter Egg—much as there may be interesting things in all of them—and I believe the best of Reaney's theatre, pure Symbolism in the romantic vein of Maeterlinck and Yeats, is to be found in Night-blooming Cereus, One-man Masque, and the moving and impressive later plays, Colours in the Dark and Listen to the Wind. It is here that he suggests vast meanings and haunting other-worldly dimensions through the simplest verbal and theatrical techniques, namely through the symbolic interplay of action and the incantation of poetry. (pp. 333-34)

The difficulty of the plays remains. It is a difficulty which is both intellectual and sociological—hated words!—in that the problem of these plays is to discover, with precision and in detail (not always possible in such a case) what they want to say, and at the same time to reach an audience which is neither prepared for nor capable of any mental exertion. And it all goes back to "vision"—the Greek theoria—in which the divine was revealed in the epiphany of the theatre: except that we today are not quite sure of what we mean by the divine. In the meantime, the play—or "play"—is the thing, if only as a childlike way to keep things going. Reaney's emphasis is definitely on the play. (p. 334)

Louis Dudek, "A Problem of Meaning: The Plays of James Reaney" (originally published in a slightly different version in Canadian Literature, Winter, 1974), in his Selected Essays and Criticism (© 1978 Louis Dudek and The Tecumseh Press Limited; reprinted by permission of the author), Tecumseh Press, 1978, pp. 320-35.

Stephen Martineau

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It was reassuring to find that the text [of Sticks & Stones] does not lose the original spirit of live theatre. The secret behind this is the way the directions for stage movement have been so carefully integrated into the poetry of the play; they are not merely instructions but a spur to the imagination of the actor or director to discover the pattern of movement best suited to the rhythm of the language and the mood of the particular incident. This is most important because Reaney's stage world is a simple open space scattered with everyday objects (sticks, stones, ropes, ladders) and, through quick changes of rhythm and shape, this space has to be transformed in the reader's imagination into whatever the situation demands of it. These transformations are surely the key to Reaney's strengths as a playwright, for they bring about an essential fusion of his poetic and his theatrical imagination; the images draw from his language at the same time as they become a part of the physical action on stage. Two examples come to mind: the image of the Donnellys hemmed in by concession lines and neighbours expressed through patterns of rope or wood on the floor of the stage as well as through the rhythmic chanting of the roads of Biddulph and the names of the neighbours; and the heroic journey of Mrs. Donnelly from Biddulph to Goderich to appeal her husband's sentence, expressed physically through the climbing of pyramids of ladders and verbally through a "solo and choral response" that keeps rhythm with the milestones of her journey. These are individual examples, but in fact the overall design of the play is richer still in its combinations of effects, reminding one of the intricacy of musical counterpoint as contrasting themes move in and around each other, inseparable strands of action and reaction reflecting in the process the suffocating closeness of the world of Biddulph that does not look kindly on independent survival. (pp. 36-7)

The play sets itself up as a deliberate rebuttal of The Black Donnellys, a violently anti-Donnelly version of the story…. Donnellys are allied firm and fast to Reaney's poetry throughout the play; they are the oppressed minority, the fighters against all odds, and finally (in this play) the heroic victors who refuse to be hounded from their land. What this means is that the theatrical design of the play minimizes as much as possible any act of hostility or violence on their part. For example, the central murder of Farrell by Donnelly is first presented by a travelling theatre troupe in a way that brings out a barbarous brutality in Donnelly. Immediately after, through Reaney's vision, we are shown how the blow was more or less accidental and that the blame should be laid on the liquor and the onlookers who "sicced [him] on by their howls of encouragement."…

This unqualified support of the Donnellys has an interesting effect on the play and the reader. In the first place the reader is given no option but to side with the Donnellys…. A further consequence of this pro-Donnelly bias is that the play by immersing us in the history of one family and thereby closing the time gap, prevents more objective consideration of the period itself and its relevance to the present….

Sticks & Stones focuses on a woman as the imaginative and supporting centre of the action. It is a striking element in the design of Reaney's play that he should choose a woman to individualize a period in which the woman's role remains relatively unchronicled. It is Mrs. Donnelly, more than Donnelly himself, who is the constant bastion of defence against the surrounding hostility; it is she who relates proudly to her son her husband's refusal to do homage to the Whitefeet in Ireland; she who journeys to Goderich to appeal her husband's death sentence; she who keeps together land and children during his absence in prison; and she who rescues neighbour Donegan from brutal assault. It is this kind of heroic action, given double emphasis through Mr. and Mrs. Donnelly, that is the energy behind Reaney's play, an energy that exults in the staying-power of the individual under continuous harassment. And, whether we like it or not, the play demands that we be carried away by this energy. What we lose in the process is breathing-space and a little distance from which to reflect on a period of violence that is a fascinating part of our historical heritage; what we gain is an excitingly theatrical story of a family and an alliance with those who are unassailable and have the will, courage and strength to stand up against the villainy of the world…. (p. 37)

Stephen Martineau, "Canadian Myth Making," in The Canadian Forum, October, 1975., pp. 36-7.

David Jackel

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[In] spite of the positive qualities one may find in this long overdue selection of Reaney's verse [Selected Shorter Poems], in spite of the evidence of growth, the poetry remains disturbingly eccentric—eccentric not in the sense of being merely odd or whimsical, but in the way it often seems removed from a common centre of human experience. Tarzan of the Apes, the Katzenjammer Kids, fantastic crows, choughs and woodpeckers, Spenser, Yeats, Blake, Isabella Valancy Crawford, the Brontës, Antichrist, Granny Crack—these are some of the figures who jostle in a private mythology which many readers are likely to find more perplexing than illuminating. The alternative vision which Reaney has substituted for the "great sad real" world may, after all, be only an evasion of that reality, not a transformation of it.

Doubts of this sort are likely to be provoked by A Suit of Nettles…. The poem is described by the author as, among many other things, a satire on "all the intellectual institutions of the age," but Reaney can deal with this overlarge subject only by oversimplifying the issues involved…. [His Canadian history, for example, is] seen from the limited perspective of Southern Ontario, perhaps not the best place for a satirist to be standing. Philosophy, too, is disposed of in a charmingly off-hand manner. We are given a merry-go-round ride through the history of the subject, from Parmenides to Heidegger, and end where we began, having learned that the Aristotelean mean can be viewed as "a rather stocky Clydesdale with three saddles, three heads and three buttocks: one buttock is too hairy, the middle one is just right, and the left hand one has no hair at all."

When Reaney attempts to deal with literary criticism the result is not satire but travesty. A distinguished evaluative critic, whose characteristic method is badly misdescribed as "putting poems into order of merit," is allowed to defend his views by saying "Aooh! Bow wowwowwowwowwowwow." One does not need to be a disciple of Dr. Leavis to see that he is here being unfairly treated…. Germaine Warkentin claims [in her introduction] that A Suit of Nettles is the "toughest" and "most serious" long poem in English Canadian literature: "If there is one thing A Suit of Nettles makes you do, it is think." But when Reaney makes us think, he reveals his limitations, particularly his inclination to reduce complicated issues to a few phrases or images, and then to resolve all difficulties by dextrously juggling and patterning these fragments. This method, such as it is, will appeal only to readers seeking an easy escape from the demands of truly ordered thinking. Mr. Reaney's visions are much more appealing than his attempts to deal with the complexities of ordinary reality. (pp. 31-2)

David Jackel, "Easy Escapes," in The Canadian Forum, October, 1976, pp. 31-2.