Themes and Meanings
The Killdeer focuses on the individual’s struggle to free himself from the debilitating influence of domineering parents who deny him his own identity and destiny. The three most important characters, Harry, Rebecca, and Eli, are all victims of parental domination. At the beginning of the play, Harry, the youthful protagonist, has no will of his own in the presence of his mother. He marries Vernelle Coons, his mother’s choice, not Rebecca, whom he loves. Young Eli fears his heartless mother, is haunted by his father’s brutality, and is emotionally abused and exploited by Clifford. Rebecca, too, must contend with a past in which she was victimized by adults.
The play shows that such exploitation of youth by manipulating, selfish adults can be overcome by love and sympathy. Harry’s love for Rebecca and his generous and sincere concern for Eli are responsible for the truth being revealed and the couple being saved from execution. Rebecca herself is forgiving, marrying Eli to untie “the evil knot.” She faces the world bravely, making a success of the farm left to her, and, like the killdeer, tries to protect those dependent upon her. Her love enables both Harry and Eli to mature and find some measure of happiness.
The play celebrates the spirit of hope and redemption. Both Harry and Rebecca remain optimistic and resilient even at the darkest moment, when Rebecca faces death at the hands of the hangman. James Reaney conveys this theme through literal, symbolic, and mythical images. Mr. Manatee, the hangman, is portrayed as a destructive monster associated with death. Harry defeats him by creating life in his lovemaking with Rebecca, though this action ensures only the postponement of the trial, not Rebecca’s acquittal. Acquittal comes only through the intervention of the mystical Dr. Ballad, the village doctor turned hermit. Dr. Ballad, his very name associated with creation and song, enters the courtroom and ensures the safety of the main characters. He defeats evil, brings about peace and harmony, and creates a world of love and optimism for Eli, Rebecca, Harry, and the baby. It is significant that Madam Fay escapes the law after the trial, for the play affirms not vengeance or retribution but selflessness and forgiveness.
The play evokes the regional ethos convincingly. It captures the local idiom and customs and provides fine details of rural Ontario life, with its social factions and rivalries. However, Reaney’s treatment of the themes of childhood innocence and its exploitation by manipulating adults, of the human potential for violence, and of the power of love and hope enables the play to transcend the regional and national and to achieve mythic and universal significance.
In The Killdeer, as in his poems and short stories, Reaney celebrates and champions the creative imagination. He presents the child as capable of viewing the world imaginatively. Eli, in particular, is seen as a reflection of the creative writer who is capable of avoiding the world of reality by creating a fantasy world into which he can withdraw. His imagination gives him the ability to see the world as he would like it to be, not as it is, and this illusion sustains him and provides temporary relief from harsh reality.