The Play

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 816

The opening scene of The Killdeer takes place in Mrs. Gardner’s cottage, where Madam Fay is selling cosmetics to a reluctant Mrs. Gardner. As part of her sales pitch, Madam Fay casually relates the story of her scandalous past. She recounts the ghastly murders and suicide in which her family and Rebecca Lorimer, the egg-girl, have been involved. The audience learns that Madam Fay’s son, Eli, a nineteen-year-old child-man, hates his mother. He was left on the farm when Madam Fay deserted her family and ran off with her adopted sister’s husband to Buffalo for a weekend. Madam Fay’s husband, Gilbert, prodded by the resentful hired man, Clifford Hopkins (who had an affair with Madam Fay), went to the Lorimer home and shot Lorimer’s wife and two sons and then killed himself. Rebecca was the only one in that family to escape the slaughter; she stayed on the family farm and turned it into a successful venture. Eli, feeling abandoned and lost, attached himself to Clifford, who dominated him and encouraged his childlike dependency. Lorimer, Rebecca’s father, was placed in a mental institution in London, Ontario. Madam Fay’s spellbinding story holds Mrs. Gardner, who, to hear more of the melodramatic tale, buys some cosmetics.

When Madam Fay leaves, Mrs. Gardner’s son, Harry, a bank clerk, comes to tell his mother that he cannot have supper with her because Mr. Coons, his employer, has invited him to his home for dinner. During this exchange, Harry’s dislike of his mother’s cluttered parlor, her condescending tone, and her domineering manner is evident—as is his acquiescence to her every wish. Mrs. Gardner immediately envisions a marriage between Mr. Coons’s daughter Vernelle and Harry.

In the third scene, the comic element of the play surfaces as two gossips, Mrs. Gardner and Mrs. Budge, discuss Madam Fay and her sordid past. Rebecca enters, bringing surprising news: She is going to be married to Eli the next day, a marriage arranged by Clifford. When Mrs. Gardner expresses astonishment that Rebecca would marry the son of her family’s killer, Rebecca explains that she wants to “untie the evil knot” and make a fresh start. Her generosity and optimism are not shared by Eli, who suffers from infantile regression and does not want to marry Rebecca.

When Harry learns from his mother of Rebecca’s intention to marry Eli, he confesses his love for her, even though he has only met her twice and the only thing he knows about her is her love for the killdeer bird. When Harry tells his mother about Vernelle Coons’s marriage proposal to him, Mrs. Gardner advises him to accept it. Act 1 ends with the crash of bells and the playing of the wedding march.

Act 2 opens on a somber note in a courthouse. Several years have elapsed and many changes have occurred, which are related by Mrs. Budge and Mrs. Delta, the cleaning women of the courthouse. Rebecca has been sentenced to death for the murder of Clifford. Mrs. Gardner is dead, and Harry, after attending Osgoode Hall Law School, is now a practicing lawyer with a failing marriage. In the second scene, there is a confrontation between him and Vernelle; he leaves Vernelle and returns to live in his mother’s old cottage. Still in love with Rebecca, he sets himself the task of delaying the date of her hanging, so that he can prove her innocence. He persuades the jailer’s wife to let him visit Rebecca’s cell. The play takes a melodramatic turn when he and Rebecca spend their “wedding” night in the cell, and Rebecca conceives a child; her pregnancy earns her a stay of execution until the child is born. Eventually a new trial date is set. Rebecca tells Harry that she is innocent but fears Eli is guilty of the murder and pleads with Harry to save them both.

Act 3 relates Rebecca’s second trial. In the final scene, Harry cross-examines Madam Fay. Having learned of her irrational aversion to the killdeer, he shows her one in court. She breaks down and reveals the surprising truth: Clifford was not murdered but died of a heart attack. Both Rebecca and Eli are exonerated, while Madam Fay is charged with mischief and mutilation of a dead body; she avoids justice by escaping in her pink coupe. The play ends on an optimistic note, with the presence of the mysterious Dr. Ballad, who has been a representative of love and charity during the courtroom scene, adding to the feeling of affirmation. Harry and Rebecca are free to start a life together with their baby, and Eli, shedding his infantile regression, gives the baby his toys. Dr. Ballad, like Prospero in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest (pr. 1611), presides over this transformation and releases them all from the bondage of the past.

Dramatic Devices

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 489

That James Reaney began his creative career as a poet is evident from the abundant use of poetic imagery in the play. The Killdeer is episodic, with numerous current incidents and many accounts of past events, all of which are given some cohesion by the recurring imagery. Many of the images function both literally and metaphorically. The image of the title, for example, is central to the play. Rebecca is identified with the killdeer: It is her favorite bird, and, like the killdeer, she attracts the enemy and leads him away from those whom she wishes to protect. The killdeer is also crucial in resolving the central conflict of the play. Madam Fay, as a girl, had killed her foster-sister’s pet killdeer out of jealousy; this has led to her irrational fear of the bird—the play’s symbol of caring and selflessness. Harry is able to use this fear to disconcert her during the second trial, thereby discovering the truth. At the end of the play, the caged killdeer is allowed to go free, signifying the deliverance of the three characters from the bondage of the past and signaling a fresh beginning for them all.

Other bird images in the play portray the adults who are shown to be predators of the young and the weak. The vulture is used to characterize Vernelle and the lawyers at Osgoode Hall. The old gossips, Mrs. Gardner and Mrs. Budge, see themselves as two old crows. The odious Mr. Manatee confesses that he wanted to be a carrion crow.

Reaney easily shifts between simple, natural dialogue and free verse. In many scenes he authentically employs the southwestern Ontario idiom. Some critics think that the poetic utterances heighten the dramatic effect; others have reservations, believing that such diction is self-indulgent and detracts from the authenticity of the rural speech.

Even his most admiring critics have noted Reaney’s tendency to melodramatize and sentimentalize at times, as in the account of Henry and Rebecca’s meeting in prison and in the portraits of Dr. Ballad and Madam Fay. Some have observed that his tone sometimes shifts uncomfortably between the comic and the pathetic, and that the occasional curious blend of fantasy, comedy, and melodrama appears incongruous and forced. Reaney, recognizing some of the flaws of this play, especially in the trial scene of the third act, revised the play in 1970, republishing it in 1972. The revised version has only two acts. The first remains the same; act 2 has several changes. For example, Reaney omits the imprisonment of Rebecca, though she is still a murder suspect; also omitted are the conception and birth of Rebecca and Harry’s child, the appearance of Dr. Ballad, and the entire court scene from act 3. These omissions and changes keep the play focused on the main themes and characters and add cohesion and credibility. Nevertheless, the original version of the play is still an ambitious and impressive work.


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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 127

Sources for Further Study

Benson, Eugene. “James Reaney.” In Contemporary Dramatists. 6th ed. Detroit: St. James, 1999.

Benson, Eugene, and L. W. Conolly, eds. Oxford Companion to the Canadian Theatre. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Dragland, Stan, ed. Approaches to the Work of James Reaney. Downsview, Ont.: ECW, 1983.

Parker, Gerald D. How to Play: The Theatre of James Reaney. Toronto, Ont.: ECW, 1991.

Reaney, J. Stewart. James Reaney. Agincourt, Ont.: Gage Educational, 1977.

Tait, Michael. “The Limits of Innocence.” In Dramatists in Canada: Selected Essays, edited by W. H. New. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1972.

Warkentin, Germaine. “The Artist in Labour: James Reaney’s Play.” Journal of Canadian Fiction 2 (Winter, 1973): 88-91.

Wilson, Milton. “On Reviewing Reaney.” Tamarack Review 26 (Winter, 1963): 71-78.

Woodman, Ross. James Reaney. Toronto, Ont.: McClelland and Stewart, 1975.

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