The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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....

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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.


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(Great Characters in Literature)

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.