Alvego Root Theatre presents Tales for a Reaney Day September 10-12

On September 10, 11, and 12th, Alvego Root Theatre will present Tales for a Reaney Day – a double bill featuring two of James Reaney’s short stories, “The Bully” and “The Box Social”. Adam Corrigan Holowitz and Kydra Ryan are the co-directors and performers.

Where: Somerville 630, 630 Dundas Street, London, Ontario

When: Friday September 10 at 7:30, Saturday September 11 at 7:30, and Sunday September 12 at 4:00


More about James Reaney’s “neo-Gothic” short stories

“While an undergraduate at the University of Toronto [BA 1948, MA 1949], James Reaney published two stories, “The Bully” and “The Box Social,” that are not only classic Canadian short stories but are the first examples of a modern tradition called Southern Ontario Gothic (having its origin in the novels of John Richardson and some of the stories Susanna Moodie tells) that make use of Gothic elements of the macabre. In the four-page “The Box Social,” for example, a young man bids for a prettily wrapped shoe box, from a girl he made pregnant, that contains “the crabbed corpse of a stillborn child wreathed in bloody newspaper.” Margaret Atwood has remarked that “without ‘The Bully,’ my fiction would have followed other paths.” (The Concise Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature, William Toye, Ed., Oxford University Press, 2011, page 511.)

“The Box Social” was originally published in 1947 in The Undergrad at the University of Toronto, and then in the popular magazine The New Liberty. Here’s what Reaney had to say about why he wrote the story in his autobiography from 1992:

“Out of the deep past it somehow came to me, I think from my mother talking about the way men treated women in our neighbourhood. They never struck back; well, in my story one of them did.” (James Crerar Reaney, Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Volume 15, page 304.)

“The Bully” was broadcast in 1950 on CBC Radio and later published in Canadian Short Stories (1952) edited by Robert Weaver. While at university in the late 1950s, Margaret Atwood remembers discovering “The Bully” in Weaver’s anthology. “It made a big impression on me — it seemed a way of writing about Canadian reality that did not confine itself to the strict social realism that was mostly the fashion then.” (Excerpted from Margaret Atwood, “Remembering James Reaney”, Brick Issue 82 (Winter 2009), page 160.)

May 30, 1996 in London, Ontario — James Reaney with Margaret Atwood, “An Evening with James Reaney & Friends” (Photo courtesy London Free Press)

James Reaney and Southern Ontario Gothic

“James Reaney’s plays — Colours in the Dark (1969), Baldoon (1976), and The Donnellys (1974-7) — as well as his short stories “The Bully” and “The Box Social” (reprinted in The Box Social and Other Stories in 1996), also assume Gothic elements of the macabre rooted in nightmarish families and uncanny action. […]

What makes this locale so prone to Gothic tales is the failure of communication between family members or social groups. In the absence of communication, strange projections and psychological grotesqueries spring up and rapidly grow to unmanageable proportions. Malevolent fantasies are the source and sustenance of the Gothic tradition.” (Michael Hurley and Allan Hepburn in The Concise Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature, William Toye, Ed., Oxford University Press, 2011, pages 593-594.)

What do you mean by Gothic?

“…It’s the spirit of solitude, the isolated person rattling around, usually in an old dark castle in the early Gothic novels, but then in Faulkner in an old plantation house. In Ontario we can’t afford plantation houses so we have a farmhouse or an apartment building that has a lot of empty rooms in it, as in The Edible Woman…. It’s filled with the nightmare of life, but it’s this isolation that is at the bottom of it, I think, because of science. The whole Gothic tradition is already in Hamlet.” (Interview with James Reaney from July 23, 1991 from In the Writers’ Words: Conversations with Eight Canadian Poets, Laurence Hutchman, Guernica Editions, 2011, pages 173-174.)

More on the tradition of Gothic fiction

Gothic fiction is a genre obsessively focused on the house. ‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again’ is the famous first sentence of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca (1938). In some other kinds of stories, the house is a place of safety, a sanctuary from the world. But not in gothic fiction, where interior spaces become prisons for imperiled heroines or represent a domestic happiness from which the scarred male protagonist is excluded. Naturally the house in question is not just any house but sometimes a monastery, convent, prison, or insane asylum. In the female-centered gothic, the male owner of the castle is an older man with a piercing glance – aristocratic, obsessed, moody, and secretive, with qualities that mark him as a literary descendant of Satan in Paradise Lost….”(Catherine Sheldrick Ross, The Pleasures of Reading: A Booklover’s Alphabet, Libraries Unlimited, 2014, page 65.)

“The Bully” is included in The New Oxford Book of Canadian Short Stories in EnglishOxford University Press, Toronto, 1996. It is also collected in James Reaney’s The Box Social and Other Stories (1996), published by Porcupine’s Quill.

James Reaney’s “The Bully”

The opening paragraph from James Reaney’s 1950 short story “The Bully”

As a child I lived on a farm not far from a small town called Partridge. In the countryside about Partridge, thin roads of gravel and dust slide in and out among the hollows and hills. As roads go, they certainly aren’t very brave, for quite often they go round a hill instead of up it and even in the flattest places they will jog and hesitate absurdly. But then this latter tendency often comes from some blunder a surveying engineer made a hundred years ago. And although his mind has long ago dissolved, its forgetfulness still pushes the country people crooked where they might have gone straight….

Come to Alvego Root Theatre’s Tales for a Reaney Day and hear two of James Reaney’s short stories — Adam Corrigan Holowitz performs “The Bully” and Kydra Ryan performs “The Box Social”.
Where & When: September 10-12 at Somerville 630, 630 Dundas Street, London, Ontario.


“Near Tobermoray, Ontario” by James Reaney

Near Tobermoray, Ontario

I look upon a blue cove
In August
With egg pebble beach,
Blue sky & cedar birch sides.

And I look upon the sisters four
Blue sky & blue water
Rock, pebble & earth
And the light I see it with.

Watty Blue has a drowned man
For her heart
And rain for food & wind
To crisp her thoughts with.

Pale Blue Airy has clouds
To mind & winds to sing,
Thunder to say, lightning to do
And birds to hold.

Urtha lumpily clogs
Her clotty feet,
Waves Aaron’s Rod & wears
Emeralds in rags.

But Light, you’re quite another thing.
You hold them all yet let them slip
Into themselves again.

James Reaney, 1963

“Near Tobermoray, Ontario” is from Poems by James Reaney, New Press, 1972. 

“Georgian Bay near Tobermoray” watercolour by James Reaney, 1961

Berry-picking from James Reaney’s Colours in the Dark

Summer 1937: James Reaney (age 10) picking gooseberries with his cousins in Erin Township in Wellington County, Ontario.

The “Berry-picking” scene from Act I of James Reaney’s 1967 play Colours in the Dark uses a pattern poem in the shape of a family tree pyramid to help the berry-pickers bring back the lost child.


MOTHER: The Story of the Berry-Picking Child and the Bear.

SCREEN: A child’s drawing of a berry-picking woods.

PA: This happened early near the Little Lakes.

KIDS: Darting about with berry pails

Look at the raspberries
Wild Gooseberries
Over here!
Look at the raspberries
Wild currants.
Don’t eat them. They’re poison.
Bunch berries (ugh!)

One child is left busily picking. Her name is SADIE.

GRAMP:  as a bear. Enters and lifts up a child.
Child my cubs need nurse. I need your blood.
SADIE: Wouldn’t blood-red berries do instead?
GRAMP: No. Flesh must be my bread.

SADIE: Put me down Mr. Bear. I do thee dread.

Bear runs off with child, kids enter shrieking.

KIDS: A bear ran off with Sadie! A bear ran off with Sadie! And it takes a lot of people to produce one child.

They form a family tree pyramid with a reappearing Sadie.


It takes
Two parents
Four Grandparents
Eight Great grandparents
Sixteen Great great grandparents
Thirty-two Great great great grandparents
Sixty-four Great great great great grandparents
One hundred and twenty-eight Great great great great great grandparents
Two hundred and fifty-six Great great great great great great grandparents
Five hundred and twelve Great great great great great great great grandparents
One thousand and twenty-four Great great great great great great great great grandparents

It would take over a thousand people to do this scene: at Listeners’ Workshop we did it with thirty-two people: the children here are suggested by a triangle arrangement, the thousand ancestors behind each human being. Have one group of players in charge of chanting “Great great” & “grandparents”.

SADIE: Are you there 1,024 ancestors?

A feeble rustle

Are you there 512
Are you there 256

Are you there 128

Sound gets louder, less ghost-like and more human.

Are you there 64

Are you there 32

Are you there 16

More recent ancestors step forward and say firmly and clearly what we have only dimly heard: “We’re here.”

Are you there 8

Are you there 4

Are you there Mother and Father?

GRAMP, MA and PA step forward and establish the next scene as the kids fade away

Colours in the Dark is available from Talonbooks:

For more about James Reaney’s use of shape poems or pattern poems as theatrical devices, see Thomas Gerry’s book The Emblems of James Reaney (2013) and Gerry’s article “Marvellous Playhouses The Emblems of James Reaney” in the Summer 2019 issue of Queen’s Quarterly.

“The Poet’s Typewriter” by James Reaney, 1997
James Reaney 1972

“Gifts” by James Reaney


Existence gives to me
What does he give to thee?

He gives to me:  a pebble
He gives to me:  a dewdrop
He gives to me:  a piece of string
He gives to me:  a straw

Pebble  dewdrop  piece of string  straw

The pebble is a huge dark hill I must climb
The dewdrop’s a great storm lake you must cross
The string was a road he could not find
The straw will be a sign whose meaning they forget

Hill  lake  road   sign

What was it that changed the scene
So desert fades into meadows green?

The answer is that they met a Tiger
The answer is that he met a Balloon,
A Prostitute of Snow, A Gorgeous Salesman
As well as a company of others such as
Sly Tod, Reverend Jones, Kitty Cradle and so on

Who was the Tiger?  Christ
Who was the Balloon?  Buddha
Emily Bronte and the Emperor Solomon
Who sang of his foot in the doorway.
All these met him. They were hopeful and faithful.

Now the mountain becomes  a pebble in my hand
The lake calms down   to a dewdrop in a flower
The weary road  is a string around your wrist
The mysterious sign  is a straw that whistles “Home”

Pebble  dewdrop  piece of string  straw

James Reaney, 1965

From Poems by James Reaney, New Press, 1972. “Gifts” also appears in James Reaney’s  play Colours in the Dark, which premiered at the Stratford Festival in 1967.

James Reaney (far right) with his cousins, Elsie, Kathleen, and Mary, Summer 1930 near Stratford, Ontario.

James Reaney feeding the chickens (age 5) with his cousins Mary and Elsie (1931)

James Reaney’s childhood home near Stratford, Ontario

Dr. P A Abraham (1949-2021)

Our deepest sympathy to the family of the late Prof. (Dr.) P A Abraham, who passed away on May 14, 2021.

An Indian Canadianist, Prof. Abraham worked with James Reaney via  Western University and was instrumental in setting up the James Reaney Canadian Centre at Gujurat University in Ahmedabad, India.

Prof. Abraham also helped Reaney donate his collection of Canadian literature to the university, a valuable resource for students and scholars at the Centre.

Prof. Abraham’s book James Reaney: A Short Biography was published in 2005 (ISBN 81-85233-24-9)

James Reaney’s “The Crow”

The Crow

A fool once caught a crow
That flew too near even for his stone’s throw.
Alone beneath a tree
He examined the black flier
And found upon its sides
Two little black doors.
He opened both of them.
He expected to see into
Perhaps a little kitchen
With a stove, a chair,
A table and a dish
Upon that table.
But he only learned that crows
Know a better use for doors than to close
And open, and close and open
Into dreary, dull rooms.

 James Reaney, 1949


Crow near Jericho Beach, Vancouver, BC.

“The Crow” is from The Red Heart (1949), James Reaney‘s first book of poems.

o ) ) ) Listen to James Reaney read the poem here:

“Six Toronto Poets”, Folkways Records, 1958

“Elderberry Cottage” by James Reaney

Elderberry Cottage

’s windows, last night, rain wrote upon,
And Bobdog, while we slept, was miles away,
Beating the bounds, our frontier nose-spy
Reporting back at dawn.
We reward him for knowing about
Quarrels in lover’s lane,
Thieves on the prowl and other such
Canny protector, I pray you:
Bark always when strangers come nigh.
Yes, we cannot smell trespass
Nor hear it, as you can.
Piss a ring of fire round our house,
Our curtilage, my land, my concessional lot.
Lead me safely at last
Under this township to my last cot,
And when Elderberry is a ruin,
Guard my grave from the academic wolf,
The curious professor
With his fine wire-brush
Who would dig me up again
From my happiness, your kingdom.

James Reaney, 2005

“Elderberry Cottage” is from Souwesto Home, a collection of James Reaney’s poems from 2005 and published by Brick Books.

Listen to Jeff Culbert perform “Elderberry Cottage” here.

Souwesto Home by James Reaney, 2005
Souwesto Home by James Reaney, 2005

Elizabeth Cooke (James Reaney's mother) with Bob dog at Elderberry Cottage, March 1976. Photo by Wilma McCaig.
Elizabeth Cooke (James Reaney’s mother) with Bob dog at Elderberry Cottage, March 1976. Photo by Wilma McCaig.

Canadian Opera Anthology includes Daisy’s Aria from The Shivaree

Daisy’s Aria from John Beckwith and James Reaney’s 1982 opera The Shivaree is now part of a two-volume anthology of soprano arias from Canadian operas produced by Counterpoint Music Library Services.

Based on the work of soprano Dr. Stephanie Nakagawa, the two-volume anthology is a resource for singers and performance companies and features selections from 21 Canadian operas

In collaboration with the Canadian Music Centre, Dr. Nakagawa plans to create anthologies for each voice type. 

UBC Public Scholar Dr. Stephanie Nakagawa performs “I Need You Guillaume” from Victor Davies and Maureen Hunter’s 2007 opera Transit of Venus, one of the arias from her collection of music from Canadian operas:

Daisy’s Aria from The Shivaree

Caralyn Tomlin (Daisy) and Avo Kittask (Quartz) in The Shivaree, Comus Music Theatre, St. Lawrence Centre, Toronto, 1982.

In The Shivaree, Daisy is abandoned by her lover Jonathan and accepts the marriage proposal of a much older man, William Quartz. The story gives a Canadian rural setting to the Greek myth of Persephone borne off by Hades. In the aria, Daisy regrets marrying Mr. Quartz and longs for Jonathan to rescue her.

Daisy: Oh Jonathan, why have you forsaken me? Is there still time – to take me away?

Jonathan, you were a strange young man.
You never could decide if I was yours,
So Jonathan, I tried to make you decide
By letting Mr. Quartz keep company with me.
But if flowers and leaves keep company with winter,
They soon find they’re stabbed with an icy splinter.
My heart’s like the lane and the fields in fall,
Rusting and stiffening with cold until all
Lies buried in colourless snow,
Walk above the snow
Where the garden was —
Walk above the snow
That covers me up,
That covers me o’er.

Cover for James Reaney’s ibretto for The Shivaree, which premiered at the St. Lawrence Centre on April 3, 1982.

The John Beckwith Songbook on March 7

Join us on Sunday March 7 for The John Beckwith Songbook — a concert celebrating the music of Canadian composer John Beckwith in honour of his 94th birthday.

Presented on the Confluence Concerts You Tube Channel, this celebration of John Beckwith’s song repertoire features three programs encompassing nearly all of his music for solo voice, including folksongs and songs set to poems by ee cummings, Miriam Waddington, and Colleen Thibaudeau.

The programs premiere at 2:00, 5:00, and 8:00 pm EST on March 7 and will be available on YouTube until March 21:

John Beckwith also collaborated with James Reaney on four operas: Night Blooming Cereus, The Shivaree, Crazy to Kill, and Taptoo!.

For more about the concert and John Beckwith’s music, see William Littler’s article in The Peterborough Examiner. John Beckwith shared this story about collaborating with James Reaney:

“Jamie lived in London and I lived in Toronto so our collaboration was almost exclusively through correspondence,” he recalls. The composer Richard Strauss and his librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal carried on their famous collaboration much the same way. And like Strauss and Hofmannsthal, Beckwith and Reaney had their disagreements: “I wanted the leading character in our first opera to have a cat,” recalls Beckwith. Reaney replied tersely: “Cut the cat.”

Advice for potential opera composers? “You have to get a good book or you won’t have an opera. I’ve had students come up to me asking ‘What should I do for words?’ I tell them to get to know some writers.”

( o )  See also John Beckwith’s lecture on “James Reaney and Music” from November 5, 2016:

Page from Reaney’s draft of the libretto for Night Blooming Cereus (see John Beckwith’s 1997 book, Music Papers: Articles and Talks by a Canadian Composer, page 219)