May 4-5 in London, Ontario — In celebration of Canadian composers, the Village Opera directed by Adam Corrigan-Holowitz will present The Great Lakes Suite, which features six poems by James Reaney set to music by John Beckwith.
Reaney and Beckwith became friends when they were students at the University of Toronto in the late 1940s. The Great Lakes Suite is from The Red Heart (1949), James Reaney’s first poetry collection. Inspired by the poems, John Beckwith created a chamber cycle for two voices accompanied by a trio.
James Reaney’s poem“Lake Superior” begins the suite:
I am Lake Superior Cold and gray. I have no superior; All other lakes Haven’t got what it takes; All are inferior. I am Lake Superior Cold and gray. I am so cold That because I chill them The girls of Fort William Can’t swim in me. I am so deep That when people drown in me Their relatives weep For they’ll never find them. In me swims the fearsome Great big sturgeon. My shores are made of iron Lined with tough, wizened trees. No knife of a surgeon Is sharper than these Waves of mine That glitter and shine In the light of the Moon, my mother In the light of the Sun, my grandmother.
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
“The Crow” is from The Red Heart (1949), James Reaney‘s first collection of poems.
The monograph, edited and introduced by James Reaney, recounts the story of The Biddulph Tragedy of February 4, 1880, where “a body of men, blackened and masked, entered the dwelling of the somewhat notorious Donnelly family and murdered the inmates, the father, the mother, one son, and a girl, a niece”* in Biddulph Township near Lucan, Ontario.
James Reaney heard about the tragedy as a child: “The effect of my first hearing this story was paralyzing… It was my first glimpse of evil close to home.”**
*London Free Press Weekly, 12 February 1880 (See The Donnelly Documents: An Ontario Vendetta, page xv and page 118)
**From the Introduction to The Donnelly Documents: An Ontario Vendetta, page xxiv.
Poems Written About The Donnellys To Assist
The Renewal of The Town Hall at Exeter, Highway #4 *
Around Borrisokane, in Eire, the roads twist
After cowherds with willow gads, after wise woman’s spells,
After chariots and the widest go-around found in a mare’s skin.
But in Biddulph, Canada, in Mount Carmel’s brooder stove, St Peter’s fields,
The roads cross at right angles, a careful Euclidean net, roods, rods
Spun by surveyors out of Spider stars – Mirzak, Spicula, Thuban, Antares.
Like serpents, twitchgrass roots, dragons – the Irish roads twist,
The old crooked roads twist in the cage of the straight new.
We were horsemen, dressed well and from my brother’s entire horse,
From his entire horse came the colt fast fleet hoofhand with which
We seized and held onto the path through Exeter down to London.
We lifted the hills, creeks, rivers, slaughterhouses, taverns,
We lifted their travellers and those who were asleep when we passed
And those who saw us rattle by as they plowed mud or whittled.
We lifted them like a graveldust pennant, we swung them up and out
Till they yelled about wheels falling off, unfair competition, yah!
And we lie here now – headless, still, dead, waggonless, horseless,
Sleighless, hitched, stalled.
As the dressmaker hems my muslin handkerchiefs,
The night the Vigilantes burnt down one of their own barns,
As I sit waiting for a cake to bake and my gentle niece with me
I realize I am not doing what you want me to do.
You – bored with your Calvinist shoes chewed to pieces
By streets of insurance, streets of cakemix, packages, soap, sermonettes.
You want me to – you project a more exciting me on me.
She should be burning! Clip! Ax! Giantess! Coarse, I should curse!
Why should I accept these handcuffs from you?
James Reaney, 2005
* Respectively, the three speakers of these poems are William Porte, the Lucan postmaster, Tom Donnelly and Mrs. Donnelly.
“Entire Horse” is from Souwesto Home, a collection of James Reaney’s poems from 2005 and published by Brick Books. Listen to Jeff Culbert read “Entire Horse” here.
Scene from the play: In Act I before the Donnelly stagecoach leaves the City Hotel in London, Mike Donnelly (driver) says:
“Are there any more ladies and gentlemen for Calamity Corners as ’tis sometimes called, St. John’s, Birr — my old friend Ned here calls it Bobtown, the more elegant name is Birr. Elginfield known to some as Ryan’s Corner’s, Lucan that classic spot if it’s not all burnt down, Clandeboye, Mooretown, Exeter and Crediton. If Ned here hasn’t sawn it to pieces, the coach is waiting for you at the front door and it pleases you.”
In Act I of James Reaney’s play Sticks and Stones, local boys taunt young Will Donnelly for his crippled foot. In this scene, Mrs Donnelly asks Will for his birthday wish.
MRS DONNELLY: What day is it today of all days, William Donnelly? WILL: It’s my birthday. MRS DONNELLY: Tell me one wish.
WILL: Well, mother, ’tis something other than a prayerbook. I’d like a horse – a black stallion. And a sword. Then I’d ride up and down the line and I’d cut the heads off all those who call me – us – names.
MRS DONNELLY: Go over to the old tree the storm fell down, Will. Will, what would you call this big black horse? WILL: Lord Byron. But he wouldn’t be lame, you see.
MRS DONNELLY: Now see what you find there hidden among the roots. (He searches, crawling into the barrel; searching around it.)
OTHERS: (softly and rolling over) Then they took me out of that and Threw me into a well. They left me there for a space of time, And me belly began to swell. 
WILL: It’s a parcel. (Actually it is just two sticks.) MRS DONNELLY: But it’s not likely your father and I would give you a brown paper parcel for your twelfth birthday. What’s it a parcel of, Will?
WILL: A fiddle. Is it just for today, mother? Just mine for my birthday? But tomorrow will my brothers get at it?
MRS DONNELLY: No, Will, it is for you – and only you. To be your music for your entire lifetime. Remember what I’ve told you today.
(Will mimes the fiddle with two sticks; at edge of stage, a real fiddler follows.) WILL: (as he tunes) What did happen to father when he wouldn’t kneel and he wouldn’t swear?
The vendetta against the Donnellys and their eventual murder
Mrs Donnelly’s hope that their troubles from the old country are behind them proves unfounded, and the vendetta against them continues unabated until their murder some twenty years later (4 February 1880). During that time, Will Donnelly grows up to play his fiddle at weddings and dances and have a black stallion called Lord Byron (see James Reaney’s The Donnellys Part II – The St. Nicholas Hotel).
On 2 September 1879, five months before the murder of five members of his family, Will Donnelly frightens away a mob come to terrorize him by playing a tune on his fiddle. In writing the play, James Reaney was particularly impressed by this:
“When on 2 September 1879, the mob who had just terrorized his parents at their farm arrived at his house in Whalen’s Corners, William frightened them away with a fiddle tune! None of the commentators ever make enough of this. Nor of the mother risking her life to warn her son that a mob was about to confront him. From now on, I have nothing but admiration and sympathy for the Donnelly family, and a feeling that their bravery also betrayed them. But, of course, what they couldn’t possibly have known was that the whole affair of the cow and resultant trial was a dry run for another visit to the Donnelly house at night.…”(See James Reaney’s The Donnellys: An Ontario Vendetta, Introduction, page xcix, The Champlain Society, 2004.)
 These lines sung by the Others are from the Barley Corn Ballad, an old Irish folk tune that James Reaney uses to underscore the Donnellys’ fate. As James Noonan writes in the Afterword to the published version of the play, “The ballad is so fitting to illustrate the fate of the Donnellys that if you substitute ‘Donnelly’ for ‘barley grain’ you have the story of the Donnellys told in ballad form.” (Afterword, page 350)
James Reaney’s three plays about the Donnellys — Sticks and Stones, The St. Nicholas Hotel, and Handcuffs — are available in one volume from Dundurn Press.
In this scene from Act II of Sticks and Stones, Mr Donnelly (James Donnelly Sr) has given himself up to the constables for the killing of Patrick Farrell. In July 1858, Mrs Donnelly gathers signatures from friends and neighbours to petition the court in Goderich to change her husband’s death sentence to imprisonment. George Stub, the local grocer and magistrate, buys the Donnelly’s mortgage in anticipation of acquiring the land once Mr Donnelly is hanged. As Mrs Donnelly makes her forty-mile journey from Biddulph Township to Goderich, Stub builds the scaffold for the pending execution.
MRS DONNELLY: And now I’ll walk with these names to Goderich
WILL DONNELLY: When my mother heard that the Governor General was to be there for the celebration opening the railroad from Goderich to Brantford to Buffalo, she determined that she would meet him with the petitions we had helped and friends had helped her gather up.
(The road from Biddulph to Goderich is represented by a series of short and long ladders held up firmly by the cast. Mrs Donnelly climbs over these ladders. We hear road sounds – barking of dogs, etc. – that accompany her journey.)
MRS DONNELLY: At Marystown the dogs barked at me CHORUS: And people who had signed wished her good luck.
(Generally repeat this solo and choral response arrangement between Mrs Donnelly and the other actors.)
MRS DONNELLY: At Irishtown the grain wagons were all going south CHORUS: North she was going, north through their dust.
MRS DONNELLY: There at St. Peter’s is he buried whom my husband killed CHORUS: His cold hands across reached the road and held back her feet. MRS DONNELLY: I dare not enter there to pray for his soul
CHORUS: The chapel has no shadow. It is noon. VOICE: Last spring a man and a woman came to a sudden death…. It is not known how, and were buried in their own field in Biddulph.
GEORGE STUB: Twelve hundred feet of pine lumber at ten dollars per M.
MRS DONNELLY: Now I’ve reached the borders of Biddulph VOICE: Sarah Stratton, an old woman who was found dead… on the north boundary of Biddulph going to Exeter out of Biddulph.
MRS DONNELLY: Well, she almost made it, but once past this tollgate and I am CHORUS: out of Biddulph! Past two tollgates, there are twelve still to
MRS DONNELLY: Oak tree with your shadow Indian dark CHORUS: Lie and rest beneath my speaking saying leaves
MRS DONNELLY: The whip of that carter touched my cheek I look like a beggarwoman tramping the roads CHORUS: Clean white tower clouds walk in the sky
STUB: Nine hundred feet of hemlock scantlings, seven dollars per M, six dollars and thirty cents.
MRS DONNELLY: Tollgate of the setting sun show me your latch CHORUS: Twilight rain on this roof from those clouds
MRS DONNELLY: Falling down down as I sleep till the earth wheels CHORUS: Down to the dawn whose tollgate opens to all
MRS DONNELLY: I’ll pray for the dawn with these winter stars CHORUS: In the chill dark starting out before there were proper shadows
STUB: Detlor & Sons for nails, hinges and bolts, two dollars and ninety cents.
CHORUS: Francistown Rogersville Hensall Kippen Brucefield Rattenbury’s Clinton and turn
MRS DONNELLY: I’m on the Huron Road now and I turn west to CHORUS: Holmesville where her member of parliament lived.
MRS DONNELLY: Yes Mr Holmes. Hurrah for Holmes will be our cry from now on in. Our family’s vote is Grit forever and I’ve seven sons who’ll agree or else. Why sir, you’ve garnered almost as many names from this township as I have from Biddulph. My family’s blessing on you and your family forever. And our eight votes, sir, someday. Except for the one I’m carrying, God bless her.
STUB: Nolan’s account for Staples & Ring &c.
MRS DONNELLY: The road’s like a knife I cut through the bush with CHORUS: She climbed up the hill, the last tavern hill before
STUB: Rope from W.E. Grace twenty-four cents. Four long poles at one dollar each.
MRS DONNELLY: From this hill I see the river. I see the blue lake CHORUS: The ship in the harbour flew a red and gold flag
STUB: Twenty cedar posts, one piece of five-by-six maple scantling.
MRS DONNELLY: I’ll have time to see the mayor of the town. I’ll change my dress, comb my hair somewhere. Somewhere. I won’t see Mr Donnelly till I’ve delivered the petitions. What’s that hammering sound I hear? My own heart more than likely….
James Reaney’s comments on the historical context for this scene: “… Oral tradition has it that Judith Donnelly walked to Goderich from Biddulph [in July 1858] to make direct appeal to the Governor General, probably gathering signatures on her passage through Holmesville. Apart from gathering the petitions, on 11 June 1859, she took out a mortgage from a London money lender for $100 for three years at twice yearly payments of $24.70 [A1]. All of this, as well as caring for her two-year-old daughter, Jane? Nothing was impossible for this indomitable woman.” [See The Donnelly Documents: An Ontario Vendetta, Introduction, page lii, The Champlain Society, 2004.]
James Reaney’s three plays about the Donnellys — Sticks and Stones, The St. Nicholas Hotel, and Handcuffs — are available in one volume from Dundurn Press.
In this excerpt from an August 2001 interview conducted by Tim Struthers and published in the Spring 2013 issue of the journal Short Story, James Reaney sheds light on his fascination with the Donnelly massacre of 1880.
James Reaney first heard about the Donnellys from his stepfather when he was a child in the mid-1930s.
JR: I remember saying to my stepfather at the time, “Wouldn’t they have a door with a lock on it?” And he said, “Noooo, they wouldn’t have had a door with a lock on it. They had a piece of burlap bag across a hole in their shanty” … so that was pretty dreadful. Anyway I was scared out of my wits. It was only twenty miles away from our farm. We were pretty much right next to it all at one time. And I just couldn’t believe it.
In 1946, local historian Alice MacFarlane gave a paper on the Donnellys at a meeting of the London and Middlesex Historical Society at the public library in London.
JR: [Alice MacFarlane’s paper] had all the usual elements of the story that Kelley tells, that people tell about the Donnellys still. And when she got to the part in her paper about how the Donnellys cut out the tongues of horses … an old man rose up out of the audience and came at her with a shillelagh … And he said “They never cut the tongues out of horses. Out of people, yes!” … And then he stomped out…
But I was fascinated as I read this in The Globe and Mail … And I realized the Donnellys had friends. I never thought that before, you see.
TS: When was this?
JR: It would be 1946.
TS: While you were an undergraduate at the University of Toronto.
JR: Yes. I’d been thinking about writing a play about them. The Kelley thing [Thomas P. Kelley’s The Black Donnellys] had not been written by that time. He’s 1954. And you couldn’t write a play about the story my stepfather told. So finding out that they had friends made a big difference. I began to think in terms of a play about them that would be a tragedy, rather than the kind of thing where it’s not tragic at all and they should be exterminated as soon as possible (laughter). Like many a modern horror film.
Note from Susan Reaney: This interview is excerpted from the Spring 2013 issue of Short Story, New Series Vol. 21 No. 1, pages 115-116. See also “Winter’s Tales”, a poem James Reaney wrote in 1949, which makes an oblique reference to “…the massacre at Lucan / Where the neighbours killed all of the McKilligans dead.”
James Reaney wrote a trilogy of plays about the Donnelly family and the tragedy: Sticks and Stones (1973), The St. Nicholas Hotel (1974), and Handcuffs (1975). He also edited and wrote the introduction to The Donnelly Documents: An Ontario Vendetta, published by The Champlain Society in 2004.
November 3, 2018 — Thank you all for coming to hear James Stewart Reaney talk about his father James Reaney’s playsfor children, Names and Nicknames (1963), Apple Butter (1965), Ignoramus (1966), and Geography Match (1967). As a long-time Londoner and occasional participant in London’s creative community since the 1960s, James shared his memories of the plays and reflected on the influences behind them and the collaborators who helped launch them.
James Stewart Reaney’s lecture is reproduced here with permission of the author.
“I Was So Much Older Then: A reconsideration of Jamie Reaney’s Plays for Children … starring Apple Butter, Hilda History, Amelia (Baby One), Tecumseh & many more”.
Thank you for the kind words and thank you all for being here for the 2018 JamesReaney Memorial lecture.
I am grateful to the London Public Library and to WordsFest for giving the series a home after a wonderful start in Stratford at the Stratford Public Library. The topic for today is James Reaney’s children’s plays.There are four of them: Apple Butter, Names and Nicknames (which actually came first in a collaboration with John Hirsch), Geography Match and Ignoramus. All are from the 1960s — four years in that decade from 1963 to 1967.
Today’s words are dedicated to the memory of our parents London writers Colleen Thibaudeau and James Crerar (Jamie) Reaney — & to our brother, John Andrew Reaney, who died in 1966.
As I begin, thank you to my wife Susan Wallace and sister Susan Reaney for their tremendous help.
You are free to consider the insights that follow as the third best James Reaney memorial lecture. This is based on my sense that the first lecture — delivered by my mother Colleen Thibaudeau — will always be the best and all the others until now and after this one will be tied for second place.
So for a third place perspective on four plays, I can offer a few insights you will not hear anywhere else and some reflections on plays I first encountered as a preteen or young teenager in the 1960s & then wrote a book about in the 1970s. In more recent times, I’ve occasionally reconsidered the plays & my earlier reactions to them. My 2018 revelations are much less “profound” than they used to be — & likely a lot more fun.
Before sharing the first such insight, some background. I knew it was a hectic, creative time at 276 Huron Street when I was 10 and up in those years. Preparing for this lecture has reminded me, however, how much even an actualwitness to history can miss or forget. In addition to the four children’s plays — and the demands of their individual productions — there were other projects, many other projects: in 1963, Dad wrote The Dance of Death In London Ontario in collaboration with London artist Jack Chambers; throughout the sixties he edited Alphabet, a magazine he not only edited but also set its type; and wrote Twelve Letters to a Small Town, a tribute to his home town, Stratford, in collaboration with John Beckwith, Canadian musician and former dean of U of Toronto’s Music School. Twelve Letters was awarded Dad’s third Governor General’s medal.
In 1965, there was more musical collaboration including the libretto for Shivaree, an opera with music by JohnBeckwith; The Sun & The Moon which premiered in summer theatre here; then Dad’s children’s novel The Boy With An R In His Hand— which this past summer was adapted for the stage at Fanshawe Pioneer Village by Adam Corrigan Holowitz. And can you believe it — there was also a production of Dad’s first play The Killdeer in Glasgow, directed by the late David Williams & with the late Bernard Hopkins in the cast. Dad flew to Glasgow to see his play performed there — and joy of joys, brought me back Manfred Mann’s “If you gotta go, go now” and The Who’s “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere.” I still play those cherished 45s and think of Dad finding them for me.
Back to Dad’s busy decade. In 1966, Listen to the Wind premiered — as part of an all-Canadian season of summer theatre in London, one year before the Centennial celebrations.
Also in the creative mix was another collaboration with Winnipegand Stratford theatre director John Hirsch. Colours in the Dark premiered at Stratford in 1967. It shares some of its words with the four children’s plays I am discussing. Martha Henry and Heath Lamberts were in the cast of Colours — I handed out flowers (black-eyed Susans??) at the premiere and wore with pride my Sergeant Pepper red military jacket which I had recentlybought in Stratford.
In those creative years, one eye witness memory does stand out. The unique insight I can offer relates to my performance as the mayor of the Munchkins in our grade 8 class’s Wizard of Oz circa 1965. That magic moment is in fact a direct influence on at least two plays I’ll be talking about this afternoon.
My father came away from The Wizard of Oz perhaps overrating the performance of the young Munchkin mayor. He alsoshared a rueful & amused sense that his favourite child in Oz had been on stage for but a few minutes and that the parents of the four main characters — Dorothy, the Cowardly Lion, the Tin Man & the Scarecrow — had more to be pleased about than he did.
I recall his telling me what he wanted to develop plays in which everyone in the class would be equally involved, more so than they were in what was apparently a very fine Wizard of Oz.
He had already done that with Names and Nicknames — a collaboration with John Hirsch at Winnipeg. But two of the later plays — Geography Match and Ignoramus — are clearly products of the post-Oz approach.
The Mayor of the Munchkins factor may not be as important as I make it. Many of the child actors in Dad’s plays are like players in the works for children’s orchestra written by Carl Orff. In Orff— not Oz — the interplay of simple elements achieves a final complexity that the children would not have accomplished without full cooperation with each other and the director. A similar procedure is followed in these plays for children.A certain world has been created for these child actors illuminated by continual games, chance, improvisational catalogs, and useful character types.
The other unique insight I can offer is that Apple Butter was important to my father very late in his life. We were at dinner with him at Marian Villa — where he spent his last years — when it became apparent that verbal communication wasn’t going to happen.
Instead, for some reason I asked Dad to give his Apple Butter face and he responded instantly with something like this. My mimicry doesn’t do justice to the playful face he conjured upbased on the marionette he had created 40 years earlier. The success of the Apple Butter face was followed by two other requests — one for Northrop Frye, a mentor and even a father figure to Dad and the other for Nathan Cohen — a Toronto drama critic who had ridiculed Dad‘s early plays.
The Northrop Frye face was something like this — noble and firm of jaw … a prophet in the glory of his times. When it came to Cohen, Dad twisted his face into a vicious scowl with comically crunched eyebrows.
As a play — not a marionette or a face — Apple Butter is aminiature social and personal history with magic and revenge elements. A child helps the adults mature.
Geography Match expands the mythic framework into a personal vision of Canada. Two groups of children grow as they cross the country.
The strength of family and community is the foundation of Names and Nicknames, a play shaped by word lists from a school speller. Children grow up and prove strong enough to help defeat the evil Nicknamer in their midst.
Ignoramus uses its word lists to satirize theories of education. The children grow from infants to teens — and mature as much as their educational masters allow.
Apple Butter is seen here in its Western Fair glory with a proscenium painted by iconic London artist Jack Chambers & a beautiful set by Perth County artist, archivist and James Reaney cousin James (Jim or Jimmy) Anderson … The marionettes were devised by Dad and Jay Peterson, whose daughter Leith is in the audience today.
The story sets an orphan child alone versus a sinister hired man & brings mythical natural forces to its affectionate presentation of life in Perth County in the 1890s when James Nesbitt Reaney, my father’s father, was a youngboy. Quite in keeping with the author’s insistence on simplicity is the rough-hewn appearance of the marionettes. They are all primitively formed creatures of wood, bone and string & not particularly human. Leith wrote the following about her mother’s involvement in Apple Butter:
In his 1990 Theatrum article entitled “Stories on a String,”* Jamie said “…Jay Peterson was a cultural pillar of the town and she persuaded the Fair board to commission a marionette show from me…They actually gave me some money – one third of which went towards a tent, but the rest I salvaged to pay artists and manipulators for designs, puppets, theatre facades, as well as hours of gruelling work rehearsing, learning, and finally for ten days in mid-September, performing from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. on the fairgrounds…Most of the manipulators were my graduate students. We still talk about those very happy, very busy days in the fall of 1965.”
Jamie created Apple Butter, Treewuzzle and Rawbone. My mother made the heads as well as the papier-mache hands for the adult characters. Mom also designed Moo Cow—an impressive-looking bovine, with the map of Canada on one side, built into the Holstein’s black and white markings.
Jamie said that at the Apple Butter production in the Western Fair tent, “babies who cried for everything else shut up for Moo Cow, while backstage visitors enquired after Rawbone with a great deal of respect.”
Apple Butter went on to further acclaim in other locations. After the Woodstock production, Jamie enthused that “children practically accompanied Apple Butter right to the station.”
Victor Nipchopperis Apple Butter’s bitter enemy, and representsa lighter version of the cuckoo bird usurper/villain in The Killdeer,The Easter Egg and Listen to the Wind.
Victor is clumsy and selfish, solely capable of mischief and cruelty, and nearly takes Hester Pinch’sfarm for his own. He bullies and dominates Hester and Solomon Spoilrod and effectively prevents their marriage and reconciliation with Apple Butter until MooCow blasts him right out of Perth County and the play.
Indeed, the quaint romance of the spinster and the schoolmaster does bring Apple Butter to a proper conclusion, like mostcomedies. Marriage is an institution that symbolizes stability and fertility in these works. It is the intervention of the nature spirits that makes possible this social harmony. Rawbone and Tree Wuzzel are sensible guardians for Apple Butter and even manage to temper his joking. They recall characters in folktales, majestic but still approachable, like Treebeard in The Lord of the Rings.
At heart though is the personality of Apple Butter. Robust and good-natured, he is the human character closest to those two natural champions. In the end, he goes off with Wuzzel and Rawbone to find his next adventure.
A mythical version of Perth County (where Dad grew up) is also the setting for Names & Nicknames.
Aside from John Hirsch as director & visionary, & Ken Winters, who composed music for the play, the names that jump out of the cast are those ofthree members of the first graduating class of the National Theatre School of Canada — Martha Buhs (later Martha Henry) James Langcaster — better known as Heath Lamberts — and Suzanne Grossman, who was in the first production of The Lion In Winter on Broadway in 1966 and became a star in the United States.
While they were rehearsing Names and Nicknames, Martha Henry remembers Jamie sitting there seemingly asleep but she came back “early from lunch one day to find him alone in the rehearsal hall and he was tossing this big doll we had up in the air catching it swinging it around and smashing its head into a wall. I thought maybe I should go and then I realized he wouldn’t care…. John was the boss of course — John and Jamie had known each other for years. John had this curiosity and passion — he would just throw the play up in the air and look at how it fell.”*
A group of children from Hirsch’s children’s theatre including the daughters of conductor Victor Feldbrill formed the chorus. Heath Lambertstold David Ferry:“there was no improv. We would just do what we thought was appropriate but if it wasn’t appropriate John [John Hirsch that is] would tweak…” My father recalled “John would take the work of the actors and would work it in such detail until he’d come up with a fantastic image.*
Names & Nicknames takes place in the pastoral and idyllic community of Brocksden circa 1900.
There is a changeless farm of long ago — Farmer Dell’s — and a timeless school setting.
The original for the school was built in 1853 by Scottish settler as well as my great great great grandfather Peter Crerar. It is now a living museum, where groups can learn about the school’s routine back in 1910.
“In 1832, Peter Crerar came from Scotland with his family and claimed land in this area to clear and to farm,” said Gloria Hutchison, the woman who acts as the museum’s schoolmarm (Farmer Dell’s wife is the schoolmarm in the play.)
”During his first winter here in Canada, he didn’t have a house or a barn or anything to sleep in, so history says he found an overturned tree… and he used that hole, perhaps made it bigger, and that’s where he spent his first winter.”
As the story goes, when Crerar’s family came and found him in the spring, they told him his winter shelter looked like a brock’s den — brock being the Irish Celtic and Scottish Gaelic word for badger. In an attempt to retain the area’s history, when Crerar built the first schoolhouse down the road from its current location 13 years later, he called it Brocksden School.
When the children in Names & Nicknames are playing their skipping games or making poems out of their readers they are also creating beautiful wordplay.
However when they are building a snowman, then making the mean-spirited decision to smash it to bits, they are succumbing to destructive impulses: in short, to nickname or to disfigure.
The source of the nicknames is Grandpa Thorntree — a fence viewer and trapper. Thorntree enjoys the pain and confusion of others and is at the height of his power during winter with his traps — rabbit foot not so lucky — while walking freely on snowshoes.
His vicious attacks on the names chosen for infant children means there are 51 unchristened babies in the Brocksden neighbourhood. It is the schoolchildren themselves who are partly at fault for Thorntree’s cruelty (although they sometimes use him as an ally when attacking other kids):
Ha ha Ha. Old Mr. Thorntree
Swallowed a pack of rusty nails
Spits them out and never fails
To make them twice as rusty
To make them twice as rusty
These games arouse Thorntree’s hatred and he becomes a bitter enemy of all children. The old man shows real cunning in toying with the children’s fears and pays nasty attention to youthful uncertainty.
Thorntree’s favourite trick is cursing infants just prior to their baptisms with malicious nicknames. Grandpa Thorntree doesn’t like Paul John Peter James Martin’s proposed name and spits out “Too many names!Fat name!” Paul John Peter James Martin is then called Baby 2, until he can be christened properly.
As Baby 2 he gurgles at Grandpa Thorntree —
Mooly moo dirly irly a doidle.
Two pages later, he proudly joins in the defence of Brocksden and shouts names as dissimilar as Norman and Dionysius (the Greek historian). Adult heroes may struggle for two acts at least In most plays before rejecting evil so wholeheartedly. In Dad’s children’s plays, such wild and optimistic spontaneity is part of the game, and therefore part of the play.
Eventually, a third Dell child is born and christened in spectacular fashion with hundreds of names. The epic list defeats Thorntree & his transformation into an actual thorn tree is the awful miracle Reverend Hackaberry has predicted.
Celebrations of marriage, children and fertility triumph over Grandpa Thorntree’s evil nature. In the end he is revealed to be not human.
On to Geography Match, which has two Nova Scotia schools racing across Canada to Vancouver.
As theatre, Geography Match develops some of the iconography of Listen to the Wind and Names and Nicknames. The stream of blue cloth reappears and so does a ladder. in Geography Match the ladder represents the play’s pair of stairs. A Canadian child fails to climb those stairs and so the Geography Match children must prove that Canadian kids are strong, to satisfy the Governor General of Canada and Prince Philip. This becomes the challenge to the children in their race across Canada.
Kate Collie and Scott Davidson both responded to my request for their memories of performing in Geography Match:
Scott (a friend of my brother John’s) wrote:
I was indeed Squeak Squeak. Remarkably no photos were ever taken as I recall (how times have changed!). My strongest memory is of the tiny toy mouse I carried on stage — barely large enough for spectators in the first row to discern.Important lesson: stage props need to be larger than life!
I fondly remember the “World Premiere” at Middlesex College Theatre in June 1967 followed by a couple of reprises at the Grand over the Christmas holidays later that year. It was a remarkable achievement your father undertook to celebrate Canada’s centennial.
Kate (who lived on the same block on Huron Street as we did) wrote:
Mainly I remember that your dad let us be real actors in real theatres with real responsibilities.
Mainly (also) I remember how he encouraged us to improvise and to let our creativity run free. I composed the recorder music I played but that was minor compared to the music other kids composed and played. He let us create things out of nothing, although it’s probably more accurate to say he (gently) required us to create grown-up things out of nothing.
Lunette (a character in Geography Match) was meek and mild but other characters were grand and fantastical — creatures to be reckoned with. Some part of me is still looking over a shoulder for them in case they’re coming.
Your dad enveloped the whole class with love after John died. The day of the funeral he had us all around the piano at your place as he made up music and songs and kept us singing and laughing. That was Grade 6. We were in Grade 8 (in 1967) when he turned the class into a theatre company. We rehearsed downtown in the Alpha Centre. Then when it was time for a stage, we rehearsed in that theatre at Western.
It was simultaneously serious and a whole lot of fun. I still feel proud of performing at the Grand Theatre. I was 12, having been in some of those mixed-grade classes at Broughdale Public School.
Geography Match ends optimistically with the Canadian child able at last to climb up a pairof stairs. Then the ball of string/spoolknittingpulls in a member of the audience, suggesting that such exploration and discovery is accessible to anyone choosing to travel across Canada.
Speaking of Canada, Ignoramusis another play about the classroom.
Twenty little orphans float into the modern world guided by two bitterly opposed educational theorists Dr. Hilda History and Dr. Charles Progressaurus.
Allan Stratton, London’s successful playwright and novelist now living in Toronto, wrote recently:
How I remember all those plays, and doing AppleButter along with Red Riding Hood at Stratford, in Third Space which is where they used to show off the costumes. I also remember playing the Professor in Ignoramus with Hilary Bates Neary as the other professor. I still whistle ‘Gaudeamus Igitur’.
The initial debate in Ignoramus reaches a forceful conclusion. Hilda History knocks Professor Progressaurus down with her mammoth primary reader in a mock duel.*
The antipathy between Hilda and Charlie (in other words, the Bible versus technology) makes the marriage that ends the other comedies seem unlikely. What would Hilda History and Charlie Progressaurus ever manage to talk about without arguing?
After Hilda‘s victory in the duel, both theorists are unexpectedly given the opportunity to raise 10 orphans each, under the patronage of a wealthy brewer.
Not only do we see first a traditional, then a progressive, educator at work but we also see into their minds.
The location of the two schools provides the setting of the play. Charlie and his kids are unable to cope with Bruce, a classic difficult pupil. Theywander around and around their Pelee Island shoreline, getting nowhere until an inspiring pupilnamed Beatrice intervenes. Beatrice secretly gets her classmates reading — bringing hope to the children in their isolated island classroom laboratory.
For Hilda History and her 10 orphan pupils, the opposite is true. The limitless possibilities of the Prairie Horizon and the night sky imbuethe society she is building.
Amazingly enough, the result of the competition is a tie. Beatrice finds religion in the words printed ondiscarded Bon Amicans (a kitchen cleanser in powder form). We can completethe litany she devises as follows:
Polishes as it cleans
makes porcelain gleam
no red hands
hasn’t scratched yet*
*(referring to the newly hatched baby chick in the illustration on the can).
In the final judgment, the charming musician Cynthia compensates for her classmate Steven’s priggishness when Hilda’s students are presented. Beatrice, inher existence poem, says “Love and patience do quite change the scene” — balancing the transistor radio-enforced isolation of Bruce. Shades of today’s smart phones.
Ignoramus doesn’t really end, because Hilda and Charlie are going to switch classes and see what happens next.
The judge of the two educational theories, the Governor General of Canada, speculates that Professor History’s students (who must now suffer for a year with Professor Progessaurus) will change him despite his trendy ignorance. Then one final turn! As the curtain falls,Bruce drops to his knees, acknowledging his ignorance and begging Professor History to teach him to read.
The real victory has already been won, through the faith and imagination of Beatrice. The education of the 18 orphans (one sadly dies in each class) is essentially complete and their minds are ready to bloom.
The four children’s plays offer us marionettes and myths, Canada and community,family and education. To really enjoy them however, we should surrender to our imaginative world, like the four friends at the start of Listen to the Wind.Let’s end this way: We are all childrensomewhere in Canada thinking about putting on a play.
Copyright James Stewart Reaney, 2018. Reproduced with permission of the author.
 Martha Henry in conversation with David Ferry in 2003, Reaney Days in the West Room: Plays of James Reaney (2009), page 14.
 Heath Lamberts in conversation with David Ferry in 2003, Reaney Days in the West Room: Plays of James Reaney (2009), page 14.
 James Reaney in conversation with David Ferry in 2002, Reaney Days in the West Room: Plays of James Reaney (2009), page 14.
 Dr. Hilda Neatby (1904-1975), who criticized popular notions of progressive education in her 1953 book So Little for the Mind, inspired the character Hilda History. The mock duel in Ignoramus draws on the February 25, 1954 Citizens Forum debate “Education:: The Canadian Controversy” broadcast on CBC Radio.
In this audio clip from the 1954 debate, Dr. Neatby points out that the gifted child is not given consideration in modern education.
“Dr. Phillip’s suggestion — if I understood him right — that we must flatten everybody down to a dead level of mediocrity is going to kill our democracy so quickly that we don’t need to worry about the future at all.”
The James Reaney Memorial Lecture series celebrates the life and work of Southwestern Ontario poet and dramatist James Reaney, who was born on a farm near Stratford, Ontario and found a creative home in London, Ontario.
Join us at Wordsfest on November 3, 2018 at 1:00 pm at Museum London to hear James Stewart Reaney, James Reaney’s son, speak about James Reaney’s plays for children: Names and Nicknames, Ignoramus, Geography Match, and Apple Butter, a marionette play.
About the speaker:Born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, journalist James Stewart Reaney wrote for the London Free Press and now contributes to London Fuse. He has been a witness to — & occasional participant in — London’s creative community since the 1960s. In 1977 he wrote a book about his father’s plays for the Profiles in Canadian Drama series.
James styles his lecture as “I Was So Much Older Then: A reconsideration of Jamie Reaney’s Plays for Children … starring Apple Butter, Hilda History, Amelia (Baby One), Tecumseh & many more”.
Where: Museum London’s Lecture Theatre, 421 Ridout Street North, London, Ontario
Admission is free!
Our thanks to Wordsfest and the London Public Library for their support of this event. The annual lecture series celebrates the life and work of Southwestern Ontario poet and dramatist James Reaney, who was born on a farm near Stratford, Ontario.
Written for children attending the Western Fair in London, Ontario, the first performances of James Reaney’s marionette play Apple Butter took place in a tent on the fairgrounds in September 1965.
In this final scene from the play, orphan hero Apple Butter calls on RAWBONE (a bone fairy) to vanquish his adult oppressors.
APPLE BUTTER: These are words to think upon, Miss Pinch. Rawbone!
A huge whalebone brush enters and chases them about. MOO COW enters and bears VICTOR NIPCHOPPER off on her horns.
MOO COW: The very idea of you pretending to be me, Victor Nipchopper. I never caught my tail in a fence in my life. For I always jump over them neat and clean just the way I’m going to jump with you – over the moon.
MOO COW and VICTOR NIPCHOPPER disappear up. SOLOMON SPOILROD and MISS PINCH kneel for mercy in front of APPLE BUTTER.
MISS PINCH: Forgive us, Apple Butter. We’ll never try to spank you, or any other orphan child again.
APPLE BUTTER: What about you, Solomon Spoilrod? Are you going to be so unmerciful to your scholars ever again?
SOLOMON SPOILROD: No. Just don’t let that Giant Hairbrush at me again.
APPLE BUTTER: Now you know what it feels like to get birched and strapped, don’t you?
SOLOMON SPOILROD: Yes.
APPLE BUTTER: It bears thinking upon, doesn’t it? Now – another thing. Are you going to marry Miss Pinch here, like you keep promising to do every time you get tiddly on her chokecherry wine and mysteriously win all the games of King Pedro?
SOLOMON SPOILROD: (pausing) No!
APPLE BUTTER: Wuzzel!
Either TREE WUZZEL appears or a tree falls down on SOLOMON SPOILROD.
SOLOMON SPOILROD: Yes! If I say yes, will he stop frightening me?
MISS PINCH: Oh, Solomon, I never knew you really cared that much. Apple Butter, you aren’t going to leave us now. Why, we’ll adopt you as our first child and we’ll will the farm to you, come what may. I don’t know how I could be so cruel to such a wise, innocent child.
APPLE BUTTER: Thank you very much, Miss Pinch. But now that the apples are getting ripe, I think I’d better walk around and look at all the orchards to help the people that own them make their apple butter and their apple cider.
MISS PINCH: Where will you sleep? Back at the orphanage?
APPLE BUTTER: No. I only stayed there for a while to help out. I like sleeping out best – under a wild apple tree. Goodbye, folks, and maybe I’ll come to see you in the spring when the apple blossoms are out and bring you a blossom baby.
MISS PINCH AND SOLOMON SPOILROD: Goodbye, Apple Butter. We can just feel how you’ve changed us.
SOLOMON SPOILROD: I feel sweeter inside. And more loving.
MISS PINCH: I don’t feel like Miss Pinch anymore. I feel like Mrs. Spoilrod.
TREE WUZZEL and RAWBONE appear.
APPLE BUTTER: How far will you walk with me, Tree Wuzzel and Rawbone?
TREE WUZZEL AND RAWBONE: As far as you’re going, Apple Butter.
APPLE BUTTER: As far as I’m going…. That bears thinking on.