James Reaney on writing and researching the Donnelly plays

In the 1976 Alumni Gazette (UWO) article “Souwesto Theatre: A Beginning” excerpted here, James Reaney describes the years he spent researching the Biddulph Tragedy of February 4, 1880 and how the knowledge he gained about the Donnellys’ world helped create the Donnelly trilogy. 

Orlo Miller, who wrote the historical book The Donnellys Must Die (1962), had based his research on local courthouse documents of the time. Miller’s collection of relevant documents was available to Reaney at the University of Western Ontario’s Regional Archives:

“One of my early experiences back here* […] was to go with my father to hear Orlo Miller lecture at Middlesex College on his recent book The Donnellys Must Die. As a child I had heard the story of this tragic family from our hired man, and my interest was revived now, especially when I heard that Mr. Miller had, in the thirties, collected a huge heap of legal and municipal documents with relevance to the Biddulph Tragedy from the attics of the courthouses at Goderich and at London […]. [In the archives] I entered the really magic world of the past which can only be reached through such fragile ladders and windows as bundles of counterfoils from Sheriff’s cheque books, Court Criers’ Bills, Surveyors’ Notebooks, Chattel Mortgages (whole inventories of people’s furniture and beasts and implements), Jury Lists, Assessment Rules, Crown Attorney Letterbooks and, last of all, mountains of blue paper containing an endless stream of Information and Complaint – the term used for the form you had to fill out when some fellow pioneer had dogged your cattle, tried to pour boiling water on you, torn down your fence, milked your cow furtively or torn down your house with you inside. [Alumni Gazette 1976, pages 14-15]

One of my first research lessons was to train myself to read nineteenth century handwriting and abbreviations; for example, for about a year I somehow assumed that “Inft” meant “infant” so that when you read “.… and poured boiling water over the Inft” I naturally saw the very darkest picture imaginable; suddenly one day it dawned on me that the early Huron District backwoods scene was indeed horrible, but that “Inft” did at least stand for an Informant fifty years old and perfectly capable of running away! Now these documents where a Plaintiff accuses a Defendant of doing something are extremely dramatic, partly because of the variety of things accused, and I made them into one of the choral passages in Sticks and Stones (Part One) in order to show the social situation at its tumultuous litigious mad worst, which is always the dramatic best! [.…] Propelled by the magnetic names “Donnelly” and “Biddulph” I read all the Huron District and County Archives from the beginning to 1863 when Biddulph Township leaves Huron County; I knew that I wanted to write a play about these people, but I wanted to get inside their world first and those hundreds of boxes filled with blue paper – it gets white about 1870 – were the keys to this state. Whoever filed away things in the Huron County Courthouse filed away everything, and I am eternally grateful […]. [H]ere you often get pictures of whole families talking at each other in a way that no history book ever thinks of showing you: one of my favourite lines from the trilogy – “It’s not enough that we should starve, but we must freeze to death as well” – comes right out of a Chancery document. [Alumni Gazette 1976, page 15]

Now there is probably a reason for this material being dear to a dramatist’s heart; a court case is after all a drama – with its lawyers arguing so one-sidedly against each other, with its witnesses opposing each other too and with a Judge, who quite frequently in the early days, climaxes everything with a knock on the head or wallet all around! If at the time you were to have taken a Constable’s Bill to the constable who had just filled it out and told him that it would make a good scene in a play he would have laughed at such foolishness. But time going by changes all that and scholars and artists have as their duty the finding out of just how time does give ordinary things meaning. After the five years were over and I found myself with Five Legal Blue Binders with transcribed material, I found that the three plays of The Donnellys corresponded to three of these binders. All – all!?, I had to do was pare things down from 200 hours of dialogue and action to three hours per binder! [Alumni Gazette 1976, page 15]

After a series of workshops with my own group, the Listeners, at Alpha Centre and Mini-Theatre, where we used this material in prototypes of the Donnelly plays called “Antler River” and “Sticks and Stones”, I did some more shaping until in 1972 I was invited down to Halifax to work with Keith Turnbull, a former student here on the material using local children and professional actors. The actors wolfed down the contents of the binders – and I think that in their performances you can see that they have genuinely touched some area of time not our own […]. [Alumni Gazette 1976, page 15]

This article originally appeared in Western’s Alumni Gazette in 1976 (pages 14-16). Read the full article here.

Miriam Greene, Patricia Ludwick, Jerry Franken, and David Ferry in James Reaney’s Sticks and Stones at the Tarragon Theatre in Toronto, 1973.

For more on James Reaney’s Donnelly research, see The Donnelly Documents: An Ontario Vendetta published by The Champlain Society in 2004.

* In 1960 James Reaney left his first teaching post at the University of Manitoba and came to teach in the Faculty of English at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario:
“One of the reasons I decided to leave my first teaching post in Manitoba and come to this campus was that I wanted to find out more about the land of my birth – Southwestern Ontario, or as Greg Curnoe very aptly calls it – Souwesto.” [page 14] 

Souwesto history continues to inspire local playwrights: Jeff Culbert has written a one-man musical version The Donnelly Sideshow, Chris Doty restaged The Donnelly Trial in 2006, and Paul Thompson wrote The Outdoor Donnellys (2001) and The Last Donnelly Standing (2016).

Gil Garratt as Robert Donnelly in The Last Donnelly Standing (Photo by Terry Manzo courtesy The Blyth Festival 2016.)

Composer John Beckwith (1927-2022)

Canadian composer John Beckwith passed away on December 5, 2022. A longtime friend of James Reaney, they collaborated on several small ensemble musical collages to accompany Reaney’s poetry and also on four operas: Night Blooming Cereus, The Shivaree, Crazy to Kill, and Taptoo!.

For a full appreciation of John Beckwith’s life and music, see his son Larry Beckwith’s tribute in Opera Canada: https://operacanada.ca/march-9-1927-december-5-2022-canadian-composer-john-beckwith/

Composer John Beckwith (1927-2022)

More about John Beckwith

For more about John Beckwith’s life and career, see his autobiography Unheard Of: Memoirs of a Canadian Composer from 2012.

The John Beckwith Songbook concert was held in honour of his 94th birthday in March 2021.

John Beckwith on “James Reaney and Music”, November 5, 2016 at Museum London.

((( 0 ))) You can stream archived recordings of John Beckwith’s music at the Canadian Music Centre:
https://collections.cmccanada.org/final/Portal/Composer-Showcase.aspx?lang=en-CA

James Reaney Memorial Lecture 2022: Stan Dragland’s further thoughts on Reaney and grids of meaning

Thank you for joining us at Wordsfest on November 6th to hear author Terry Griggs read the late Stan Dragland’s essay on his forthcoming book James Reaney On the Grid. We were honoured to have Terry give voice to Stan’s words and illuminate his thoughts on James Reaney.

Many thanks to Wordsfest for hosting the lecture and to Josh Lambier and Greg de Souza for their help in launching the presentation.

The text for Stan Dragland’s essay is available here, and an archived recording of the lecture will be available later.

Stan Dragland (1942-2022)
Stan Dragland’s book James Reaney on the Grid will be published in 2023

Earlier Wordsfest lectures on James Reaney:

2016: John Beckwith on James Reaney and Music 
2017: Tom Smart on James Reaney: The Iconography of His Imagination 
2018: James Stewart Reaney on James Reaney’s Plays for Children
2019: Stan Dragland on James Reaney on the grid
2020: Stephen Holowitz and Oliver Whitehead on James Reaney Words and Music
2021: Kydra Ryan and Adam Corrigan-Holowitz on Tales for a Reaney Day: Two Great Writers, Three Short Stories

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.

Our thanks to Wordsfest and the London Public Library for their support of the lecture series, and to Poetry Stratford and the Stratford Public Library for their support in hosting the earlier lectures (2010-2015).

“Near Fraserburg” Watercolour painting by James Reaney, Fall 1985
September 1975: James Reaney at the Nihilist Picnic, Poplar Hill, Ontario

October and November events for James Reaney

There are two events celebrating the work of dramatist James Reaney this month and next:

Patricia Nacamoto as Mattie Medal in Gyroscope: “Is it true, Gregory La Selva, is it true that one of the conditions of your marriage was that, were that you were never, never to read her stuff?”

October 28-30 and November 4-6: James Reaney’s play Gyroscope, directed by Adam Corrigan Holowitz and presented by AlvegoRoot Theatre.

Buy tickets here: https://www.alvegoroottheatre.com/gyroscope.html

All performances at Manor Park Memorial Hall, 11 Briscoe Street, London, Ontario.

( ( 0 ) ) Listen to an interview with Adam Corrigan Holowitz and Janis Nickleson (who played Hilda La Selva in the 1981 production of Gyroscope!): Gyroscope Conversations on Soundcloud

November 6 at 12:00 noon at Wordsfest: The James Reaney Memorial Lecture at Museum London. Terry Griggs, author and former student of the late Stan Dragland (1942-2022), will present  “James Reaney Off the Grid”, the lecture Stan had planned to give.

Wordsfest is at Museum London, 421 Ridout Street North, London, Ontario.

Registration is free for this in-person and webinar presentation. See the Events page at Wordsfest for the link: http://wordsfest.ca/events/2022/james-reaney-off-the-grid

Stan Dragland (1942-2022)

James Reaney in 1972 courtesy Talonbooks

James Reaney Memorial Lecture: Terry Griggs presents for Stan Dragland

Sunday November 6 at 12:00 pm EDT Join us in-person or by webinar at Wordsfest for the 13th Annual James Reaney Memorial Lecture. We are honoured to have Terry Griggs, author and former student of the late Stan Dragland, present “James Reaney Off the Grid”, the lecture Stan had planned to give.

Stan Dragland (1942-2022)

For Dragland, the lecture he gave at Wordsfest in 2019 only scratched the surface of what he wanted to say about James Reaney’s work. “In my previous lecture I pointed out that he was only sometimes limited as an artist by the grids he so loved. Today I want to stress the Reaney who knew how important it is to be able to pry or bounce one’s mind outside of inherited, imprisoning systems, who knew how to improvise, who could make plays out of the simplest things he found in his own environment.”

When: Sunday November 6 at 12:00 pm
Where: Wordsfest at Museum London, 421 Ridout Street North, London, Ontario

Registration is free for this in-person and webinar presentation. See the Events page at Wordsfest for the link: http://wordsfest.ca/events/2022/james-reaney-off-the-grid

James Reaney on the Grid, an expanded version of Stan Dragland’s 2019 lecture, is forthcoming from The Porcupine’s Quill.

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. 

AlvegoRoot Theatre presents James Reaney’s play Gyroscope October 28 to November 6

October 28 to November 6 — Don’t miss AlvegoRoot Theatre‘s production of James Reaney’s play Gyroscope later this month. For Director Adam Corrigan Horowitz, this play is “a shape-shifting comedy of marriage, art and passion!”

About the play: When poet Hilda La Selva got married, she made her husband Greg swear to never read any of her poetry, a vow he inevitably fails to keep. As their relationship lists and tilts, they are pursued by an intrepid PhD student intent on putting their marriage under the microscope. 

The performers are Kydra RyanSteven Barber, Patricia NacamotoElizabeth Durand, and Dan Ebbs.

For more about the play and an excerpt from a key scene, see “James Reaney’s play Gyroscope from 1981”.

Content Advisory: Gyroscope contains sensitive content including references of suicide. If you would like more information before purchasing a ticket please contact AlvegoRoot.

Buy tickets here: https://www.alvegoroottheatre.com/gyroscope.html

October 28 at 7:30 pm
October 29 at 7:30 pm
October 30 at 4:00 pm
November 4 at 7:30 pm
November 5 7:30 pm
November 6 at 4:00 pm

All performances at Manor Park Memorial Hall, 11 Briscoe Street, London, Ontario.

James Reaney’s play Gyroscope from 1981

In this excerpt from James Reaney’s play Gyroscope, Gregory La Selva, lab technician, seeks to restore his self-esteem and win back the love of his wife, Hilda, a famous poet. To win Hilda’s respect, he must prove to her that he too can write poetry. He enlists the help of Mattie Medal, PhD student, to help him write a poem that will win him a place at the Harpers’ Poetry Guild alongside Hilda.

Scene Six: The Husband Takes a Chance on Being Skinned by Apollo*

PUZZLE gets down from the chair. We focus on MATTIE, with wagon, who is talking to GREG.

GREG: Look, is there some sort of crash course in writing poetry? I’d like to crack that bunch of Harp Guild Workshop Poetry ladies wide open.
MATTIE: You’re a man; the contest is open to women only.
GREG: I’m desperate enough for a sex-change operation.
MATTIE: You’re just jealous of your wife.
GREG: I’m even more ashamed of my sterility. I have no dreams. She is virile. I am not.
HILDA: Gregory La Selva couldn’t write a poem if he tried. He should stick to being a poem.
GREG: She’ll be sorry she said that. I’m going to do as you say and start remembering things from childhood, keep a diary, get a pen and an ink bottle.
MATTIE: A typewriter is okay.
GREG: I’m so dull, why hasn’t she left me ages ago? How do I get more introverted? Is there anything I could take?
NICHOLAS: Did you look at my scrapbook of intoxicating mushrooms?
GREG: Nicholas, it’s no use — showing me pictures of mushrooms. I want to see the mushrooms in person before I start collecting.
NICHOLAS: Opium.
GREG: Opium.
MATTIE: Awfully good at first — friend did a thesis on it about it. Your mind starts out being a palace; then… the palace turns into a boarding house, then a flophouse for tramps, then the tenements of criminals whose windows are striped with bars. The palace has turned into a prison.
GREG: I don’t care. Show me the palace, Nicholas, get me a dress.
NICHOLAS: What’s your size?
GREG: In a dress? (gives NICHOLAS a slip of paper)
MATTIE: For a start, Mr. La Selva, underline the words you really like in this forty-thousand-word dictionary. Nicholas, go to Agnes Dactyl’s place and see what she has in second-hand dresses. Let’s see these measurements. Very well.

She gives them to NICHOLAS, who slowly proceeds to AGNES’s store.

Oh boy, this is a new part of my thesis – the birth of a poet…

∞♥∞♥∞

*Note: “Being skinned by Apollo” is a reference to the fate of Marsyas, the satyr who challenges Apollo to a musical contest with the Muses as judges. In 1963 James Reaney wrote an adaptation of Euripides’ play The Bacchae (405 BCE), which was never produced. In Gyroscope, Gregory La Selva disguises himself as a woman to enter Hilda’s poetry contest, just as Pentheus goes dressed as a woman to spy on the Bacchae’s Dionysian rites. Gregory wins the poetry contest and avoids the gruesome fate of Pentheus at the hands of the Bacchae.

Gyroscope was produced in a workshop at Western University in early 1980, and performed in a rehearsed reading at Blue Mountain Poetry Festival that summer. Keith Turnbull later directed the play at Tarragon Theatre in Toronto, May 14 to June 21, 1981. The cast members were Jerry Franken, Janis Nickleson, Rita Jiminez, Brian Dooley, and Nancy Palk.

James Reaney (holding mug of tea) with members of the Tarragon Theatre production of Gyroscope: Keith Turnbull, Dorothy Chamberlin, Nancy Palk, Suzanne Turnbull, and Janis Nickleson, May 1981. Photo courtesy Les Kohalmi.

Gyroscope is available in Reaney Days in the West Room: Plays of James Reaney (2009), edited by David Ferry and published by Playwrights Canada Press.

James Reaney’s poem Ice Cream

Ice Cream

The local poet is riding his bike uptown
On a fairly hot summer day
Bent on Jumbo’s Ice Cream booth
Before mailing a poem to Chimaera at the Post Office
At Jumbo’s Ice Cream booth there are
Thirty flavours available including—
Licorice, fudge, lemon, orange, apple, grape,
Banana, chocolate, cherry, Maple Walnut (my favourite)
Vanilla, of course, peppermint, strawberry, raspberry—
Weren’t there some vegetable ones? Do I remember—
Onion ice cream?
And this pair of double dip skim milk flavours
Cost only a nickel each!
And the ceiling was of pressed tin!
So, I plunk down a nickel for a Maple Walnut!
And so out the door bent on making the cone
Last till I reach the Post Office door—
The Post Office is French Provincial with 4 clocks.
The poet holds his bicycle up with his left hand.
Walks slowly licking as he proceeds.
Two little girls say scornfully: “He’s acting
Just like a little kid!”
But he thinks— “Isn’t this what life is all about?”

James Reaney, 2005

September 1975: James Reaney at the Nihilist Picnic, Poplar Hill, Ontario.

“Ice Cream” is from Souwesto Home (2005) and available from Brick Books.

Stan Dragland (1942-2022)

We were saddened to learn of writer, editor, and literary critic Stan Dragland’s passing earlier this month. Stan Dragland was a colleague of James Reaney’s at Western University (1970-1989) and a mentor and champion to writers and poets across Canada.

Remembering Stan Dragland

Writer and editor Stan Dragland, who co-founded poetry press Brick Books, dies at 79: https://www.thestar.com/entertainment/books/2022/08/08/writer-and-editor-stan-dragland-who-co-founded-poetry-press-brick-books-dies-at-79.html

Newfoundland writer Stan Dragland, co-founder of poetry press Brick Books, dead at 79: https://www.cbc.ca/books/newfoundland-writer-stan-dragland-co-founder-of-poetry-press-brick-books-dead-at-79-1.6546798

Western mourns passing of Professor Emeritus Stan Dragland: https://www.uwo.ca/arts/news/2022/08_dragland_text.html

Brick Books 2015: Celebrating 40 years of Publishing Canadian Poetry: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qclaYEWuN3A

Forthcoming book from Porcupine’s Quill

James Reaney on the Grid, an expanded version of Stan Dragland’s 2019 James Reaney Memorial Lecture, will be available later this fall from The Porcupine’s Quill

From the Introductory section:
This started out as the tenth annual James Reaney Memorial Lecture. It was delivered in London, Ontario, on November 2, 2019. That version turns out to have only scratched the surface of what I’ve been finding to say about Reaney’s literary career. As the talk grew into what it is now, it became ever clearer to me that Reaney’s legacy includes one unmistakable masterpiece, the Donnelly trilogy, a play in three parts so magnificent that it stands, or ought to stand, with the work of literary greats anywhere. But there are many other works of real importance, plus a few that may perhaps be worth reading only to someone like me, interested in all of Reaney, because of what all of it has to say about the best of his work […]

Stan Dragland at the Tenth Annual James Reaney Memorial Lecture, November 2, 2019
“Near Fraserburg” Watercolour painting by James Reaney, Fall 1985.

James Reaney’s translation of Pierre Falcon’s The Battle of Seven Oaks

James Reaney’s translation of Pierre Falcon’s “The Battle of Seven Oaks” (“La Chanson de la Grenouillère”) can be found in Margaret Arnett MacLeod’s 1960 book Songs of Old Manitoba.  

Pierre Falcon (1793-1876) was a celebrated Métis balladeer and North West Company clerk. “He had a feeling for words, a sense of rhythm, and a love of a rollicking tune. He was strongly dramatic, and his idea of the importance of the Métis Nation may have been more right than his English contemporaries were ready to concede [.…]” (MacLeod, p. 2)

Pierre Falcon’s 1816 ballad commemorating the Métis victory at the Battle of Seven Oaks
(Songs of Old Manitoba, p.5)

James Reaney offers these notes on his approach to translating the song: “This translation can be sung to Pierre Falcon’s original tune with some stretching, but no more than to sing his own words requires. In making this translation I have followed Ezra Pound’s practice. Since there can be no translation so inaccurate as that which sticks closely and literally to the surface of a song, I have attempted to make only an English equivalent of Falcon’s ballad and so translate the really important thing – its high spirits.” (MacLeod, p. 9)

1.  Would you like to hear me sing
Of a true and recent thing?
It was June 19, the band of Bois-Brûlés
Arrived that day,
Oh the brave warriors they!

2.  We took three foreigners prisoners when
We came to the place called Frog, Frog Plain.
There were men who’d come from Orkney,
Who’d come, you see,
To rob our country.

3.  Well we were just about to unhorse
When we heard two of us give, give voice.
Two of our men cried, “Hey! Look back, look back!
The Anglo-Sack
Coming for to attack.”

4.  Right away smartly we veered about
Galloping at them with a shout!
You know we did trap all, all those Grenadiers!
They could not move
Those horseless cavaliers.

5.  Now we like honourable men did act,
Sent an ambassador – yes, in fact!
“Monsieur Governor! Would you like to stay?
A moment spare — 
There’s something we’d like to say.”

6.  Governor, Governor, full of ire.
“Soldiers!” he cries, “Fire! Fire.”
So they fire first and their muskets roar!
They almost kill
Our ambassador!

7.  Governor thought himself a king.
He wished an iron rod to swing.
Like a lofty lord he tries to act.
Bad luck, old chap!
A bit too hard you whacked!

8.  When we went galloping, galloping by
Governor thought that he would try
For to chase and frighten us Bois-Brûlés.
Catastrophe!
Dead on the ground he lay.

9.  Dead on the ground lots of grenadiers too.
Plenty of grenadiers, a whole slew.
We’ve almost stamped out his whole army.
Of so many
Five or four left there be.

10.  You should have seen those Englishmen —
Bois-Brûlés chasing them, chasing them,
From bluff to bluff they stumbled that day
While the Bois-Brûlés
Shouted “Hurray!”

11.  Tell, oh tell me who made up this song?
Why it’s our own poet, Pierre Falcon.
Yes, she was written this song of praise
For the victory
We won this day.
Yes, she was written, this song of praise — 
Come sing the glory
Of the Bois-Brûlés.

( ( (0) ) ) Rufin Turcotte sings the original French version on this 1963 Smithsonian Folkways Recording “Folksongs of Saskatchewan”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yB1knUIOSH0

From Songs of Old Manitoba, Pierre Falcon’s original French lyrics (p. 6-7)

Note: James Reaney’s long poem “A Message to Winnipeg” (1960) includes this translation of Pierre Falcon’s 1816 song. For more about the June 19, 1816 Battle of Seven Oaks, see the entry in The Canadian Encyclopedia.