Local history into fiction: James Reaney on Alice Munro

Alice Munro 2016

Alice Munro Country: Essays on Her Works and its companion Alice Munro Everlasting form a two-volume collection celebrating the work of Canadian writer Alice Munro.  Editor J.R. (Tim) Struthers has brought together critical appreciations from 34 contributors, including Catherine Sheldrick Ross, George Elliott Clarke, Jack Hodgins, Judith Thompson, Monika Lee, and James Reaney

Like James Reaney, Alice Munro grew up in Southwestern Ontario and many of her stories are set in Wingham, Ontario, in Huron County. Reaney’s essay, “An ABC to Ontario Literature and Culture,” outlines a graduate course he taught at the University of Western Ontario in the early 1970s. 

Alice Munro’s novel Lives of Girls and Women, along with Orlo Miller’s The Donnellys Must Die and Sara Jeanette Duncan’s The Imperialist, were essential texts for the eighth lecture:

JULY 18: VIII. Through the Years in West Nissouri, Miller, Duncan, Munro.
This was local history into fiction day since Alice Munro in Lives of Girls and Women has an historian uncle whose idea of writing is to pile up droplets from the parish pump (Who was the reeve in 1901? When did the school trustees put in cement platforms around the porch?) and never try to drive a line through them. Eventually, the tin box with his research in it is thoroughly drowned by the Maitland River in flood.

Since Sara Jeanette Duncan’s novel about Brantford is our first successful realist novel, you should read it to see how these things should be done; what is frequently depressing about the run-of-the-mill novel about us nowadays is the imprecision of viewpoint; all right, you’re not going to tell us much of a story, but could you have dug out some photographic details just a tiny bit less clichéd than these? [Volume I, page 54]

Alice Munro Country: Essays on Her Works and Alice Munro Everlasting: Essays on Her Works are available from Guernica Editions.

James Reaney’s “An ABC to Ontario Literature and Culture” originally appeared in Black Moss, Ser. 2, No. 3 (Spring 1977).

See also Stan Dragland’s Wordsfest lecture James Reaney on the grid (November 2, 2019) where Dragland recalls being part of an earlier team-taught version of the course when he first came to Western.

The Alice Munro Literary Garden in Wingham, Ontario

Steady Theatre scores with Listen to the Wind

February 5, 2020 — Congratulations to Steady Theatre Collective and director Julia Schultz for your ingenious production of James Reaney’s 1966 play Listen to the Wind.

The production was staged at McCully House, an old Halifax mansion, allowing the audience to move through the house and through the play – Act I in the attic, down to the lower floor for Act II, and back up to the attic for Act III.

McCully House, 2507 Brunswick Street in Halifax, Nova Scotia
McCully House, 2507 Brunswick Street in Halifax, Nova Scotia

The web of actors, music, and intimate setting kept us close to the action and drew us into the world of Owen, Harriet, Ann, and Jenny, the four children who put on the play. Four chairs can be anything!

Producer: Kirsten Bruce
Director: Julia Schultz
Music: Edie Reaney Chunn
Stage Manager: Sophie Schade
Set and Costume Designer: Emma Roode
Fight Choreographer: Anika Riopel
Weathervane designed and crafted by Kelly Trout

Cast: Lou Campbell, Henricus Gielus, Kyle Gillis, Stepheny Hunter, Brittany Kamras, Michael Kamras, Rachel Lloyd, Briony Merritt, Noella Murphy, Peter Sarty, and Sam Vigneault

Act I Scene 2: Owen & Chorus: Let’s hear the North Wind. (Rehearsal photographs courtesy Steady Theatre)
Act III Scene 44: Sam Vigneault as Owen and Peter Sarty as Mitch

OWEN: … Mitch, sit down and talk to me.
MITCH: Will I do your favourite cartoon?
OWEN: Yes. Now you rock in the rocking chair and I say… (gets off the bed)
Grandma, how about  a dime so I can get an ice cream cone and cool myself off?
MITCH: Ah, I’ll tell you a ghost story instead son. It’ll freeze your bones and chill you off twice as fast. Listen!

More about Steady Theatre Collective and the play

Steady Theatre Collective’s Kirsten Bruce and Julia Schultz

Interview with Producer Kirsten Bruce and Director Julia Schultz in Halifax January 29, 2020:  https://globalnews.ca/video/6477010/steady-theatre-collective

What reviewers are saying:

The Coast: https://www.thecoast.ca/halifax/the-steady-theatre-co-steers-on/Content?oid=23416845

The Way I See It Theatre Blog: http://www.twisitheatreblog.com/take-a-moment-to-listen-to-the-wind/

For more about the play, see “James Reaney’s Listen to the Wind in Halifax February 4-9”: https://jamesreaney.com/2020/01/25/james-reaneys-listen-to-the-wind-in-halifax-february-4-9/

Listen to the Wind Act II: Rogue and Douglas
Listen to the Wind Act II: Angela, Arthur & Sir Edward
Listen to the Wind: Lower floor McCully House
Listen to the Wind: Front of house reception area
At McCully House: James Reaney’s children’s story “The Boy Who Lived in the Sun” on view for audience members

James Reaney’s Listen to the Wind in Halifax February 4-9

On February 4-9 in Halifax, Steady Theatre will present Listen to the Wind, a play by James Reaney.

With the help of their families and neighbours, four children put on The Saga of Caresfoot Court – a melodrama set in a old manorhouse.

“… We watch a double story: Owen fighting illness and trying to get his parents together again; Angela Caresfoot threading her way through a world of evil manorhouses and sinister Lady Eldreds. The two stories illuminate each other….” James Reaney, 1966 Program Notes

When & Where: February 4 to 8 at 7:00 pm at the Jonathan McCully Mansion, 2507 Brunswick Street, Halifax B3K 2Z5

February 9 at 6:00 pm at the Maritime Conservatory for the Performing Arts, 6199 Chebucto Road, Halifax B3L 1K7

Tickets: To order tickets and for details about accessibility at the two locations, see the TicketHalifax page: https://www.tickethalifax.com/events/104629667/listen-to-the-wind

James Reaney’s 1966 play Listen to the Wind is available from Talonbooks: https://talonbooks.com/books/listen-to-the-wind

James Reaney (Photo courtesy Talonbooks)

Songs of London Poetry and Painting with Serenata Music on January 18

Join us on Saturday January 18 at 8:00 pm at Western’s von Kuster Auditorium for a musical evening of “Songs of London Poetry and Painting” by local composers Oliver Whitehead (guitar) and Steve Holowitz (piano). 

Inspired by poems and art with a Southwestern Ontario connection, Whitehead and Holowitz have set to music poems from James Reaney’s Souwesto Home and Colleen Thibaudeau’s The Artemesia Book.

The performers are London musicians Sonja Gustafson, soprano, and Adam Iannetta, baritone, along with  Ingrid Crozman on flute and Patrick Theriault on cello (replacing Christine Newland). 

When & Where: Saturday January 18, 8:00 pm, von Kuster Auditorium, Don Wright Faculty of Music, Western University

Tickets are available at the door or online from the Grand Theatre Box Office and OnStageDirect. Students $20 and Adults $40

For more about upcoming concerts and events, visit Serenata Music: http://serenatamusic.com

Souwesto Home, Brick Books 2005
James Reaney and Colleen Thibaudeau near Stratford, Ontario, 1982.

Wordsfest 2019: Stan Dragland on “James Reaney on the grid”

Saturday November 2, 2019 — Thank you all for joining us at Wordsfest at Museum London for the Tenth Annual James Reaney Memorial Lecture, and thank you, Stan Dragland, for coming all the way from St. John’s, Newfoundland to share your thoughts on James Reaney’s use of structure or “grids of meaning.”

Stan Dragland’s lecture “James Reaney on the grid” November 2, 2019 at Wordsfest in London, Ontario.

In his lecture James Reaney on the grid, Stan Dragland explains how Reaney drew material from the local and particular and used archetypal patterns to link and clarify it:

What about the grids? “Grid” is not Reaney’s own word, of course. He picked it up from others at the long-liner’s conference [a 1984 conference on the Canadian long poem], and the literal meaning, with all those right angles, is not the best image for what he does. He’d be more likely to say pattern, or formula, or catalogue, or paradigm, or list. Also backbone. I’ll keep on with grid here, but really list is the better word.

“There is something about lists that hypnotizes me,” Reaney says, introducing the “Catalogue Poems” section of Performance Poems [1990]. Now watch how he slides disparate things together in metaphor as he goes on: “I think this fascination is connected with our joy in the rainbow’s week of colours, in the 92 element candle you see in a physics lab at school, but then see all around you like a segmented serpent we’re all tied together by. Our backbones, with their xylophone vertebrae, are such sentences; lists of symbolic objects in some sort of mysterious, overwhelming progression I have elsewhere called the backbones of whales, and indeed they are, for they are capable of becoming a paradigm . . . used as a secret structure.” His play, Canada Dash, Canada Dot [1965] is built on lists of various sorts. So is Colours in the Dark [1967]. In fact lists or catalogues are everywhere in his work…

A video of Stan Dragland’s lecture is available here, and the full text version is here.

About the speaker

Stan Dragland’s immersion in James Reaney’s work began in 1970 when he arrived in London to teach at the University of Western Ontario. One of the first courses he taught was English 138 Canadian Literature and Culture, a team-taught course designed by James Reaney. Stan Dragland is also a co-founder of Brick Books, a local poetry press now celebrating its 45th anniversary.

Souwesto Home by James Reaney, 2005, Brick Books.

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).

2010: Colleen Thibaudeau
2011: Marion Johnson and Peter Denny
2012: Jean McKay
2013: David Ferry
2014: Tim Inkster
2015: Thomas Gerry
2016: John Beckwith
2017: Tom Smart
2018: James Stewart Reaney
2019: Stan Dragland

James Reaney Memorial Lecture: November 2 at Wordsfest

James Reaney at the farm near Stratford, Ontario, Summer 1979. (Photo by Les Kohalmi)

Join us at Wordsfest on November 2, 2019 at 12:00 pm at Museum London’s Lecture Theatre for the 10th annual James Reaney Memorial Lecture.

Stan Dragland, poet, novelist, and literary critic, will speak on James Reaney’s love of lists and how he uses them to express his vision, particularly in plays like The Donnellys.

Styling his lecture as “James Reaney on the grid”, Dragland explores how Reaney’s immersion in his local environment brings forth the universal in his art.

James Reaney’s The Donnellys: Sticks and Stones Act I
Mr Donnelly: And this earth in my hand, the earth of my farm
That I fought for and was smashed and burnt for
(Jerry Franken as Mr Donnelly, Tarragon Theatre, 1973)

When: Saturday November 2 at 12:00 pm
Where: Wordsfest at Museum London, 421 Ridout Street, London, Ontario
Admission is free.

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

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).

Souwesto Home by James Reaney, 2005, Brick Books.

Marvellous Playhouses — Thomas Gerry on James Reaney’s emblem poems

In the Summer 2019 issue of Queen’s Quarterly, Thomas Gerry’s article “Marvellous Playhouses” celebrates James Reaney’s emblem poems. For Gerry, the poems “put into play” Reaney’s artistic process, a “magnetic method” he developed for generating meaning through the use of wit.

The emblem poems are theatre-like devices that draw readers into the activity of making meaning. As with audiences for dramatic performances, emblem-readers’ participation is vital. [Queen’s Quarterly, Summer 2019, page 196]

James Reaney’s emblem poem “The Castle” first appeared in Poetry (Chicago) (1969). See Queen’s Quarterly, Summer 2019, page 197.
Summer 1979: James Reaney working in the garden near Stratford, Ontario
(Photo by Les Kohalmi)

For a full discussion of all ten emblem poems and James Reaney’s artistic process, see The Emblems of James Reaney, available from The Porcupine’s Quill.

See also Thomas Gerry‘s 2015 lecture on “Theatrical Features of James Reaney’s Emblem Poems”.

Village Opera presents The Great Lakes Suite May 4-5

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.

Along with John Beckwith, this presentation by the Village Opera also includes works by John Greer, London’s Matthew Emery, and two songs by Ontario composer Jeff Enns. The performers are Katy Clark, soprano, and Paul Grambo, baritone.

When: Saturday May 4 at 7:30 and Sunday May 5 at 3:00
Where: Elmwood Avenue Presbyterian Church, London, Ontario
Tickets: $25/$15 for students: https://villageopera.com/buy-tickets

James Reaney’s poem“Lake Superior” begins the suite:

Lake Superior

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.

James Reaney, 1949

For more about John Beckwith and James Reaney’s musical collaborations, see John Beckwith’s lecture on James Reaney and Music from November 2016: https://jamesreaney.com/gallery/john-beckwith-on-james-reaney-and-music-november-5-2016-at-museum-london/

For more about composer John Beckwith, see his 2012 autobiography Unheard of: Memoirs of a Canadian Composer, available from Wilfrid Laurier University Press, and also the Canadian Music Centre’s Composer Showcase: http://www.musiccentre.ca/node/37279/showcase

James Reaney and John Beckwith, Summer 2003, in London, Ontario. Photo by Colleen Reaney

The Champlain Society’s The Donnelly Documents: An Ontario Vendetta back in print

As part of its mission to increase public awareness of, and accessibility to, Canada’s rich store of historical records, The Champlain Society has reprinted The Donnelly Documents: An Ontario Vendetta, in a special paperback edition.

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.

See also James Reaney’s entry for James Donnelly (1816-1880) in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/donnelly_james_10E.html

James Donnelly in 1863 courtesy the McCord Museum, Montreal, Quebec: https://www.musee-mccord.qc.ca/en/

Wordsfest 2018: James Stewart Reaney on James Reaney’s children’s plays

The Alphabet Players with the Apple Butter marionettes (July 1967)

November 3, 2018 — Thank you all for coming to hear James Stewart Reaney talk about his father James Reaney’s plays for 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.

Our thanks to Wordsfest, the London Public Library and Carolyn Doyle for their support, and to Museum London and the Canadian Museum of History for arranging the return visit of the Apple Butter marionettes, Tree Wuzzle and Moo Cow.

November 3, 2018 — Tree Wuzzle and Moo Cow on display at Museum London.

James Stewart Reaney’s lecture is reproduced here with permission of the author. (A video of the lecture is available on Vimeo.)

“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 James  Reaney 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 actual  witness 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 John  Beckwith; 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 Winnipeg  and 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 recently  bought 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 also  shared 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.

James Reaney’s Names and Nicknames, Manitoba Theatre Centre, 1963

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 up  based 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 a  miniature 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 at the Western Fair in London, Ontario, September 1965.

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 young  boy. 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,”*[1] 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.”

Apple Butter, September 1965

Solomon Spoilrod from Apple Butter, 1965

Victor Nipchopper  is Apple Butter’s bitter enemy, and represents  a 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’s  farm 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. 

“Moo Cow” from Apple Butter (1965)

Indeed, the quaint romance of the spinster and the schoolmaster does bring Apple Butter to a proper conclusion, like most  comedies. 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.

August 1965 in Leith, Ontario: James Reaney holds Apple Butter with his children James Stewart, John, and Susan. Photo by Jay Peterson.

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 of  three 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.”*[2]

October 1963 Manitoba Theatre Centre prediction of James Reaney’s Names and Nicknames — Martha Henry (seated) with Heath Lamberts.

A group of children from Hirsch’s children’s theatre including the daughters of conductor Victor Feldbrill formed the chorus. Heath Lamberts  told 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…”[3]   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.*[4]

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 Brocksden Schoolhouse near Stratford, Ontario

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 pair  of stairs. Then the ball of string/spoolknitting  pulls in a member of the audience, suggesting that such exploration and discovery is accessible to anyone choosing to travel across Canada.

Speaking of Canada, Ignoramus is another play about the classroom.

Cover image from the 1968 Hall-Dennis report on education reform

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.*[5]

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. They  wander around and around their Pelee Island shoreline, getting nowhere until an inspiring pupil  named 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 imbue  the society she is building.

Amazingly enough, the result of the competition is a tie. Beatrice finds religion in the words printed on discarded Bon Ami cans (a kitchen cleanser in powder form). We can complete the litany she devises as follows:

Bon Ami
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, in  her 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 children  somewhere in Canada thinking about putting on a play.

August 1965 in Leith, Ontario: James Reaney (right) holding Apple Butter and his daughter Susan Reaney (left).

Copyright James Stewart Reaney, 2018. Reproduced with permission of the author.

Notes:

[1] James Reaney, “Stories on a String”, Theatrum: A Theatre Journal, Issue 18 (April/May 1990), pages 7-8.  (See also Leith Peterson’s 2008 article “Jamie and Jay’s 1965 Apple Butter Collaboration”.)

[2] Martha Henry in conversation with David Ferry in 2003, Reaney Days in the West Room: Plays of James Reaney (2009), page 14.

[3] Heath Lamberts in conversation with David Ferry in 2003, Reaney Days in the West Room: Plays of James Reaney (2009), page 14.

[4] James Reaney in conversation with David Ferry in 2002, Reaney Days in the West Room: Plays of James Reaney (2009), page 14.

[5] 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.

 ( ( (o) ) ) HN 1954excerpt

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.