All day cars mooed and shrieked,
Hollered and bellowed and wept
Upon the road.
They slid by with bits of fur attached,
Fox-tails and rabbit-legs,
The skulls and horns of deer,
Cars with yellow spectacles
Or motorcycle monocle,
Cars whose gold eyes burnt
With a too-rich battery,
Murderous cars and manslaughter cars,
Chariots from whose foreheads leapt
Silver women of ardent bosom.
Ownerless, passengerless, driverless,
They came to anyone
And with headlights full of tears
Begged for a master,
For someone to drive them
For the familiar chauffeur.
Limousines covered with pink slime
Of children’s blood
Turned into the open fields
And fell over into ditches,
The wheels kicking helplessly.
Taxis begged trees to step inside
Automobiles begged of posts
The whereabouts of their mother.
But no one wished to own them anymore,
Everyone wished to walk.
July 25, 1967 — Fifty years ago today, James Reaney’s play Colours in the Dark had its first performance at the Avon Theatre in Stratford, Ontario, part of the Stratford Festival‘s 15th season. Described in the press as a “play box of colours and fantasies”, Colours in the Dark won favourable reviews and enjoyed a standing ovation on its opening night.
Directed by John Hirsch, the actors were Sandy Webster, Barbara Bryne, Douglas Rain, Martha Henry, Heath Lamberts, and Mary Hitch along with 12 Stratford children and four singers. Eoin Sprott designed the projected images used to create the set, and Alan Laing wrote and performed the music.
Carol Johnson of the Stratford Beacon Herald interviewed Elizabeth Cooke, James Reaney’s mother, and Wilma McCaig, his sister, about the play and about the notion that the play is like a “play box” from his past and the past of the Stratford District:
“There’s a big chest upstairs that comes from Ireland. It has his first manuscripts and his first puppets in it. I don’t know if that’s what he calls his play box.
He didn’t have measles as a child. The experience in the play was like my experience with measles, except I didn’t see colours in the dark. I kept books under my pillow… I read when I wasn’t supposed to.
He used to listen to the radio all the time. Little Orphan Annie, that’s in the play, was one of his favourite programs… the Singing Lady, that was another one. And one early space program that used to make the windows shake.
[…] Flying kites, parades, puppets, glass Easter eggs, drawings, bicycles, Sunday School pictures — all of the things his mother and sister spoke of in James Reaney’s past, they placed in his work today, most in Colours in the Dark.
Jamie wasn’t a religious boy. He’d sit in church in one of the back pews. Someone told me once, there was Jamie reading while the minister was preaching.
He’s always painted. You’d call him for dinner and he’d be upstairs painting water colour portraits on the whitewash.
He’s made puppets since high school. In Red Riding Hood he was the wolf, a plastic bag, who eats the grandmother, who’s a teapot.
James Reaney writes about the things he knows from his childhood, the way he knows them as a man.”
[Source: Excerpted from Carol Johnson’s article “James Reaney’s ‘play-box’ mother talks about his childhood”, Stratford Beacon Herald, July 28, 1967, page 7.]
Note from Susan Reaney:Elizabeth Cooke (née Crerar) did indeed keep books under her pillow; see “Her reviews were pithy” by James Stewart Reaney in the London Free Press.
Allan Stratton tells us that James Reaney’s marionette plays Apple Butter and an adaptation of Red Riding Hood were performed July 3-15, 1967 at the Stratford Arena before Colours in the Dark opened, so this might be where Elizabeth Cooke had the chance to see them.
The Music Lesson scene in James Reaney’s 1967 play Colours in the Dark (Act II Scene 5) borrows from an earlier poetic cycle about Stratford, Ontario: Twelve Letters to a Small Town (1962).
CBC Radio commissioned Twelve Letters to a Small Town and John Beckwith composed music to accompany the poems. In the Eighth Letter (subtitled “The Music Lesson”), James Reaney pays tribute to his Stratford piano teacher Cora B. Ahrens.
The Eighth Letter “… depicts a piano lesson in which the student, after playing a few exercises and a set piece called ‘The Storm,’ is asked to display his progress on another piece called ‘A Year in the Town,’ by playing each of the four sections (representing the four seasons) first one hand at a time and then with both hands together. Both ‘The Storm’ and ‘A Year in the Town have appropriate spoken texts to which the music corresponds.” [Source: John Beckwith on “James Reaney and Music” November 5, 2016]
5. THE MUSIC LESSON
(The GRANDMOTHER is the music teacher; the FATHER is her pupil.)
TEACHER: That will do for your scales. Now play me your piece. Play me “The Storm.” What shall I set the metronome at?
PUPIL: Set it at summer and pink and white and yellow bricks sunlight with blue sky and white feather dumpling clouds.
The cast enters and assists orally.
A cloud and a cloud and a cloud
Came into the blue afternoon room
A cloud and a cloud and a cloud
And a cloud and a cloud
And a cloud and a cloud
Down down down came the cloudy
With a windowpane shudder
And mirrors for your feet
People running into stores
Darkness in the library
Church is nearer through the rain.
A cloud and a cloud and a cloudy
Came out of the yellow garage
Joseph MacLeod in a many-coloured vest
Danced to the music dying in the west.
This whole piece should have the feeling of yellow and “Chansons sans Paroles” by Mendelssohn.
TEACHER: Why are you looking so sad?
PUPIL: I’ve lost something. I’ve lost a piece of the star Mr. Winemeyer gave me. I was trying to kick it all the way into town and it disappeared in the dirt.
TEACHER: Here – as a reward for playing “The Storm” so well. She hands him the star.
PUPIL: But Miss Miller. How did you get hold of this? It’s my piece of the star… that I lost while kicking it into town. She sits down at the piano and begins to play.
TEACHER: Now here’s the next piece of music I’d like you to learn. She plays him the same piece of music the Hermit played, “On Wings of Song.”
PUPIL: Miss Miller. Tell me the truth. Are you really Mr. Winemeyer in disguise? Are men and women the same? She smiles and continues playing. The light fades. The Wind and the rain doll pass with their branch shadows. The GRANDMOTHER exits. The GRANDFATHER, still playing the Hermit, crawls onstage. The BOYS run over to him.
Congratulations to Helen Monroe and Jewel Weed Theatre Company for their successful adaptation of James Reaney’s children’s play Apple Butter at the Fringe Theatre Festival in Kingston, Ontario this week.
Originally conceived as a marionette play, this adaptation uses “actors, puppets, masks and a touch of magic” to bring the story of orphan Apple Butter and his sojourn at Hester Pinch’s farm to life.
Jennifer Brook designed the puppets and masks, and Peter Jarvis composed original songs for the play. The performers are Nicola Atkinson, Adrian Beattie, Kayla Farris, Connor Marois, and Reanne Spitzer.
Part of this year’s Storefront Fringe Festival, the show runs from June 23 to July 1. Order tickets here.
Director Helen Monroe has shared these photos of designs from the play:
On May 30, 1996, “An Evening with James Reaney & Friends” was held at the G.A. Wheable Adult Education Centre in London, Ontario to celebrate the publication of The Box Social and Other Stories, a collection of James Reaney’s short fiction.
I was a student at the University of Toronto in the last years of the 1950s, and James Reaney — who had been cutting an odd swath there several years before — was still an oral tradition. He was known as an enfant terrible who’d published a scandalous story called “The Box Social,” which dealt with gynecological matters unmentionable at that time, and dealt with them in a shocking fashion. (Inside the box of the title — supposed to contain a lunch — there was a fetus.) Nobody seemed to know where this story could actually be read, so its reputation was in consequence tremendous. (I’m happy to say it has now finally been republished.) Reaney was also remembered as having staged a production of Beowulf in which Beowulf himself turned out to be the monster who was murdering and eating his own faithful followers. The more you think about that, the more plausible it becomes.
I was in the Honours English course, and as a consequence we read almost no Canadian literature; but my older brother was in Honours Biology, which included a Canadian literature course. You may ponder the logic of that — why them and not us? Maybe the biologists took CanLit because it was thought to have a lot of animals in it. However, I was in the habit of reading my brother’s books, and it was in the first Robert Weaver short-story anthology that I came across Reaney’s story “The Bully.” It made a big impression on me — it seemed a way of writing about Canadian reality that did not confine itself to the strict social realism that was mostly the fashion then. I went on to read all of Reaney’s poetry available at the time: here was a fresh, brilliant, and quirky literary landscape in the process of being formed and, I should say, against considerable odds…. [Excerpted from Margaret Atwood, “Remembering James Reaney”, Brick Issue 82 (Winter 2009), page 160.]
Note from Susan Reaney: The event was part of the For the Love of Literacy Writers Festival organized by London educator Win Schell to bring local writers to the school. (James Reaney: Listening to the Wind, a film biography of James Reaney produced by Nancy Johnson of Lockwood Films, was to have had its premiere that night, but had to be delayed to the fall.)
After the introduction by Margaret Atwood, James Reaney had planned to read “The Box Social” for the audience, but decided not to and read “The Bully” instead. We were disappointed that he did not give voice to the long-lost story, but a friend from school days said that “The Bully” was an entirely appropriate story to read in a high school.
“James Reaney’s plays — Colours in the Dark (1969), Baldoon (1976), and The Donnellys (1974-7) — as well as his short stories “The Bully” and “The Box Social” (reprinted in The Box Social and Other Stories in 1996), also assume Gothic elements of the macabre rooted in nightmarish families and uncanny action. […]
What makes this locale so prone to Gothic tales is the failure of communication between family members or social groups. In the absence of communication, strange projections and psychological grotesqueries spring up and rapidly grow to unmanageable proportions. Malevolent fantasies are the source and sustenance of the Gothic tradition.”
— Michael Hurley and Allan Hepburn in The Concise Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature, pages 593-594. William Toye, Ed., Oxford University Press, 2011.
March 29, 2017 — Congratulations to the King’s Theatrical Society of King’s University College in Halifax, Nova Scotia, for their wonderful production of James Reaney’s 1967 play Colours in the Dark.
Thank you cast members Alex McVittie, Caleb Sher, Ella MacDonald, Frances Grace Fyfe, Jack Lewis, Jacob Hermant, Jeremy Earley, Julia Hancock-Song, Julia Schultz, Maxim Makarov, and Robert Sapp for your spirited performances.
Colours in the Dark was directed by James Reaney’s granddaughter, Edie Reaney Chunn, who also wrote original music for the play: “This process has been wonderful, in part because of hearing my own voice in my grandfather’s writing, but also because of the new things I have learned to do, and learned that I love doing.”
Here are pictures from the play taken by Producer Erica Guy:
The King’s Theatrical Society (KTS) is a student-run theatrical organization, and every year students propose ideas for plays. The KTS Winter Season for 2017 also featured The Woman in Black by Stephen Malatratt (directed by Jessica MacIsaac), and Bone Cage by Catherine Banks (directed by Miranda Bowron). Here’s to more great plays next season!
For more about the play, see Ophelia Stone’s review in Watch Magazine.
On March 8, the University of Toronto Faculty of Music held a 90th birthday celebration for former dean John Beckwith, and he presented a lecture on Canadian music since 1967. Congratulations on your 90th, John!
More concerts featuring John Beckwith’s music are planned:
♦ On April 28, New Music Concerts in Toronto will present a program he is curating, featuring his Avowals (1985) and the premières of two mixed instrumentation chamber works: Quintet (2015) and Calling (2016).
((( ♦ )))Archived recordings of John Beckwith’s music, including several Beckwith-Reaney works, are available for streaming at the Canadian Music Centre’s Composer Showcase.
In his November 2016 lecture on “James Reaney and Music”, composer John Beckwith recalls James Reaney writing that “My experiences of opera were scrubbing kitchen floors on Saturday and hearing the Met broadcasts as I did.” What did Reaney mean, John wondered, his kitchen had more than one floor?
Yes, it turns out that “scrubbing kitchen floors” plural is accurate because the farmhouse where James Reaney was born in 1926 had two kitchens – a summer kitchen used May through October in the newer part of the house, and a winter kitchen used November through April in the older part of the house.
In his 1992 autobiography*, James Reaney reflects on “Shelter” and his first home:
[From his diary:] “Tuesday, January 3, 1939 – Wind: east, a sleety and very cold wind. Weather: very cold, snow deep, hard to get around.” Two months before we would have moved the stove and ourselves into the winter kitchen; a constant house-in-winter image, therefore, was passing through the summer kitchen, all cold and deserted, on the way to the pump or the barn. […] [p. 297]
On the topic of “Food”, he describes making toast in the summer kitchen:
“The summer kitchen would be filled with smoke resulting from our toasting of thick bread slices over, top of stove lifted, lids and all, open fire. As we sat down to breakfast, the kitchen was transformed by big, blue sun ladders coming in the east windows and slanting down to the linoleum.” [p. 296]
“Asked to name first foods that impressed me almost to the point of saying ‘dietary gods,’ I should have to say OATMEAL, MILK, WATER, TOAST. By many a mile, oatmeal comes first although the hard, hard water from our hundred-foot well is hard to beat.” [p. 295] […]
Now, the farm actually produced oats, a beautiful crop to watch turning from blue-green mist to yellow curved spikelets to dead-white ripe spilling into the granary from the threshing machine pipe. But the pursuit of status symbols prevented us from slipping backwards into primitivism, and my parents shopped for either Quaker Oats (not instant, long cooking; instant is an abomination) or rolled oats (plain brown paper bag). Sometimes in summer (see Alice Munro) we hereticized to Puffed Oats, shot from a cannon and supported by a radio serial called “Sunny Jim.” We even backslid to Kellogg’s Cornflakes or even Rice Krispies – again a radio programme tugged at us, in this case Irene Wicker’s “Singing Lady”; and for a box top from either of the above you could obtain a booklet called When the Great Were Young [sic] – stories of Michelangelo, Giotto, Bach − filled with notions of how to escape if need be from the farm one day. […] [p. 296]
* These autobiographical excerpts are from James Crerar Reaney, Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Volume 15, pages 295-297, Gale Research Inc., Detroit, 1992.
In his November 5 talk on “James Reaney and Music”, composer John Beckwith recalls their collaboration on a children’s story with symphonic music, All the Bees and All the Keys: “He said he had always wanted to write about a) bees and bee-keeping and b) small-town Ontario marching bands.” Beckwith also mentioned a scene in James Reaney’s play I, The Parade, where a penniless band with no instruments has to perform with dandelion horns.
I, The Parade tells the story of bandmaster and composer Charles F. Thiele (1884-1954), bandmaster of the Waterloo Musical Society (1919-1951) and Father of Canadian Band Music.* Commissioned as part of the City of Waterloo’s 125th anniversary celebrations, the play was presented at the University of Waterloo in November 1982.
In I, The Parade, the penniless dandelion-horn band appears in a story-within-a-story (told by Charles F. Thiele’s mother and father) that hints at some of the history of the Waterloo Band and its rivalry with the Berlin [Kitchener] Band. As John Mellor notes in his memoir about Professor Thiele, “This keen rivalry between the bands of Waterloo and Berlin/Kitchener became so intense that for a long period no Berlin musicians played in the Waterloo band and vice versa.”**
In this scene from Act I, trumpeter Albert Nafzinger is blackballed from joining the Music Society Band because he lives in the rival village. His sister, Gretel, desperate to play in a band but without an instrument, forms a band of her own: “… and they played with the stems of dandelions — which they called dandelion horns […]”
One two three together
Let’s hear it from the drum
Never mind if it’s a rusty kettle
Down the street we come
Down Park Street, down Union Street,
Turning right on King
Up Albert Street, up Margaret
Buzzing like a bumble bee
Our music’s easy come by.
Break your horn, we’ll never mind:
On Park Street &c. A PASSERBY PUTS A PENNY IN THEIR DRUM.
[Angry at not getting into the band, Albert plots his revenge:]
ALBERT: Gretel, how much would you give me for my trumpet.
GRETEL: Albert. (PAUSE) You didn’t get into the village band.
ALBERT: I’ll get them. I’m not getting mad, no I’m getting even. […]
GRETEL: I’d give anything, do anything to have a trumpet that was my own.
ALBERT: Listen – this is what you must do then. First of all I have Sunday morning rights to practise – I can’t quite give it up, but there’s lots of lonely places outside town I can practise. But – cut your hair real short, put on a suit of my clothes and audition for the empty place in the band and. (PAUSE) It’s all yours.
GRETEL: Do you think I’d get in the band?
ALBERT: If you do, I’ll have my revenge on them. But – if they keep you out – I still keep the trumpet.
GRETEL: And my hair grows back and I can wear a dress again. Albert. (PAUSE) Albert, let me play a bit. Please.
HE DANGLES IT OVER HER HEAD, THEN RUNS OFF WITH IT.
Note from Susan Reaney: This scene is excerpted from a draft manuscript version of I, The Parade, which is part of the James Reaney fonds at Western University Archives. The title at the top reads“Sally Trombone”, which is a ragtime-influenced novelty tune from 1917 featuring a “trombone smear” (true glissando), the specialty of composer and bandleaderHenry Fillmore (1881-1956).
* For more about C.F. Thiele, see John Mellor’s book Music in the Park: C.F. Thiele Father of Canadian Band Music (1988), Waterloo, Ontario. ISBN 0-9692301-2-5 ** John Mellor, Music in the Park, page 18.