Fanshawe Pioneer Village, July 11-25: The AlvegoRoot Theatre Company will present two new plays this summer — Welcome to Bon Echo, by Aimee Adler, about pioneer suffragist Flora MacDonald Denison, and a stage version of James Reaney’s historical children’s novel The Boy with an R in His Hand.
Adam Corrigan Horowitz, AlvegoRoot’s Artistic Director, has adapted Reaney’s story to tell the tale of an orphaned brother and sister, Alec and Elizabeth, who arrive in the town of York in Upper Canada in 1826.
Though Alec and Elizabeth both seek peace and security in their new home, they find themselves on opposite sides of the Family Compact versus Reform debate. Alec falls afoul of his Tory-minded Uncle John when he becomes a printer’s apprentice in Reform politician William Lyon Mackenzie‘s print shop, setting the scene for the famous “Types Riot” by Mackenzie’s political foes.
This adaptation makes skillful use of Alec’s totem protectors — a bear, a crow, and a monkey — who help reunite the brother and sister and set right injustice from the past.
Here is the Eleventh Letter from Twelve Letters to a Small Town, a suite of poems James Reaney wrote for composer John Beckwith in 1962.
ELEVENTH LETTER — Shakespearean Gardens
The Tempest The violet lightning of a March thunderstorm glaring the patches of ice still stuck to the streets.
Two Gentlemen of Verona On Wellington St. an elegant colonel-looking gentleman with waxed white moustachioes that came to tight little points.
Merry Wives of Windsor The Ladies’ Auxiliary of the Orange Lodge marched down the street in white dresses with orange bows on them.
Richard III At last all the children ran away from home and were brought up by an old spinster who lived down the street.
Henry VIII Mr. White’s second wife was the first Mrs. Brown and the first Mrs. White was the second Mrs. Brown.
Troilus & Cressida “Well, I haven’t been to that old Festival yet but since it began I’ve had ten different boyfriends.”
Titus Andronicus Young Mr. Wood to-day lost his right hand in an accident at the lumber yards.
Romeo & Juliet Romeo & Juliet Streets.
Timon of Athens Old Miss Shipman lived alone in a weatherbeaten old cottage and could occasionally be seen out on the front lawn cutting the grass with a small sickle.
Julius Caesar Antony wore a wrist watch in the Normal School production although he never looked at it during the oration.
Macbeth Principal Burdoch’s often expressed opinion was that a great many people would kill a great many other people if they knew for certain they could get away with it.
Hamlet A girl at the bakery took out a boat on the river, tied candlesticks to her wrists and drowned herself.
King Lear Mr. Upas was a silver haired cranky old individual who complained that the meat was too tough at the boarding house.
Othello At the edge of town there stood a lonely white frame building—a deserted Negro church.
The Merchant of Venice When my cousin worked for the Silversteins she had her own private roll of baloney kept aside in the refrigerator for her.
Henry V The local armouries are made of the usual red brick with the usual limestone machicolation.
Twelve Letters to a Small Town was first published in 1962 by the Ryerson Press. In the Afterword to the 2002 facsimile edition, James Reaney wrote that after it was published, “Many Stratford residents said they saw on paper for the first time their memories of the town and wrote to me to say so.”
Among the shows currently on at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario are The Tempest, Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, and The Comedy of Errors.
“… The essence of Reaney’s visual art is his resounding respect for play as a catalyst to unlock creativity — his and ours — and to transform the world perpetually through metaphors that resonate mythically.” (Devil’s Artisan, Issue 82, page 53)
I saw the sundogs barking
On either side of the Sun
As he was making his usual will
And last testament
In a glorious vestment.
And the sundogs cried,
We’ll make a ring
Around the moon
And children, seeing it, will say:
Up there they play Farmer in the Dell
And the moon like the cheese stands still.
We shall drown the crickets,
Set the killdeer birds crying,
Send shingles flying,
And pick all the apples
Ripe or not.
Our barking shall overturn
Hencoops and rabbit-hutches,
Shall topple over privies
With people inside them,
And burn with invisible,
Oh, very invisible!
In each frightened tree.
Whole branches we’ll bite off
And for the housewife’s sloth
In not taking them in
We’ll drag her sheets and pillow cases
Off the fence
And dress up in them
And wear them thin.
And people will say
Both in the country
And in the town
It falls in pails
Of iron nails.
We’ll blow the curses
Right back into the farmer’s mouths
As they curse our industry
And shake their fists,
For we will press the oats
Close to the ground,
Lodge the barley,
And rip open the wheat stooks.
We shall make great faces
Of dampness appear on ceilings
And blow down chimneys
Till the fire’s lame.
With the noise of a thousand typewriters
We shall gallop over the roofs of town.
We are the Sun’s animals.
We stand by him in the West
And ready to obey
His most auburn wish
For Rain, Wind and Storm
Smart also mentioned Reaney’s interest in children’s art and the work of psychologist and educator Rhoda Kellogg, who analyzed thousands of drawings by children to show the evolution of their early non-pictorial work, or scribbling, to pictorial drawing. The child-like lone figure or “playful witness” is also a device that Reaney uses in many of his drawings and paintings.
Throughout his literary career, poet and dramatist James Reaney also produced sketches, drawings, and paintings to explore the ideas in his writing. Common themes in Reaney’s visual art are play, home, regionalism, symbolism, and the interplay between text and image.*
When: Sunday November 5 at 5:30 pm
Where: Museum London, 421 Ridout Street North, London, Ontario
Admission is free; James Stewart Reaney, James Reaney’s son, will introduce the speaker.
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 James Reaney, who was born on a farm near Stratford, Ontario.
*See the Spring Exhibitions invitation, McMichael Canadian Art Collection, April 17, 2008.
From 1969 to 1970, Earle Toppings, broadcaster and editor at the Ontario Institute for Education (OISE), organized a series of interviews and recordings with 16 Canadian authors for use as a resource in high schools and colleges.
Literary Titans Revisited: The Earle Toppings Interviews with CanLit Poets and Writers of the Sixties, edited by Professor Anne Urbancic, presents exact transcripts of Earle Toppings’s interviews with Canadian authors Margaret Laurence, Morley Callaghan, Hugh Garner, Hugh MacLennan, Mordecai Richler, Sinclair Ross, Dorothy Livesay, Gwendolyn MacEwen, Al Purdy, Earle Birney, F.R. Scott, Irving Layton,Miriam Waddington, Raymond Souster, Eli Mandel, and James Reaney.
On December 14, 1970, James Reaney met interviewer Earle Toppings and asked that his recording session for the Canadian Poets on Tape series be recorded at a piano, and fortunately the basement studio of the OISE building in Toronto had one. Reaney then played musical excerpts (for example, “Beulah Land” and “The Maple Leaf Rag”) and also read poems from The Red Heart, A Suit of Nettles, Twelve Letters to a Small Town, Night Blooming Cereus, The Dance of Death at London, Ontario, One Man Masque, and Colours in the Dark. He begins this way:
[Reaney performs “Beulah Land,” a fragment of an old hymn, on the piano.]
That’s the first poem I ever heard, at an early denominational Sunday school. I’m sitting at a piano on Bloor Street near a subway that you’ll hear thundering by occasionally, and I’ve got… sort of… my collected works around me. I’m going to read from The Red Heart first of all, and I’m going to occasionally call forth from the piano pieces of music that really make a comment on the poems in a sort of way. […] [See pages 286-287.]
♦ A special evening to launch the book will be held on October 5from 6-8 pm at the EJ Pratt Library, 71 Queen’s Park Crescent East, Toronto, Ontario.
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.