Goodbye to the Farm

August 2010 -- James Reaney's birthplace and childhood home near Stratford, Ontario.
August 2010 — James Reaney’s birthplace and childhood home near Stratford, Ontario.

August 15, 2015 — a sad day — we learned that the old farmhouse where James Reaney was born has been torn down. Our thanks to Laura Cudworth of The Stratford Beacon Herald for covering the story:

Fondly remembered by the Reaney, Cooke, and Chamberlin Franken families, here are photos of the farm as it was. If you remember the farm and have a photo to share, please get in touch.


Summer 1937 -- teh reaney farmhouse and the old barnyard (Photo by Elizabeth Crearar Reaney)
Summer 1937 — The Reaney farmhouse and the old barnyard.  The original barn was built in 1869, and the house was built in 1875.
Summer 1937 -- James Reaney's cousin Kathy Smith by the front garden (ECR)
Summer 1937 — James Reaney’s cousin Kathy Smith by the front garden.
ge 4) with his cousins, Elsie, Kathleen, and Mary, Summer 1930 near Stratford, Ontario.
Elsie, Kathleen, and Mary Smith with their cousin James Reaney (age 4) at the farm, Summer 1930.
James Reaney in the garden at the farm, July 1985 (Photo by Wilma McCaig).
James Reaney in the garden at the farm, July 1985. (Photo by Wilma McCaig)


Jillian Keiley’s Alice Through the Looking-Glass moves across Canada

Alice Through the Looking-Glass director Jillian Keiley with actors playing Alice across Canada: Gwendolyn Collins (Winnipeg’s Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre), Ellie Heath (Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre), Trish Lindström (the Stratford Festival) and, seated, Natasha Greenblatt (NAC and Charlottetown's Confederation Centre of the Arts). Photographed in the Palm Room of Spadina House, Toronto, June 2015.
Alice Through the Looking-Glass director Jillian Keiley with actors playing Alice across Canada: Gwendolyn Collins (Winnipeg’s Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre), Ellie Heath (Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre), Trish Lindström (the Stratford Festival) and, seated, Natasha Greenblatt (NAC and Charlottetown’s Confederation Centre of the Arts). Photographed in the Palm Room of Spadina House, Toronto, June 2015.


June 25, 2015 — Now playing in Charlottetown at the Confederation Centre of the Arts, James Reaney’s adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice Through the Looking-Glass will open in Winnipeg later this fall and in Edmonton next February. Director Jillian Keiley plans to have local performers for each production to bring last summer’s Stratford Festival hit to new cities.

In other news, Jillian Keiley will continue in her role as Artistic Director of Canada’s National Arts Centre English Theatre; her contract has been extended for another four years. Congratulations, Jillian!

 In Charlottetown, you can purchase tickets by calling 1-800-565-0278 (902-566-1267) or order online here.

♦ We also hear good things about Evangeline, a new musical play at the Charlottetown Festival, and you won’t want to miss Anne of Green Gables.

 ♦ What reviewers are saying: Alice Through the Looking-Glass” will leave you in awe. — Lennie MacPherson in The Guardian
“… S
urprises in every scene and you just have to see it for yourself.” — Cindy Lapeña in Opening Night Reviews PEI

These photographs are from a happy visit to the Charlottetown Festival and the Atlantic Canada premiere of Alice Through the Looking-Glass, courtesy Elizabeth Reaney:

June 24, 2015 -- The Confederation Centre for the Arts, Charlottetown, PEI.
June 26, 2015 — The Confederation Centre of the Arts, Charlottetown, PEI


The Alices lead the way to Alice Through the Looking-Glass, Charlottetown, PEI
The Alices lead the way to Alice Through the Looking-Glass, Charlottetown, PEI
June 24, 2015: Alice Through the Looking-Glass premiere, Charlottetown, PEI
June 26, 2015: Alice Through the Looking-Glass premiere, Charlottetown, PEI
Alice Through the Looking-Glass at the Charlottetown Festival, June 24, 2015
Alice Through the Looking-Glass at the Charlottetown Festival, June 26, 2015

Alice Through the Looking-Glass in Charlottetown: June 24 to August 29

This summer the Charlottetown Festival will present James Reaney’s adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice Through the Looking-Glass at the Homburg Theatre at the Confederation Centre for the Arts in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island.

Alice Through the Looking-Glass at the Charlottetown Festival, June 24-August 29

This production of Alice is the Atlantic Canada premiere of last summer’s  Stratford Festival hit. How fitting that Alice would journey to PEI — the home of Anne of Green Gables! Long ago Mark Twain called Anne Shirley “the dearest and most lovable child in fiction since the immortal Alice.”

To purchase tickets, call 1-800-565-0278 (902-566-1267) or order online here.

Trish Lindstrom as Alice in Alice Through the Looking-Glass, May 2014 at the Stratford Festival. Photo by Cylia Von Tiedemann.


Lewis Carroll’s Alice Through the Looking-Glass: adapted for the stage by James Reaney is available from the Porcupine’s Quill.

Southern Ontario Gothic and James Reaney

June 4, 2015 — Southern Ontario Gothic was the topic of discussion on TV Ontario’s “Agenda” tonight. Panelists Jane Urqhart, Monika Lee, Michael Hurley, and Shani Mootoo recommend these titles for your Gothic fiction fix:

♦ Jane Urqhart: Fifth Business by Robertson Davies
♦ Monika Lee: The Donnellys by James Reaney
♦ Michael Hurley: Perpetual Motion by Graeme Gibson
♦ Shani Mootoo: All the Broken Things by Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer

James Reaney is one of our best Gothic writers from Southern Ontario, and he is one of the most influential. He’s had a huge impact on a lot of writers who are more famous than he is, like Alice Munro and Margret Atwood,” says Monika Lee, Professor of English Literature at Brescia College.

June 4, 2015 — Monika Lee champions James Reaney’s The Donnellys as a true Southern Ontario Gothic work. TV Ontario:

 More about Southern Ontario Gothic:

“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.

Watch the video here: >>>


James Reaney’s “The Crow”

The Crow

A fool once caught a crow
That flew too near even for his stone’s throw.
Alone beneath a tree
He examined the black flier
And found upon its sides
Two little black doors.
He opened both of them.
He expected to see into
Perhaps a little kitchen
With a stove, a chair,
A table and a dish
Upon that table.
But he only learned that crows
Know a better use for doors than to close
And open, and close and open
Into dreary, dull rooms.

 James Reaney, 1949

Crow near Jericho Beach, Vancouver, BC.

“The Crow” is from The Red Heart (1949), James Reaney‘s first collection of poems.

James Reaney’s “Entire Horse”

Entire Horse

Poems Written About The Donnellys To Assist
The Renewal of The Town Hall at Exeter, Highway #4 *

Around Borrisokane, in Eire, the roads twist
After cowherds with willow gads, after wise woman’s spells,
After chariots and the widest go-around found in a mare’s skin.
But in Biddulph, Canada, in Mount Carmel’s brooder stove, St Peter’s fields,
The roads cross at right angles, a careful Euclidean net, roods, rods
Spun by surveyors out of Spider stars – Mirzak, Spicula, Thuban, Antares.
Like serpents, twitchgrass roots, dragons – the Irish roads twist,
The old crooked roads twist in the cage of the straight new.

We were horsemen, dressed well and from my brother’s entire horse,
From his entire horse came the colt fast fleet hoofhand with which
We seized and held onto the path through Exeter down to London.
We lifted the hills, creeks, rivers, slaughterhouses, taverns,
We lifted their travellers and those who were asleep when we passed
And those who saw us rattle by as they plowed mud or whittled.
We lifted them like a graveldust pennant, we swung them up and out
Till they yelled about wheels falling off, unfair competition, yah!
And we lie here now – headless, still, dead, waggonless, horseless,
Sleighless, hitched, stalled.

As the dressmaker hems my muslin handkerchiefs,
The night the Vigilantes burnt down one of their own barns,
As I sit waiting for a cake to bake and my gentle niece with me
I realize I am not doing what you want me to do.
You – bored with your Calvinist shoes chewed to pieces
By streets of insurance, streets of cakemix, packages, soap, sermonettes.
You want me to – you project a more exciting me on me.
She should be burning! Clip! Ax! Giantess! Coarse, I should curse!
Why should I accept these handcuffs from you?

 James Reaney, 2005

* Respectively, the three speakers of these poems are William Porte, the Lucan postmaster, Tom Donnelly and Mrs. Donnelly.

“Entire Horse” is from Souwesto Home, a collection of James Reaney’s poems from 2005 and published by Brick Books.

Stagecoach scene from James Reaney’s play The St. Nicholas Hotel; the performers are Miriam Greene, Suzanne Turnbull, and Rick Gorrie (back row); Jerry Franken, Jay Bowen, and David Ferry (front row) at the Tarragon Theatre, Toronto, Ontario, 1974.

Scene from the play: In Act I before the Donnelly stagecoach leaves the City Hotel in London, Mike Donnelly (driver) says:

“Are there any more ladies and gentlemen for Calamity Corners as ’tis sometimes called, St. John’s, Birr — my old friend Ned here calls it Bobtown, the more elegant name is Birr. Elginfield known to some as Ryan’s Corner’s, Lucan that classic spot if it’s not all burnt down, Clandeboye, Mooretown, Exeter and Crediton. If Ned here hasn’t sawn it to pieces, the coach is waiting for you at the front door and it pleases you.”

James Reaney on writing about the Donnellys

In this excerpt from an August 2001 interview conducted by Tim Struthers and published in the Spring 2013 issue of the journal Short Story, James Reaney sheds light on his fascination with the Donnelly massacre of 1880.

James Reaney first heard about the Donnellys from his stepfather when he was a child in the mid-1930s.

JR: I remember saying to my stepfather at the time, “Wouldn’t they have a door with a lock on it?” And he said, “Noooo, they wouldn’t have had a door with a lock on it. They had a piece of burlap bag across a hole in their shanty” … so that was pretty dreadful.
Anyway I was scared out of my wits. It was only twenty miles away from our farm. We were pretty much right next to it all at one time. And I just couldn’t believe it.

In 1946, local historian Alice MacFarlane gave a paper on the Donnellys at a meeting of the London and Middlesex Historical Society at the public library in London.

JR: [Alice MacFarlane’s paper] had all the usual elements of the story that Kelley tells, that people tell about the Donnellys still. And when she got to the part in her paper about how the Donnellys cut out the tongues of horses … an old man rose up out of the audience and came at her with a shillelagh … And he said “They never cut the tongues out of horses. Out of people, yes!” … And then he stomped out…

But I was fascinated as I read this in The Globe and Mail … And I realized the Donnellys had friends. I never thought that before, you see.

TS: When was this?

JR: It would be 1946.

TS: While you were an undergraduate at the University of Toronto.

JR: Yes. I’d been thinking about writing a play about them. The Kelley thing [Thomas P. Kelley’s The Black Donnellys] had not been written by that time. He’s 1954. And you couldn’t write a play about the story my stepfather told. So finding out that they had friends made a big difference. I began to think in terms of a play about them that would be a tragedy, rather than the kind of thing where it’s not tragic at all and they should be exterminated as soon as possible (laughter). Like many a modern horror film.

Note from Susan Reaney: This interview is excerpted from the Spring 2013 issue of Short Story, New Series Vol. 21 No. 1, pages 115-116. See also “Winter’s Tales”, a poem James Reaney wrote in 1949, which makes an oblique reference to “…the massacre at Lucan / Where the neighbours killed all of the McKilligans dead.”

James Reaney wrote a trilogy of plays about the Donnelly family and the tragedy: Sticks and Stones (1973), The St. Nicholas Hotel (1974), and Handcuffs (1975). He also edited and wrote the introduction to The Donnelly Documents: An Ontario Vendetta, published by The Champlain Society in 2004.

The story of the Donnellys continues to fascinate us and has inspired many other playwrights, including Peter Colley and Paul Thompson. London historian and filmmaker Chris Doty restaged the Donnelly trial, and Jeff Culbert wrote and performed a one-man musical version The Donnelly Sideshow. Jonathan Christenson‘s rock opera version of the Donnelly tragedy, Vigilante, opened this month at Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre.

Jerry Franken and David Ferry in Sticks and Stones, at the Tarragon Theatre in Toronto, 1973

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.
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 BC), 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 “Brush Strokes Decorating a Fan”

In celebration of Brick Books 40th anniversary, here is one of the 26 stanzas from James Reaney’s poem “Brush Strokes Decorating a Fan”.

A Useful List:
Useful for what?

Well, I don’t quite know yet,
But I swear that as an infant,
Born near the Little Lakes,
I met them.
Every morning in our house,
Vesta used to light the stove

 James Reaney, 2005

James Reaney at home, age 1 1/2 years, January 1928.

“Brush Strokes Decorating a Fan” is from James Reaney’s book of poems Souwesto Home (2005), available from Brick Books. For more about the poem, see Celebration of Poetry: Week 1 James Reaney.

Ten of the stanzas from “Brush Strokes Decorating a Fan” (including “(u) A Useful List”) were set to music by Oliver Whitehead and Stephen Holowitz and performed by the Antler River Project in 2008.

Souwesto Home by James Reaney, 2005, Brick Books.