Souwesto Theatre: A Beginning 

Souwesto Theatre: A Beginning by Dr. James Reaney
(Alumni Gazette 1976 pages 14-16, University of Western Ontario)

Left to right: James Reaney in the UWO Archives in 1976, nearby Middlesex Memorial Tower, 1973 program cover for Sticks and Stones.

I have been recently thinking about the process of turning some ten years of research on the premises here into a dramatic trilogy that has just finished a National Tour.* As a matter of fact it ended up at a theatre in Toronto with a day long presentation of the three plays to a festive house. This was held on December 9, 1975 and as I look back on the last ten years I look with a curiosity and interest that I hope you can share with me. The research, I might add, was on the history of Biddulph Township which lies not 14 miles away from the office in which I type this, an office in Middlesex Memorial Tower, (the flag tower) University College; the trilogy is called The Donnellys and is now being published by Porcépic Press as quickly as I can remember just how the 14 actors and six backstage helpers actually presented this rather large dramatic structure in Vancouver, Calgary, Medicine Hat, Winnipeg, Ottawa, London, Hamilton, Toronto, Moncton, Bathurst, Halifax and other centres.*

One of the reasons I decided to leave my first teaching post in Manitoba and come to this campus was that I wanted to find out more about the land of my birth – Southwestern Ontario, or as Greg Curnoe very aptly calls it – Souwesto. In 1960, when I arrived here, I had just finished a poem about the farm near Stratford where I grew up called A Suit of Nettles, and, when I started to think about what I should be writing about and researching next, I realized that I simply had to get back to my roots. I was homesick for the Souwesto landscape and the job offered me at Middlesex College by Brandy Conron seemed a good chance to live again near such things as red-caned dogwood and yellow branched willows against the snow; Georgian farmhouses with Gothic Revival gables, such buildings as the Dutch Renaissance (!) City Hall at Stratford, such people as say “the saf” for “this afternoon” and “gool” for “goal” – “I’d like a pair of goolie skates” – and a whole host of human and near-human beings and things that I had always loved and been curious about.

One of my early experiences back here (we lived in South London then in an Art Nouveau house on Craig Street near Victoria Bridge with possible walks to Westminster Bridge along the riverbanks) was to go with my father to hear Orlo Miller lecture at Middlesex College on his recent book The Donnellys Must Die. As a child I had heard the story of this tragic family from our hired man, and my interest was revived now, especially when I heard that Mr. Miller had, in the thirties, collected a huge heap of legal and municipal documents with relevance to the Biddulph Tragedy from the attics of the courthouses at Goderich and at London; in the beginning this heap of paper filled with glimpses and pathways into our Souwesto past had been stored in a vault at the bottom of the tower I am at present typing this in; then it had been taken to the Lawson Library and arranged as part of our Regional Archives. The next day I went over to the Regional Archives and asked to see something; I think that at first I was rather scared of asking for Donnelly material, perhaps on the assumption that it might bite me, so that my first use of the archives here was to look up my own ancestors as they surface through Perth County documents in Justice of the Peace records (not as offenders alas!), old diaries, census records and so on. Then one day I dared to ask for a box marked Huron District, 208, Criminal Records and under the watchful eye of the custodian she had no reason to be watchful, but then I was the only person in the archives for days on end) I entered the really magic world of the past which can only be reached through such fragile ladders and windows as bundles of counterfoils from Sheriff’s cheque books, Court Criers’ Bills, Surveyors’ Notebooks, Chattel Mortgages (whole inventories of people’s furniture and beasts and implements), Jury Lists, Assessment Rules, Crown Attorney Letterbooks and, last of all, mountains of blue paper containing an endless stream of Information and Complaint – the term used for the form you had to fill out when some fellow pioneer had dogged your cattle, tried to pour boiling water on you, torn down your fence, milked your cow furtively or torn down your house with you inside.

One of my first research lessons was to train myself to read nineteenth century handwriting and abbreviations; for example, for about a year I somehow assumed that “Inft” meant “infant” so that when you read “.… and poured boiling water over the Inft” I naturally saw the very darkest picture imaginable; suddenly one day it dawned on me that the early Huron District backwoods scene was indeed horrible, but that “Inft” did at least stand for an Informant fifty years old and perfectly capable of running away! Now these documents where a Plaintiff accuses a Defendant of doing something are extremely dramatic, partly because of the variety of things accused, and I made them into one of the choral passages in Sticks and Stones (Part One) in order to show the social situation at its tumultuous litigious mad worst, which is always the dramatic best! For five years, I am told by the staff, I appeared in the archives every day they were open, sometimes for just half an hour, but, in the summers when lectures were over, for whole days; in those sixtyish times before the present electronic system of locks I was often allowed to stay in after the staff had gone home and finish up some nearly finished line of research until hunger drove me also home. Propelled by the magnetic names “Donnelly” and “Biddulph” I read all the Huron District and County Archives from the beginning to 1863 when Biddulph Township leaves Huron County; I knew that I wanted to write a play about these people, but I wanted to get inside their world first and those hundreds of boxes filled with blue paper – it gets white about 1870 – were the keys to this state. Whoever filed away things in the Huron County Courthouse filed away everything, and I am eternally grateful to him since it enabled me to see not only the big stories and people – the Malady murder, the Railway Celebrations of 1858, the hand-writing of Tiger Dunlop and Mrs. Donnelly, but also the little things that are really much more of what sometimes drives us mad or sane; the condition of the privies in the various inns along the road that is now known as Highway Four – the way people phrased things: “Not a mit nor a whip has ever been lost at my tavern…”, the names of horses and dogs, the way people in North Easthope call a stallion a stud, but those in Biddulph call him an incomplete horse! My favourite Chattel Mortgage has to be that of the Buffalo, Brantford, and Goderich Railway which lists the names of ten locomotives – Growler, Sparkler, Tempest! Do you know that I could read Chancery records forever. I think the court itself has vanished from the legal scene, but it seemed to handle family disputes, not always about property or money, and here you often get pictures of whole families talking at each other in a way that no history book ever thinks of showing you: one of my favourite lines from the trilogy – “It’s not enough that we should starve, but we must freeze to death as well” – comes right out of a Chancery document.

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

After a series of workshops with my own group, the Listeners, at Alpha Centre and Mini-Theatre, where we used this material in prototypes of the Donnelly plays called “Antler River” and “Sticks and Stones”, I did some more shaping until in 1972 I was invited down to Halifax to work with Keith Turnbull, a former student here on the material using local children and professional actors. The actors wolfed down the contents of the binders – and I think that in their performances you can see that they have genuinely touched some area of time not our own: for example, Tom Carew plays a constable in pursuit of Mr. Donnelly – he used to read aloud at this point a whole, real 1858 letter from a “peace-loving British peace-making constable” who was always complaining to Goderich authorities about the coldness of the “night spent watching in the woods” and the small non-existant return for all this. Very little of this material remains in the dramatic characterization that is verbal, but visibly the gestures and the inflection of voice go back to something old and papery in a box at present guarded by [the] Regional Archivist. Also William Donnelly’s actor has tried to write like William Donnelly whose handwriting is so extremely elegant and riveting to look at. In short, the documents found so long ago in the attics of those courthouses have been turned into words and gestures that have entertained a great many people in this country and which have given them to a feeling that there is more to us than just the Kelvinator and Chevy present; we are a nation with an intensely lived past and our minds are the better for trying to contact it. Well, for one thing, the contact teaches you not to be bored with your surroundings, for example to love them, and that is the basis for all civilization so far as I am concerned.

One recent result of the work I have been describing to you has been a desire to work on other Souwesto stories besides the Biddulph Tragedy. Our company was not invited to play in any of the border areas – Niagara, Windsor, Sarnia, – and it may be our own fault for we hardly know anything about them or their past. Perhaps what all I have been describing to you impels one to do is to go on: we’ve found out what the roots of Middlesex County and Huron County are like; I wonder if people in the other areas mentioned – in Souwesto, in other words, would be interested in helping us write and put on plays about the other great Souwesto themes – I’m thinking of the Baldoon Mystery, the Pontiac Conspiracy (there’s an exciting early Canuck novel called Wacousta which I’d like to dramatize) and also the Tecumseh story. Our children need to know the traditions of their community, to know that we’re a different part of North America from Los Angeles and the best way I can think of to start this is to encourage a study of the past that may lead to plays, songs, paintings, books, thematic street fairs and pageants (but richer than these usually are, because more informed). If you have any ideas on this subject I should like to hear from you, and perhaps, just perhaps, we will soon try with a touring company or two and some local legends to find out if there could be a Souwesto Theatre – something that could focus our region a bit more intensely than the Highway called 401 does. In any case, I think you can see that what came out of this college and its tower and its archives is first of all, knowledge, then workshops and plays, and perhaps eventually a new direction and identity for our life here in Souwesto.

Ed Note. Dr. Reaney is a member of the department of English at Western and one of the foremost Canadian playwrights of our time. Before leaving for Ireland to do research for a new work, Dr. Reaney graciously took time to write this article about the process of turning his years of research into drama. Recently Dr. Reaney has received a $12,000 Canada Council Senior Arts Grant and has been appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada by the Governor General.

More Souwesto plays by James Reaney: Baldoon (1976) Wacousta! (1976) King Whistle (1979), Antler River (1980), and I, the Parade (1982)

*Note: See James Reaney’s Fourteen Barrels from Sea to Sea (1977), an account of the NDWT Company’s cross-Canada tour of the Donnelly plays.

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

See also James Reaney’s entry for James Donnelly (1816-1880) in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography: