Archives: The Singing Lady

Colours in the Dark premiere July 25, 1967

Colours in the Dark premiere July 25, 1967

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.

Douglas Rain as the Father, Martha Henry as the Mother and Heath Lamberts as the Son in the 1967 production of Colours in the Dark. Photography by Peter Smith (Courtesy Stratford Festival Archives. Reproduced with permission.)

Barbara Bryne, Douglas Rain and Sandy Webster in Colours in the Dark, 1967
Photography by Peter Smith & Company
(Courtesy Stratford Festival Archives. Reproduced with permission.)

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 Alphabet Players with the marionettes from Apple Butter, Stratford, Ontario, July 1967. James Reaney (centre, seated) is holding some of the Red Riding Hood marionettes. Allan Stratton (far right) is holding Apple Butter, and James Stewart Reaney (second in on the left) is holding Solomon Spoilrod.


For more about Colours in the Dark, see “The Music Lesson from Colours in the Dark”, “Colours in the Dark and Mr. Winemeyer”, and the March 2017 production by the King’s Theatrical Society.

For more about James Reaney’s childhood influences, see “James Reaney: Reflections on Food, Shelter, and ‘When the Great Were Small'”.

Grateful thanks to the Stratford Festival Archives for permission to reproduce the photos from the 1967 production of Colours in the Dark, and also to the Canadian Theatre Collection at the University of Guelph Archives for reviews and articles about the play.

Colours in the Dark by James Reaney is available from Talonbooks.




James Reaney: Reflections on Shelter, Food, and “When the Great Were Small”

James Reaney: Reflections on Shelter, Food, and “When the Great Were Small”

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?

James Reaney's childhood home near Stratford, Ontario

James Reaney’s childhood home near Stratford, Ontario — Summer Kitchen entrance.

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]

James Reaney's copy of "When the Great Were Small: Childhood Stories of the Great Artists and Musicians as Told By Kellogg's Singing Lady", 1935 booklet for The Singing Lady radio programme, copyright Kellogg Company. Image courtesy Western University Archives, James Reaney fonds AFC 18.

James Reaney’s boyhood copy of “When the Great Were Small: Childhood Stories of the Great Artists and Musicians as Told By Kellogg’s Singing Lady”, 1935 booklet for The Singing Lady radio programme, copyright Kellogg Company. Image courtesy Western University Archives, James Reaney fonds AFC 18, Box A12-082-029.

* These autobiographical excerpts are from James Crerar Reaney, Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Volume 15, pages 295-297, Gale Research Inc., Detroit, 1992.

James Reaney, age 1 1/2 years, on his front porch, January 1928.

James Reaney, age 1 1/2 years, on his front porch (summer kitchen side) January 1928.

Butterfly decoration by James Reaney, September 1947 (ink on yellow paper)

Butterfly decoration by James Reaney, September 1947 (ink on yellow paper)

© 2017 James Reaney