Authors: James Reaney

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Canadian playwright, short-story writer, essayist, and poet

Author Works


Night-Blooming Cereus, wr. 1952, pr. 1959 (radio play), pr. 1960 (staged), pb. 1962 (libretto; with John Beckwith)

The Sun and the Moon, wr. 1959, pb. 1962

The Killdeer, pr. 1960, revised pr. 1970

One-Man Masque, pr. 1960

The Easter Egg, pr. 1962

Names and Nicknames, pr. 1963

Let’s Make a Carol, pr. 1964 (music by Beckwith)

Apple Butter, pr. 1965 (puppet play)

The Shivaree, wr. 1965, pb. 1978 (libretto; music by Beckwith)

Listen to the Wind, pr. 1966

Ignoramus, pr. 1966

Colours in the Dark, pr. 1967

Three Desks, pr. 1967

Geography Match, pr. 1967

The Donnellys: Part I, Sticks and Stones, wr. 1968-1972, pr. 1973

The Donnellys: Part II, St. Nicholas Hotel, Wm. Donnelly, Prop., wr. 1968-1973, pr. 1974

The Donnellys: Part III, Handcuffs, wr. 1968-1974, pr. 1975

Masks of Childhood, pb. 1972 (includes The Easter Egg, Three Desks, and The Killdeer)

All the Bees and All the Keys, pr. 1973 (music by Beckwith)

Baldoon, pr., pb. 1976 (with C. H. “Marty” Gervais)

The Dismissal, wr. 1976-1977, pr. 1977

Wacousta!, pr. 1978

King Whistle, pr. 1979

Antler River, pr. 1980

Gyroscope, pr. 1981

The Canadian Brothers, pr. 1983

The Donnellys, pb. 1983 (includes the Donnelly trilogy)

Crazy to Kill, pr., pb. 1988 (libretto; music by Beckwith)

Lewis Carroll’s “Alice Through the Looking Glass,” pr., pb. 1994 (adaptation of Carroll’s novel)


An Evening Without James Reaney, 1960

Radio Plays:

The Great Lakes Suite, 1950

Message to Winnipeg, 1959

Poet and CityWinnipeg, 1960

The Journals and Letters of William Blake, 1961

Wednesday’s Child, 1962

Canada Dot CanadaDash, 1965-1967 (in 3 parts)

Short Fiction:

“Clay Hole,” 1946

“The Elevator,” 1946

“The Book in the Tree,” 1947

“Mr. Whur: A Metamorphosis,” 1947

“The Box Social,” 1947

“Afternoon Moon,” 1948

“The Young Necrophiles,” 1948

“The Bully,” 1952

“Dear Metronome,” 1952

“To the Secret City: From a Winnipeg Sketch Book,” 1954

“Winnipeg Sketches,” 1955

The Box Social, and Other Stories, 1996


The Red Heart, 1949

A Suit of Nettles, 1958

Twelve Letters to a Small Town, 1962

The Dance of Death at London, Ontario, 1963

Poems, 1972 (Germaine Warkentin, editor)

Selected Shorter Poems, 1975 (Warkentin, editor)

Selected Longer Poems, 1976 (Warkentin, editor)

Imprecations: The Art of Swearing, 1984

Performance: Poems, 1990


“The Influence of Spenser on Yeats,” 1958 (Ph.D. thesis)

“The Canadian Imagination,” 1959 (in Poetry)

“Isabella Valancy Crawford,” 1959

Alphabet: A Semiannual Devoted to the Iconography of the Imagination, 1960-1971 (20 volumes)

“The Canadian Poets’ Predicament,” 1962 (in Masks of Poetry)

“An Evening with Babble and Doodle,” 1962

“Ten Miles High on a Song,” 1966 (in The Globe and Mail newspaper)

Ten Years at Play, 1969

Fourteen Barrels from Sea to Sea, 1977

“Some Critics Are Music Teachers,” 1982 (in Centre and Labyrinth: Essays in Honour of Northrop Frye)

“Digesting the Bible,” 1982 (in Saturday Night Magazine)

Children’s/Young Adult Literature:

The Boy with an R in His Hand, 1965

Take the Big Picture, 1986


When Canada celebrated its centennial in 1967, Canadians prided themselves on having established a distinctive national literature. James Crerar Reaney (RAY-nee), who turned forty-one that year, was one of the best-known poets and dramatists of his generation.{$I[AN]9810001649}{$I[A]Reaney, James}{$I[geo]CANADA;Reaney, James}{$I[tim]1926;Reaney, James}

Reaney was born in rural Ontario in 1926. He attended high school in the town of Stratford and studied English at the University of Toronto. He received his master’s degree in 1949 and published his first volume of poetry, The Red Heart, that same year. It won the prestigious Governor General’s Award.

Reaney spent the next forty years teaching college and writing. He was on the faculty at the University of Manitoba until 1960; he then moved to the University of Western Ontario, where he taught until he was sixty-five. He married the poet Colleen Thibaudeau in 1951; they raised two sons, Stewart and John.

Attracted by the literary theory of Northrop Frye, Reaney took a two-year leave from the University of Manitoba to study under Frye at the University of Toronto. He received his Ph.D. in 1958 after writing a dissertation on Edmund Spenser and William Butler Yeats. Frye’s influence went straight into Reaney’s poetry. Reaney once remarked that Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism (1957) was a poet’s handbook, and his own poetry showed the encompassing range of literary styles and mythological references that Frye termed the “anatomy.”

In A Suit of Nettles, which won a Governor General’s Award in 1958, Reaney organized his reflections according to the twelve months of the year, with prose commentaries recalling Spenser’s Shepheardes Calendar. In One-Man Masque, which he performed in 1960, he offered a darkly ironic commentary on life in the form of sixteen monologues moving from birth through midlife muddles to death and judgment. These two works showed Reaney at the peak of his form and pointed toward the directions he would explore during the next two decades.

Poetry, Reaney learned quickly, appeals to both the eye and the ear. The eye reads the words on paper, but the ear hears the words spoken or imagines hearing them. The visual element of poetry approaches drawing or doodle, while the aural element approaches music. Reaney never abandoned verse forms for the extremes of “concrete” design or improvisational “reading,” but he experimented with both approaches. The appeal to the eye led him to create his own magazine of Canadian poetry, Alphabet, which he edited from 1960 through 1971. The appeal to the ear led him to move from monologue into verse drama, where he reached larger audiences.

Reaney’s first full-scale drama, The Killdeer, premiered in 1960. It was televised by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) in 1961 and was published with other verse dramas in 1962, earning Reaney a Governor General’s Award in drama. Reaney was now back in Ontario, not far from his childhood home, and close to the newly established Stratford Festival, an annual celebration of Shakespearean and other drama. He welcomed the opportunity to be a regional writer, voicing universal concerns from his particular spot in the universe.

Reaney produced his best-known plays during the next two decades, including Listen to the Wind, Colours in the Dark, and the Donnellys Trilogy: Sticks and Stones, St. Nicholas Hotel, Wm. Donnelly Prop. and Handcuffs. Reaney’s account of touring Canada with the theater troupe performing the trilogy is recorded in Fourteen Barrels from Sea to Sea.

Reaney also wrote plays for children and a novel for young readers, The Boy with an R in his Hand. He collaborated with John Beckwith on musical performances, for which he wrote the librettos. For other poets, such ventures might be pleasurable escapes, but for Reaney they are close to his central concerns. He has maintained the playful sense of humor that most people lose as they grow to adulthood. His “serious” poems and plays are full of merriment, playing with words and with forms. He has also learned a great deal from his formal study of piano and musical counterpoint. Indeed, his poetry interweaves serious and playful voices, and concerns with everyday and extraordinary subjects, in a sort of literary counterpoint. This contrapuntal quality can be found in all of Reaney’s poetry, including the carefully crafted Twelve Letters to a Small Town, for which he won yet another Governor General’s Award, and Performance: Poems.

In 1975 Reaney received an honorary doctorate from Carlton University and became an Officer of the Order of Canada. By the 1990’s Reaney had become a “grand old man” of Canadian letters, affectionately known simply as Jamie. He continued to write for poetry magazines, the stage, and television–for both children and adults, for those who remember the old days of the Great Depression and the centennial and those who are only learning about them from his work. Reaney’s work effectively combines the urbane intelligence and self-deprecating humor for which Canadians are known.

BibliographyDragland, Stan, ed. Approaches to the Work of James Reaney. Downsview, Ont.: ECW Press, 1983. Northrop Frye’s influence on Reaney is the subject of two essays presented here.Grandy, Karen. “Playing with Time: James Reaney’s The Donnelleys as Spatial Form Drama.” Modern Drama 38, no. 4 (Winter, 1995): 462. Explores some of Reaney’s unique techniques for dealing with time–both linear history and a circle of myth.Lee, Alvin A. James Reaney. New York: Twayne, 1968. A dated but still helpful biography from the Twayne’s World Authors series.Lee, Alvin A. “A Turn to the Stage: Reaney’s Dramatic Verse.” In Dramatists in Canada: Selected Essays, edited by William H. New. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1972. Offers “a description of the major writings …in an attempt to show something of his [Reaney’s] development as a verse dramatist.” Deals with The Red Heart, A Suit of Nettles (briefly), and the chamber opera Night-Blooming Cereus. Long discussion of The Killdeer and The Easter Egg.Parker, Gerald. How to Play: The Theatre of James Reaney. Toronto: ECW Press, 1991. Three long chapters explore the importance to Reaney of Canada and Ontario, the symbolic and visual elements in his theater, and his linguistic versatility. Bibliography and index.Parker, Gerald. “The Key Word …Is ‘Listen’: James Reaney’s ‘Sonic Environment.’” Mosaic 14 (Fall, 1981): 1-14. This article on the Donnelly trilogy is a model of Reaney’s use of “the sonic environment through various forms of instrumentation and vocal gesture.” Examines a large part of Reaney’s dramatic work, praising “the preoccupation with the theatrical values of sound” and Reaney’s appreciation of filmic and operatic techniques.Reaney, James. Masks of Childhood. Toronto: New Press, 1972. An afterword, by editor Brian Parker, accompanies this edition of three plays, The Easter Egg, Three Desks, and The Killdeer. Parker sees “the interplay of man and child” as the central idea in Reaney’s work. A brief but informative analysis of the three plays is followed by a chronology of plays and works for radio.Tait, Michael. “Everything Is Something: James Reaney’s Colours in the Dark.” In Dramatists in Canada: Selected Essays, edited by William H. New. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1972. Tait concentrates on Colours in the Dark. He finds Reaney’s play “sui generis, a luminous structure …lyric in subjective intensity of mood; dramatic in the articulation of large conflicts; epic in its breadth of statement.”Tait, Michael. “The Limits of Innocence: James Reaney’s Theatre.” In Dramatists in Canada: Selected Essays, edited by William H. New. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1972. An alternative, more critical view than Alvin Lee’s essay (above) in the same collection.
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