Thursday, June 12, 2008

Donnelly Dramatist Dead at 81

Marti Maraden, Martha Henry, and David Ferry mourn the loss of playwright James Reaney, 81, Thursday in the Stratford Beacon Herald:

"James Reaney, a national literary icon who stayed close to his southwestern Ontario roots during a celebrated 50-year career as a playwright, poet and professor, has died.

"The former South Easthope resident and longtime Londoner died last night in London, Ont., following a long illness. He was 81.

"'It’s a very sad loss for Canadian poetry and theatre,' said Ron Dodson, Stratford resident and former drama teacher at Stratford Central Secondary School.

"Mr. Dodson knew Mr. Reaney over a period of 40 years and was a student of Mr. Reaney’s when he was at university.

"'My major impression was of his incredible creativity and how he was able to translate that into a product that was very, very accessible and yet made people think.'

"The retired teacher especially recalled Mr. Reaney’s play King Whistle! which was commissioned for the centennial of Central secondary and performed at the Avon Theatre in 1979.

"It was referred to as 'a love letter to Stratford,' said Mr. Dodson.

"'Jamie was one of two mentors I had who made it possible for me to have a career in teaching,' he added. 'I’m really sad to see him pass away.'

"Marti Maraden, a frequent director at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival who directed Mr. Reaney’s play Alice Through The Looking Glass in 1994, said one of her treasured recollections is of the playwright taking her on a tour of his childhood residence near Stratford.

"'He had an amazingly varied and extraordinary career,' she said. 'He was one of the most significant voices in the real beginning of Canadian theatre.'

"Mr. Reaney had a wonderful sense of visual theatre, she added, and 'words were living creatures to him.'

"Festival actor David Ferry acted in Mr. Reaney’s Donnelly trilogy and has written a thesis on the playwright. He cited the poet’s incredible range of interests and achievements.

"'His mind was gigantic in terms of its piercing insights into so many areas,' he said, noting that Mr. Reaney wrote about geography and philosophy and history, created a theatre company, and had his own press and publication that carried stories from some of Canada’s leading writers.

"'It was a peaceful end to a great life,' his son, journalist James Reaney of London, Ont., said. 'We know that he will be remembered and his contributions to Canadian culture will be valued.'

"Born and raised on a farm in South Easthope in 1926, Mr. Reaney was an acclaimed poet, playwright, author, opera librettist and University of Western Ontario English professor.
He won three Governor General’s Awards for poetry and drama, and a 1974 Chalmers Award for best Canadian play.

"'He was so great,' said Nancy Poole, a former Museum London director who met Mr. Reaney at UWO.

"'He was a gentleman, an intellectual, an artistic giant in the Canadian scene.'

"Mr. Reaney won his first Governor General’s Award in 1949 at age 23 for a collection of poetry, The Red Heart.

"In 1960, he began teaching at UWO and started publishing Alphabet, a semi-annual periodical devoted 'to the iconography of the imagination.'

"In 1966 he founded the Listener’s Workshop and began working with child and adult actors in choral ensemble works. Mr. Reaney, whose play Colours in the Dark premiered in Stratford in 1967, received the Order of Canada in 1975.

"His best known dramatic work may be a trilogy of plays about the 1880 massacre of the Donnelly family in Lucan.

"He was 10 when his stepfather told him the stirring story, stoking an interest that would lead him to write the three plays that not only dramatized the legend, but arguably also brought it into focus historically.

"The [Donnelly] trilogy is among a handful of Canadian works listed among the 1,000 most significant plays of all time by the Oxford Dictionary of Plays.

"He was also an amateur painter and pianist whose works were exhibited in London and Toronto.

"Mr. Reaney enjoyed such respect that even small details of his life inspired artisans, said Martha Henry, Stratford Shakespeare Festival actor and director.

"Ms. Henry, who acted in two Reaney plays, recalled a tour last summer of his childhood home near Stratford

"'It was amazing,' she said. 'We went up into the attic where he used to write. He’s an icon. A complete original.'

"The playwright and poet is survived by his wife, poet Colleen Thibaudeau, two children, including a daughter in Vancouver, two grand-daughters and two siblings, one of them a sister Wilma McCaig, 70, who still lives in the family farmhouse."

"Ms. McCaig said the family is planning a memorial service for early next month."

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