Friday, June 13, 2008

James Reaney: Dead

James Reaney died last night. He was eighty-one.

Here's an excerpt from a story that ran in the London Free Press:

Born on a Stratford-area farm in 1926, 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 Reaney at UWO.

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

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. 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.

I think my favourite Reaney story comes through the usual hearsay pipeline. It was 1979 and Reaney had just finished work on his collective creation Wacousta: A Melodrama in Three Acts. At a party for Wacousta Reaney met the noted Canadian (or Quebecois--whichever you prefer) recluse Rejean Ducharme. Ducharme, out of rye, had been forced from his house to go shopping. Half-way to the A&P, Ducharme's car broke down and he decided to call Malcolm Frost--a literature professor at UWO--for a lift. Frost was at Reaney's party, and so Ducharme walked over to see about a ride.

When Reaney saw Ducharme he offered him his hand. Reaney was carrying a giant novelty bottle of Cockspur rum, which he grasped between his left index finger and thumb. Reaney was an extremely nice, open man who always enjoyed meeting Canadian artists and writers. Ducharme refused to shake. "What's wrong?" Reaney asked, "Did I do something to offend you?"

"No," Ducharme said, "I'm just waiting for the other one." And he pointed to Reaney's left hand, which held the bottle of rum.

"I can get you a drink," Reaney said. "Just one minute."

"No, no," Ducharme said, taking the bottle. "Why dirty a glass."

"Aren't you going to congratulate James on his play?" someone asked.

"Why?" Ducharme said. "Did Elliott Gould agree to direct?"

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