James Crerar Reaney was born in 1926 on a farm in Easthope, Ontario. He showed an interest in theatre from a young age, and created a puppet show for local children while in his early teens. The local paper reported that he also created the puppets and sewed their costumes; he claims this did little for his reputation at school.
He attended University of Toronto where he returned in the late 1950s to complete a doctorate (the influence of Edmund Spenser on William Butler Yeats), under the supervision of Northrop Frye. He moved to London in 1960, where he taught English at the University of Western Ontario until the late 1980s, published Alphabet Magazine and founded Alphabet Press (where Margaret Atwood received her start).
His first published work, a short story entitled "The Box Social," appeared in the university's Undergrad when Reaney was a student there, and later in New Liberty. In those conservative times, his gothic take on small town life, with an out-of-wedlock pregnancy, created a campus controversy. New Liberty received more than eight hundred letters of protest; The Toronto Star carried the story. By contemporary standards, the story is comparatively tame, though it remains powerful.
Reaney has written poetry which has received many awards, but it is through his plays that he has become most famous. His first professionally-produced piece of theatre was One-man Masque, a surreal, disturbing look at life and afterlife inspired by the Tibetan Book of the Dead. His later plays have shown a similar penchant for experimentation in staging. At the same time, he deliberately uses the stuff of his southwestern Ontario rural childhood in his writing.
In particular, Reaney has achieved fame for his work on the Donnelly massacre. His plays about the event, St. Nicholas Hotel, Sticks and Stones, and Handcuffs are performed nearly every year. somewhere in Canada, and they have been produced internationally. These complex, highly theatrical plays depict dramatically the events leading to and surrounding the massacre from multiple perspectives, thus preserving the murky uncertainties of history. Reaney has also written a non-fiction book about the events, The Donnellys: A Tipperary Vendetta in Victorian Ontario.
Reaney married poet Colleen Thibaudeau in 1951. They have two sons, James (who works as a journalist), and John, and a daughter, Susan. Reaney has won several honours; he has three Governor General Awards for poetry, for The Red Heart, Suit of Nettles, and Twelve Letters to a Small Town. He was a member of the League of Canadian Poets, the Order of Canada and the Royal Society of Canada. Although his work is often challenging, he himself was no art snob; he has stated, for example, that he regards Agatha Christie as important a writer to the twentieth century as T.S. Eliot.
He has been the subject of several critical biographies and a television documentary. Reaney passed away on June 11, 2008, after a lengthy illness. He will be missed.
Reaney's published work and plays include:
The Red Heart. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1949.
One-man Masque, 1958.
A Suit of Nettles. Toronto : Macmillan, 1959.
The Kildeer, 1962.
Twelve Letters to a Small Town. Toronto : Ryerson, 1962.
Names and Nicknames, 1963.
The Dance of Death at London, Ontario (with Jack Chambers) (1963)
The Boy With an R in His Hand, 1965.
Aladdin and the Magic Lamp. 1965.
Geography Match, 1967.
Colours in the Dark. Vancouver : Talonbooks, 1969.
The Tree : Emblem poem. Toronto: Emblem Books, 1969.
Mask of Childhood, 1972.
Listen to the Wind, 1972.
Apple Butter and Other Plays for Children, 1973.
Selected Shorter Poems. Erin, Ont. : Press Porcépic, 1975.
Sticks and Stones (Part One of The Donnellys), 1975.
Selected Longer Poems. Beach Holme, 1976.
The St. Nicholas Hotel (Part Two of The Donnellys), 1976.
Baldoon (with C.H. Gervais), 1976.
Handcuffs (Part Three of The Donnellys), 1977.
Fourteen Barrels from Sea to Sea Erin, Ont. : Press Porcépic, 1977.
The Dismissal, 1978.
King Whistle!, 1980.
Imprecations : the Art of Swearing. Scarborough, Ont.: Black Moss Press, 1984.
Take the Big Picture. Erin, Ont.: Porcupine's Quill, 1986.
Performance Poems. Goderich, Ont.: Moonstone Press, 1990.
To the Avon River Above Stratford, Canada. Illus. Wesley W. Bates. Hamilton, Ont.: West Meadow Press, 1991.
Alice Through the Looking Glass (adapted from Lewis Carroll), 1994.
The Box Social and Other Stories. Erin, Ont.: Porcupine's Quill, 1996.
The Gentle Rain Food Co-op, 1997.
Two Plays. London, Ont.: Ergo Publications, 2003.
"James C. Reaney," Writer's Union of Canada. http://www.writersunion.ca/r/reaney.htm
"James C. Reaney, Sr.," Online Guide to Writing in Canada. http://www.track0.com/ogwc/authors/reaney_j.html
"James Reaney." One-Hundred Canadian Poets. http://www.ucalgary.ca/UofC/faculties/HUM/ENGL/canada/poet/j_reaney.htm
"James Reaney." One Zero-Zero Virtual Library. http://www.ccca.ca/history/ozz/english/authors/reaney_james.html
James Reaney, private conversations.
Ross Greig Woodman. James Reaney. Toronto : McClelland and Stewart, 1971.