JAMES REANEY's theatre is the most resolutely totalizing in our history, and it is no accident that Tomson Highway, for example, should have drawn so much from his former teacher. Reaney is committed, as Gerald Parker observes in his new book How to Play: The Theatre of James Reaney (ECW, 315 pages, $25 paper), "to a theatre that is cosmic and symbolic ... ontologically complete."
Parker's book, the first full-dress treatment of Reaney's work (a collection of essays edited by Stan Dragland appeared in 1983 from the same publisher) is both satisfying and rigorous. Like his subject, Parker provides a totality of perception. In the chapter outlining Reaney's theoretical and documentary roots, Parker succinctly describes Reaney's "imaginative force which sees ways of making more meaning out of the world, finding the clue that joins up the different maze-like levels of our inner and outer worlds" (as Reaney himself said of E. J. Pratt in the literary review Alphabet.)
Parker then reads the plays in a sophisticated and thorough manner, and his attention to language and structure in Reaney's work pays off. The use of collage in the Donnelly trilogy is, Parker shows, "more than a structural feature. It becomes itself part of the central drama in terms of the 'way people phrased things."' Reading Reaney in a context that includes Gaston Bachelard and George Bowering, Peter Brook and Northrop Frye, Parker provides an object lesson in how to read the playwright of Southwestern Ontario.