Transformations

  • Thomas Gerry (Author)
    The Emblems of James Reaney. Porcupine's Quill (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Jenn Stephenson (Author)
    Performing Autobiography: Contemporary Canadian Drama. University of Toronto Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Jerry Wasserman

These two studies overlap a little in their concern with Canadian drama, although The Emblems of James Reaney spends much more time on Reaney’s poetry and symbol systems than on his plays. One book’s argument is broadly political and the other’s metaphysical, but both Jenn Stephenson and Thomas Gerry argue the virtues of authorial approaches that allow for transformation and revitalization.

Stephenson’s Performing Autobiography won the Canadian Association for Theatre Research’s Ann Saddlemyer Award for best book on Canadian theatre in 2013, and its virtues are many. Stephenson examines nine contemporary Canadian plays as case studies to illustrate how characters performing what she calls “the looping autobiographical act of self-storying” give themselves the chance to remake their identity “and write a new future or magically even a new past.” In that sense, she argues, “autobiography is a uniquely powerful political act.” Uninterested in the way these plays might dramatize the autobiographies of their playwrights, she focuses on what she calls meta-autobiography: the journeys and discoveries of fictional characters in fictive theatrical worlds.

Stephenson creates a useful schema for distinguishing among the “nested worlds” in which the autobiographical play transpires. The autobiographical protagonist occupies “worlda,” autobiographical narrator “worldb,” and autobiographical character “worldc”—although all three are aspects of the same self. Involving movement across these and other worlds, autobiographical performance is further complicated by the actors’ real-world bodies; in the case of Ronnie Burkett’s Billy Twinkle, the real-world bodies of the living actor and his puppets.

Exploring the rich complexities of very fine plays like Ronnie Burkett’s Billy Twinkle: Requiem for a Golden Boy, Judith Thompson’s Perfect Pie, Michael Healey’s The Drawer Boy, and Daniel MacIvor’s In On It, Stephenson’s detailed textual explications showcase the theatrical intelligence of the playwrights and their works while supporting her thesis about the regenerative capacity of autobiographical theatre. Even in these cases her analysis sometimes risks being bogged down in an inelegant algebraic density (“work done by the worldc narrator changes the worldd protagonist but also by extension the worldb itself”), which can dull her reader’s aesthetic feel for the play, especially if one hasn’t seen or read it. This is especially evident with the weaker plays in her study. Michael Redhill’s Goodness, Anton Piatigorsky’s Eternal Hydra, and Timothy Findley’s Shadows all suffer from an excess of cleverness that Stephenson insists on tracing in sometimes minute detail. But she is also able to extract valuable, even startling insights about theatrical narration, the use of props, and “reiteration as creation” among other things. There is great pleasure in following the path of her keen intellect.

Stephenson concludes with brief, cogent analyses of Michel Marc Bouchard’s Written on Water and Wajdi Mouawad’s Scorched. The characters in these plays, she argues, suffer from “too much autobiography,” trapping themselves in their own narratives. They are the limit cases that underline the political potency of those other autobiographical performances that allow the crafting of a re-imagined life, if not the literal reliving of it.

The Emblems of James Reaney explicates the symbol systems through which Reaney advocated metaphysical transformations in ten visual/verbal emblems he published in the magazines Poetryand Armadillo in 1969-70. Gerry offers analyses of each emblem in conjunction with specific examples of Reaney’s other work that they illuminate. These include the plays One-Man Masque and Listen to the Wind, the poetry collection A Suit of Nettles, the opera Taptoo!, individual poems such as “To Bishop Berkeley” and “Granny Crack,” as well as three fine Reaney paintings. The breadth of Reaney’s artistry and talent is impressive and its theme consistent: to help us to see the world afresh and bring about spiritual renewal.

To unravel the puzzles of the emblems and interpret their arcane symbolism, Gerry filters them through the lenses of Edmund Spenser and William Butler Yeats (the subjects of Reaney’s doctoral dissertation), Northrop Frye, William Blake, and Carl Jung. The emphasis on Frygean readings, especially, gives the book an old-fashioned feel, though Reaney was no doubt heavily influenced by Blake, the bible, and other mythopoeic systems privileged by Frye, his teacher and supervisor at University of Toronto. Gerry, who was Reaney’s doctoral student, shares his master’s appreciation of symbology, but his interpretations are sometimes excessively literal and not always convincing.

The emblems themselves are fascinating: squares and circles, pyramids and spirals, perhaps some trees, a cross, a heart, arranged in significant patterns across the page, interacting with text. Like the worlds of autobiographical drama, they promote second chances, in Reaney’s work not just for individuals but for humankind itself.



This review “Transformations” originally appeared in Recursive Time. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 222 (Autumn 2014): 155-56.

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