REVIEWS

Reading George Ryga -discouraging words for the Canadian stage

ROBERT WEAVER March 1 1971
REVIEWS

Reading George Ryga -discouraging words for the Canadian stage

ROBERT WEAVER March 1 1971

Reading George Ryga -discouraging words for the Canadian stage

REVIEWS

BOOKS_

ROBERT WEAVER

ANYONE WHO sets out to write for the theatre in Canada must surely be suffering from some form of divine madness. It’s not only difficult to get original dramatic works staged and to persuade audiences to come to see them, the theatre is also notoriously a place where management, directors and actors have their own, often contradictory and frustrating, ideas about how a script should be performed. Yet for a decade now George Ryga has been writing for the theatre (as well as for film, radio and television) and The Ecstasy Of Rita Joe And Other Plays brings together in book form the three most successful plays he has produced in that time.

Ryga was born of Ukrainian parents 38 years ago in Deep Creek, a small town in northern Alberta. He worked at various times on farms, in steel construction (where he lost three fingers), and for a radio station in Edmonton. In the mid-1960s he published two novels, both of them portraits of hard life on the Prairies. Hungry Hills was very much a first novel, but in Ballad Of A StonePicker realism is blended with dreams and symbols in a way that points toward his recent dramatic work. Today Ryga lives in Summerland, near Penticton, BC.

Indian, the shortest of the three plays in Ryga’s new book and the first to be written, was produced as a television play for the CBC’s Quest in 1962 and later revised as a one-act play for the stage. The tone is suggested by its first stage direction — it is set, Ryga tells us, in “flat, grey, stark noncountry.” There are only three characters: a (nameless) Indian, a white farmer who employs him, and a

white Indian agent whom he confronts throughout the greater part of the drama.

At first the Indian, who is badly hung over and trying to placate his employer, adopts the disguise of the racial stereotype: he acts and talks like the “sure, boss” American Negro of 30 years ago. But, badgered by the moralizing and patronizing Indian agent, he exposes himself in a rising passion of rage and finally makes an appeal: “I want nothing from you — jus’ to talk to me — to know who I am.”

The Indian agent doesn’t understand, or doesn’t want to understand, and the same failure of sympathy takes place in the other two plays in the book, among whites dealing with Indians in The Ecstasy Of Rita Joe, and among the older generation dealing with the young in Grass And Wild Strawberries. Both plays were successful productions at the Playhouse Theatre in Vancouver, and in the summer of 1969 The Ecstasy Of Rita Joe was also performed at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa. In Rita Joe Ryga not only undertakes to explore the attitudes of whites toward Indians and of Indians toward whites, he also creates a biography of three generations of an Indian family. In Grass And Wild Strawberries he tackles the generation gap and hippie philosophy.

Some of the whites in Rita Joe are incapable in their dealings with Indians; some, such as a social worker, are hostile, and some, such as the magistrate, are condescendingly playful — and the playfulness is deadly. But Ryga’s Indians are far from being noble savages: some of them are attempting to conform to white society, some live isolated in the past,

and some, like Rita Joe (whose fate is prostitution, prison, rape and death), are self - destructive in their defiance. Ryga writes social drama, but he pays most of his characters — perhaps not his social workers — the tribute of being human.

The Ecstasy Of Rita Joe is one of the few best, if not the best, dramas yet written for the theatre in English Canada. But, in fact, Grass And Wild Strawberries was a more popular play with audiences, although not all of the critics agreed with the public’s assessment. Like Rita Joe it is an interesting and topical and certainly ambitious drama, but it has defects — including sentimentality in the person of one of its central characters, an elderly, faded, but still romantic unionist.

Just before Christmas the Vancouver Playhouse decided to “defer production” of a third play Ryga has written for the company. Captives Of The Faceless Drummer is a dream about political violence set in the future but evidently inspired by the situation in Quebec. Ryga charged that the play had been subjected to “censorship and intimidation.” Eventually, no doubt, it will be staged somewhere (the St. Lawrence Centre, Toronto Workshop Productions and Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre have expressed an interest in the play) and we can judge it for ourselves. Certainly it’s difficult from this distance

to sort out the rights and wrongs of the incident. In the meantime the Vancouver Playhouse has forfeited its opportunity to encourage and develop a committed and creative playwright, and Ryga has lost the incredible opportunity of working with an established theatrical or-

ganization in his own locality. It’s a sorry ending to what might have been a unique collaboration in contemporary theatre in Canada. The Ecstasy Of Rita Joe And Other Plays; George Ryga; New Press; $8 cloth, $3 paper. □