At the time it was first produced, The Ecstasy of Rita Joe was widely discussed, first because there was not much in the way of Canadian drama and second because there was little in any art form that dealt so frankly with American Indian issues. The play was immediately controversial, because of both its thematic content and its deeply accusatory tone. George Ryga confronted his largely white audience with the harsh reality of the lives of American Indians who were living only blocks from the theater in which the play was being performed. His general condemnation of the organizations dealing with American Indian people also caused a storm. However, if his play rankled the white population, it also jolted many American Indians to face the issues that concerned them.
Ryga was an eclectic and prolific writer. Besides plays, he published poetry, novels, and radio and television dramas on a variety of subjects, but it is on his plays that his reputation rests. Ryga’s works include Ballad of a Stone-Picker (1966), a novel about prairie dirt farmers in the 1940’s and 1950’s; Nothing but a Man (pr., pb. 1966), a play about Federico García Lorca; Captives of the Faceless Drummer (pr. 1971), a drama based on the October, 1970, terrorist crisis in the province of Quebec; Paracelsus and the Hero (pb. 1974), a play about the sixteenth century Swiss physician and philosopher; and In the Shadow of the Vulture (pb. 1985), a novel about Mexican immigrant workers.
Similar themes and techniques run throughout his work. In socially conscious plays such as Indian (pr. 1962) and The Ecstasy of Rita Joe, Ryga portrays the lives of the poor and the dispossessed and strongly criticizes social service organizations that preach conformity and patronize those who dwell on the margins of society. He was an innovative dramatist, mixing realism and lyricism, manipulating time, and using music to complement and counterpoint his themes. Ryga was particularly interested in reviving the oral, tale-telling aspect of drama, and to that end he included ballads and composed music for many of his plays. He also experimented freely with the audience-performer relationship, even inviting spectators to participate in the action, as in Grass and Wild Strawberries (pr. 1969). The Ecstasy of Rita Joe has also been produced in French and as a ballet, and it is considered a classic because it marked the beginning of modern, indigenous Canadian drama.