The Play (Masterplots II: Drama, Revised Edition)
The Ecstasy of Rita Joe begins as a trial. Rita Joe is the defendant, alone and without representation, against a policeman, who acts as witness against her, and the Magistrate, who will decide her fate. As the Magistrate’s opening lines demonstrate, he is determined to be stern but fair. Rita Joe’s first words, however, undermine the Magistrate’s eloquent exposition: She was picked up by undercover policemen who offered her money and then arrested her for prostitution. The Magistrate continues his paean to justice while Rita Joe professes her innocence and the Singer offers up a haunting, melodic verse.
The futile exchange between Rita and the Magistrate continues, setting a pattern for the rest of act 1. As the trial goes on, however, the past begins to interrupt and inform the present at various intervals. Even the Magistrate is haunted by memories: Rita Joe reminds him of a young, poorly dressed girl he saw once standing all alone by the side of the road in the harsh Cariboo country. He would like to extend to her the sympathy that this recollection arouses in him, but his sense of duty finally overwhelms his humanity, and he reverts to being officious. The Magistrate becomes increasingly exasperated as he questions Rita about whether she understands the charges against her, whether she can provide witnesses in her favor, and whether she is a carrier of venereal disease.
For her part, Rita seems neither capable of nor interested in defending herself. There is not much she understands or trusts about the system in which she finds herself caught. Thus, she welcomes those figures from her past who intrude upon the action, disrupting her dialogue with the Magistrate and distracting her from the chronic fatigue, hunger, and sickness from which she suffers. Jaimie Paul, Eileen Joe, the Old Woman, and David Joe are American Indians and appear to Rita alone; white people such as the Priest, Mr. Homer, the Teacher, the Policeman, the School Board Clerk, and various Witnesses (who double as murderers) appear both in Rita’s dreams and in the trial.
Like Rita, Jaimie Paul succumbs to the lure of the city. Upon his arrival there, he is exuberant and optimistic: He rents a room, finds a job, and delights in how different life is away from the reserve. His hopes fade quickly, however, and he loses his job, starts to drink, and takes to hanging around with other unemployed young American Indian men. Still, he will not return home; he is...
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Dramatic Devices (Masterplots II: Drama, Revised Edition)
The set for The Ecstasy of Rita Joe is minimal, consisting mainly of a circular ramp, which wraps the playing area from front to back and around the sides, and a Magistrate’s chair and desk, which dominate stage right and are enclosed within the confines of the ramp. A cyclorama backstage creates a sense of compression of stage into audience, thus eliminating the usual dramatic convention of a fourth wall between artifice and reality. It also serves to confuse the issue of who is on trial. Members of the audience are forced to become jurists, if not defendants. This encircling of both the stage and the theater as a whole symbolizes the vicious cycle which George Ryga suggests relations between whites and American Indians have become. It also symbolizes the American Indian belief in the cyclicity of time. Time is compressed in this play: Past and future frequently interrupt the present. Dialogue is composed in such a way that it reinforces this ideal of cyclic patterns. Characters appear and reappear in the private world of Rita’s memories, dreams, and fears, as well as in the public realm of the trial. Their voices combine, fuguelike, to illuminate her past, condemn her present, and foreshadow her future. Repetition is a key element in the structure of the play; some of the Singer’s verses are repeated over and over, as is the sound of the train whistle.
Language and music are the main devices by which the play’s themes are realized. Ryga...
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Sources for Further Study
Hoffman, James. The Ecstasy of Resistance: A Biography of George Ryga. Toronto, Ont.: ECW, 1995.
Innes, Christopher. Politics and the Playwright: George Ryga. Toronto, Ont.: Simon and Pierre, 1985.
Moore, Mavor. Four Canadian Playwrights: Robertson Davies, Gratien Gelinas, James Reaney, George Ryga. Toronto, Ont.: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1973.
Parker, Brian. Introduction to The Ecstasy of Rita Joe and Other Plays. Toronto, Ont.: New Press, 1971.
Sim, Sheila E. “Tragedy and Ritual in The Great Hunger and The Ecstasy of Rita Joe.” Canadian Drama 1 (Spring, 1975): 27-32.