George Ryga’s achievements were fueled by his fierce, often embattled commitment to a national theater in Canada. From his earliest days as a dramatist, Ryga resisted the imposition of British and American styles on the Canadian theater and sought to establish a living theater fully responsive to his own country’s heterogeneous culture. By his own admission, however, Ryga had equivocal success in establishing such a theater in Canada: “I have known electrifying national prominence, and I have known a decade of exclusion from the theatres of my country. . . .” Nevertheless, Ryga’s plays, which transform Canadian myth and experience into a vivid dramatic language, have been of major significance in the struggle to establish a national theater. He was a major dramatist who dug into his Canadian material and reached through to some universal truths.
In his first play, Indian, the dramatist compressed into one powerful act many basic materials of Canadian language, myth, and experience that he would develop in later plays. The play examines the poverty and despair of the variously named and ultimately anonymous “Indian,” who elicits the intended guilt and sympathy from the members of the audience and who then rejects them violently in an outburst of rage, anguish, and guilt of his own. In the process, the play shatters the distorted and clichéd image of the native Canadians that has often been preserved in the Canadian consciousness.
Of the play’s three characters, Indian, the boss Watson, and the Agent (a “comfortable civil servant” from the Department of Indian Affairs), it is the Agent who represents the “white man’s” guilt over the Indians’ degradation and who symbolizes the white man’s attempts, primarily through impersonal charity and social welfare, to repair a tragic, structural flaw in Canadian society. Indian, however, is not interested in charity: “I want nothing from you—jus’ to talk to me—to know who I am. . . .” In particular, Indian needs to tell of his brother, whom he was forced to kill in an act of mercy. The Agent, who is unable to conceive of Indian’s essential humanity and who lacks, therefore, the emotional and moral strength to receive Indian’s confession, is coerced, rather more violently than Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s wedding guest in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798), into hearing a story of great sin and suffering.
Against the Agent’s cries of “No . . . no! This I don’t understand at all,” Indian describes how he killed his own brother (his brother had been trapped and left to die at the bottom of a well he was digging for a white “bossman,” only to be finally rescued more dead than alive), how he “stole” his clothes, and how he allowed a “half-breed” to take the dead man’s name so that he could collect the reservation subsidy on it (“All Indians same—nobody”). As he tells his story, the stereotyped image of the drunken and worthless Indian with which the play opened must be correlated with the profound humanity and existential integrity of the man who chose, at the cost of immense anguish, to save his own brother by murdering him:I . . . kill . . . my . . . brother! In my arms I hold him. He was so light, like small boy. I hold him . . . rock ’im back and forward like this . . . like mother rock us when we tiny kids. I rock ’im an’ I cry . . . I get my hands tight on his neck, an’ I squeeze an’ I squeeze. I know he dead, and I still squeeze an’ cry, for everything is gone, and I am old man now . . . only hunger an’ hurt left now. . . .
Although the play is fundamentally realistic, its skillful compression of language, setting, and events produces powerful symbolic effects. The setting is a “flat, grey, stark non-country,” a “vast empty expanse” that is at once the Northern Albertan landscape and a spiritual wasteland, reminiscent of the elemental settings in Samuel Beckett or T. S. Eliot. This simultaneous realism and symbolism in setting is matched on the levels of language and event, where the cadences of Indian dialect or the harsh hammer blows with which the play ends resonate with poetic force. The fusion of realism and symbolism at key points of Indian anticipates the more ambitious, sustained, and experimental techniques of The Ecstasy of Rita Joe, Ryga’s more wide-ranging treatment of indigenous experience.
The Ecstasy of Rita Joe
The vibrant combination of dance, song, mime, recorded voices, and special lighting effects in The Ecstasy of Rita Joe signals Ryga’s departure from the basic naturalism of Indian. Ryga dramatizes both the inner and the outer experience of Rita Joe by making use of a variety of impressionistic, expressionistic, and symbolic techniques. Thus, on a forceful and realistic groundwork he builds a poetic structure in which Rita’s subjective experience and inevitable doom emerge in flashbacks, shadow plays, and interludes of music, mime, or dance.
The groundwork of the play is the basic tragedy of Rita’s life and death. Having left her father, the reserve, and her sexual innocence behind, Rita comes to the city, where she becomes trapped in a closing circle of poverty, theft, and prostitution—until she is raped and murdered by three white men. (The Three Murderers shadow Rita’s presence throughout the play until they emerge, clearly illuminated, to murder Rita and her lover Jamie at the end.) The play’s poetic structure, however, transforms this linear, deterministic plot into a mythical, often allegorical elaboration of Rita’s fate, whereby the murder of the Indian woman becomes the ecstasy and apotheosis of the martyr. The fusion of realism and symbolism is pure and lacks sentimentality. Appropriately, the play ends with the poignant words of Rita’s sister Eileen, which focus on the human being at the heart of the myth: “When Rita Joe first come to the city—she told me. . . . The cement made her feet hurt.”
The main action revolves around a recurring courtroom scene in which Rita stands accused—of vagrancy, prostitution, theft, and other crimes—before a sentimental and ineffectual Magistrate, symbol of white society’s superficial understanding of Indian experience. By administering lectures and jail sentences, the Magistrate rests the blame for Rita’s degradation and despair on Rita herself, evading whatever responsibility he might have both as a man and as an official representative of white society. He tries unsuccessfully to harmonize the image of a tiny Indian girl he once saw in the Cariboo country with the woman Rita, whom he accuses of carrying a venereal disease, a symbol of her permanent condemnation.
The courtroom scenes are touchstones of a present reality that Rita strives to evade via memories and fantasies. In these imaginative interludes, the people of her past and the...
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