Last Updated on August 29, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 166
The Ecstasy of Rita Joe shows how indigenous people are marginalized in society. Rita Joe, the main character, recalls a time when she was young and impoverished and wandering the streets alone without anyone to help her. Although she misses her father, she doesn't want to go back to her life on the reservation. Jaimie Paul, a friend of Rita's, is in a similar situation: He left the reservation to come to the city for a better life. At first he finds success in the city, but when he loses his job, his new life comes tumbling down. Instead of going back home, however, he prefers to suffer in the city, because he still believes that he can find hope there. The play also shows how society casts away people that find themselves on the wrong side of the law. Despite knowing Rita all her life, the priest does little to comfort her when she is incarcerated, and her former teacher, Miss Donohue, testifies against her.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 517
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 attributes very different words to the white man and the American Indian; the Priest, for example, preaches humility and passivity in language borrowed from the Bible, and Miss Donohue teaches concepts so entrenched in white culture that they hold no meaning for Native American children. In contrast, the American Indians express themselves ungrammatically but figuratively. In particular, David Joe speaks carefully and thoughtfully in language that springs directly from his own experience. The play’s central image of the dragonfly comes from him: He recalls how he once saw the insect break its shell in order to free its wings and fly toward the sun. Such is the slow, painful metamorphosis Ryga suggests American Indians must face in order to regain their rights and recover their heritage. In his vision, Rita Joe and Jaimie Paul become martyrs to the cause of American Indian rights—a theme reflected in the title of the play. “Ecstasy” suggests the exalted passion of Christ, an innocent who also faced trial and death at the hands of those who feared him. In the light of Rita’s eventual rape and death, “ecstasy” becomes a brutally ironic pun.
Finally, the use of music—of an onstage Singer—is an unusual dramatic device. Ryga directs that her songs are to seem “almost accidental”; throughout the play they provide oblique, ironic commentary on the action. Still, the Singer is introduced in Ryga’s stage directions as having only a limited understanding of the ethnic dilemma her songs accompany. Like many concerned whites, she is earnest but misguided. Her very presence is ironic.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 86
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.
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