The Ecstasy of Rita Joe

by George Ryga

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What is the major theme of The Ecstasy of Rita Joe by George Ryga?

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The Ecstasy of Rita Joe is a two-act play by Canadian playwright George Ryga. It follows the life of a young Native woman, Rita Joe, who finds herself displaced and unaccepted by both indigenous people and whites. Two of the most significant themes within the play are colonization and the marginalization of indigenous peoples in Canada. Here, I will take a look at the theme of marginalization.

Marginalization takes place at many levels in the life of the characters, especially the heroine, Rita Joe. The community is prejudiced, and the native people are believed to be criminals, drunks, or prostitutes. They aren’t offered the same opportunities as white people and are unable to find decent jobs. This marginalization can be seen in the church, the neighborhood, the school, the workplace, the social center, the police station, and the court.

Rita Joe finds herself in court after she is falsely charged with working as a prostitute by two policemen. Once in court, she faces further prejudice from the magistrate:

Who is she? Can she speak English? (p.16)

The magistrate, like other white people, believes the native people are criminals, drunks, or prostitutes. Rita Joe isn’t given the opportunity to defend herself. She is later raped and murdered.

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A variant of the play's main theme of racism is that of the importance of native tradition. Rita Joe's experiences of racism, injustice, and abuse in the big city indicate that indigenous people will never be accepted by white society. That being the case, First Nations people living in urban environments like Rita Joe have little choice but to seek spiritual sustenance from their tribal heritage. Only in this way will the native people ever be able to feel fully human in the midst of a society that seeks to dehumanize them at every turn.

This doesn't mean that Rita Joe needs to return to the reservation which she's left behind; it does mean that she must forge a new identity for herself, an identity that draws upon certain aspects of tribal heritage such as songs and fables to achieve true enlightenment in the face of such overwhelming hardship.

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The main theme of the play is the effect of racism on members of the First Nations. The protagonist of the play is a young woman of the Shuswap tribe in British Columbia who has left the reservation to seek employment in a city that is not named but is roughly based on Vancouver. She is marginalized in three ways, being poor, female, and a member of an oppressed racial minority. In the play, the way that white society has oppressed the Shuswap is intimately connected with how it mistreats its poor and women as well.

The schools and the Christian church are both seen as instruments of cultural oppression, connected together through the church's involvement with Residential Schools that used education as a pretext to disrupt First Nations culture and family. 

The police force is complicit in gender and class oppression in the way it punishes Rita when a man tries to treat her as a prostitute. Even Mr. Homer and the Magistrate, who represent white efforts to help the Aboriginals and grant forms of justice, do not see the racism implicit in their attitudes and actions. 

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The main theme that comes from the work is the theme of white society's inabilty to understand or appreciate Native Americans and their culture. Some critics have suggested that play is

"about the white culture’s denial of the American Indian’s humanity. In particular, George Ryga points to the inadequacy of those organizations that deal with Indians; according to him, the Church, social services, the schools, and the legal system all dole out humiliation in the guise of charity and fail American Indians because they expect them simply to shed their cultural differences and assume white society’s ways." -- Magill's Literary Annual

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What are some of the implications of George Ryga's play's title: The Ecstasy of Rita Joe?

Ecstasy suggests an intensification of emotion so powerful as to produce a trancelike dissociation from all but the single overpowering feeling: an ecstasy of rage, grief, love. (Random House Dictionary)

In light of the applications of the word "ecstasy" as discussed by Random House Dictionary, Ryga's title, The Ecstasy of Rita Joe, implies the extremeity of Rita's emotions. From her first encounter with the law and courts when she first moves off the reservation, or "reserve" as it is termed in Canada, to her final dismissal by an unsympathetic judge, Rita has fallen prey to rules and standards that she knows nothing about and to necessity that she was ill-prepared for: 

The first time I tried to go home i was picked up by some men who gave me five dollars. An' then they arrested me. ... It wasn't true what they said, but nobody'd believe me .... (Rita)

you gravitate to the slums and skid rows and the shanty-town fringes. (Magistrate to Rita)

Another implication of the title is the irony between the definition of "ecstasy" as overwhelming emotion, often of delight or poetic inspiration, and Rita's ultimate end as a murder victim. There is also irony between poetic inspiration and the kind of inspiration Rita must have had as she met her death by murder: she realized the deathlike reality of interactions between a dominant and a marginalized, victimized culture. All Rita wanted when she left the reservation was a job, what she got was the discovery of marginalization, the secret of which went with her to her grave.

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