George Ryga grew up in what he has referred to as “the internal third-world of Canada”—the rugged, depression-ridden prairie land of Northern Alberta. He was born in Deep Creek on July 27, 1932, the first child of George Ryga and Maria Kolodka, new immigrants from Ukraine. Though formally educated in a one-room schoolhouse, and only up to the eighth grade, Ryga read widely as a child while nurturing himself on the songs, myths, and folktales of his heritage. Ryga’s Ukrainian background, the severe poverty in which he was reared, and the dominating reality of the northern landscape were all of enduring significance to his development as an artist. Of the land and language with which he grew up, Ryga commented:The language took the form of the land—uncompromising, hard, defiant—for three seasons of the year the long months of winter isolation made the desire for human contact a constant ache.
Having grown up beside a Cree reservation, Ryga soon discovered another kind of poverty from the one that he knew: the social and spiritual degradation of the indigenous community, alongside of whom Ryga would work as a laborer on his father’s farm.
Ryga drew heavily from this experience in writing his first play, Indian, a play that Ryga described as a “milestone” in his development as a playwright. (The play was broadcast as part of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Quest television series in November, 1962.) In an interview, Ryga discussed his experience:You know I grew up on the outskirts of a Cree reservation. The demoralization and degradation was about as total as any society can experience anywhere in the world. These people had been worked over by the Church; they had been worked over by the Hudson’s Bay Co.; there was nothing left. There was no language left anymore. Even their heroes they picked up on from the dominant culture, like a chocolate-bar wrapper dropped in the street that’s picked up as a piece of art and taken home and nailed on the wall.
Ryga’s keen awareness of social injustice continued to develop throughout his teens and early twenties, a period of casual labor, artistic exploration, and deepening political commitment. The early to mid-1950’s in particular saw Ryga performing political gestures of various kinds: In 1952, he wrote a controversial antiwar script for the Edmonton radio show Reverie; in 1953, he demonstrated in response to the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg trial; in 1955, he represented the Canadian peace movement at the World Peace Assembly in Helsinki, meeting the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, the Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet, the soviet writer Ilya Ehrenberg, and other communist writers. In the same year, he traveled to Poland and Bulgaria. Though he left the Communist Party as a result of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, Ryga claimed, in 1982, that “there has been no departure from the initial socialist commitment that I made a long time ago.” In his plays, Ryga’s “socialist commitment” emerges as a deep and abiding concern for the individual outcast, the person dispossessed economically, culturally, and spiritually who struggles to maintain dignity in the face of an impersonal system of domination, discrimination, and charity.
The early 1960’s for Ryga marked the beginning of a great period of productivity and accomplishment. In 1960, he married Norma Lois Campbell, adopting her two daughters, Lesley and Tanya, and fathering, in 1961 and 1963, two sons, Campbell and Sergei. The early 1960’s, moreover, saw Ryga coming to the theater via radio and television drama, where he had served his apprenticeship. Throughout the 1950’s and into the early 1960’s, Ryga had written short plays...
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and stories for radio broadcasts in Edmonton. After the television production ofIndian in 1962, Ryga turned to the stage, again with Indian, in 1964. There followed a period of major accomplishment, Ryga writing in succession Nothing but a Man, The Ecstasy of Rita Joe, Grass and Wild Strawberries, Captives of the Faceless Drummer, and Sunrise on Sarah. During the year that A Portrait of Angelica and A Feast of Thunder were produced, Ryga spent six months in Mexico working on Paracelsus and the Hero, and then, in 1976, he wrote two more plays, Ploughmen of the Glacier and Seven Hours to Sundown, both of which were produced that year. Also in 1976, Ryga traveled to China and later wrote his memoir of the journey, Beyond the Crimson Morning: Reflections from a Journey Through Contemporary China (1979).
On his own development as an artist, Ryga spoke of Edward Albee and Robert Burns, the Scottish poet, as having been major influences. Of Albee, Ryga commented:I credit a large part of the fact that Indian was written at all, to seeing The Zoo Story on television, and watching how that particular play was constructed. It was the freedom that Albee was exercising in departing from the traditions as then practiced, and taking theatre into a kind of arid area, which I found fascinating and which to a great extent I have used ever since.
Ryga had gone to Dumfries in 1955 to study Burns’s poetry, and while there, he discovered drafts of unpublished manuscripts, learning much from them about the interconnections of poetry and music. In Burns’s rural origins and in his artistic resistance to English culture, Ryga also recognized much with which to identify:I began to see . . . that the English dominance of Scotland, and Burns’ contribution in retaining a semblance of language, and around that language developing a rallying point for Scotland’s national aspirations, were translatable indirectly to the Canadian experience.
Ryga was a guest professor at the University of British Columbia, at Banff School of Fine Arts, and at Simon Fraser University. As an active member in the Association of Canadian Television and Radio Artists, and an honorary member of the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, he brought his liberal ideas to the political format. The travelogue, Beyond the Crimson Morning, published in 1979, was one of his last published works. He died in Summerland, British Columbia, November 18, 1987, of undisclosed causes, at the age of fifty-five.