Ryga, George 1932–
A Canadian dramatist and novelist, Ryga also writes the music for the dancing or ballad singing which accompanies many of his plays. His protagonist is usually an underdog whose individuality is challenged by a repressive social system. Many critics have praised his accurate representation of dialogue and this talent is evident in his latest novel, Night Desk.
In my opinion, [The Ecstasy of Rita Joe] establishes Ryga as the most exciting talent writing for the stage in Canada today….
The Ecstasy of Rita Joe has been more widely seen and heard than many new Canadian plays and … is closely related to his published work, especially his novels Hungry Hills (1963) and Ballad of a Stonepicker (1966)…. (p. 155)
If Ryga rejects romantic and physical love, he does not conclude that meaningful human relationships are impossible. On the contrary, he frequently shows a bond between individuals which he clearly believes to be more exalted than love in the usual sense. Ordinarily this is a relationship in a family (between brother and brother in "Indian", father and daughter in Rita Joe, boy and aunt in Hungry Hills). Occasionally, as in the father's grief over the loss of his horse in Hungry Hills and in the comic episode of Timothy and his ox in Ballad of a Stonepicker, the relationship may be between man and animal…. But in the world Ryga writes about there is little enough even of this second kind of love. It comes fleetingly, in moments of crisis, or in flashes of understanding, but is never indulged and often not even acknowledged….
If Ryga's characters are partly tormented by their need for love in a world that denies it or corrupts its expression, many of them are even more profoundly troubled by existential longings…. (p. 158)
The sense of...
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[Hungry Hills] tells of the efforts of the young Snit Mandolin to find his roots and re-establish a home in the barren farmlands of northern Alberta, to which he returns after an absence of several years. The period covered is one hot, dry summer during which the protagonist discovers his incestuous origins and learns a kind of stoical integrity from his aunt, the one figure who seems to have survived the tortures of life in the hills with any dignity…. [The] novel shows Ryga's interest in the lives of the poor and oppressed as well as his preoccupation with problems of structure. One of the interesting features of Ryga's development as a writer has been his search for a form that would give him the flexibility he needs as an artist. His progress after the comparatively traditional realism of Indian and Hungry Hills has been in the direction of freer and freer forms—forms that in such later plays as Sunrise on Sarah and Paracelsus dispense almost altogether with conventional plot. The free-form structure of the plays (and of his second novel Ballad of a Stonepicker) allows Ryga to indulge to the full his tendency to alternate between the accurately delineated particular and the cloudy generalization which is a notable characteristic of his writing (and, some would say, his fatal weakness.)
On the face of it, Hungry Hills is a typical regional naturalistic novel with the strong...
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W. H. Rockett
Romeo Kuchmir is a character who has found an author who has failed to find a proper place for Romeo. Kuchmir is literally all there is to George Ryga's new novel, Night Desk. He is not simply a narrator, as was Snit in Ryga's earlier Hungry Hills. Romeo is a soliloquist who has seized a stage no one else seems particularly interested in, and swells roundly enough to fill it with anecdote.
The stage he has seized is the strip of floor space before the clerk's desk of a third-rate hotel in a western city. The audience that goes with it is the night man, simply "kid" to Romeo and to us. (p. 83)
In his first play, Indian, Ryga's chief character pleads to the Indian agent: "I got no past … no future … nothing!… I dead! You get it?… I never been anybody. I not just dead … I never live at all." Romeo is anxious to establish that he is the absolute antithesis of such a character: "I'm an outlaw, kid, a stallion. I'm goin' where I'm goin' an' no one asks me why."…
Romeo has tales, and no place to tell them except … before the night desk. There are no hungry hills here, no sense of dust and dirt and a place for such a character to strut his stuff about and be believed. We have not even a reasonable physical sense of Romeo: the kid [the novel's narrator] records words, not impressions. This man has only the body of the illustration on the book cover by Bill...
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Ploughmen of the Glacier is an undisguised, sometimes clumsy attempt to say something cosmic about what Ryga's stage directions call "the elemental loneliness of the protagonists." Most of the dialogue is between Lowery, a fly-by-night journalist, and Volcanic, a stereotypically crusty prospector. We can gather that these two are supposed to function as existential icons partly because we are told that their conversation unfolds in a setting which "is possibly surrealistic to suggest a mountainside, up and down which POOR BOY struggles in his eternal, groping quest." Poor Boy himself acts as the folksy Canadian equivalent of a Greek chorus chattering on about Life and Death. At the same time, he doggedly carries a leaky bucket of water up the mountain in order to fill a leaky trough.
In case we miss the significance of this, hard-bitten newspaperman Lowery steps out of character for a moment and draws an awkwardly literary parallel between Poor Boy's activity and the fruitless endeavour of Sisyphus. But there is an important difference between this home-grown Sisyphus and his counterpart as he appears in Camus' The Myth of Sisyphus. The philosopher's mythic model spites the gods by paradoxically rejoicing in his psychological freedom to appreciate the tragic beauty of a grand but pointless struggle. Poor Boy, on the other hand, concludes the drama with trite, simple-minded observations which are hardly worth the price of admission or the time spent watching the play. This might be acceptable if the play stood up as a visually and aurally exciting piece of work—but it does not. (p. 47)
Ploughmen of the Glacier is probably not Ryga's best work if judged for its sublety and theatricality. In any case, the brevity and the paucity of theatrical legerdemain … are not likely to leave an international audience satisfied…. (p. 48)
Bruce Bailey, "Existential Follies," in The Canadian Forum, Vol. LVIII, No. 686, January-February, 1979, pp. 47-8.∗