George Ryga Analysis

Other Literary Forms

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

In addition to stage plays, plays for radio and television, poems, film scripts, and song lyrics, George Ryga wrote four novels and one fictionalized memoir of a journey through China. Ryga’s first published novel, Hungry Hills (1963), is a story of a young man who returns to the cruel, barren prairie community that had exiled him three years earlier. Like many of Ryga’s plays, Hungry Hills describes the suffering and isolation of the outcast whose social and spiritual alienation is further embittered by a “desperate climate which parch[es] both the soil and heart of man.” Ryga’s second novel, Ballad of a Stone-Picker (1966), tells of two brothers, one of whom stays to work on the family farm so that his younger brother can go to the university, where he becomes a Rhodes scholar; a revised edition was published in 1976. In Night Desk (1976), Ryga’s third novel, the city (as always, in Ryga, a symbol of antilife) is given extended treatment. In the Shadow of the Vulture (1985), Ryga’s fourth novel, is set in the desert at the Mexico-U.S. border and focuses on the hope and despair of immigrant laborers.

In a series of scenes narrated by a tough-talking Edmonton fight promoter, the city’s grim and shabby underside is revealed. Beyond the Crimson Morning: Reflections from a Journey Through Contemporary China (1979) is based on Ryga’s trip to China in 1976.


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

In The Ecstasy of Rita Joe, George Ryga wrote one of Canada’s best-known and most widely produced plays. On July 9, 1969, less than two years after its premier performance in Vancouver during Canada’s centennial, The Ecstasy of Rita Joe was performed at the festival opening of the National Arts Centre in Ottawa. The play was next produced by the Fondation Nationale de la Comédie Canadienne, Montreal, in a French version by Gratien Gélinas, Quebec’s leading dramatist. Adapted as a ballet by Norbert Vesak and produced by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, The Ecstasy of Rita Joe was performed on tour in 1971 throughout Canada, the United States, and Australia. Ryga received additional acclaim on accepting the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Award for his play in 1974. Widely reprinted, The Ecstasy of Rita Joe has established itself as a classic of the Canadian dramatic repertoire.

As one of English Canada’s major dramatists, Ryga received considerable recognition in a country in which artists, even those of his stature, have had to struggle to have their work officially acknowledged. In 1972, he was awarded a Canada Council Senior Arts Grant to work on Paracelsus and the Hero. In 1979 he was nominated for an ACTRA Award for the Newcomers television series, while also in 1979 and in 1980, he received the Frankfurt Academy of Performing Arts Award for Ploughmen of the Glacier (Ryga had a substantial foreign audience). In 1980 he was invited to serve as writer-in-residence at the University of Ottawa.


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Boire, Gary. “Tribunalations: George Ryga’s Postcolonial Trial ‘Play.’” Ariel 22, no. 2 (April, 1991): 5-20. The Ecstasy of Rita Joe is compared with Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale (1986) and other anticolonial literature as a paradigm for examining the “encoding of class violence under the guise of social contract . . . [a] crucial feature of anti-colonial literatures.” Strong postmodern, semiotic deconstructionist look at “what postcolonial theorists call the reclamation of a world through irony.”

Burgess, Patricia, ed. Annual Obituary 1987. Chicago: St. James Press, 1990. A good recapitulation of Ryga’s themes, approaches to character, and patterns of composition during his career, along with an updated biography. “The lack of integration between land and people and between the individual and the group is the essential duality in Ryga’s work,” states the anonymous writer of this obituary.

Grace, Sherrill. “The Expressionist Legacy in the Canadian Theatre.” Canadian Literature, no. 118 (Autumn, 1988): 47-58. This study of Ryga and Robert Gurik examines the non-naturalistic aspects of both writers. Details The Ecstasy of Rita Joe, especially the characters identified by function, and the fragmented structure.

Hoffman, James. The Ecstasy of Resistance: A Biography of George Ryga. Toronto: ECW Press, 1995. Describes major events in Ryga’s life, especially those that relate to his writing. Includes bibliography and index.

Saddlemyer, Ann. “Crime in Literature: Canadian Drama.” In Rough Justice: Essays on Crime in Literature, edited by M. L. Friedland. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991. Ryga’s Indian is discussed as drama that “involves the process of judgment, assigning responsibility for action, distinguishing truth from fiction.”