Vol. 9 No. 1 (Spring 1988)

CHRISTOPHER INNES. The Canadian Dramatist, Vol I: Politics and the Playwright: George Ryga, Toronto: Simon & Pierre, 1985. ind. 130 p, $11.95.


A decade ago, Gage Publishing launched its 'Profiles in Canadian Drama' series, under the editorship of Geraldine Anthony. Recognizing the existence of 'a solid body of Canadian plays,' the editor argued the time was ripe for 'serious analysis.' After publishing volumes on Robertson Davies, James Reaney, and Gratien Gélinas, the series folded, a victim of a severe lack of sales, according to Gage, but killed by poor promotion, according to Anthony. The next volume was to have been a study of George Ryga.

Now, with Canada's dramatic body larger, and the need for analysis greater, it is a joy to see Simon and Pierre enter the field with a 'Canadian Dramatist' series, under editor Christopher Innes. His book on Ryga is the familiar acknowledgement of the 'solid body' of plays and the promise of 'in-depth criticism' of selected playwrights. In addition, there is a promise that the series will tackle 'movements,' will document productions and discuss plays in their regional, political context - all exciting stuff and eminently welcome, although we are given no hint of forthcoming subjects.

This volume is particularly good in tracing the development of Ryga's dramatic techniques and themes not only through his well known stage plays such as The Ecstasy of Rita Joe and Grass and Wild Strawberries, but also through unavailable material - indeed one of the strengths of the book is Innes' description and discussion of unpublished, largely unknown works such as poems, novels, teleplays and screenplays. This is especially needed with a prolific writer like Ryga who frequently carried material from one medium to another. There is a thoroughgoing explication of the genesis of The Ecstasy of Rita Joe; all the way from the writing of Nothing But A Man, which has similarities to Ecstasy, through the various drafts of Ecstasy, its staging and reception in Vancouver, as well as in Europe and the US, plus notes on its major weaknesses, as well as Ryga's accomplishment - the evolution of a style capable of embodying his vision of the stage, one that could take an audience deep into the psychology of a character while still examining the widest social issues.

With so amazingly little of any depth written about Ryga, the volume is therefore a necessary text. Innes believes that since Ryga has continually experimented to find a distinctly Canadian drama, his work has been 'consistently adventurous' resulting in a 'new form of drama,' as in Captives of the Faceless Drummer, and that his work has 'thematic consistency' in its search to find a new 'self-image' of Canadians. The discussion of these topics is rigorous, and a good opening sally in the long delayed debate on Ryga's work. With its descriptions of unpublished works and with its discussion of many works in their biographical context, it is also a valuable resource.

The book, however, does not live up to its self-proclaimed promise of a 'definitive study.' Innes, despite the tide, has written what is largely a textual study, and a limited one at that: he has closely investigated the drafts of various but not all stage plays. He draws conclusions about Ryga's dramaturgy and mythology, but tends to drag the material along in obedience to a limiting analysis, so the event of Ryga's work becomes the idea of the critic. This would be alright with a strong critical frame capable of opening hitherto hidden insights, but this is not the case. There are good beginnings, but Innes stops short of fuller vantages that come from deeper biographical knowledge and an ideological preference. Because of this there is imposed in the writing a detachment between the politics and the playwright.

There is, for example, only passing reference made to Ryga's sources. He owes much, the book says, to 'family origins' but there are only two pages of biography. What about Ryga's fierce 'race-dreams' of Ukrainian heritage and Mongolian legend, and of the wrenching depression and wartime years in northern Alberta? What of the amazing good luck he had at Banff to work under luminaries like Burton James (political drama) and Jerome Lawrence (international theatre), and under EF Conkle, the same man who instructed Tennessee Williams? We learn nothing of his devotion to Shevchenko (a martyr to Ukrainian nationalism) or Burns (peasant language), or of his learning first hand from the close personal relationships with the poets Martha Millet (American, left wing) and Lobat Vala (Persian exile), or his work with the famous builder of modern China, Rewi Alley. Without these we are left with a narrow picture of Ryga without roots, a literary rara avis, unaccountably possessed of an empathy for 'poor people.'

The sense of detachment works in other ways too. We are, for example, told that a tiny newspaper clipping was the original source that fired Ecstasy, but further social information is missing. There are no facts about Vancouver's peculiar blend of politics and theatre (City Council was hotly debating the powers of the Licensing Inspector; two years later, Gallimaufry theatre was charged with obscenity and effectively closed), nor the reactions of audiences and reviewers tracking the region's peculiar anguish nor even details of the actual newspaper story. When comparisons to works similar to Ryga's are made, they are mainly beyond the immediate society that stirred Ryga. Ecstasy is usefully compared to Peter Weiss's The Investigation - but what about Paul St. Pierre's Sister Balonika (CBC-TV, 'Festival', 1969), or Merv Campone's The Native (Playhouse Theatre, 1972), other West Coast scripts that addressed Indian issues in interesting ways? In short, Ryga wasn't alone in Vancouver.

There are other problems for a 'definitive' study. Not all of Ryga's plays are considered, not even, surprisingly, two published ones, Laddie Boy and Prometheus Bound (The former is absent from a listing of Ryga's stage plays in the appendix). Nor is reference made to his autobiographical book, Beyond the Crimson Morning. A key stage play, Paracelsus, the play that is to Ryga as Brand is to Ibsen, is relegated to a two-page treatment and dismissed as a minor work. And there is the occasional gloss that hints of work too hurried: Ryga's teenage essay, 'Smoke,' which helped him win the IODE scholarship to study at Banff, is wrongly described as 'a documentary essay on the First World War.'

Part of Innes' analysis is that Ryga was engaged in 'image building' -surely a limiting notion for one of Canada's most politically committed, hurting authors. This demonstrates the pitfall of this kind of literary, textual analysis, where the writer 'reinvents' the author - instead of reality. We don't hear enough about the events that happened in Canadian political corridors and back alleys that bothered Ryga enough for him to write 'discomforting' plays. Indeed the book is strangely apolitical, and therefore ideologically dangerous. Is he saying that playwriting in Canada should be apolitical? That Ryga's downtrodden poor are 'other'? That the plays were only experiments, or that Ryga's strong public defence of his drama was merely a 'mythologizing tendency'? Where Innes really gets into trouble is the chapter (published earlier in Theatre History in Canada, Spring, 1985) on the controversial production of Captives of the Faceless Drummer, when he states that there were no problems of privileged self interest groups, as Ryga and many others believed there were, only the 'rhetoric of revolution.' We've already seen the outraged response to this from one of the participants, Peter Hay, in his rebuttal letter in Theatre History in Canada in the Spring, 1986, number.

Sadly, there are no illustrations. No production photographs, no stage or costume sketches, and even the critical reception to the plays is scanty. The study, in fact, seems rushed. it is hoped that subsequent volumes will be stronger critically, or else provide good documentation. Failing that - hearkening back to the Gage series - they could at least enthuse a little. Joy is one telling conclusion.