Vol. 6 No. 1 (Spring 1985)


Christopher Innes

This article analyses the background to the 1971 controversy and the misinterpretations of Ryga's play caused by it. When a work can be seen as a study of political consciousness, not of specific events like the FLQ hostage incidents, the artist can become the protagonist in a real life scenario.

Cet article analise les circonstances de la controverse de 1971 et les fausses interprétations de la pièce de Ryga qui y étaient occasionés les circonstances. Peut être regarder quand une étude de la conscience politique n'est pas des événements précis comme les incidents d'otage FLQ tandis que l'artiste devenue le protagoniste dans un scenario réel.

In 1969 George Ryga proclaimed that 'theatre is going through a renaissance in Canada'. The explosion of theatre activity, triggered among other things by the success of his own play, The Ecstasy of Rita Joe, had fostered performance skills as well as cultural awareness. In his view potential supply would create a market, an audience, and 'a hunger which ... is going to begin making demands upon governments,' not only to provide support for the arts but, by extension, for social change.1 On one level this was an accurate assessment, as the number of theatres expanded and Canadian playwrights multiplied in the following decade. But Ryga's hopes for a vital political drama remained largely unfulfilled and, ironically, his own work had relatively little influence on this development.

The immediate cause of his withdrawal from the mainstream of Canadian theatre - or exclusion, depending on the viewpoint one takes - was his play, Captives of the Faceless Drummer. This became a cause célèbre, and the controversy that surrounded it both expanded the relatively mundane facts of the case into a major political issue and obscured the true qualities of the play itself. The background was a conjunction of financial problems and personalities, compounded by Ryga's working methods and a change of artistic directors at the Vancouver Playhouse.

The 1968-69 season had provoked heated public criticism, partly because of the audience response to Grass and Wild Strawberries. This was due not so much to the play itself as to the on-stage presence of a popular rock group, The Collectors, and a 'psychedelic' production. There had been rumours of drugs in the theatre, and the RCMP had stationed a man backstage. The production had taken on the characteristics of a cult event. As in the Living Theatre's American performances of Paradise Now the same year, the audience were invited to join the actors in the finale, and indeed younger spectators crowded onto the stage to dance to the throbbing beat of the group. This unusual level of physical participation and the intense excitement generated by the production was all too easily misunderstood. In some quarters it became accepted that marijuana was openly smoked during performances, although there is no evidence to support this. But whatever the truth of the matter, there were clearly ominous implications for Ryga's immediate future if his plays became associated with such activity, and when even a supporter like Joy Coghill could make the allegation that 'in the last performance at a certain signal from [the actor playing Captain Nevada] half the audience lit up, and you could have turned on just with the fumes.... I remember thinking: thank heaven this is closing, because it had got out of our control.' 2 The Playhouse Board were already disturbed by an earlier production, The Filthy Piranesi - a play portraying a homosexual relationship, tame by contemporary standards but sufficiently shocking at the time to cause an outcry at City Hall - and the upshot of Grass was the firing of Coghill, who had acted as midwife for both it and Ecstasy. She was replaced as Artistic Director by David Gardner from the CBC. In addition the theatre was in desperate financial straits, partly because the city's rental arrangements made it difficult to break even, and partly because the budget had been established on inflated projections from the previous year, which meant that the season was heavily overbudgeted. So, ironically, it was the success of the first two Ryga plays that encouraged such a serious planning error, and despite full houses for an international success like The Royal Hunt of the Sun under Gardner, the Playhouse Company suddenly found itself with an accumulated deficit of $107,000.

The new season was specifically intended as a money-maker, and it was against this context that a new work was commissioned from Ryga by Gardner, who had worked with him in Ottawa to create the final text of Ecstasy. However, Gardner's position vis-à-vis the Board was weak after a season when only an emergency grant of $85,000 had rescued the theatre from immediate bankruptcy, and in which productions with a radical slant - the Toronto Workshop Productions' script of Che Guevara and John McGrath's Events While Guarding the Bofors Gun - popular though they were, had probably antagonized more conservative members of the Board. Then, too, it was known that he had received an offer from the CBC in the previous season, and that he had already accepted a post with the Canada Council. He was not due to leave until the end of the 1971 season, but as subsequent statements from the Board indicate, they felt he might not be completely committed to his programme. In addition, after the furore over Grass two members of the Board had been constituted as a play-reading committee to vet new scripts. It was a recipe for disaster.

Developing new plays requires an act of faith on the part of all concerned, and Coghill had managed to leave the Playhouse Board in a state of innocence about the problems. She had carefully disguised from them that Ecstasy was advertised for the 1967 season on the basis of an unstageable outline, and that - as normal - only intensive last-minute rewriting had produced scripts for either Ecstasy or Grass. By contrast Gardner was required to submit the first draft of Ryga's new play to the Board's play-reading committee. Ryga's working method was much surer by now than it had been with Ecstasy, but he was still extending his stylistic range and pushing against the accepted boundaries of dramatic conventions. Consequently, as with the preceding two plays, early versions of Captives of the Faceless Drummer were experimental. The contract, however, had been delayed until the end of November, and there was a February production date. From the Board's point of view the schedule clearly envisaged a script needing little but fine-tuning, with the second draft due by the end of December and a rehearsal script less than two weeks after that - although, considering the three weeks it had taken to get Ecstasy into shape, two and a half months provided more than enough time for radical and extensive revisions. Ryga had been working on a script dealing with sexual liberation, titled The Lovers, when Gardner proposed a play about urban violence. Then in October came the FLQ crisis in Quebec, and Ryga, without changing his original concept, added a dramatic frame that echoed the immediate political context. The successive versions of the script were in fact completed by the scheduled deadlines, but the first draft - the one read by members of the Board - was one-third of the play's final length, basically a one-act play. In addition, as Gardner himself was well aware, the political and personal levels were still largely unrelated, and the dramatic conflict was undeveloped.

At this point any account becomes tendentious. It was said that the $85,000 grant was conditional on the Playhouse not producing further controversial works on its stage. Nothing seems to have been set down in writing to this effect; yet by taking the unusual step of formally vetting all scripts the Board gave credence to the rumour. At the same time, not being professional theatre people and not being informed of the way Ryga's other successes had been prepared, they were unaware of the problematic nature of the creative process. They had little means of judging the dramatic potential of this incomplete scenario, and Gardner found himself defending a script that he knew to be still seriously flawed. They announced that the production would be deferred.

There was an immediate explosion. Ryga publicly complained that the decision 'has the stench of McCarthyism to it,' and accused the Board of 'harassment ... obstructions, intimidation and censorship.' 3 These charges were picked up in headlines across Canada, and the non-production became itself a political event. A pressure group to support Ryga's play, the 'Ad Hoc Committee for a Living Playhouse', was formed by Peter Hay, the editor who published Ryga's plays. Ryga's agent stated that the Board's reason for deferring the production was 'because they're afraid of the relevance of this play to the nation.' Gardner was quoted as saying their decision was due to the fact that 'the subject matter is obviously controversial.' In the argument the true content of the play was buried by rhetoric. What Gardner had actually said, apparently, was that it was too early to tell what kind of statement the play, now titled Litany for Harry Farmer, was making: 'We owed it to Mr. Ryga to see a more finished version of the play in order to see just how controversial it was.' 4 And indeed, reference to contemporary events in the first draft was oblique, the action was set in 'indeterminate ... grey areas' of the future, and the only tangible correspondence to the Laporte and Cross kidnappings was in the situation itself: the main character is a diplomat who has been abducted by a revolutionary cell.

Interestingly, at this point in the play's development the victim is also a successful playwright, whose concern for moral values has been undermined by popularity, with its accompanying social position and material comfort. He substitutes words for meaningful actions, and his latest drama mirrors Ryga's initial notes for his own play. In those, 'a 45 year old man, married ... falls in love with a girl less than half his age,' and through the self-knowledge they gain as the relationship develops 'the three people involved formulate ... a new awareness of a higher and more spiritual implication of love between people.' This sounds suspiciously like the Commander's derogatory description of 'Harry Farmer's last contribution to bourgeois society ... a stupid play - three arseholes in search of an audience.' 5 Ryga was clearly becoming uneasy about the implications of establishment acceptance. This had already been on his mind while writing Grass, as a passage in the first draft indicated. There the theatrical success of Ecstasy is dismissed because it has had no tangible effect on the fate of all the Rita Joes:

UNCLE: Work is always important ...
ALLAN: I'm not sure.... A buddy of mine wrote a play about an Indian girl who is murdered in the city of white man's indifference ...
UNCLE: Such plays have been written ...
ALLAN: But this one was a sell-out! ... The best entertainment on stage that winter! People paid two to five dollars to witness on stage what takes place in life every night in the downtown part of their city! ... I think the city is dying. 6

No doubt the Playhouse Board acted clumsily and displayed an unfortunate lack of trust in both their Artistic Director and leading playwright. To this one can add that the only justification given at this point by the Board - that the play would require more resources than had been budgeted - sounded disingenuous, particularly since no mention was made of errors in financial forecasting. Still, considering that at this point (mid-December) the production had only officially been deferred, Ryga's immediate accusations of censorship seem disproportionate.7

Remembering his playwright-protagonist, one could suggest that Ryga was short-circuiting the relationship between literature and politics. 'Art is a weapon' has been a standard slogan since the 1920s, but if the phrase is taken literally then fighting on the barricades becomes the only true art form for revolutionaries. The imaginary world of literature can mirror reality, move minds, call new orders into being - yet any actual change it brings is frustratingly indirect and, since it remains on the level of ideas, intangible. If politics is the art of the possible, art is the politics of idealism, and it is always tempting for the committed artist to turn from words to action, or to try to unite the two different modes of existence. Perhaps one has to wonder whether this move from dramatizing public issues to making a political issue of drama might be in conscious opposition to the imaginary protagonist of his play, in whom he saw himself reflected and whose success equals a sell-out. Whether, like Alfred Jarry, a writer's aim is the iconoclastic anarchy of épater les bourgeois, or, like Bertolt Brecht, his purpose is to promote a program of positive change, his chief danger is adoption by the society he is attacking. Literary protest is defused once it becomes fashionable (the sad fate of even the monstrous Ubu). The criticism is absorbed by its target's appreciation of aesthetic qualities at the expense of the political theme - or lip-service is paid to its moral principles, which allows people to feel righteous without changing their attitudes - and the artist finds himself part of the status quo. Radical works, however extreme, become harmlessly acceptable as soon as they are treated as classics (a cultural apotheosis that has fossilized both Brecht and Shaw).8 Ryga was in the paradoxical position that outrage against an unjust, even criminal system had brought him its acclaim and recognition from academics he despised, while the popular need for a national heritage meant that already - less than three years after its first performance - Ecstasy was being reverentially placed on the cultural mantlepiece. Whatever the conscious motives for his charges against the Playhouse, the controversy effectively broke that ambiguous embrace. It also marked the transfer of his mythologizing tendencies from stage to social arena. The poet whose stutter once prevented him from taking an active political role had become the protagonist in a highly public drama.

In this real-life scenario, simply by his presence the politically conscious and motivated artist acts as a moral challenge that is too discomforting for the forces that control society to tolerate. He therefore becomes a martyr for his ideological principles (indeed, victimization almost seems an essential proof of their rightness), and because of the superior morality of art, his stand is one that will be shared by all true artists. So any move against him marks an undercover campaign against all, and his fate is exemplary. By definition, the forces ranged against him are therefore unrepresentative, and so cannot work openly. Thus any apparent lack of candour automatically condemns them by substantiating this picture - and the conspiracy theory of politics provides a plot that is not only melodramatically gripping but simple enough to be understood by everyone. Such qualities make headlines and mould public opinion. Where success on an artistic level is seen to be suspect, the banning of a work will have more political impact than its performance. And, indeed, something like this scenario was what unfolded. Even if Ryga did not engineer the situation, he can be seen to have exploited it. But although the controversy did draw attention to the need for indigenous drama, it had little ultimate effect in revolutionizing society. In the event it led to the misconception that Ryga was a dogmatic political dramatist, and left him in a theatrical limbo.

From the first Ryga had clearly seen art as a forum for political change, as his Korean war poem in 1949 and his Remembrance Day radio program in 1953 indicate. These incidents had also provided him with a useful image of a reactionary establishment and examples of the artist as outcast. Up to now the circumstances of the non-renewal in 1951 of his IODE scholarship to Banff and his dismissal from the Edmonton radio station had not been particularly important. Technically he had resigned from CFRN, and when asked in 1969 why his IODE scholarship to Banff had not been renewed for a third time, Ryga had effectively dismissed the event by commenting that the award was only supposed to be for a single year, and although he had won two successive competitions, 'you weren't supposed to do this twice.' Now, two years later, the underlying reason, linked to 'stormy activity' and the anti-war poem, was explicitly brought out: 'The IODE came down and said they disapproved and that this would disqualify [him] from any future place in the [creative] writing competition.' 9 Ryga was not distorting the facts in any way, but his perception of his current situation, and consequently his emphasis had changed. In 1969 the success of Ecstasy must have seemed positive - by 1971 he was questioning the nature of that success and there were some apparent parallels to be drawn in his position vis-à-vis the Playhouse Board. So these events became political ammunition. In the context of the Captives controversy, these early experiences became evidence that the same conditions applied and that this conflict was the latest phase of an ongoing struggle, substantiating the myth of martyrdom. The artist, rather than his art, had become the challenge to society, epitomized in the Daughters of the Empire and the media moghuls, as well as the corporate Board of the Vancouver Playhouse.

When the Board responded to the growing storm by citing financial reasons for deferring Ryga's play, not unnaturally it was seen as a cover-up; this was aggravated by Ben Metcalf, drama critic of the CBC, who somehow acquired a copy of the first draft, probably from his wife who was the Playhouse publicity officer at the time, and attacked it on air as 'inadequate.' Aesthetic or budgetary arguments seemed irrelevant to a polemic over subject matter and political principle. In addition, the battle could be presented as one where corporate power, which had enlisted the megaphone of the official media, was being deployed against an individual artist, supported by concerned private citizens. The Board's subsequent actions - in particular requesting their Artistic Director to resign earlier than he had intended - played straight into the hands of the pressure group, while their attempts at self-justification only fuelled the conspiracy theory. A statement that 'with the infusion of taxpayers' money,' which had paid off about 80 percent of the previous season's deficit, 'came a clear and well-defined directive - the Board of Directors must exercise more responsibility and control in every phase of the Playhouse operation' - was interpreted as an attempt by the government to impose censorship in secret. Ryga asserted that the Board 'want to close the [theatre] doors on the streets outside and on the problems within the country ... there is a move now to deny theatre of involvement - totally.' His editor, who was also chairman of the Ad Hoc Committee, gave a classic conspiracy shape to the myth of martyrdom - 'elite groups make all the fundamental [artistic] decisions through their hired personnel. They want to carry on behaving like the Medicis, without the Medici's tastes and with public [i.e. ordinary citizens'] money.' The basic argument cannot be faulted - that public monies should be directed to serve the widest public - but the assumption that democratically elected officials were a self-perpetuating autocracy working against the public interest, and that supposedly independent public groups (the theatre boards) were secretly in their employ, owes more to the rhetoric of revolution than the actual situation. The question of how cultural funding agencies define their obligations has since become one of Ryga's recurrent concerns, and his campaign for political change has been channelled through a series of attacks on organizations like the Canada Council and showcases like the Stratford Festival. This follows the logic of the scenario: to preserve inequities it is necessary to control the images by which people define themselves, hence the conspiracy of government, business interests, and the social establishment leads to general persecution of those who create the images (and conversely persecution validates the scenario). So Ryga declared, 'they are now taking on the entire theatre community and I merely happen to be the first target.' 10

Two years later the scenario was still being played out back at Banff, where Rygas Portrait of Angelica was being staged. The catalyst here was the expulsion of two young Indian students on drug charges. Ryga accused the school of racism, extending this into an attack on the school's artistic policies. He called for a boycott of the festival, but was persuaded not to withdraw his play.

Neither controversy had much discernible effect on the cultural scene or political attitudes, apart from one negative consequence: following the Captives experience, the Playhouse avoided commissioning any new Canadian works for the next two seasons. However, there were serious consequences for Ryga himself. As a direct result of these controversies he became labelled as dogmatic and ideologically motivated. This not only meant that he found himself listed as an 'undesirable' by American immigration when he tried to attend the Washington premiere of Ecstasy. It made his subsequent work easy to undervalue.

The more his plays are defined solely in terms of their explicit social reference, the narrower their relevance. Of all his plays, for instance, Grass and Wild Strawberries was perhaps the most popular at the time of its performance. Yet because it was closely identified with the particular phenomenon of late sixties' youth cults, and even to some extent shaped by the passing musical fashion most exciting at that moment, it has dated all too obviously. By contrast, in Indian the local situation, however potentially influential, is clearly schematized. The picture of the native confronting an inhuman white society of course gives the play a recognizable and emotionally evocative context, but its significance rests on the audience's ability to translate the characters' exploitation and struggle for self-respect into the terms of their own experience. The Indian symbolizes all members of the proletariat whose deprivation has left them nothing but their souls - the White stands for all who have sold their souls for meaningless status in the degrading society they uphold. Limiting the focus to the specific racial conflict makes the play's theme parochial and its impact less personal. However, the image of Persecuted Artist required precisely this sort of particularizing interpretation of Ryga's plays, and Captives especially became restricted to the most immediate kind of political statement. This was hardly surprising since the play had become inextricably associated with the rhetoric surrounding its non-production, even if, as Ryga asserts, he himself 'never felt the play should date itself out and into oblivion.' 11

Possibly, no play could have satisfied the expectations created by the argument, conducted via the press for four intense months, and the mythical scenario built up around its author. The action is exceptionally simple. It takes place in the Canada of an unspecified future, where Laporte and Cross, the FLQ hostages, are forgotten (and never mentioned) names in a continuing cycle of terrorism and repression, youthful rebellion and economic exploitation that is giving neo-fascism the opportunity to seize power and threatens to destroy the ecological balance. For twenty-eight days a Canadian diplomat has been held captive by a quasi-military revolutionary cell. Arguing politics with their leader, the hypocrisies and masks of his socially approved personality are stripped away. He comes to understand the true nature of his relationship with wife and mistress in memory scenes, and to sympathize with his kidnapper, who reveals a background of naive idealism and frustrated struggles for human rights. Through their merciless probing of each other's motives and beliefs a bond of common identity is formed, and when the searching soldiers close in the revolutionary is incapable of carrying out his threat to kill his hostage. Instead, despite his captive's efforts to prevent them, the militia shoot him. A chorus provides a generalized frame for the duologue and a choreographed backdrop of movement for what is essentially a static situation; intellectual dialectics alternate with highly poetic passages, psychological realism with stylized mime. What is not present is any identifiable ideological message - the revolutionary is no model for emulation, the representative of the establishment is hardly a villain - nor is there any direct relationship to events in Quebec. Rather the statement is an expression of widespread, but largely subconscious responses to potentially threatening global developments, whose implications were as yet (1970) unclear.

When the play finally reached an audience in April 1971 at the Vancouver Art Gallery, it received an enthusiastic but puzzled reception. The public controversy had provided sufficient publicity to attract more than capacity audiences for the whole of a run that was doubled from an original six to twelve performances. But critical opinions were negative in a curious and revealing way. The subtext to criticisms such as 'The dialogue becomes weak, an undramatic waffling in generalities about an issue that is too close and dramatic to be experienced in existential terms' is clearly deploring that the play is not a specific kind of polemic. Almost without exception reviewers identified the bare stage, a set limited to the most basic props, and the most abstract costuming with the 'suburban Montreal house where Cross and Laporte were being held,' though the dialogue contains not one explicit reference. So the absence of tangible comment or even a clear political line made the performance seem like ' 12 characters desperately in search of a play.' 12 The confusion was not improved by the Toronto production almost a year later, which attempted to inject the - obviously pertinent - ideological elements that the author seemed to have unfortunately misplaced. Brutal realism best describes the characterization of the terrorists in this Toronto production; their setting stressed working-class poverty together with the claustrophobic squalour of weeks shut in a confined space; the performance ended with the cast thrusting copies of an FLQ manifesto at the (English-speaking) audience. Such techniques for involving the spectators and transforming a performance into a political demonstration may have a respectable pedigree in political drama. (A petition had been handed round to be signed at the end of a 1930s classic of Canadian agit-prop, Eight Men Speak, while in 1968 a collection was taken up for the Viet Cong in Peter Weiss's Vietnam Discourse.) However, here the clichés of class struggle and the open propaganda were such obvious distortions of the actual material that even the communist critic regretted the 'ambiguity or perplexity' of a drama that 'can gratify only the Nihilist cultists of the incoherent outburst.' 13

In the longer term such simplistic politicization led to the picture of Ryga as a dramatist in ideological blinkers, specializing in hackneyed subjects - race relations, the generation gap, violence and idealism - encapsulated in the sort of 'relevant' examples that by their very immediacy were outdated almost before they reached the stage. Expressed by a major figure in Canadian criticism like Mavor Moore, such a view has undoubtedly contributed to Ryga's relative ostracization in the last decade. Characteristically even this too became evidence for the establishment conspiracy against the artist. The preface to Captives, recognizing the dangers of too narrowly political an interpretation, proposes that the 'faceless drummers' (i.e., the Playhouse Board and other anonymous corporate collectives who control society) were responsible for interpreting the play as a crude and anti-patriotic mouthpiece for the FLQ. 14 The record was to some extent set straight by the Quebec production, which ironically was the only one deliberately to distance the play's action from the political events, though even here there were considerable problems of balance.

To some degree these problems are inherent in the multi-layered action of the play. In the forefront is the kidnapping of a diplomat, reflecting and expressing the tensions in society, which resolves in the relationship between the prisoner and his captor. Within that come fragmentary memory scenes portraying the prisoner's family life and exploring his love for two different women. Surrounding, facilitating, and responding to each strand are the chorus. These levels interpenetrate and the play's statement is formed from the synthesis of all three. In intention, at least, no one thematic element is more significant than the others. Yet their proportions are unequal, the links between them are left implicit (or given misleading connections in terms of plot rationale), and the different types of content call for jarring juxtapositions of different styles. As a result even the Quebec production at Theatre Lennoxville, which was billed as 'main-stage' in contrast to earlier 'studio' treatments, could only gain focus by simplification. The application of theatrical resources perhaps offset the reduction of the material to a conventional shape. It did not make the performance any less one-sided. Visual and material poverty in the 'show-case' premiere might have made the play seem 'a simple polemic' expressed with 'almost gauche naivety.' The other productions both emphasized alternative aspects of the foreground action, almost to the exclusion of the other elements. As one reviewer of the Quebec production commented, the personal flashbacks 'seem to me, as they did when I saw the Toronto production, to be artificially added.' Whether in gutter-naturalism or (as at Lennoxville) the stylization of a checker-board stage surrounded by blood red drapes, representing the battle of wills as a game of living chess against a backdrop symbolizing both violence and social revolution, attention was concentrated on the developing relationship between the two protagonists. The effect was to build one or other (depending on emphasis) into a tragic figure. This in turn made the final impression one of hopelessness, expressed in guilt feelings and self-pity or bitterness and despair, distorting the play's statement into a cry of pessimistic protest. As the Lennoxville director defined it, 'in the end we see that they are both captives of the faceless drummer, that neither has independence of action, and that even in their growing unity, they are destined to be destroyed by that power which moves social forces and is stronger than the individuals within it.' 15

The conditions described by the play are certainly bleak. Ryga has taken the most threatening factors of social behaviour - as seen from a 1971 perspective - and projected them into the future. Student rebellion (1969), political kidnappings (1970), and the War Measures Act, which was the government response, have been extended into a constant state of class warfare. Kidnapping has become a commonplace practised by all brands of extremists. Communists capture establishment figures (like Ryga's protagonist) while Soviet diplomats are snatched by fascists. Mass demonstrations by student radicals have created the climate for mass riots by disenchanted youth. Every escalation of violence brings more troops onto the streets, and their presence alienates yet more once-peaceful citizens. But this vicious circle is presented as merely a symptom of a more fundamental problem. Air pollution is assumed to envelop all major cities in a continual fog; dust and debris in the atmosphere are affecting global temperatures; all but two of Canada's lakes are too poisoned to swim in; desert areas in the world are spreading. The ecological catalogue of disaster, extrapolated from documentary studies such as Rachel Carson's The Silent Spring, is endless. It has also been given an interesting, if unscientific, psychological dimension - birds commit mass suicide against skyscrapers, even trees interrupt their growth cycle, while on the human level 'insanity now ranks second to the common cold as an industrially debilitating disease....' Exactly the same systemic outrage is presumed to be affecting the socialist countries, with a single but significant exception (China), and one might be excused for thinking that the words of a 'youth bled out by drugs and abuse' express the author's own convictions: 'You're blood-sucking pigs! ... The world is ending ... God will judge you!' However, in the first draft of the play this type of character is explicitly condemned as one of 'the fascists and looters.' 16 At the same time Ryga implies that this extreme degree of global chaos is the necessary precondition for change. In the argument presented by his revolutionary commander, democracy is a disguise for exploitation. Previous symptoms of social disease - such as the October crisis - could be papered over without attacking the root problem:

Instead of building a new house, people began cleaning up the old one ... population control, women's lib ... Then the air started leaking out of the balloon ... unemployment rose ... The fields began dying with poisons ... the differences between rich and poor ... deepened.

But now, once the illusion has been destroyed, 'there's no going back to dreamland.' 17 Thus even this profile of devastation and desolation contains more than a tinge of wish fulfillment, following the same sort of premise that Brecht expressed in a play like The Measures Taken: real revolution is only possible when existing conditions are so bad they can no longer be endured (and it is the implicit task of the revolutionary to make them unendurable).

In addition, the gloomy prognosis is offset by a positive vision of renewal, which is summed up in the play's initial title of 'The Lovers' and relates back to its original concept: 'Changing morality ... the diffusion of human sexuality ... the quest for a valid religious affirmation - these elements have altered men and women' bringing 'new insight into the condition of contemporary life and its possibilities.' The achievement of a new morality is the subject of the memory scenes, conjured up by the captive, Harry, at the commander's insistence. It is the female commitment to the future in the human shape of children that balances the destructive idealism of men, and Harry's wife is shown overcoming conventional possessiveness. Her radical liberalism, united with the unselfish capacity for love of his younger mistress in a symbolic embrace, now in retrospect inspires Harry to 'move ... close ... painfully ... to the Lord Jesus Himself ... conquering fears ... violence ... the temptations of nothingness ... even death!' It motivates him to reject the reactionary rationalism of opposing violence with force (embodied in the figure of his friend and family doctor) and to break the suicidal circle of power by refusing military protection against the rioting people. As his wife proclaims, in a statement underlined by the stage direction that the 'chorus affirms the understanding she reveals,'

ADRIENNE: That which killed men and women a generation ago now frees them ... and sexuality is music and colour ... the sparkle of brains in our eyes ... the touch of finger on finger in a darkened hallway.
CHORUS: ... We are not ashamed ...
CHORUS: ... We are not defiant ...
ADRIENNE: ... That which liberates and provides love for one of us, liberates and gives love to us all. 19

This section formed the conclusion of the first draft, in which the Commander recognized the validity of this vision and no one dies, providing an unambiguously positive but undramatic resolution.

Such a formulation is clearly unsatisfactory. From our perspective only a decade later, the supposedly hopeful sexual revolution is hardly a universal panacea. Even in terms of the play, the relationship between personal fulfillment and political crises is unclear, and the new freedom looks like an old-fashioned menage à trois. These ideals are expressed in the language of abstractions, while the images tend to cliché, and the impression (as indeed Gardner noted on an earlier draft) is that Ryga has 'taken the easy poetic out.' The mistress is all too blatantly a symbol, uncharacterized except for her youth. The details of her relationship to her lover are so undefined as make it appear platonic, while the fundamental shift in the wife's attitudes is stated but not explored or motivated.

The second version of the script, very close to the final play under the title of 'Summer of the Deadly Drummer,' offsets these flaws slightly by expanding the significance of the captor/captive relationship. In successive drafts the Commander gradually gained a background to balance Harry's memories - one that makes him the heir of fifty generations of social activists, encompassing rebels with Riel and union organizers, all of whom were killed for their beliefs. By changing the scene in which Harry remembers how his defenceless house was attacked by the mob, transferring the crucial element from it to a new episode with the Commander, and altering the ending, a system of parallels and contrasts is created. In the 'Summer' version the punks who break in on Harry's family have a revolver, which Harry heroically seizes and uses to con them into retreating, while the Commander, wounded by the troops who break in to rescue Harry, 'jams the revolver into his mouth and fires it off,' saying 'Remember me this way ... it may save you from yourself.' 19 In the final text, where the rioters have a knife and it is the reactionary doctor who seizes it, while Harry is manipulated into seizing the commander's (empty) revolver and the Commander shoots at neither his hostage, the soldiers, nor himself, Ghandi-like passive resistance is set against physical deeds in a way that challenges preconceptions.

The natural tendency is to see the prisoner, who is also a diplomat, as a man of peace, or less positively, as someone passive who substitutes words for experience, living in his own terms 'by deflection' and leaving others 'to assume any share of pain and danger so I could live comfortably in a world of alternative choices.' This is reinforced by the Commander's accusation that instead of stopping the pulp mills poisoning the landscape, he wrote speeches about it on the paper they produced, as well as by the way he exposes those he loves to danger in refusing protection and subsequently remains inactive, mistaking a 'gesture' (his own revealing word) for active non-violence, passivity for passive resistance. By contrast the Commander, with his quasi-military organization, appears the man of action, who also embodies the working classes' direct and physical experience of life. Yet we learn that he has killed no one, while when one member of his cell is about to be captured another, on guard, tries to shoot his comrade (to prevent him from talking under torture) rather than firing on the soldiers closing in. In actuality it is Harry who is ready to resort to violence. Despite his principles he is willing to pick up a revolver and use it regardless of pleas or past moments of respect for his captor. The revolutionary is no less imprisoned than the person he has kidnapped, and it is he who is the true martyr. At the same time these apparent opposites, first set up as contrasting poles, then reversed, are also united. As the Commander declares, in an image that couples the sexual and political themes, 'an assassin and his victim are like a bride and bridegroom ... Me the man, you the woman.' The metaphoric courtship this implies becomes the main thread of the play, and the act of death that closes it becomes the sacrament which finally makes them one. As they define their differences they reveal shared opinions. Exploring each other's past exposes mutual needs. The common ground they discover can be a matter of disgust (for the Commander) or a defensive claim (when Harry feels threatened). Yet instead of trying to save himself, as in the previous draft, Harry tries to prevent the rescuing soldiers from killing the captor who has become his alter ego, and in the final stage direction: 'COMMANDER begins slow mime of death by shooting, his revolver dropping, his limbs distorted with pain, his mouth opened wide in a death howl as he falls to the floor. The howl COMMANDER does not make is voiced by HARRY as he is led out. 20

It was perhaps natural that productions of the play should focus almost exclusively on this level of the action, despite the consequent thematic imbalance. Perhaps the most striking thing to emerge from the increasing number of hostage incidents over the last decade is the emotional and even sexual bond that can form between captors, whether bank robbers or terrorists, and their unwilling prisoners. At the time Ryga was writing, this dependence had not yet been noted, and his exploration of hostage psychology is a remarkable piece of imaginative insight. The situation might not have been new to the stage. Brendan Behan's The Hostage predates it by some twelve years. But the depiction of personality transferral and identity crisis under the stress of such a situation was breaking new ground which has since been mined by other playwrights. Christopher Hampton's Savages, for instance, which was written a bare two years later, deals with the same theme from a similar angle, though different in style and location.

When attention is paid to the other elements that surround Ryga's dramatization of hostage incidents in terms of their psychological nature it should be clear that any topical reference is largely irrelevant (as it always was, even when Ryga himself was stressing it). The scenes between the prisoner and his women or his medical confidant are on a markedly unreal plane, memories that can be distorted by the subconscious pressures of the present. The chorus' main function is to project the fears and desires of both the prisoner and his memory figures, extending or echoing attitudes on a subliminal level. Their occasional crudity of gesture, the apparent irrelevance of their interjections, and the way their speeches are frequently expected to carry more meaning than sense are attempts to transform the action into dream - though these qualities can all too easily turn to oversimplification, jarring instead of drawing us into the experience, or produce unintended comedy. 21

Throughout the dialogue, in fact, there is a continuous parallel drawn between views of social reality, whether revolutionary or establishment, and illusions, drug-induced visions, dreams. We are not in the world of political events so much as political consciousness.

If it is taken as a radical statement about a burningly immediate issue, the play is full of serious flaws. The all-purpose chorus, alternately everyman, rioters, revolutionaries, soldiers, and externalized elements of the characters' psyches, is not simply confusing. It also discredits the play's premise by removing any distinction between left-wing radicals (assumed to be sacrificing themselves for positive change), neo-fascist mobs (dehumanized by destructive hate), and the forces of the establishment (condemned for preserving an unjust status quo whose inherent violence is the root of the devastation depicted). Misinterpreted in this way, the situation, too, seems arbitrarily limited, with no mention of anything beyond the private family side of the prisoner's existence, when, as the embodiment of the establishment, it is his public life that matters. The absence of factual reference makes the situation abstract. Even the reasons for abducting a hostage are left blank, apart from a passing suggestion about demanding political status for terrorists imprisoned on criminal charges (indeed the logic behind this supposedly revolutionary action was defined in an earlier draft by a truly categorical ultimatum: 'Tell them to surrender the Canadian government to me'), which lends the action a curious air of unreality.22 As a projection into the future, the picture of existence seems equally unconvincing, even if one leaves aside the fact that the predictions have happily proved inaccurate.

However, if the play is seen as documenting the breakdown of society by portraying its pressures on the individual in psychological terms, then these apparent problems become potential strengths. It is also not too far-fetched to see that the play intends to persuade us of the urgent need to create a completely new social order by challenging its audiences to a new threshold of self-awareness, rather than simply by attacking evils or proposing political solutions. As the Commander declares, 'I'm not blowing people apart ... only their illusions.' The reality we are shown is not objective, but subjective. Beneath the melodrama of terrorists and troops, and the struggle of wills between revolutionary and mandarin, there seems to be a single, fragmented personality. The schizophrenic division between thought and action, liberal principles and passion is a symptom of the bankruptcy of an invalid social contract. The catalogue of ecological disasters, echoing the indictment of The Silent Spring in exaggerated terms, accurately reflects the worst-case fears of the period. The total breakdown of civilization under the pressure of reciprocal violence, though it might have contemporary analogues in Lebanon or perhaps Northern Ireland, mirrors the paranoia induced by the conjunction of the FLQ crisis, the War Measures Act and the spectacle of student revolution. Similarly, the ending, which in psychological terms reintegrates the single personality, signals the possibility of renewal. Through the metaphor of emotional bonding between hostage and captor, revolutionary commitment is united with idealistic sexual freedom, which remains empty romanticism - the impression that the memory scenes indeed give - unless translated into wider social action.

There is little sense of an identifiable ideology here, and this makes the positive thrust of the play seem amorphous. But it is a true reflection of the position Ryga staked out at the time: 'I am political, but I'm not associated with any political movement, because I distrust them all. My politics are the politics of constant change.' In a general way, of course, this links up to the Maoist concept of continual revolution, and it is hardly accidental that China is proposed as an alternative to a society which for Ryga stands condemned because it rejects and beats its young when they demonstate against it. The realities of the Cultural Revolution only became clear much later, and the Chinese could still be pointed to as an ideal, 'the first generation of children born into a country racing for the future ... freed of its past ... ' 23 Children are the standard symbol for the future, and it is significant that neither Harry nor the Commander have any. Like the mythic figures in later plays such as Ploughmen of the Glacier or Paracelsus, Ryga's paired protagonists are sterile. The presence of a child would imply that the audience should accept a positive vision formulated by the author, making him the kind of authority figure the play rejects. One of the central points in the argument is that any revolution merely sets up a new elite in place of the old, a different version of the 'faceless drummer' from whose imposed rhythms each individual must free him or herself. By extension the play itself can only offer an example of the qualities needed, while the marching rhythms each of the audience listens to must be his or her own.

The final title of the play, of course, refers back to a well-known statement by Thoreau, the father of the non-conformist conscience: 'If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.' At the beginning Harry embodies the impersonal social pressures that mould public opinion and trap the voiceless people in pre-set responses that serve a social order antagonistic to their true interests. His imprisonment works as a metaphor on several levels. It puts him in the same position as the common-man Chorus with their 'dance of trapped people striving to break invisible bonds which hold them in captivity,' and makes him their representative. On this level his isolation symbolizes the general alienation of the individual in society, as Ryga analyses it; paradoxically, his incarceration also frees him. Cut off from his normal environment, he can articulate a personal ethos, which will effectively sabotage the social order he stands for. As the Commander suggests, the way the authorities apparently ignore Harry's predicament would be logical if they realized the nature of his private ideals, since they would then want 'both of us dead.' By the end we are surely intended to assume that, having found his own drum, Harry will now march to its beat. Precisely what this may be must be left undefined so that we, the audience, may in turn find our individual drums. But the image of hope growing in the depths of despair, freedom coming from imprisonment, is one which Ryga has reused in subsequent plays, and which has a classical archetype:

CHORUS: Prometheus was chained to eternity for giving ...
Fire! Freedom! ... to the people for all time! 24



Christopher Innes

1 GEORGE RYGA, interview in The Ukrainian Canadian June 1969, p 43
Return to article

2 JOY COGHILL, interview with the author, March 1983
Return to article

3 RYGA, public statement, 19 December, cit. Vancouver Sun, 21 and 24 December 1970
Return to article

4 RENÉ PARIS, cit. The Province, 2 January 1971, and DAVID GARDNER, cit. Toronto Star and Vancouver Sun, 21 December 1970. As Gardner remembers it, the original script concept was supposedly based on the Manson case and the play was to be a study of urban terrorism and hostage-taking long before the Laporte/Cross events transpired. But there are no notes to this effect in the Ryga archive at the University of Calgary and the focus of the initial outline is precisely what its provisional title of 'The Lovers' suggests, following through on the exploration of liberated personal relationships that is one of the themes in Grass and Wild Strawberries.
Return to article

5 'The Lovers,' notes on a stage play (1970); and 'Litany for Harry Farmer,' p 7 (University of Calgary Archive)
Return to article

6 Grass and Wild Strawberries, second draft, July 1968, p 66 (expanded from a similar scene in the first draft, p 10, University of Calgary Archive)
Return to article

7 Ryga claims the cancellation 'was an arbitrary decision made after numerous exchanges of information through Gardner between the Board and myself.' The full notes made by Gardner on the first draft (University of Calgary) give no hint of expecting opposition from the Board, and even when deferred there still seems to have been some committment to its eventual production, since Alan Scarfe was named as director and continued to work with Ryga to create the third (and final) draft. Still, Ryga's memory of the situation is that 'during this time, I became increasingly aware that Captives was not the problem - that under no conditions would there be a production of mine ever mounted again in that theatre, even if I were to adapt Cinderella' (Ryga, letter to the author and commentary, August 1984). Unfortunately, too, the memos that might clear this up are missing, and there is no documentation for this period in the Playhouse archives - the relevant records having apparently been borrowed for program preparation by the CBC and not returned. Subsequent enquiry by Newman of the NFB and others has been unsuccessful in tracing this material.
Return to article

8 There is a long history of this adoption by approval. To cite two examples at different ends of the spectrum: when Hauptmann's call to revolution, Die Weber, was first performed one reviewer recorded with astonishment that 'Hauptmann has become fashionable, and people find aesthetic relief in applauding his work.... What a foolishly insensitive [bourgeois] audience, who have no idea that they would be strung up first of all, if the events which they applauded so enthusiastically on stage were ever to take place in reality' (Hamburger Nachrichten, 1 October 1894). Similarly Edward Bond, exposed for the first time to Shakespearean tragedy and the way audiences were able to ignore its moral implications by treating it as part of their cultural heritage, remembered 'feeling ... real surprise - that other people had seen this, so how was it that their lives could just go on in the same way' (Theatre Quarterly, 11 (5), p 6).
Return to article

9 The Ukrainian Canadian, June 1969, pp 35-6, and The Province, 12 January 1971. The ambiguous nature of both early incidents allowed them to be presented in very different lights without departing from the facts; for instance in the CFRN case, 'Mr. Rice, owner of the radio station ... made his position quite clear - it saddened him to lose me, but I had a choice either to resign and nothing more would be made of it, or he would fire me and it would be publicly unpleasant for us both. I resigned' (RYGA, letter to the author and commentary August 1984).
Return to article

10 PATRICIA HALL, Chairman of the Playhouse Boards Executive Committee, cit. Captives of the Faceless Drummer, Vancouver 1974, appendix p 114 (references are to this edition because of the additional documentation published with the text); RYGA The Province, 12 January 1971; PETER HAY, preface to Captives, p 7; RYGA, The Province, 2 January 1971
Return to article

11 RYGA, letter to the author and commentary, August 1984. The limiting effects of the narrowly political interpretation can be indicated by the success of Captives in Algeria or Mexico, where cultural differences and distance from the FLQ events automatically generalized the themes.
Return to article

12 Georgia Straight (Vancouver Free Press) 20 April 1971; Vancouver Sun, 20 April 1971. Cf. also The Province, 17 April 1971
Return to article

13 The Canadian Tribune, 23 February 1972. Significantly, Ryga himself has deplored the Canadian mainstage productions of Captives as 'political adventurism, or even in one instance a politically psychopathic exercise' (Letter to the author, August 1984).
Return to article

14 Cf. MAVOR MOORE, Four Canadian Playwrights, Toronto 1973 and PETER HAY, Preface to Captives, pp 7-8. (In fact there is no trace of any such suggestion on the part of the board. In publicly denying that their reasons for deferring the play were political, they tended rather to deny that the play had any political significance whatsoever - however disingenuous this may have been, considering reports that one of the Playhouse sponsors threatened to withdraw a $1000 donation because of the play's alleged politics.)
Return to article

15 The Province, 17 April 1971; The Montreal Star, 11 July 1972; and William Davis, cit. Edmonton Bulletin, 16 July 1972
Return to article

16 Captives, pp 42 and 73; Litany for Harry Farmer, p 6
Return to article

17 Captives, pp 62 and 64. In the earlier version this point was made even more explicitly: 'The energies of the committed were scattered in every direction - unemployment, pollution control, women's liberation, youth. It was largely an exercise in futility ...' (Litany, p 16)
Return to article

18 Ibid, p 96
Return to article

19 DAVID GARDNER, holograph notes to 'Summer of the Deadly Drummer' (University of Calgary Archive) and t.s. p 49
Return to article

20 Captives, pp 57, 32, and 105
Return to article

21 The worst examples, which would undoubtedly have been rewritten in the rehearsal process originally envisaged, and indicate how much the play is still an unfinished work, are passages like these; the first when the angry Commander is daring Harry to face reality, the second when the Chorus are supposedly expressing hope in the teeth of despair:

CHORUS: in unison - in high pitched reply
A tomcat mewing for a piece of ass! in unison - plaintively, frightened of the implication of what
they say A tomcat ...mewing for a piece of ass?
CHORUS: And the green mother of all things removes the plastic piddle panties from our bums ... (Captives, pp 60 and 80).
Return to article

22 SUMMER, p 49. Significantly, Gardner's notes on this draft are full of queries demanding more specificity and complaining that facts have been falsified, e.g., 'Can't create dramatic tension out of a fait accompli. Harry has no spine, spiritually, intellectually or physically ... Diefenbaker, Trudeau, Turner, Cross are not spineless!' or 'One doesn't expect a resolution in the script, but it must come to grips with the subject. Why is the commander in the Revolution? Because he has a hard-on?' (holograph notes, pp 7 and 10, University of Calgary Archives)
Return to article

23 RYGA, cit. The Province, 12 January 1971; Captives, pp 61 and 91. It is only fair to point out that Ryga does not agree with this interpretation: 'When I give glowing lines to a character in praising China, it is to underscore the naivety of simplification - the same simplification that created a totally impossible christian image of paradise' (letter to the author, August 1984). But although this intention may be indicated by the immediately following lines, the contrast suggested is clearly supported, even underlined by the overall balance between the different levels of action in the play
Return to article

24 Captives ... pp 65, 88, and 79-80; Ryga, 'Prometheus' (t/s University of Calgary Archive) p 3
Return to article