||George Ryga 1932-1937
by John Juliani
A writer's politics are not usually the some in values or scope as a society's. That is why so many writers in so many countries have been, are, and always will be, political prisoners or exiles. (Peter Hay, Canadian Theatre Review, 1979)
George Ryga was never exiled, or forced to spend time in prison for his political beliefs. He didn't have to leave Canada to feel like an outcast. From his beginnings in rural Alberta, this son of Ukrainian immigrants struggled, with little formal education, to make a living, and when he chose against all odds to become a writer, he found he had to struggle more than most to get his stories printed and broadcast. In his early novels, The Hungry Hills, Ballad of a Stonepicker, Ryga vividly captures a world where life is synonymous with struggle, and survival with obstinacy and an uncompromising faith in one's convictions.
It may be that Ryga's novels will come to stand as his most enduring literary legacy, but it was his early successes in theatre that first propelled him to national prominence as a writer. Paradoxically, those very successes and the controversy of his subsequent career as a playwright isolated him from the mainstream of the theatrical establishment, and may have stunted his growth as a dramatist.
Yet, more than any other writer, George Ryga was responsible for first bringing the contemporary age to the Canadian stage. In the words of Ken Mitchell of the Playwrights' Union of Canada, "Remember, before Ryga there was nothing. The Ecstasy of Rita Joe had the force of a lightning bolt, hot, dangerous, explosive, illuminating. It disturbed people, especially Canadians, yet it somehow entertained them. It was the beginning."
In one stroke Ryga had stunned our theatrical world and stirred the conscience of a nation. That was 20 years ago. 1967. Before long, Ryga posed a new challenge. Grass and Bild Strawberries, a musical play about the generation gap, was a box office smash, and established Ryga as a playwright who could touch the nerve of the young theatre-going public. He had demonstrated that it was possible and profitable to stage plays that were Canadian, socially relevant, commercially viable and did not have to be camouflaged as British.
Then quite unexpectedly came Captives of a Faceless Drummer, and the beginnings of Ryrga's "exile." The furor over that play, commissioned by the Vancouver Playhouse and then withdrawn on the eve of production by that organization's board of directors, became a cause celebre that, for the remainder of his life, branded Ryga as a "difficult" artist.
When, in 1982, a decade after the turmoil over Captives, I took a post as network radio drama producer with the CBC in Vancouver, I remember inquiring why several of George Ryga's radio plays were sitting on the shelf unproduced. I was told that the man was "difficult." Over the next five years I had the good fortune to work at least once a year with him, and can only say that I remember this "difficult" man as a humble, stubborn, and passionate professional, with a love for the underdog and a deep concern for the future of young people.
But especially I will remember his sense of humour. There was a bawdy, irreverent streak in him, which surfaces in such characters as Romeo Kuchmir (Nightdesk), Old Lepa (A Letter to My Son) and Brandon Willy (Brandon Willy and the Great Event), and which was an anchor for him in his turbulent career as an outspoken cultural activist. He was fond of telling people that "Illegitimus non carborundum" meant "Don't let the bastards grind you down."
At a memorial celebration held by the Vancouver Playhouse, tributes to George from across the continent were read, selections from his plays were performed, and his last work, a long poem titled Resurrection was read to that international gathering of poets and scholars by a friend. The poem was written after he learned that he had inoperable cancer. The poem's narrator expresses an anguished sense of frustration at not having done enough to alleviate the world's suffering. He speaks of how "earth asked for his outrage" over the pain of the people of Hiroshima, of Chile, of Soweto, and in the Palestinian refugee camps; and he dreams of a freedom that he may attain to after death - a freedom to go where he is needed, to "tend the sick and wounded, give courage to the fallen."