George Ryga Revisited
- James Hoffman (Editor)
George Ryga: The Other Plays. Talonbooks (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- James Hoffman (Editor)
George Ryga: The Prairie Novels. Talonbooks (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by George Melnyk
It was Talonbooks publisher Karl Ziegler’s idea to collect into a single volume all the plays by George Ryga, except for The Ecstasy of Rita Joe, his most famous work. To this collection he added a second volume titled The Prairie Novels, giving readers and students an easily accessible body of the writer’s major work. Some years earlier Talonbooks had published two collections—The Athabasca Reader and Summerland—which provided examples of his “other” literary work from short stories to essays. This omnibus approach allows Ryga’s creative achievement to remain an active part of Canadian literary studies.
Editor James Hoffman is the author of Ryga’s authorized biography (The Ecstasy of Resistance: A Biography of George Ryga) and so is well-placed to provide readers with a definitive edition of Ryga’s work. He is Professor of Theatre at Thompson Rivers University and editor of Textual Studies in Canada. His introductory essay to George Ryga: The Other Plays is titled “Unsettling Colonial Voices,” an expression of the editor’s belief in Ryga’s early contribution to what is now considered postcolonial writing in Canada. He considers the “contemporary, multicultural nation of immigrants” and their postcolonial view of “First Nations heritage” to be the Canadian sensibility that Ryga represents. In total the volume contains 16 plays and Hoffman provides a brief introduction to each. While providing criticism of their overall theatrical value (“unwieldy, almost unplayable”), he seeks to provide an explanation of why this is the case (“. . . because he lived and dramatized the profoundly ambivalent experience of the
‘settler postimperial culture’”). In general, Hoffman provides an effective and multi-faceted description for the student seeking a quick understanding of Ryga’s stature as a playwright within the canon.
The companion volume, The Prairie Novels, is another matter. Hoffman’s introductory essay, “Colonial Passages: Re-reading the Prairie Novels of George Ryga,”
is about half the length of the previous introduction and there are no brief introductions to each novel as was the case with the plays. Perhaps this lesser treatment reflects the smaller amount of material since there are only three short novels (one novel is missing because it does not fit the “prairie” theme) and Ryga’s status in the canon as a minor novelist, his reputation still tied to the ground-breaking play, The Ectasy of Rita Joe. It may also be the case that Hoffman, because of his expertise in theatre, is better qualified to discuss the plays than the novels. Nevertheless, his essay is a serious treatment of Ryga’s work, reflecting his authoritative insights.
It is not my purpose to review Ryga’s sixteen plays and three novels, about which there is already commentary. What is of greater interest is how Ryga’s reputation as a playwright and a novelist has fared since his death in 1987 and how our “reading” of his work has evolved. The entry for George Ryga in the 1973 Supplement to The Oxford Companion to Canadian History and Literature was written by James Noonan of Carleton University. The entry praises The Ecstasy of Rita Joe, pans Grass and Wild Strawberries and deals factually with the incident over Captives of the Faceless Drummer. Noonan goes on to comment favourably on the two then published novels, concluding with the observation that their writing makes “. . . one wish Ryga would publish more in this form.” In 1973, although Ryga was best known as a playwright, it was felt that his novels were underrated.
The 1997 edition of The Oxford Companion to Canadian literature justifiably contained a much longer entry, also written by Noonan. Ryga had been dead for a decade and his stature in Canadian letters seemed to have increased significantly since that first entry 25 years earlier. Noonan provides synopses of the major plays and then continues his praise for Ryga’s fiction, which by this time had increased to four novels (the final novel In the Shadow of the Vulture is not included in the current collection because it is set among migrant Mexican workers). He uses the same adjectives to describe them—evocative and intense—that he used previously and then adds that they are also “authentic and suspenseful.” In a way the tension between the plays and the novels is highlighted by these entries. Fame, both popular and critical, tends to skew our perception of a writer and in Ryga’s case fame is definitely related to the stage and not the page.
I share Noonan’s taste for Ryga’s fiction. While I compliment Talonbooks for keeping his fiction available in this collection, I believe that Noonan would have been a better choice to edit the volume and write the introduction because the novels seem to resonate more for him than for Hoffman. The “post-colonial settler” figure that Hoffman sees dominating Ryga’s fiction is one that is difficult for readers to embrace. I remain convinced as I wrote in The Literary History of Alberta: Volume Two (1999) that Ryga’s fiction “awaits its great interpreter and defender.” While Hoffman fits Ryga’s work into the postcolonial canon with skill, there seems to be something missing in his analysis—a genuine spirit of empathy for Ryga’s fiction.
It would seem that when Ryga broke through the silence surrounding the situation of First Nations Peoples in Canada in the 1960s he was able to reach out and create a sympathetic figure in the character of Rita Joe—aboriginal, female, exploited, yet strong. The country was ready for this. But at the same time he was creating his impoverished, ethnic, male protagonists in fiction for whom there was not the same resonance. One may conclude that the harsh treatment of class issues totally within the Euro-Canadian paradigm of Canadian nationality was and remains something to be avoided. Postcolonial critical thinking is more interested in the troubled history of non-Euro-Canadian peoples, a history to which Ryga made a great dramatic, but not fictional, contribution.
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MLA: Melnyk, George. George Ryga Revisited. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 25 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #188 (Spring 2006). (pg. 179 - 181)
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