THE DRAMATIST, argued George Ryga in an address to the 1983 U.N. Writers' Conference at Bordeaux, must will his audience "to a larger life by translating that life into a spirit soaring above the commonplace." One of the first Canadian playwrights to achieve such flight, in his groundbreaking The Ecstasy of Rita Joe (first produced at the Vancouver Playhouse in 1967), Ryga failed to ride the wave of innovation and exploration he had helped unleash, and by the time of his death in 1987 he was no longer a central figure in the theatrical life of this country. Yet he is still honoured as a prophet who taught Canadian audiences that spiritual, artistic, and moral passion need not be incompatible with the experiences of their own lives. As two new publications from Talonbooks remind us, it's a lesson that has to be constantly relearned. For the commonplace is
always ready to spread itself like an oil slick over the waters of dramatic invention, and only by reacquainting ourselves from time to time with the words of the prophets can we keep the spirit from clogging.
Summerland, edited by Ann Kujundzic, is an anthology of Ryga's letters, essays, short stories, speeches, and scripts composed after his move to Summerland, B.C., in 1963. With few exceptions (a 1970 letter to Gerard Pelletier, secretary of state at the time, demanding Canadian-content quotas in the publishing industry is the most obvious superfluity), the concerns addressed are of far more than local interest: the role and responsibility of the artist, the need for mythology, the necessity of constantly sifting through the past. In every case, whatever his subject or his chosen medium, Ryga's demands on us are the same: to know the truth of the human spirit, its darkness as well as its light, and to believe that, through knowledge, it can be perfected.
Ryga's impetuous, tumultuous prose isn't always suited to the strict essay form. His arguments sound wonderful but aren't always clear, for they rely on connections that are emotional and intuitive rather than logical. He's more at home with the kind of pieces rather curiously categorized in the list of contents as "short stories" - though only a handful of them are recognizable as fiction. Most recount incidents and epiphanies (some of them bizarre) from Ryga's own life. "Mist From the Mountains" (1974), for example, describes a disturbing chain of events that apparently befell him in the Swiss village of Einsedeln, where he was assembling background for his play Paracelsus. The matter-of-factness with which these eerie and irrational experiences are presented gives the account the uneasy compulsion of a nightmare. But it is the promise of renewed encounters with Ryga the dramatist that is most likely to attract readers to this volume. In a 1982 essay, "Memories and Some Lessons Learned," Ryga describes the significance that radio drama held for him, isolated as he felt he was from the mainstream ("Nothing else could have filled that void, for what passed for theatre was not relevant to such as 1. Out experiences were too gaunt"), and it is in the eight radio and TV scripts included here that Ryga's imagination most confidently unfolds its wings. Even the early pieces still have considerable appeal; but it is the 1984 radio drama The Frank Slide, an account of the Turtle Mountain mining disaster of 1903, that packs this anthology's single most devastating punch. A former manual labourer, with the missing fingers to prove it, Ryga was intensely aware of the physicality of work - the ripping of muscles, the splitting and splintering of fingernails - and of fear. You can taste the panic, thick as coal dust, when the central character of The Frank Slide finds himself in the dark, with water rising about his knees, and half a mountainside between him and the open air. An extraordinary piece, claustrophobic, heroic, and heart-wrenching, it makes us ashamed of the complicity by which we purchase our comfort - and it significantly lowers our tolerance for the milder visions of lesser artists. Which brings us to The Dunsmuirs: A Promise Kept, also from Talonbooks. In this, the second in a trilogy of plays about a wealthy Scottish mining family, Rod Langley also leads us below ground, but we see nothing of the men who claw the black stuff off the innards of the earth. Instead we're partying with Sir John A. Macdonald, a hamper of cold chicken and fine Scotch, and much selfcongratulation in the High Bogus style of historical discourse:
What a day, Robbie....The final link in the great Canadian railroad. From Victoria to your mine here .... Robbie, you've got no idea how I've longed to see this day.
It's a great day for all of us, Sir John. Doubly satisfying that you were here to drive in the last spike.
Unfair, perhaps, to snarl at A Promise Kept for failing to transcend its soapy story of rebellious sons, ironwilled matriarchs, family curses, whisky bottles under the bed, and bairns born on the wrong side of the blanket; to scoff at it for its sighs of "Be gentle with me" and its cries of "Look out, he's got a gun!" Encountered on the stage of a comfortable summer-stock theatre after a couple of gin and tonics, it would be a pleasant enough diversion. It's just that coming upon it in cold print after reading Ryga does rather act on the soaring spirit like a breastful of birdshot.
The Vancouver playwright Brian Kaufman shows more willingness to give his audiences a hard time. His one-act play Fragments from the Big Piece, attractively published by Anvil Press, plays a teasing game of metaphysical join-the-dots in a style that recalls --oh, say, for instance -Kafka, George F. Walker, David Mamet, and the movie Brazil. A shoot-out has left two drug dealers and a vice cop dead, and at the bottom of it is a dame with a broken heel, a broken heart, and a line of poetry that may or may not hold the key to ... what?
Information is the stuff of life in this play, the quest for connections the primary human drive. Experience can be processed, altered, made unreal: Brad, a bystander who has had his life overturned by stopping to speak to the wrong girl at the wrong time, has a dialogue with his own image on a TV monitor as he is brutally interrogated.
"Gimme some information, something I can work with," Brad pleads to his TV self. "You're not giving me any, thing to go on."
"Weeell, the TV replies, "that's just the nature of my being."
Kaufman's point is ... well, hard to say finally; but his writing shows a sure sense of stagecraft. Alternative theatre groups across the country would be well advised to look out for this intriguing script.