The Ecstasy of Resistance:
A Biography of George Ryga

by James Hoffman,
350 pages,
ISBN: 1550222465

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After Such Resistance, What Ecstasy
by Keith Garebian

The first sentence of James Hoffman's critical biography of George Ryga tells us that Ryga is "a Canadian playwright". The first sentence of his second paragraph calls Ryga "one of our major Canadian playwrights". Then, just in case we may have dozed off early during his preface, he underlines the point four paragraphs later by cutting off any disputation about Ryga's being "an important Canadian writer". But by failing to provide any consideration of other Canadian playwrights-let alone major ones-and by emphasizing repeatedly such solemn themes as Ryga's nationalism and Marxism, Hoffman manages to delimit his subject without making a convincing case for Ryga's literary merits.

Hoffman is earnest, sober, and very approving of practically all of Ryga's professional writing, whether this be travelogue-reminiscence, fiction, poetry, radio and television plays, ballads, or stage plays. It apparently does not matter to Hoffman that Ryga saw writing as a moral, social, and political duty rather than as an art or that his quivering social conscience produced vigorous, provocative but raw dialectics rather than unquestionable theatrical excellence. For Ryga, agitation or resistance had a true ecstasy, but readers are likely to be confounded by rather than enlightened on the subject, for Hoffman never really discourses on the connotations of ecstasy: as trance (especially one resulting from fervour), great rapture, or delight, "a state of being overpowered with emotion", or, ultimately, as distraction or madness.

The virtue of this biography, a useful introductory guide to all of Ryga's works, is the uncovering of his ancestral roots and information about some of his training and some of the major events in his life. His parents were Ukrainian immigrants who settled on a rough homestead in Athabaska, which he romanticized as a special, beautiful "moonscape" for his imagination. His mother had been an illiterate milkmaid and his father lived with constant fear of deportation. But both parents doted on the boy, born July 27th, 1932, as the firstborn of two children, the other being a daughter three years younger.

An insecure youth who stuttered into his twenties, Ryga possessed sharp analytical powers and was a quick learner at school. His early literary models were Shelley, Omar Khayyam, Whitman, and Burns, romantics all, though with radically different obsessions and styles. His early poems showed particular affinities with Burns's peasant diction and sensibility, and his first trip to Europe in 1955, in the company of a male friend, included a bicycle trip to Burns country. Ryga's earliest mentor were two female teachers who, true to the temper of Canadian Victorianism, failed to cleanse his verse of sentimentality and colonial romanticism. Fortunately for his reputation, most of these early poems are lost, but one of the earliest, "Bonnie Annie," rings with echoes of Burns, as a young ploughboy meditates on his "heartless" fate that holds him far from his beloved. The diction and imagery are excruciatingly old-fashioned, and pathetic fallacies litter the page. It was just the sort of writing that sent shocks of delight through the members of the IODE who awarded him a scholarship during his tenure at the Banff School of Fine Arts (1949-50), only to withdraw it when he became critical of the Korean War.

As Hoffman shows, Ryga was a political rebel from the start, steeped in the tradition of European resistance. After all, his Ukrainian heritage exposed him to the nationalism of Taras Shevchenko and Ivan Franko, and he saw his ancestors as "Brechtian people" torn by differing allegiances, yet possessed of a rich peasant folklore and grim humour. He went repeatedly against the grain, glorifying Lorca, falling in love with a Persian poet who was ravaged by prison torture, and joining with her and the American Martha Miller to become a politically engaged poet. His relationship with Norma Barton, who was to become his wife, alienated him from his parents.

His biographer correctly identifies a seminal romanticism in Ryga, but fails to explore the anomalies this created in conjunction with his propagandistic impulses. Nationalist critics read everything he wrote in terms of "the unceasing battle of man and the elements" and the "dignity of honest labour". Social conscience certainly produced socially aware writing, but literary merit in many of his works was slight indeed.

With the obvious exceptions of Indian and The Ecstasy of Rita Joe, Ryga's plays have not worn well. Many have not played well from that start. Grass and Wild Strawberries, steeped in psychedelic hippie life, is terribly dated. Captives of the Faceless Drummer, with analogies to the FLQ crisis, is probably equally dated, in addition to having an ineffective chorus and weak minor characterization. Sunrise on Sarah is formless and generalized. In the 70s Ryga completed four plays, but two were virtual rewrites of earlier work, and one was a short, minor piece. By the 80s, Ryga met decreasing critical favour as a playwright. Portrait of Angelica proved to be more of a tableau than a play. Letter to my Son, perhaps his most autobiographical play, substituted emotionalism for craft. Prometheus Bound was a bathetic reworking of Aeschylus, its blank verse polluted by political jargon and its characters sounding either like commissars or figures from soap opera. Paracelsus, his most ambitious play technically, was better, as its demotic prose interacted powerfully with high rhetoric, but Ryga's moral passion got the better of his art.

In his zealous homage to Ryga, Hoffman fails to provide a critical evaluation and descends to often injudicious praise. He refers at one point to Ryga's "liquid dramaturgy"-a vague, unhelpful phrase which could be interpreted to mean that Ryga's craft dissolves in the heat of his passion. Ryga once confessed, "I am a better copyist than I am a creator of fantasy and wonder." He even went so far as to proclaim, "I am not a theatre person myself. I come from other places-music, poetry, politics." This was quite true. He hardly mentions theatre in his European reminiscences, and he avoided Waiting for Godot in London, preferring to frequent Soho nightclubs. He was more attuned to Ewan McColl, a balladist, than to McColl's wife, Joan Littlewood, a radical theatre director. And for someone who admired Chekhov, his plays are remarkably un-Chekhovian.

As a critical biography, Hoffman's book is unrewarding. The author prefers digging around Ryga's various drafts to noting rehearsal processes. There is virtually no sense of an active theatrical excitement in any of his discussions of the plays, no sense of what it was like for Frances Hyland to be acting opposite Chief Dan George, for example, and no technical insights into the language of the texts.

In terms of pure biography, too, the book has many gaps. Hoffman has little to say of Ryga as husband and father, and the only sense of private distress is when his wife develops a rare disease and when Ryga himself enters the final phase of his cancer. A Marxist who normally avoided sheer social realism, a romantic who liked to propagandize causes, Ryga was a divided writer. His biographer fails to explore this division.

Keith Garebian is the editor of William Hutt: Masks and Faces (Mosaic Press).


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