Authors: George Ryga

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Canadian playwright and critic

Author Works


Indian, pr. 1962 (televised), pb. 1962, pr. 1964 (staged)

Nothing but a Man, pr., pb. 1966

The Ecstasy of Rita Joe, pr. 1967

Grass and Wild Strawberries, pr. 1969

The Ecstasy of Rita Joe, and Other Plays, pb. 1971 (includes Indian and Grass and Wild Strawberries)

Captives of the Faceless Drummer, pr., pb. 1971 (music and lyrics)

Sunrise on Sarah, pr. 1972 (music)

A Portrait of Angelica, pr. 1973

A Feast of Thunder, pr. 1973 (music by Morris Surdin)

Paracelsus and the Hero, pb. 1974

Twelve Ravens for the Sun, pr. 1975 (music by Mikis Theodorakis)

Ploughmen of the Glacier, pr., 1976

Seven Hours to Sundown, pr., pb. 1976

Country and Western, pb. 1976 (includes A Portrait of Angelica, Ploughmen of the Glacier, Seven Hours to Sundown)

Laddie Boy, pb. 1978

Prometheus Bound, pb. 1981 (adaptation of Aeschylus’s play)

A Letter to My Son, pr. 1981

Two Plays: “Paracelsus” and “Prometheus Bound,” pb. 1982

The Athabasca Ryga, pb. 1990 (collection)

Long Fiction:

Hungry Hills, 1963

Ballad of a Stone-Picker, 1966, revised 1976

Night Desk, 1976

In the Shadow of the Vulture, 1985

Summerland, 1992 (Ann Kujundzic, editor)


The Storm, 1962

Bitter Grass, 1963

For Want of Something Better to Do, 1963

The Tulip Garden, 1963

Two Soldiers, 1963

The Pear Tree, 1963

Man Alive, 1965

The Kamloops Incident, 1965

A Carpenter by Trade, 1967 (documentary)

Ninth Summer, 1972

The Mountains, 1973 (documentary)

The Ballad of Iwan Lepa, 1976 (documentary)

Radio Plays:

Reverie, 1952

A Touch of Cruelty, 1961

Half-Caste, 1962

Masks and Shadows, 1963

Bread Route, 1963

Departures, 1963

Ballad for Bill, 1963

The Stone Angel, 1965

Seasons of a Summer Day, 1975

One Sad Song for Henry Doyle Matkevitch, 1981


“Theatre in Canada: A Viewpoint on its Development,” 1974

“Contemporary Theatre and Its Language,” 1977

“The Need for a Mythology,” 1977

Beyond the Crimson Morning: Reflections from a Journey Through Contemporary China, 1979

“The Artist in Resistance,” 1982


George Ryga (REE-gah), the son of immigrants, grew up in a Ukrainian farm community in Alberta, Canada. His formal education began and ended in the one-room schoolhouse of Deep Creek. As an adolescent, he joined the laboring gangs that worked on roads and bridges, and he pursued a high-school education by correspondence. At eighteen, he landed a job as a radio producer, an opportunity that allowed his writing talent to blossom and his distinctive voice to develop. It was a voice that would mark his life with controversy, for it lashed out unsparingly against social and political structures that oppressed and exploited the weak and the downtrodden.{$I[AN]9810001658}{$I[A]Ryga, George}{$I[geo]CANADA;Ryga, George}{$I[tim]1932;Ryga, George}

The radio station fired him for his political views, and Ryga traveled to Scotland to study another poet of dissent, Robert Burns. For a number of years, he worked at odd jobs while writing poetry, short stories, and novels.

In 1962, he wrote his first play, Indian, broadcast on television later that year and frequently anthologized since. It packed a powerful punch as it dramatized the dehumanization of the Indian by heartless employers and government officials. The Ecstasy of Rita Joe followed in 1967. Linked to Indian in subject matter and theme, The Ecstasy of Rita Joe was based on an actual murder of an Indian girl in Vancouver and staged as a trial, with the audience as jury. The sympathy for Rita builds to a powerful climax as she suffers indignities and finally destruction at the hands of whites. Widely acknowledged as Ryga’s best work, The Ecstasy of Rita Joe is performed frequently, both in Canada and abroad.

In the 1960’s, Ryga also began to publish novels. In his long fiction, as in his plays, short stories, poems, screenplays, and radio scripts, his mission is the same: to represent the voice of the underdog. In Hungry Hills, the vital quest for life and belonging in both old and young gets ground into dust during the drought of the 1930’s. Ballad of a Stone-Picker depicts the lonely condition of the human race and also presents one of Ryga’s recurrent themes: fathers who hurt, betray, and destroy.

The father in Sunrise on Sarah, for example, rejects his daughter because she was not the son he had wanted. Sarah’s futile search for a surrogate ends in tragedy. Though a father’s destructive impact on his daughter also informs Seven Hours to Sundown, the main conflict is between the destroyers and preservers of culture, centered in a power struggle over the preservation of an old building. Captives of the Faceless Drummer, based on the actual kidnapping and murder of a Québec cabinet minister by Québec separatists, indicts the spiritual vacuity of both sides.

Night Desk, Ryga’s third novel, is the monologue of a colorful fight promoter whose rambling anecdotes expose one of Ryga’s favorite targets: the squalor and spiritual poverty of city life. Ploughman of the Glacier is set in a mine in British Columbia. Based on two historical characters, the play takes a critical look at the exploitative spirit of humankind. In the Shadow of the Vulture, which reflects the influence of a stay in Mexico, presents the cause of Mexican farm laborers in the United States.

Ryga’s career as Canada’s most eloquent and disturbing stage voice was cut short when he was diagnosed with inoperable stomach cancer. After 1963, he made Summerland, British Columbia, his permanent home. There he wrote the letters, stories, speeches, and plays that gave a voice to the suffering masses, and there he wrote his last words, the poem “Resurrection,” when he felt the end approaching. In it, he expressed his anguish that his time was running out. Perhaps after death, he hoped, he would have freedom to “tend to the sick and wounded, give courage to the fallen.”

BibliographyBoire, Gary. “Tribunalations: George Ryga’s Postcolonial Trial ‘Play.’” Ariel 22, no. 2 (April, 1991): 5-20. The Ecstasy of Rita Joe is compared with Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale (1986) and other anticolonial literature as a paradigm for examining the “encoding of class violence under the guise of social contract . . . [a] crucial feature of anti-colonial literatures.” Strong postmodern, semiotic deconstructionist look at “what postcolonial theorists call the reclamation of a world through irony.”Burgess, Patricia, ed. Annual Obituary 1987. Chicago: St. James Press, 1990. A good recapitulation of Ryga’s themes, approaches to character, and patterns of composition during his career, along with an updated biography. “The lack of integration between land and people and between the individual and the group is the essential duality in Ryga’s work,” states the anonymous writer of this obituary.Grace, Sherrill. “The Expressionist Legacy in the Canadian Theatre.” Canadian Literature, no. 118 (Autumn, 1988): 47-58. This study of Ryga and Robert Gurik examines the non-naturalistic aspects of both writers. Details The Ecstasy of Rita Joe, especially the characters identified by function, and the fragmented structure.Hoffman, James. The Ecstasy of Resistance: A Biography of George Ryga. Toronto: ECW Press, 1995. Describes major events in Ryga’s life, especially those that relate to his writing. Includes bibliography and index.Saddlemyer, Ann. “Crime in Literature: Canadian Drama.” In Rough Justice: Essays on Crime in Literature, edited by M. L. Friedland. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991. Ryga’s Indian is discussed as drama that “involves the process of judgment, assigning responsibility for action, distinguishing truth from fiction.”
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