Ryga, George

Ryga, George, b 27 July 1932 in Deep Creek, Alberta, d 18 November 1987 in Summerland, British Columbia. Dramatist, poet, and writer. The son of Ukrainian immigrant parents, Ryga became one of Canada’s most acclaimed playwrights. Growing up on marginal farmland in northern Alberta, Ryga spoke Ukrainian at home until he began elementary school in English. His father read to him excerpts from the Ukrainian poets and writers, such as Taras Shevchenko, Ivan Franko, Lesia Ukrainka, and Vasyl Stefanyk, and told him stories about the Cossacks and Tatars. Ryga won a writing scholarship to attend the Banff School of the Arts in 1949 and 1950. During the Korean War, he wrote an anti-war poem and as a result, his writing scholarship was not renewed. His first published book was a collection of poems Song of My Hands (1956). In the early 1950s Ryga worked as a laborer and lived in Edmonton with friends and acquaintances who were active in the left-wing political movement. He later worked in radio broadcasting, but was dismissed because of his alleged ‘communist affiliations.’ By 1954 he was a member of the Labor Progressive Party (LPP). In 1955 he attended the Fifth World Festival of Youth and Students organized by the World Federation of Democratic Youth in Warsaw, Poland. Also in 1955 he represented the Canadian Peace Council at the Congress of World Peace in Helsinki, Finland. During his visits to Poland and Bulgaria, Ryga became aware of the impact of Stalinism in Eastern Europe. He reportedly left the LPP in 1956 following the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian uprising but maintained contacts with the Association of United Ukrainian Canadians (AUUC) and the Canadian peace movement.

In 1962 Ryga wrote his first play, Indian, which was later produced on television. Translated into Ukrainian as Indianets, the play was published (in 1972) in the Kyiv journal Vsesvit in Soviet Ukraine. In 1967 Ryga wrote his best-known play The Ecstasy of Rita Joe (published in 1971). This play dealt with the plight of the Canadian Indigenous population, and Ryga insisted that in the performances, Indigenous characters were to be played by Indigenous actors. His political drama Captives of the Faceless Drummer (1971) was initially accepted for performance by the Vancouver Playhouse but this decision was revoked by the Board of Directors, and this event confirmed Ryga’s reputation as ‘too radical’ an author. Ryga’s other plays included Paracelsus (1986) and Letter to My Son (1984) that was based on a Ukrainian theme and broadcast (in Ukrainian translation) on Kyiv State Radio in 1985. He also contributed to the text for the musical A Feast of Thunder commissioned by the Shevchenko Musical Ensemble and performed in Toronto in 1973. Ryga’s novels Hungry Hills (1963) and Ballad of a Stonepicker (1966) were overtly political in their content and were both published in Ukrainian translation in Soviet Ukraine. Ryga also wrote radio dramas and television scripts, including ‘1927’ (on the life of Ukrainians in Canada) for the television series ‘The Newcomers’ (1979). Several themes in Ryga’s writing were influenced by his early years in northern Alberta. According to some critics, Ryga is considered to be one of the most influential Canadian authors and, arguably, the best playwright from British Columbia. In his memory, a George Ryga Award for Social Awareness in Literature has been awarded to authors from British Columbia since 2003. The George Ryga Festival Society regularly organizes the Ryga Arts Festival in Summerland, British Columbia.

Myron Momryk

[This article was updated in 2022.]

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