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Ryga, George.

Winnipeg, Turnstone Press, c1984. 117pp, paper, $8.95, ISBN 0-8801-086-9. CIP

Grades 11 and up
Reviewed by Pamela Black

Volume 13 Number 6
1985 November

This first edition of George Ryga's A Portrait of Angelica and A Letter to My Son is appropriately prefaced by a speech that Ryga gave at a meeting for populist theatre companies that was held in Thunder Bay in 1982. Ryga expresses a concern that the advent of high technology in Canada may gradually eliminate our access to "popular local and national mythology" and that technology itself may become the content of theatre. Ryga also concedes that we are, at best, "second class creators of culture in our own homeland. The first one is the recording, publishing and communications industry of the U.S." Thus, he feels, Canadian artists have been so involved with questions of exploitation at home that they have neglected other nations that are struggling for "cultural integrity" despite the threatening "economic engines of the industrial bloc of countries." In short, the time has come to turn to our third world neighbours to see how our experiences can benefit each other. These issues, the cultural integrity afforded by sensitivity to folklore and the hereditary "wellsprings of our laughter and our tears," and the problems of alien cultures coming to terms with each other and growing together, form the foundations of the two plays in this book.

The first play, A Portrait of Angelica, depicts the clash of submerged cultural and mythological identities that occurs between Canadian tourists and the natives of a small Mexican town. The play depends largely on music, slide displays, colour, and movement for its effect, and consequently suffers somewhat in print form. It is, in some respects, a brilliant pageant with universal characters making familiar gestures. In another respect, however, the very general nature of this play, with its minimal concessions to plot and continuity, does not take us the distance necessary to comprehend the dilemmas portrayed or to take them to our hearts; simplicity gives way to confusion because we do not seem to have enough information. We can locate the catch-phrases, such as Jose's exhortation to his countrymen that, "We must rise on the ashes of our former glory if we are to survive at all," but we do not feel them.

A Letter to My Son, on the other hand, is so little dependent on visual effect that it could easily be performed as a radio play. While it too deals with a lost cultural heritage, that of a Ukrainian immigrant, it does so by completely involving us in the particulars of its subject. The Canadian government believes the aging Ivan Lepa to be dead and therefore ineligible for an old-age pension, and Ryga gives a moving account of the standoff that ensues. The government is represented by a social worker who seems to embody, for Lepa, the whole myth of the promised land: she is attractive and, so he believes, she makes idle promises. He has long since learned that "the best way to deal with the government is to stare at it. . .and think of a toothache." He cannot believe that her file-folders and reports can actually help him and he does his best to escape incarceration in her hell of paperwork, fearing it almost as death itself. The letter, which he is perpetually composing in the midst of this struggle in an attempt to explain himself to his estranged son, is an obvious counterpoint to the dead files and forms of bureaucracy. Lepa, however, is by no means presented as an innocent victim; the complexities portrayed on both sides are a large part of what makes this play so successful.

Both plays encompass two levels. One is that the threatened cultures portrayed are still strong because the individuals are strong. As Jose says, "Soup gets made, even though we had to lose Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California to get to this." The other level is one that calls out for new mythologies away "from the shadows of a priest's skirts," that will allow for growth and freedom even in these confused times. Lepa says, "it is an old darkness from which you must run if you are to be a man for this country. That I know." For those interested in patterns of cultural development and arrest, or for that matter, for those who have enjoyed the classics that have come from George Ryga's pen, this book is a worthwhile investment.

Pamela Black, Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, B.C.
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