Chief Dan George commanded attention when he stepped onto a Washington stage in May, 1973. He did so despite plentiful distractions. Just a few hours after his DC debut, Congress launched the Watergate Hearings that eventuated a year later in President Nixon’s resignation.
People nonetheless paid attention. Celebrity no doubt played a role. Chief Dan George had been nominated for an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actor just a couple of years before for his performance opposite Dustin Hoffman in “Little Big Man.”
Current events pressed in as well. The week before, members of the Oglala Lakota and followers of the American Indian Movement had ended their occupation of Wounded Knee over conditions on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
Chief Dan George arrived in town at a rare moment when some among the country’s political elite had begun to pay attention to what was happening on reservations around the country. His appearance in the Canadian play, The Ecstasy of Rita Joe, sold out the Washington Theatre Club’s West End theater at 23 & L Streets NW for the entire run.
The chief had been a poet and author for some time before turning to the stage. He grew up in the Canadian province of British Columbia and worked a number of jobs ranging from longshoreman and construction worker to school bus driver. He served as chief of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation throughout the 1950s before stepping down in 1963. In 1960, at the age of 60, he decided to try his hand at acting, performing initially in CBC television shows before moving on to ever more ambitious roles on stage and screen. By the time of his death at the age of 81 he was a recognized actor credited with several noteworthy performances. He had gained national attention in Canada during Vancouver’s Canadian Centennial celebrations in 1967 with a powerful recitation of his own “Lament for Confederation,” which begins “How long have I known you, Oh Canada? A hundred years? Yes, a hundred years. And many, many seelanum more” and went on to assail the European appropriation of native lands during the establishment of Canada.
George Ryga’s The Ecstasy of Rita Joe still ranks among the most important English Canadian plays. Ryga, the son of poor Ukrainian immigrants, grew up in the broken down towns and villages near Native American lands in Athabasca, Alberta before petroleum companies began to exploit the region’s vast oil-sands deposits. Still in his early twenties, Ryga won a scholarship to the Banff School of Fine Arts and traveled extensively around Europe. Returning to Edmonton, Alberta, Ryga began to publish poetry and plays, some of which eventually made their way to television. He finished The Ecstasy of Rita Joe during Canada’s centennial year of 1967 and immediately gained national attention. He would die at the age of 53 in 1987.
Ryga contributed to an explosion of English Canadian literature that emerged in the years surrounding the 1967 centenary celebrations. Inspired by the country’s anniversary and challenged by growing French Canadian nationalism, a generation of ambitious English Canadians set out to define an English Canadian identity that was distinct from British and American cultures. New Canadian voices – including Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, Leonard Cohen, Alice Munroe, and Carol Ann Shields – formulated a new national character.
Ryga’s play was especially important within this context for its focus on the challenges of the country’s aboriginal peoples. Following an initial run at the Vancouver Playhouse in November 1967, the play moved two years later to the National Arts Centre in Ottawa. The Royal Winnipeg Ballet performed a ballet adaptation in 1971 and the play has been revived numerous times over subsequent decades. Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau called The Ecstasy of Rita Joe to be “the greatest accomplishment in a century of Canadian theater.”
As New York Times reviewer Julius Novick summarizes the play, it is about “nameless, present-day young Indian men and women who drift from the reservations to the cities, and frequently come to bad ends there.” Tom Shales, writing in the Washington Post, gets closer to the tale by suggesting that because the lead character, “refuses to be assimilated and reformed by the society that wants to rob her of her dignity, Rita Joe, an Indian girl, is alternatively labelled misfit, troublemaker, and whore.”
The play begins with Rita Joe on trial in a city (Vancouver?) for vagrancy, prostitution, and theft. The story moves ahead with a blending of the action in court and scenes from the past in which Rita Joe recalls life on the reservation and in the city. The recollections reveal a life filled with betrayal by others – including those who have sought to help. White animosity and perfidy grow until white moral failure emerges as systemic rather than individual. Crushed by a cascade of failures and treacheries, Rita Joe’s inevitable death brings the play to an ignominious close.
A grim tale of violence, abuse, exploitation, and self-defeat, reviewers over time have been less generous in their assessments of the play than its reputation might suggest. Tom Donnelly, for example, wrote in the Washington Post that, “to be fair and considering how really bad the living theater can get, it may be more accurate to say that Ryga’s first act is tedious, meandering, heavy-footed, and structurally speaking, an artsy-craftsy amalgram of the more ubiquitous playwriting devices of the past.” He was more generous towards the second act.
The Ecstasy of Rita Joe did not capture the Washington imagination as it did Canadian audiences’ because of its place at the time in an emerging Canadian theater. As Novick quipped in the Times, “‘Canadian playwright’. The words seem a little incongruous together like ‘Panamanian hockey-player’, almost, or ‘Lebanese fur trapper’.”
It touched a nerve because it represented an attempt to look directly and honestly at a profound social problem shared by Canadians and Americans alike – the degraded condition and stature of our native peoples. Performed with magnificence and grace by actor Frances Hyland – a Saskatchewan native who had launched her career two decades before appearing opposite John Gielgud in a London production A Streetcar Named Desire — as Rita Joe and Chief Dan George as Chief David Joe, the production demonstrated a profound universality that transcended other artistic transgressions.
Chief Dan George’s magisterial presence on stage that Spring provided the embodiment of leadership at a time when neither the Congress nor the White House could.
Dorthea Atwater says
This play has been in print since it was first published in 1969 – the name of the publisher is Talonbooks in Canada –
Peter Hay says
Yes, from Talonbooks in Vancouver:
or you can write to me: Peter Hay ([email protected])
I was Ryga’s publisher at Talonbooks and am currently on the board of the Ryga Arts Festival: http://www.rygafest.ca
where you can also read more about George Ryga.
Seth Ghitelman says
Thank you for posting this very interesting and timely story.
Do you know if there is a published copy of the script?