Two Plays: Paracelsus and Prometheus Bound


156 pages
ISBN 0-88801-070-2






Reviewed by Alvan Bregman

Alvan Bregman Ph.D., M.L.S. lived in Toronto.


The publication of Two Plays presents an exciting intellectual challenge to the reading public. These plays are designed on an epic scale; they are written in vigorous blank verse that works remarkably well; they assault the platitudes and conventions of everyday thought and strain to break down the deep-seated complacency and apathy with which the individual approaches basic issues of social and political morality. They are works of truly international stature, and they deserve to be read and discussed at length.

In Paracelsus, written over a decade ago but not yet produced, Ryga brings back to life the long-dead figure of the Renaissance alchemist-physician who became a subject of legend in his own time. Feared as a magus, he was respected as a healer. He devoted himself to the search for effective cures through the specific use of natural and chemical substances, he rejected ancient teachings, and he worked not in Latin but in the vernacular. In these ways he tried to bring medicine to the people, and he certainly raised the wrath of the medical establishment wherever he went. Throughout the play, which opens with a panoramic display of human history as a continuum of violence and bloodshed, Paracelsus acts virtually alone to heal the physical and mental woes of mankind. A framework against which to judge the Paracelsian epic is provided by the discursive interaction of two modern doctors, one jaded and cynical (but very skillful), the other a young, idealistic woman who has lost her first patient and seeks to come to terms with her profession. This framework is redundant, perhaps, for while the issues raised by Paracelsus’s story are timeless, the everyday abuses of modern medicine pale beside the wholesale quackery of the past, and while the scenes with the two doctors may be meant to draw the audience closer to the main action, they tend in fact to deflect the play’s strength by making its issues too transparent. This is a misuse of alienation technique in an otherwise very successful Brechtian play (one is especially reminded of the Life of Galileo).

Prometheus Bound is a fitting companion piece to Paracelsus. Aeschylus’s story of the god punished for bringing fire (and so culture) to mankind is adapted to show how political systems oppress the people by denying them real freedom. Zeus has become the dreaded “First Minister,” Power and Force are “security agents,” Hephaestus is a “Security Director,” and so on. Instead of supporting the State’s goal of complete control over the people, Prometheus expresses his “concerns for deep studies of medicine /And science to liberate simple people /From their fears of pain and insecurity.” Like Paracelsus, he is tormented for his efforts.

There can be no denying Ryga’s achievement in Two Plays. If Paracelsus asks us to re-examine our attitudes toward science and medicine and Prometheus Bound points out our political and moral enslavement and helplessness, both make us realize our potential for natural well-being and liberation. These are important themes and these are important plays.


Ryga, George, “Two Plays: Paracelsus and Prometheus Bound,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed May 19, 2024,