Imagining feasible Utopias
BIOGRAPHY: Stewart Parker: A Life,By Marilynn Richtarik, Oxford University Press, 419pp. £30
LIVING IN a legendary bohemian commune on Rugby Road in Belfast during the 1970s, Stewart Parker and his friends used to entertain themselves with a Victorian magic-lantern set. Ancient slides were picked up in Belfast’s rich trawl of junk shops, but never came complete: “The challenge would be to concoct a story that could connect, say, half a set of Great War images and half a set of Jack and the Beanstalk.”
These were the years when Parker was meditating his own first plays, which create similar fusions of images, and treasure objets trouvés from a disregarded past. In a judiciously detailed narrative, this biography profiles the development of a unique and much-missed creative inspiration.
Parker’s life began in “an average Unionist family” in lower-middle-class Belfast in the 1940s and 1950s, experiencing intellectual liberation through Queen’s University, Philip Hobsbaum’s reading group, teaching posts in the US and, most influentially, 7 Rugby Road. In this book, the American academic Marilynn Richtarik establishes, with exemplary precision and insight, the way the writer emerges, the false starts and disappointments, the experiments that failed, and above all the way that themes and preoccupations are aired, stored up, recycled and eventually emerge renewed – climaxing in an outpouring of work in the last few years of a life tragically cut short.
Parker’s life also demonstrates the grit and perseverance that enabled him to cope with losing a leg to bone cancer at 20 and, after his flirtation with American academe, eking out a writer’s life on next to no money. Joyce, about whom he taught as well as wrote, remained his lodestar all his life, and his dedication has something of Joycean heroism. Nonetheless, as he belligerently told an interviewer, he was a happy person. His magnetic personality and irrepressible sense of hilarity ensured that all his life he was at the centre of a group of talented and supportive friends. One of these was the mercurial radio producer Michael Heffernan, who, like Parker, was charismatic, funny and brilliantly original, and, like his friend, fated to die far too young.
Richtarik’s book delineates the importance of the BBC for the lives of writers, especially in Belfast at a dark time. It also traces a fascinating story of plays, players and theatres; another close friend from early on was the actor Stephen Rea, influential in the early productions that made Parker’s name. Other theatrical relationships were less happy: Richtarik’s treatment of the Belfast Lyric Theatre management is astringent, to say the least. The Abbey of the day does not emerge well either, and the rapprochement with Field Day, logical as it seems, came only at the end of Parker’s life.
London was kinder to him. Spokesong made his name there, in a dazzling, fizzy production with Niall Buggy at the King’s Head pub theatre in Islington. He probably received most attention for the successful television plays I’m a Dreamer, Montreal and Catchpenny Twist, and his late play about 1798, Northern Star. But there were many more radio plays and a large-scale television series of linked plays, Lost Belongings, as well as his stage play about Dion Boucicault, Heavenly Bodies.