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.

Parker began his writing life as a poet, and tried his hand at many genres, including an autobiographical novel that he kept returning to but never published. Music was also at the centre of his vision; some of us gratefully remember his marvellous columns on “High Pop” in this newspaper. This lively ear is reflected in plays such as Kingdom Come, set in an Irish Caribbean.

He was always ready to pursue an exotic idea and relished the fun of a challenge, as in The Kamikaze Ground Staff Reunion Dinner, where Japanese characters are played as stereotypically English – an ironic device that worked on radio but presented something of a conundrum on stage.

Overall, though, the best of his work queried, commented on and railed against the peculiarities of Northern Ireland; he longed to be “stateless” but never could be. His 1974 play The Iceberg was ahead of its time in taking the building of the Titanic as a powerful local metaphor; the bicycles of Spokesong provided another way in. Niall Stokes cannily spotted that this was “a new voice in Northern politics . . . radical enough to look into the ‘beyond capitalism’ that lies ahead and to find there what Ivan Illich has called ‘feasible utopias’ which are applicable to the present”.

Richtarik’s treatment deftly weaves together a peripatetic life, dealing sensitively with a creatively enabling but increasingly troubled marriage, and a radiantly happy last relationship with the playwright Lesley Bruce. She has also made illuminating use of his journals and the memories of friends. This is a biography you can trust; it also captures an important chapter of Irish cultural life. The structure is itself dramatic: as Parker’s star rises, the theme of death recurs, notably in his problematic play Nightshade, which remained one of his own favourites among his works.

Northern Star had a great reception in Ireland (though not London); his next major play confirmed it. Pentecost, set in a time-warp Belfast house during the 1974 loyalist strike, brings together the dead and the living in powerful interrogation of history, hate and love; it was given a legendary production by Field Day (at last) at Derry in September 1987. It seems now his masterwork, standing with the landmark plays of Friel, Barry, McGuinness and Murphy in that era.

If he were still alive he would be of their company, and his vivid originality properly acclaimed. But just over a year after Pentecost, Parker was dead from stomach cancer, aged only 47. The London production of this almost unbearably moving play was in a sense his memorial service.

Parker died at the top of his game: Northern Star and Pentecost were frequently compared to Friel’s Translations, in terms of dramatic imagination, literary bravura and historic impact. The story of his life and his achievement, still critically underrated, demonstrates the truth of Parker’s own comment, made long before he wrote a play himself: “The playwright is not concerned to imitate a realistic action, but rather gradually to reveal an organic vision.” That gradual revelation is the subject of this exemplary life.

Roy Foster’s most recent book is Words Alone: Yeats and His Inheritances

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