Imagining feasible Utopias
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