A portrait of the playwright as a young man: Stewart Parker’s Hopdance
The writer’s posthumous novel sheds light on his formative years at Queen’s, acting and losing his leg
Stewart Parker, Belfast writer and playwright, in August 1977. Photograph: Pat Langan
Stewart Parker’s autobiographical novel Hopdance, posthumously published by The Lilliput Press in 2017, has brought new attention to the phase of his career that predated his breakthrough stage play, Spokesong (1975).
Written in the early 1970s, Hopdance focuses on the time in Parker’s life just before and after the cancer diagnosis that resulted in the amputation of his left leg when he was a 19-year-old student at Queen’s University Belfast. Its vivid depictions of his alter-ego Tosh’s self-consciousness, shock and physical and emotional suffering may surprise readers who know Parker only from his witty dramatic works. Considering the relationship between this novel and his better-known achievement as a playwright, however, enhances one’s appreciation of both.
In some ways, this relationship is an inverse one. When drafting Hopdance Parker did not yet know that the theatre would be the arena for his main life’s work, and he set the novel aside at the beginning of 1975 to concentrate instead on writing his “bicycle play” shortly after deciding to devote his energy to drama. Parker tinkered with the Hopdance manuscript in subsequent years, but it was not until 1988, in a theatrical lull after the successful Field Day production of Pentecost (1987), that he returned to his novel in earnest, determined to polish it for publication at last – an effort, sadly, derailed by a second, fatal, cancer.
Most of Hopdance dates to the period of Parker’s life when he thought of himself primarily as a poet, as its lyrical intensity and structure of short, disjointed vignettes indicate. In the novel, which Parker began writing in 1972, Tosh’s tormented mind and the physical and social space of Belfast at the beginning of the 1960s both emerge clearly. He matures and learns how to navigate one-legged in a world in which doctors are free to chain-smoke while tending to patients, hell-fire evangelists abound, and young men assume that every young woman’s highest ambition is to trap them into marriage.
Throughout the book, scenes depicting Tosh’s unfulfilling relationships with his male peers and frustrated yearning for a female soul mate play in counterpoint with others that suggest his incipient awareness of himself as part of a larger human community.
There are hints of Parker’s future vocation in several scenes depicting Tosh’s involvement in student theatricals, which mirror Parker’s own participation in the Queen’s Dramatic Society, or Dramsoc. In one early vignette, Tosh and his friend Harrison (modelled on Parker’s university companion Bill Morrison, who also became a professional playwright) perform a one-act play they have composed together at a university drama festival. Tosh, already complaining about a mysterious swelling around his knee, goes through the motions on stage in “a calm ballet of pain”. Afterwards, the adjudicator “spoke about a new renaissance in the theatre, stirrings of new voices, he picked out a line from the play and repeated it many times; it rattled round the walls like a piece of the play that had broken off”.
In another scene later in the novel, Tosh (still unaware that he suffers from anything more serious than growing pains and adolescent alienation) describes to Harrison his idea for an avant-garde play based on The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. This episode has self-reflexive significance in Hopdance (Tosh identifies “confessional fever”, “the obsessive need to rehearse your memory of hell”, as the essence of “the artistic impulse”), but it also depicts two budding dramatists wrestling with questions of theatrical craft as they debate how best to convey the significance of the albatross and stage the supernatural elements of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem.
Harrison’s accurate prediction of the Productions Committee’s likely response to Tosh’s proposal – “They won’t touch an experimental show for the festivals. They’ll go for the forty-seventh production this year of Man For All Seasons” – also prefigures Parker’s many disappointing encounters with producers in years to come.
Before his cancer diagnosis, Parker had harboured the notion of becoming a professional actor, a fact that helps to explain the extraordinary rapport he enjoyed with actors as a dramatist. In Hopdance, two post-amputation scenes with Harrison show when and why he abandoned this early ambition. In one, the young men perform while the band takes a break during the intermission of a formal dance. Tosh forgets his glasses, can’t read the lyrics of his own comic songs, and loses the rhythm of the music. As the audience jeers, he reflects that “Always before a spring in him had wound up for occasions like this, providing co-ordination and resilience to carry it off, no matter how drunk or ill-prepared. The spring had broken, he didn’t care.”
In a related vignette, Tosh, Harrison and others write and perform a satirical revue based on one that Parker and friends produced for the first Queen’s Festival in 1961, assessed in the student newspaper as “original, adventurous and enterprising and – to everyone’s surprise, hilariously funny”.
Morrison remembered the night as a triumph, but Parker’s experience of it was vastly different, as Tosh’s reaction illustrates: “It seemed that the evening would never reach its end. He could sense already the failure of a previously hidden nerve: he would never again be able to get up before an audience and perform with an unconscious faith in the easy security of his own stage presence. The world no longer offered security, of any sort whatsoever.”
Parker’s experience of his amputation was not entirely one of loss, however. In The Green Light, an autobiographical radio talk written about a decade after this surgery, he asserted that “I was maimed. But the process of coping with that reality developed or uncovered a stability and a serenity that I had desperately wanted for as long as I could remember.”
The clearest signs of personal growth can be found in the Hopdance scenes set in the limb-fitting centre Tosh visits periodically as an amputee. Here he gradually comes to realise that his artificial leg, rather than branding him a freak, is a badge of the mortality he shares with every other human being.
At the Hopdance launch two years ago, actor Stephen Rea brought down the house with a scene set in a waiting-room and involving a minister, a welder, a family doctor, a grizzled farmer, and Tosh, demonstrating unmistakably the idiosyncratic vision and flair for dialogue that would make Parker one of the best Irish playwrights of the 20th century.
This article was first published in the current issue of Reading Ireland magazine. Marilynn Richtarik is a professor of English at Georgia State University in Atlanta, where she teaches British, Irish and world literature. Her publications include Acting Between the Lines: The Field Day Theatre Company and Irish Cultural Politics 1980-1984 (Oxford University Press, 1994), Stewart Parker: A Life (Oxford University Press, 2012), and an edition of Parker’s novel Hopdance (The Lilliput Press, 2017). In the spring of 2017, she was a US Fulbright Scholar at Queen’s University Belfast.