Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks: 1987 – Pentecost, by Stewart Parker

The playwright’s ambition was to create a theatre that was serious in its reflections on Northern Ireland’s political crisis, while being exuberantly theatrical

 

In 1960 Stewart Parker’s uncle took him to see Sam Thomson’s groundbreaking play about sectarian violence in the Belfast shipyards, Over the Bridge. For Parker, who grew up in “an average Unionist family” in Protestant East Belfast, seeing his own culture on stage was both thrilling and shattering: “We were like members of a lost tribe thrust before a mirror for the first time, scared and yet delighted by our images, sensing even then that they were much more than a mere reflection.”

This last qualification would be crucial for Parker. In 1970, when he wrote that piece, he was conscious that the upsurge of the Troubles in his native city imposed obligations on any Belfast playwright. But he was also aware that any dramatic image would have to be not so much true-to-life as truer than life: “The ‘real thing’ . . . is chaotic flux, overwhelmingly meaningless. Drama rescues us from the chaos by giving it a shape and a pattern.”

Parker went to Queen’s University, where, like Seamus Heaney (see 1975), he was a member of Philip Hobsbaum’s writers group. He took up teaching posts in the US, notably at Cornell University, where he experienced the wave of radicalism set in motion by the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement. Paradoxically, it was that very sense of engagement that led him back to Belfast in 1970 – he did not want to be a “mere observer” of the historic events that were unfolding.

Parker began his writing life as a poet, and tried his hand at an autobiographical novel that he kept returning to but never published. Music, too, was always at the centre of his artistic life, as it was for most of the counterculture to which, as a member of a legendary commune at 7 Rugby Road in Belfast, he firmly belonged. The “High Pop” column he wrote from 1970 to 1976 for The Irish Times gave direct expression to that interest, but more importantly music is everywhere in his plays, most prominently in Catchpenny Twist (1977) and the Irish-Caribbean musical Kingdom Come (1982).

Parker’s ambition was to create a theatre at once serious in its reflections on the political crisis and exuberantly theatrical. The playfulness of his early hit Spokesong (1975), with its use of jugglers and trick cyclists, matured into the dazzling inventiveness of Northern Star (1984) which tells the story of Henry Joy McCracken through pastiches of the styles of seven Irish dramatists, from Sheridan to Beckett.

Pentecost, which opened at the Guildhall in Derry in September 1987, in a Field Day production directed by Patrick Mason, seems more formally staid and domestic: four people gathered in a house on the city’s sectarian dividing line during the Ulster Worker’s Council strike that brought down the powersharing executive in 1974. Parker’s close friend from his Belfast youth, Stephen Rea, played trombonist Lenny Harrigan, a charismatic waster. His ex-wife Marian turns up with an offer to buy the place. They are joined by Ruth, who is fleeing a violent marriage; and then the drifter Peter.

Yet the apparently domestic drama becomes heavily symbolic. The house, which has always been occupied by Protestants, is on the brink of being handed over to Marian, who is Catholic. But it is Marian who becomes aware of a fifth presence – the ghost of Lily Matthews, the previous occupant whose mourning for her dead babies encapsulates a Protestant working-class sense of loss. The play moves steadily out of its apparent realism to become a kind of prayer for inspiration and renewal, like the Biblical feast evoked in the title.

Pentecost became, in retrospect, even more haunted. Parker, who lost a leg to bone cancer at 20, had long been touched by the presence of death. Just a year after Pentecost, he died from stomach cancer, aged just 47.

Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks is a collaboration between The Irish Times and the Royal Irish Academy. Find out more at ria.ie

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