Stewart Parker A Life

Marilynn Richtarik's definitive biography pays tribute to the 'greatest playwright the city of Belfast has ever produced'

Stewart Parker, who lived a short life with energy, wit and love, is arguably one of Ireland’s greatest playwrights of the 20th century, the equal of Brian Friel, Sean O’Casey or Thomas Kilroy. This makes him, by some distance, the greatest playwright that the city of Belfast has ever produced.

Since his death from stomach cancer in 1988, Parker’s work has been revived intermittently, and the Trust that bears his name has encouraged up and coming playwrights with yearly awards. He made his name with humorous, thoughtful and intelligent plays that centered on the struggle of any individual to live amongst the madness of the modern world.

Such was the quality of his work, however, that Parker should surely be remembered more often, and his message understood by many more than merely the devotees of Ulster drama.

Thanks should be offered, therefore, to Marilynn Richtarik, an academic from Georgia State University in Atlanta, who has dedicated a large part of her life to creating this new biography of Parker. Her dedication and regard for the subject ring from every page.

The life of Parker – from Sydenham in east Belfast, where he was born in 1941, to the stages of the West End – is delineated in detail, accompanied by in-depth discussions of each piece of writing from the brief and unformed ideas, to the fully realized stage and television work that he became celebrated for.

And what a life it was. After a sickly childhood, Parker was lucky enough to come under the tutelage of the legendary John Malone, whose strongly held belief in the innate ability of every individual child, recognised the talent in Parker early.

Released in to the cultural and intellectual ferment of Queen's University, Belfast in the early 1960s, Parker's abilities and brilliance began to flower.

The exact contemporary of Seamus Heaney, Derek Mahon and Michael Longley, Parker was the golden boy of Phillip Hobsbaum’s The Group creative writing meetings. Ill health, however, still haunted him, and his leg was amputated to remove a tumor at the age of 19.

Parker’s energy and drive did not allow this to deter him from his goal. He knew that he wanted to be a writer above all else, and after a period teaching in the US viewing the 1960s revolution close up, he dedicated himself to living from his pen.

While Parker wrote poetry and worked intermittently as a journalist, it was as a dramatist that he became known. From his first fully formed stage play, Spokesong (1975) to his last work Pentecost (1987) Parker built a body of work that gave him an international standing, and articulated a voice for many during those strange, strangled and insecure times.

Parker’s personality, his passions and faults, shine through this book. Richtarik deftly gives us fine detail of the hard drinking life, the mutual pleasure that friendship with Parker brought, and above all the sheer bloody-minded struggle that the life of the writer entails.

False trails, cold meetings with producers, ideas that shine with fire at midnight only to be filed away in the dawn, the ephemeral triumphs of opening nights; all these Parker, and those close to him, endured.

What seemed to keep him struggling on, over and above the usual ego or money, was a conviction that the writer was an agent of change, and that the stage is the perfect vehicle to interrogate the society in which he or she lives.

Parker represents a generation that came of age in the 1960s, those who lived amongst what Heaney called the last tang of possibility. For many of them who lived in Belfast during that period, the mid-decade romance of a city wakening up to the world around it proved a false dawn.

As 1968 became 1969, Caledon became Burntollet, the hope that Northern Ireland might become somewhere worth living in, began to be extinguished. Parker was raised in the Church of Ireland, deep in the heart of east Belfast, and he belonged firmly to the liberal humanist tradition that is an oft forgotten part of Northern Irish life.

For him and the others of the 1960s, that was their chance to seize change. The violence and civil war that engulfed his beloved city of Belfast from that point on was the reason for him to lift a pen, if only to plead for sanity and the values that he believed in.

Parker and his generation believed that society could be transformed. He did not accept the analysis that conflict within society could be managed, what was needed was a change in our hearts, rather than simply replacing violence with war by any other means.

One wonders what Parker would have made of the current situation we find ourselves in. A Belfast where he could have dinner without fear of being evacuated, where he could meet Spanish or French tourists on every street and where the marketed hope of ‘Our Time, Our Place’ can turn to emigrating to New Zealand within the space of one peaceful protest.

There has been no heart-felt transformation, merely an acceptance that our broken society can only be managed through less flags and bigger walls.

His last and greatest play, Pentecost, is set during the Ulster Workers Council strike of 1974. A house lies derelict on wasteground as the streets are subsumed in violent insurrection. Four refugees find themselves in the house, fleeing personal and political strife. Amongst them appears the ghost of Lily, the original owner of the house.

As the play unfolds, the personal becomes political and vice versa, as the grief borne from a womb becomes the grief of society and Parker’s theatrical brilliance models the house as a symbol of the ever diminishing home for love and humility in Belfast. Marian, grieving for a lost child, speaks: ‘I want to live now. I want this house to live. We have committed sacrilege enough on life, in this place, in these times.’

Richtarik’s timely study reminds us that the work of men and women like Parker gives us a glimpse of a world transformed by the power of one human being’s love for another. This brilliant achievement brings Parker’s compassion to life; that energetic, endlessly creative voice that sparkles with each word he wrote.

Even as his short life ended, Parker seemed never to despair. The last words of Pentecost, taken from the book of Acts: ‘Therefore did my heart rejoice, and my tongue was glad; moreover also my flesh shall rest in hope…’

Stewart Parker: A Life is out now, published by Oxford University Press.