Listen to a Reading from the Stewart Parker Novel 'Hopdance'

Biographer Marilynn Richtarik previews the late playwright's long 'lost' work depicting the events around his life-changing leg amputation

Belfast-born Stewart Parker (1941-1988) is best known as one of twentieth-century Ireland’s most inventive and accomplished playwrights. However, he began as a poet and writer of experimental prose. His lyrical novel Hopdance, published for the first time this spring by The Lilliput Press, dates to that early part of his career.

Hopdance, mostly drafted in the early 1970s, represented not only a literary endeavour for Parker but an attempt to come to terms with a trauma he suffered as a 19-year-old undergraduate student at Queen’s University Belfast. He was diagnosed with a rare form of bone cancer, and his left leg had to be amputated on May 17 1961.

Parker spent months recovering in hospital and at home before returning to Queen’s in the fall, where he tried to pretend that losing his leg had not affected him greatly. Privately, however, he feared for nearly a decade that the cancer would recur. As he approached his 30th birthday, he decided to confront his own mortality by structuring this unspeakable experience for himself in such a way as to give it meaning.

Hopdance depicts events before, during, and after the hospitalization that marked the end of what Parker looked back on as his ‘first life’ and the beginning of his second. His protagonist and alter ego, Tosh, is drifting through life before his cancer diagnosis, plagued by the twin ‘cankers’ of a puzzling pain in the leg and a crippling loneliness. The amputation forces him into a more authentic relationship with life, which ‘Starts with the wound. Ends with the kiss. For the lucky ones.’

Stewart Parker with nurses

Parker in 1961 (aged 19) with nurses from the Royal Victoria Hospital, Belfast, after the amputation of his left leg

Parker completed a draft of Hopdance in 1973 but made no attempt to publish it. He put the novel away, satisfied that writing it had served a ‘therapeutic’ purpose for him. He always intended to finish it someday, but it was not until 1988, when an especially frenetic phase of his play-writing career came to an end, that he resumed work on the book in a serious way. Over the years he had made minute changes to the scenes he had already drafted, but now he decided to write several more to make the theme of Tosh’s developing vocation as a writer more prominent. He only managed to finish some of these before, in a cruelly ironic twist, he was diagnosed with the stomach cancer that killed him mere weeks later.

I first read the Hopdance manuscript in 1994 as part of the research for my biography of Parker, published by Oxford University Press in 2012. As someone interested in Parker’s life, I naturally found it fascinating. As an English professor, I also regarded it as a compelling piece of writing despite what Parker would have considered its unfinished state.

The work’s non-chronological and episodic structure had made it easy for him to contemplate adding scenes to it in the 1980s without significantly altering the ones that already existed. By the same token, it occurred to me, it should be possible to edit for publication the text as it existed at the time of Parker’s abrupt death without doing violence to his vision for the book. Parker’s executor, Lesley Bruce, gave me permission to try.

I transcribed all the completed scenes, arranging them according to Parker’s final plan for the novel, and wrote an introduction explaining the text’s complicated history. A research assistant, Mary Grace Elliott, helped me to check the typescript several times against Parker’s drafts. Now, thanks to my agent, Jonathan Williams, and Antony Farrell and his team at Lilliput, Hopdance is available to the general reader in an attractive and affordable edition.

The below recording of me reading and discussing four extracts from the novel was made on May 4 2017, during an event at the Crescent Arts Centre in Belfast arranged by the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry to showcase the work of its US Fulbright Scholars in residence during the Spring 2017 semester. I begin just after the six minute mark, following an introduction by author and head of the Heaney Centre, Glenn Patterson.

Marilynn Richtarik is a Professor of English at Georgia State University in Atlanta and the author of Stewart Parker: A Life (Oxford University Press, 2012). Her edition of Parker’s autobiographical novel Hopdance was published by The Lilliput Press in April 2017. She is spending the first half of 2017 as a US Fulbright Scholar at Queen’s University Belfast and will present Hopdance at the Crescent Arts Centre on Saturday June 10 as part of the Belfast Book Festival. Tickets are priced £6. Find out more here.