Stewart Parker - The Northern Star, Part II

Queen's Drama Department commemorate Belfast playwright with a critical look at some of his best work

Northern Star - Programme Note Dr Mark Phelan (QUB)

Set in a crumbling cottage on the slopes of Cave Hill in the aftermath of the 1798 Rising, Northern Star, is an Irish ‘history play’ like no other. As the Troubles’ relentless cycle of killings continued throughout the 1980s, ‘playing out the same demented comedy of terrors from generation to generation’, Parker turned to the ‘malignant legends’ of history in which the north was trapped. 

His play returns to the ‘Golden Age’ of late 18th century Belfast, when the city had been a harbinger of radical thought; hailed as the ‘Athens of the North’: an appellation appropriately given in 1793 at the opening of the new Theatre Royal in Arthur Street. 

Parker was fascinated by marginal figures like Henry Joy McCracken and Jemmy Hope rather than the more established dramatis personae of the United Irishmen. Moreover, the complex facts and fates of these ‘minor’ men, allowed him to challenge loyalist and nationalist notions of the past: to reveal how the origins of militant republicanism - in one of those ironies of Irish history - lay in the same protestant community that inveighed against its modern (murderous) manifestation. 

As Marilynn Richtarik observes, in Northern Star, Parker sought to articulate ‘a creative space between unionism and nationalism' to prove 'the possibility of a shared culture in Northern Ireland'. An objective that was as audacious as it was utopian, and which he continued to explore, in a more lyrical register, in Pentecost. 

Northern Star is a masterpiece of modern Irish drama. A play that both Henry Joy McCrackencontains - and critiques - the Irish theatrical canon. In his own words, Parker wrote the play as a play-full ‘pastiche’. Stylistically, it ventriloquises the speech, setting, and style of several Irish playwrights from Sheridan to Beckett, whilst structurally, the play is shaped according to the ‘Seven Ages of Man’, derived from the famous speech from Shakespeare’s As You Like It , in which Jacque meditates on the closeness of relationships between the stage and life; the motif of theatrum mundi:

'All the world’s a stage/And all the men and women merely players/ They have their exits and their entrances/ And one man in his time plays many parts/ His acts being seven ages.'

These lines are uttered by Henry Joy McCracken who spends the play vainly attempting to rehearse his speech for his performance on the political stage of the scaffold. Theatrum mundi meets Belfast’s gallows humour. The play opens with the first age: that of innocence (Sheridan); the proceeds to the second age, idealism (Boucicault); followed by cleverness; didactics; compromise; heroism; knowledge, each written in the distinct and distinctive style of different playwrights.

This meta-theatrical structure isn’t simply for the sake of it; so that smug aficionados can congratulate themselves on their superior knowledge of the canon. It hardwires the very meaning of the play. For example, the opening (st)age of innocence aptly labels the naïveté of Belfast’s urban(e) intellectual classes who believed those lofty French ideals of liberté, égalité, fraternité could be transplanted to Ireland where they could transcend territorial and tribal divisions (‘We were city boys. What did we know about two men fighting over a field,' say McCracken to Jemmy Hope). 

By the age of knowledge, however, those sublime principles have been drowned in sectarian slaughter and military massacre. Thus, context and content are thematically connected. But, there’s more. The age of knowledge plays out in prison and is written in the style of Behan, (with explicit references to The Quare Fellow’s setting and dialogue). 

Moreover, Behan was the first republican playwright since Pearse to have been imprisoned for his political beliefs, and whilst incarcerated, Behan reflected upon and recanted his revolutionary convictions; rejecting its doctrinaire beliefs as dangerous dogma. A journey shared by McCracken in Parker’s play. Political history, theatrical tradition, personal biography, and the canon of Irish drama are thus compressed in Northern Star’s complex cat’s cradle of politics, historiography, and art.

But such academic arabesques are besides the point. The play’s allusiveness and ingenious structure pose no barriers to understanding or enjoying it. Northern Star’s frenetic theatricality, witty dialogue, visual spectacle, and compelling ideas and arguments will provide any paying punter with, what the late great John McGrath called, ‘a good night out’. And it also provides ‘a good night in’ every time one gets a chance to re-read this extraordinary play at home. 

Heavenly Bodies - Progamme Note Dr Mark Phelan (QUB) 

‘Will yiz stop fighting’: James Young’s affectionate-cum-exasperated catchphrase fell on deaf ears during the darkest years of the Troubles. But Jimmy should count himself lucky he didn’t work in the nineteenth century like his comic predecessor, Johnny Patterson, ‘the singing clown’. When a chaotic performance of his celebrated circus act broke up in a bloody riot, Patterson burst into song, 'Try To Do Your Best For One Another’ in an earnest appeal to the fighting factions to set aside their differences. 

Johnny’s melodious precursor to Jimmy’s mawkish plea worked – albeit, temporarily - and not quite in the manner he had intended. For both sides did indeed unite with one another; but only to bludgeon the peacenik clown to death. James Young never suffered so for his art. 

Patterson cuts a forlorn figure in Irish theatre history; not because of the tragic-comic circumstances of his death, but for the fact that audiences and historians have long since forgotten he ever existed. The same is largely true for Dion Boucicault, ironically one of the most famous figures of the 19th century stage. An irrepressible impresario, actor and innovator, Boucicault played a hugely important role in the emergence of popular melodrama in this period. 

His highly colourful life is brilliantly captured in Parker’s ‘play-full’ staging of the blurred borders between Boucicault’s personal and professional life, which resembles the sensational plots of his own melodramas. 

Prolific and profligate, this serial-plagiarist-sometime-bigamist, passed Johnny Pattersonoff translations of French plays as his own work and campaigned for copyright laws, which made him vast fortunes that he vertiginously squandered again. He also invented fireproofing for scenery which facilitated the sensational stage spectacles that became his stock-in-trade such as the burning tenements of The Poor of New York (and London, Dublin and..!) 

However, Boucicault’s colossal stature over the 19th century stage cruelly contrasts with the pale shadow it cast over 20th century dramatic criticism: a disparity that makes his mockery of Johnny Patterson bathetically ironic. Later generations of scholars and historians, (not to mention actors and authors), derided Boucicault’s work and dismissed him as a hack; a purveyor of stage-Irishry. 

In Heavenly Bodies, Parker plays upon dramatic irony of Boucicault’s own elitist dismissal of Patterson as these same arguments were later deployed to deny Boucicault his rightful place in the dramatic canon as 'high art' was privileged over popular culture. 

Until relatively recently, official histories of Irish theatre were characterised by Abbey Theatre director Hugh Hunt’s view that this vital Victorian period of drama dominated by Boucicault was 'best forgotten' -- an attitude shared by the same institution’s founders, WB Yeats and Lady Gregory, who despised the popular theatre stage (and the plebs who packed it). 

And yet, Boucicault’s influence is pervasive. It ghosts generations of later playwrights’ work: the comic double-acts and music hall knockabout of O’Casey, Beckett, and Behan. Even Conn the Shraughraun’s famous wake scene – fittingly restaged in Parker’s play to enact Boucicault’s stage exit from life – shadows Synge’s Riders to the Sea. Parker’s affinity with Boucicault (and Patterson) stems from their shared desire to entertain audiences and their delight in theatre’s infinite possibilities for play. 

If Heavenly Bodies recuperates two vital footnotes from Irish theatre history to reveal them as forebears of their more famous 20th century descendents, (whose work, as Parker observes, owes more that they, or their critics, have cared to admit), it also reveals the invidious processes of canon formation: how it unfairly relegates major figures to the margins. In doing so, Heavenly Bodies serves as an ironic, if unintended, commentary on the fate that has, hitherto, befallen its author. 

Read more programme notes from Stewart Parker - The Northern Star Part I, Part III.