Stewart Parker - The Northern Star, Part III

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

Catchpenny Twist - Programme note Lynne Parker (Rough Magic)

It could be argued that the great days of the Eurovision Song Contest are passed, along with Ireland’s proud domination in the field. When Catchpenny Twist was first produced in 1977, we were on the crest of that wave, still riding high on snowdrops and daffodils, butterflies and bees, and the glory days of Johnny Logan just on the horizon.

Meanwhile, there was this appalling spot of bother turning particularly nasty up north. So, just when popular music and the marvel of television were opening up the sparkly vista of European culture, the behemoths of sectarianism still had us in their deadly grip. Monagh, Roy and Martyn, Stewart Parker’s band on the run, reflect a strong impulse on the part of a whole generation to flee the north’s Troubles to seek a less complicated life in the civilised world. Wherever that might be.

This was a watershed in the history of Belfast, Ireland, Europe. The EEC was beginning to put together Stewart Parkeran idea of mutual dependence that was to prove, however imperfect, a bonding agent in a hitherto fractious continent. Such a hifalutin notion seemed a long way off in a country divided against itself. But the emerging generation in Ireland was, for the first time, able to ask itself to which world did it belong, or aspire to: that of the dead generations; or that of international telly? 

This intense moment is the stuff that Parkerthrived on and he captures perfectly the tension between the two worlds. But what impact does this story have thirty years on?

The astonishing thing is that Catchpenny Twist is still current. The Eurovision Song Contest may be more self-consciously camp than it was thirty years ago, but in that strange, games-without-frontiers-war-without-tears sort of a way, it still seems to matter to the people of Europe, accession states and all. As for the north, the war is officially over, but the behemoths still battle on...as they have for generations. 

So, any suspicion that, for all its brilliance, a play so resonant of its time would date rapidly has proven unfounded. Ersatz Europeanism is still going strong and Ireland is still, post Lisbon, bumping into the Continental furniture. And the British, unhappily stranded in the middle of all this, are still wondering in these days of cable whether we get their television programmes.

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. And with the enlargement of the EC a play which looks at how ethnic identity works (or not) within a globalised culture could not be more apt. Perhaps the new audiences of immigrants to Ireland - on each side of the border - will absorb this play with some amusement, and observe that preoccupations of identity and the burden of historical legacies are things all Europeans genuinely have in common. But it’s comforting to reflect that Chinese restaurants are still going strong in Cork. 

Publications - Notes by Dr Mark Phelan (QUB)

In honour of the twentieth anniversary of Parker’s death and as a means of bringing these relatively unknown aspects of his oeuvre to the reading public and international scholarly community, Litteraria Pragensia Books and Lagan Press have published a these volumes of primary materials with critical introductions. 

All three volumes provide unique and long overdue perspectives on Parker’s work in an accessible format that will extend critical acknowledgement of Parker’s status as one of the most versatile and engaging writers to emerge in Northern Ireland in the 1970s and 1980s. 

Stewart Parker Dramatis Personae & Other Writings 

This collection brings together the best of Northern Irish playwright Stewart Parker’s literary prose and journalism. What comes across throughout this volume is Parker’s anticipation and intelligence of the changing cultural conditions of theatre life and play-making in the closing decades of the twentieth century. Alongside this alert cosmopolitan sensibility, Parker’s experience of living in and through Belfast’s self-inflicted wounding made him keenly aware of what happens when politics fails to deliver a democratic answer to the contradictory beliefs of ordinary citizens. His innate scepticism about politics is etched herein with feisty and unambivalent vigour.

Introduced by Gerald Dawe (TCD) will be devoted to Parker’s literary journalism and criticism. Contents Stewart Parkercompiled by Gerald Dawe and Maria Johnston will include Dramatis Personae (Parker’s John Malone Memorial Lecture); a selection of Parker’s articles from The Irish Times, The Belfast News Letter, Honest Ulsterman, Fortnight, The Evening Standard, Canadian Journal of Irish Studies, Irish University Review; and the introductions Parker wrote for Lost Belongings, his ‘three plays for Ireland’ and Sam Thompson’s Over the Bridge. Postscript by Clare Wallace.

Stewart Parker Screenplays 

Stewart Parker is one of Northern Ireland’s most witty, eloquent and astute playwrights, yet his work for television is little known. This collection, for the first time, gathers the bulk of his television drama offering a unique and exciting opportunity to encounter another dimension to Parker’s oeuvre. His productivity and inventiveness in this medium match the work for the stage step by step. The plays in this volume exhibit the range and variety of his drama which comprehends comedy and tragedy, the challenge of political and social themes and the exuberance of pure fantasy.

Introduced by Clare Wallace (Charles University) will include the scripts and production details of six of Parker’s television plays: Lost Belongings; Radio Pictures; Blue Money; Iris in the Traffic, Ruby in the Rain; Joyce in June; I’m a Dreamer Montreal.

Stewart Parker High Pop: The Irish Times Columns, 1970-1976 

Playwright Stewart Parker was, arguably, Ireland’s first critic of popular culture. From 1970 until 1976, Parker wrote a fortnightly column for the Irish Times devoted to pop music under the title ‘High Pop’. The tagline summed up perfectly the Belfast man’s attitude to contemporary music. At once lightweight and throwaway, it could also aspire to – and achieve – the condition of ‘High Art’ worthy of serious and thoughtful consideration. 

Never po-faced, and refreshing in its honesty, the reviews in ‘High Pop’ remain as vibrant, engaging and vital as the day they were written. Whether dealing with the era’s ‘heavyweights’ like Bob Dylan, or ‘flash in the pans’ like Dr Strangely Strange or bringing once again to public attention such figures as Tin Pan Alley songman Jimmy Kennedy, Parker’s captivating enthusiasm for the work under review is unmistakeable.

Edited by Gerald Dawe and Maria Johnston, High Pop is a fascinating trawl through the music of the early 1970s and the glory (and, on occasion, dog) days of the Band, Joni Mitchell, Carole King, John Lennon and the Grateful Dead. It also acts as a primer for the rediscovery of artists and bands fallen into neglect: Be Bop Deluxe, Dory Previn and the Incredible String Band, anybody? 

It is often said that humour is commonsense moving at a different speed. In which case, prepare to be entertained and enlightened by a writer clearly besotted with the best of both worlds. High Pop indeed. 

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