Stewart Parker

Parker was the major Belfast playwright of the Troubles

Born in east Belfast in 1941, Stewart Parker was the major Belfast playwright of the Troubles. He created plays, which took the Belfast realism of Sam Thompson and applied modern dramatic techniques to create both popular and challenging work.

Taught by the famed educationalist John Malone at Orangefield Boys School, Parker was impressed with streams of theatrical expression.

After university, Parker spent a number of years in the US teaching at Cornell and Hamilton colleges, where he watched and participated in the civil rights campaign.

Returning to Belfast in 1974, Parker worked as a freelance writer in Belfast, contributing articles on pop music for the Irish Times and later spent time in London.

A prolific writer for radio, Parker had six radio plays produced, including The Kamikaze Ground Staff Reunion Dinner (1981), I’m a Dreamer Montreal (1977), The Traveller (2002) and The Iceberg (1975), which featured the ghosts of two shipyard workers still trapped on the doomed Titanic.

His first internationally successful play for the stage was Spokesong (1975), which opened at the John Player Theatre in Dublin and travelled to America.

Parker then embarked on a decade of writing that saw his vision of Northern Ireland’s past and present take flight. Catchpenny Twist (1977), Northern Star (1984), Heavenly Bodies (1986) and Pentecost (1987) were immensely popular at the time of their performance and have matured into the most accomplished Northern Irish plays written in the past 20 years.

At the time, however, the theatres of Ireland did not overly embrace Parker and in London he was marginalised by his refusal to stop writing about Ireland. Parker was extremely self-critical and saw his choice of material as a vocation, regardless of the consequences.

Stewart Parker succumbed to cancer in 1988. The loss of Parker was a great blow to Belfast’s cultural landscape. His last completed play, Pentecost, was performed by the Field Day theatre company, with Stephen Rea in the main role of Lenny.

Set during the Ulster Worker’s Strike of 1974, the play lasts from Easter to Pentecost, the Christian festival, which commemorates the descent of the Holy Spirit on the apostles. In the play, Parker counterpoints Christian beliefs with the atrocities being carried out in religion’s name on the streets.

Pentecostalism is a popular form of Protestantism in Northern Ireland and Parker concentrates on Protestantism in Pentecost. The play reverberates with lost hope until the controversial ending, where Parker has his characters reaffirm their beliefs and hopes in a quasi religious coda.

Both the play and Parker’s death, on November 2nd 1988, was a telling example of how hope can be lost. Parker was clearly about to become a writer of international note and his death robbed Belfast of its most distinctive and entertaining dramatist.

Further reading:
Northern Star, Heavenly Bodies, Pentecost: Three Plays for Ireland (1989) by Stewart Parker.