The Book of Irish Writers, Chapter 50 Stewart Parker, 1941-1988


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The Book of Irish Writers, Chapter 50 - Stewart Parker, 1941-1988

Stewart Parker was interested in everything.

His plays deal with topics as diverse as the Titanic, bicycles, politics, pop music, magic, James Joyce, history, clowns, Dion Boucicault, religion, and urban planning!

But this represents only a fraction of the energy and ideas that he generated.
Parker was born in Sydenham in 1941 into a protestant working-class family. He was educated at Ashfield Boys’ Secondary School where he was introduced to drama. As Parker put it:
I thereby experienced for the first time that heady and highly addictive sensation of putting one over on an audience.
In 1959 Parker went to Queen’s University. While he was a student he contracted bone cancer and had to have a leg amputated. This appears not to have slowed him down; nothing apparently ever did!
Parker was a member of the Belfast Group, the gathering of young writers assembled in the early 1960s by the academic Philip Hobsbaum. It included Seamus Heaney, who has recently said:
I think Philip’s favourite was Stewart Parker, but Stewart went off after the first or second meeting.
This was because he was on the move to America - in 1964 - where he taught at Hamilton College and then Cornell University. He moved back to Belfast in 1969 and was immediately involved in a whirl of projects: a pop music column for the Irish Times, a novel (never published), and work on a play based on the old Irish legend of Deirdre and Naoise.

Although he had been involved with theatre for some time, he had also written poetry and fiction. Now, in the early 1970s, he fixed his attention fully on drama.

In 1975, when he was 34, his stage play Spokesong was a runaway hit at the Dublin Theatre Festival and transferred to both London and New York. At a time when many felt that urban redevelopment was progress, Parker protested against it on the grounds that it would wreck communities, and destroy the fabric of Belfast. In Spokesong the main character, Frank Stock, echoes Parker’s views:
It’s brutal. It’s demented. Ripping out houses and shops and people – whole communities – so that you can truss up the city centre with enormous roads.

Spokesong sets the tone for Parker’s work. It’s a play about ideas of progress and about the Troubles. But it’s also a play in which music features strongly - and we’re given a history of the bicycle which requires a character to ride a unicycle! Parker believed that theatre should be fun and playful –
Play is how we test the world and register its realities. Play is how we experiment, imagine, invent, and move forward. Play is above all how we enjoy the earth and celebrate our life upon it.
All of his work would follow this pattern of taking serious subjects and treating them playfully. He wrote for radio and television as well as the stage, determined to reach as wide an audience as possible.
He was extremely prolific after Spokesong, but his major works for theatre were what he called his three plays for Ireland in the 1980s.

Northern Star from 1984 is about the United Irishmen’s Rising of 1798 and focuses on the Belfast man Henry Joy McCracken. His story is told in a series of theatrical styles which parody Irish playwrights from George Farquhar to Brendan Behan. Parker’s love of Belfast comes through strongly in McCracken’s wish

to be able to walk freely again from Stranmillis down to Ann Street … cut through Pottinger’s Entry and across the road for a drink in Peggy’s … to dander on down Waring Street and examine the shipping along the river, and back on up to our old house …
The poignancy of the speech comes from McCracken’s knowledge that his last walk though Belfast will be to the scaffold to be hung as a rebel.
Parker’s next play, Heavenly Bodies from 1986, is about Ireland’s great but roguish nineteenth-century man of the theatre, Dion Boucicault. This combines an examination of the political responsibilities of the writer at times of political violence - with a comic double act between Boucicault and Johnny Paterson, an Irish clown!
Pentecost in 1987 is a play in which the fun is somewhat more muted. Set during the Ulster Workers’ Council Strike of 1974 it attempts to provide a model of reconciliation.
In the same year Parker’s six-part television series, Lost Belongings, was broadcast. This was a retelling of the Deirdre legend – that beautiful and doomed girl of Irish myth - on what he called The fierce, drab, absurd streets of Belfast .

When Stewart Parker died in 1988 aged only 47, he had written some 20 plays for radio, television and theatre.

We will never know what more he might have done.

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