By Marilynn Richtarik
Stewart who? That’s okay — I’m used to starting at the beginning.
(1) Stewart Parker just might be the most important Irish writer you’ve never heard of. Born in 1941, he began his career as a poet, tried his hand at experimental prose, and eventually dedicated himself to drama. His plays for radio, television, and the stage engage with historical events to offer a range of perspectives on the political and sectarian conflicts in his native Northern Ireland, while managing at the same time to be vastly entertaining. His best-known plays include Spokesong about a Belfast bicycle salesman obsessed with his dead grandparents; Northern Star which focused on Henry Joy McCracken, one of the real-life leaders of the eighteenth-century United Irish movement; and Pentecost, set during the Ulster Workers’ Council Strike of 1974, in which four of Parker’s contemporaries share a house with the ghost of its longtime inhabitant.
(2) He wrote the first regular pop music column for the Irish Times, introducing Irish readers to musicians and bands such as Joni Mitchell and Steely Dan. Most of his plays also feature music. Spokesong, for example, includes songs that evoke styles spanning eighty years. Catchpenny Twist centers on a pair of song-writers. Kingdom Come, co-written with Irish composer Shaun Davey, is an Irish-Caribbean musical set on a fictional island where the political configuration bears an uncanny resemblance to Northern Ireland’s.
(3) He grew up in a Protestant, unionist family in industrial east Belfast. Many writers from this part of the island (C. S. Lewis, for example, whose birthplace lies within walking distance of Parker’s) neither consider themselves Irish nor are seen as such by others. Parker did regard himself as Irish, even an Irish nationalist, but his “British” background may help to explain why he has often been overlooked by people with an interest in Irish literature.
(4) He took after James Joyce in his determination to capture the multifarious life of the city of his birth. Other things he appreciated about Joyce included his sense of humor, “verbal felicity,” “positive vision of life,” and penchant for “using actual information about things in a way that transcends documentary and gives you an insight into people’s lives, relationships and history.” All of these also characterize Parker’s own writing and make it worthy of close study.
(5) He lost his left leg to a rare form of bone cancer at age 19. Living as an amputee gave him a greater appreciation than most of us of the things that human beings have in common, chief among these mortality. His consciousness of the frailty of human bodies and the finitude of human existence reinforced his intolerance of violence and the arbitrary distinctions that divide people from one another.
(6) He belonged to the original Belfast Writers’ Group, founded by English poet and academic Philip Hobsbaum in 1963. Hobsbaum had a keen eye for talent, and he considered two members of the group especially promising. One of these, Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney, you probably do know something about. The other was Stewart Parker.
(7) He spent five formative years in the United States. From 1964 to 1969, Parker taught at Hamilton College and Cornell University, both in upstate New York, and witnessed the civil rights and anti-war movements as an interested outsider. His American sojourn decisively shaped his political consciousness and sense of purpose as a writer, prompting him to return to Northern Ireland in order to be more than an observer of social transformation.
(8) He arrived home in August 1969, the same week, coincidentally, that British troops were sent to Belfast to try to restore order there after days of sectarian rioting. Little did anyone know at the time that this round of Ireland’s periodic “Troubles” would last for nearly thirty years. Parker remained in Belfast until 1978, living through the worst of the violence there and storing up impressions that he would later draw on as a dramatist.
(9) He died of stomach cancer in 1988 at the age of 47. His early and abrupt demise has been largely responsible for obscuring his achievement.
(10) He was a fine person as well as a great writer. As even the most casual student of literature knows, the two do not always go together, but in Parker’s case they did. Having spent twenty years working on his biography, I should know. This book is dedicated “to the friends of Stewart Parker, old and new.” Maybe, soon, you will be one of them.
Marilynn Richtarik is an Associate Professor of English at Georgia State University in Atlanta. Her two books, Acting Between the Lines: The Field Day Theatre Company and Irish Cultural Politics 1980-1984 and Stewart Parker: A Life, are both published by Oxford University Press.