As Marilyn Richtarik states in the opening lines of her remarkable book, the town of Belfast during the 1970s and ‘80s was one of the most inauspicious places in the world for an intellectually and socially committed, boldly adventurous dramatist like Stewart Parker to make his mark.
I experienced the city during two extended visits as guest director at the Lyric Theatre, the leading professional theatre in Northern Ireland. Virtually every facet of life felt tainted by the suspicion and strife between the loyalist Protestant community that had exercised iron-fisted control over politics, government, finance, education, social services and employment since the founding of the state in 1921, and the nationalist Catholic community that had never accepted a partition dividing it from an imagined spiritual home in the Republic of Ireland.
Beginning in the late 1960s, the Northern Irish Civil Rights Association, inspired by a similar movement in the American South, began to demonstrate peacefully but firmly against the wrongs done to the Catholic minority. Instead of reasonably responding to their grievance, the right wing of the Unionist Party dug in its heels and encouraged supporters, many of them lawless thugs, to exert violent means to silence the demonstrators and their cause.
By August 1969, at the height of the “marching season” during which loyalists traditionally celebrate historic Protestant victories (along with their continued ascendency over Catholics), sectarian disturbances between the two communities became so intense that the government asked Westminster to send troops to restore order. At first, Catholics welcomed the British Army as defenders against the brutal tactics of Northern Ireland’s corrupt and unruly police force. In a short time, however, the equally brutal behavior of British soldiers towards Catholics made them symbols of the very authoritarianism the civil rights movement resisted.
The conflict escalated to another level of discord with the emergence of the Irish Republican Army as the legitimate protector of Catholic interests. Soon, the IRA turned a once non-violent protest movement into a revolutionary campaign designed to remove the British presence in Northern Ireland by any means possible, including physical force.
Violence quickly became the modus operandi on both sides of the sectarian divide, one bloody act of terrorism succeeded by another in reprisal. The center of Belfast during my time there in the late 1970s was a No Man’s Land surrounded by barbed wire. One entered through checkpoints guarded by soldiers. Ordinary people proceeded with their lives as best they could.
One lunch time during a break from rehearsals, I took a walk. Suddenly I became aware of a young soldier hidden in the bushes across the street, his rifle pointed at my head. As I stopped in alarm, he suddenly grinned. Like a teen-aged bully, he continued to exert his power, brandishing his rifle as I went on my way.
Another morning, I came to rehearsal to find a huddle of nervous actors discussing the murder of two soldiers the night before only blocks from the theatre. Foolishly, the soldiers had accepted an invitation from a couple of girls to visit their room. Within moments of their arrival, the door crashed open. Masked gunmen opened fire. The IRA added another couple of enemy casualties to its bloody list.
As I also soon learned, politics heavily determined the repertoire of the Lyric Theatre, like everything else in Northern Ireland.
I had been invited to direct a group of plays by William Butler Yeats, a dramatist with a long association at the Lyric. I suggested we produce Cathleen ni Houlihan, an early play of the Irish Revival usually interpreted as an inspiration of the 1916 Easter Rising, though I read it as a much more ambiguous message about violence as an agent of political change. The board of directors issued fierce objections, but eventually the theatre approved my choice. The production did what I hoped it would, provoking criticism from both nationalists and loyalists. It challenged assumptions about the way things happened in Ireland.
Stewart Parker would have approved, I think.
One comes away from reading Richtarik’s critical biography with an enormous respect for her subject and herself. Combining perspectives of historian and social critic, along with training as a scholar of literature and theater, Richtarik provides an appreciation of the life and work of an unduly neglected Irish dramatist. Her devotion to Parker and to advancing his reputation—clearly a labor of love, lasting almost 20 years, from 1993 to 2012—involved research in England, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland, the United States, and Canada.
Richtarik’s heroic advocacy is matched only by the heroism of Parker himself in pursuing his lonely, difficult craft against incredible obstacles. It stands as a testimony to her achievement that one emerges from Richtarik’s book with the desire to experience productions of Parker’s plays—not just because of his exceptional talent, but because of the lasting significance of his ideas.
Parker was born in October 1941 to a working class Protestant family. Belfast had been heavily damaged the previous summer by German air attacks that left hundreds dead and 15,000 homeless. Despite wartime deprivations, Parker enjoyed a relatively happy childhood.
Both his parents loved music, in his mother’s case mostly rousing Baptist hymn tunes, in his father’s a repertoire ranging from sacred a cappella music to the cowboy songs of Gene Autry, performed with a professional singing group called The Sundowners. Parker’s father built him a guitar. He taught himself to play it in his teens, becoming an accomplished performer. For the rest of his life, Parker regaled his friends with his musical talents, the life of the party.
Early musical interests continued to inform his work as a playwright. Often Parker wrote into the wee hours of the morning listening to music (usually early choral or instrumental pieces) and drinking whiskey. (He claimed the spirits help him access his “dream consciousness.”)
From 1970 to 1976, Parker supported himself by writing an influential column on popular music for The Irish Times. Believing Randy Newman and Joni Mitchell the best poets of the day, he covered a wide range of music, folk to soul, and included James Taylor, The Grateful Dead, Van Morrison, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Dylan, and The Beatles.
Not surprisingly, Parker’s plays seem notable for their musicality as expressed in the restlessly fluid nature of their non-linear structure and also their deployment of music (particularly songs) as a means of lifting the action out of the narrow confines of realism. In the manner of Brecht, he combined education with entertainment. In pursuing a dramaturgical mode of musical theatre, Parker belongs to a long tradition of Irish playwrights stretching from 19th-century melodrama writer Dion Boucicault to Yeats, Lady Gregory, Sean O’Casey, Brendan Behan, and such contemporary writers as Brian Friel, Tom Murphy, and Enda Walsh, author of the recent Tony Award-winning hit Once.
From his earliest schooldays, Parker felt conscious of Northern Ireland as merely “a step child of the United Kingdom,” as he put it, with nothing in the literature, history, art, or music to suggest that he and his peers actually lived on a separate island called Ireland. He could not discern any indigenous cultural activity of note, historically or in the present.
That blinkered perception began to change for Parker when he entered Queen’s University, Belfast, in 1959. For the first time, he encountered a group of Catholic and Protestant students determined to break out of the stifling confines of the social atmosphere where they had grown up, a place where, as Seamus Heaney wrote, “The very words Protestant and Catholic defined the no-go areas of human relationships.”
Parker enrolled in the Honours English program. He quickly learned that virtually no Irish literature appeared in the curriculum. As Heaney again recalled of his time at Queen’s (it overlapped with that of Parker’s), he encountered only one scholarly discussion of Yeats as an Irish writer, and that a dismissive reading of the “dreaminess of Yeats’ early style.” Parker bitterly summed up the prevailing views of his instructors, mostly British, this way: Northern Ireland was “the back end of nowhere…”
As in most Irish and English universities, then and now, the truly formative experience of Parker’s undergraduate education occurred outside the classroom.
Chief among co-curricular activities turned out to be the high-profile Dramatic Society. Here Parker began to exercise fledgling talents as an actor, director, and writer. Parker also founded and edited a student literary magazine noted for its high standards and its exploration of a variety of topics—James Joyce, quantum mechanics, eugenics, existentialism, the Common Market—that reflected the growing intellectual interests of the young editor. Like most of his friends and collaborators, Parker saw himself on the left politically.
Particular interests included the Civil Rights movement in the United States and the African-American roots of jazz. Parker also studied the American Beats, whose sense of disaffection with the status quo rang a bell with a new generation in Northern Ireland that sought, as Parker did, to rid itself of the shackles of “tribal malevolence the most enduring and least tractable, the deepest evil in our inheritance.”
So Parker began to formulate the political and social convictions that would guide his creative work for the rest of his life.
Several other experiences proved formative. Perhaps the most important occurred at the age of 19 when his left leg developed bone cancer and had to be amputated above the knee. After three months of painful recovery, Parker resumed life as a student as if nothing had happened.
Something fundamental changed, though. As Parker wrote in an autobiographical sketch for the BBC years later, the amputation played a crucial role in shaping his mature personality. “The process of coping with that reality uncovered a stability and serenity that I had wanted as long as I could remember.”
Through his own suffering, Parker learned the great lesson of how to cope with adversity through detachment, a gift that would serve him well in many trials he faced trying to survive as an artist and human being.
The wisdom he derived from his own suffering also provided a lived understanding of what he described as a tragic vision of life, a vision that functions, as he put it, “in and of its time but pursues a truth which is timeless and universal.” Such a way of being, he said, “tries to make coherent the most terrible impulses in the human heart, but ultimately concedes a mystery at the core of it.”
Parker held profound social commitments, but not like those of Yeats, whose tragic art enfolded a concern with social problems in a larger spiritual framework. Parker proclaimed instead that tragedy “doesn’t deal with issues at all.” With a keen awareness of the brutal realities of daily life in Northern Ireland, Parker called for the creation of an art that “deals with the destruction of the soul by historical communal forces which are more powerful than the individual will.”
The other formative influence on the development of Parker’s growing artistic commitments occurred through his involvement, while at Queen’s, with a number of remarkably talented fellow students.
These became known as the Belfast Writer’s Group. Their leader, Philip Hobsbaum, a charismatic young professor of English, had recently come to Queen’s carrying a profound love and knowledge of literature, a dazzling ability as a lecturer, and a circle of influential friends in the publishing world of London.
Hobsbaum carefully assembled a group, by invitation. Members met once a week at his house to share and discuss their most recent writing. The two stars? Parker and Seamus Heaney.
As Heaney later recalled, Hobsbaum insisted that members write out of their own unique experience of Northern Ireland, a novel concept. For Heaney, this resulted in poems of his rural Derry background that led to his early fame. For Parker, from the rough streets of Belfast, Hobsbaum’s encouragement gave all he needed to focus on the complex and contradictory urgencies of his native city and the struggle of ordinary citizens to survive horrific circumstances.
Parker brought to his art the same exactitude of detail and formalist sensibility as Heaney. But Parker was a dramatist. As such, he needed supportive collaborative directors, actors, designers, and stage technicians capable of realizing his singular vision. Also, as an urban artist working in the heart of the Troubles, the plays of Parker directly concerned the immediate and historic causes of the strife in Northern Ireland. Finding a receptive audience for that kind of challenging work would prove a problem throughout his entire career.
In a revealing autobiographical statement, Parker described the situation of growing up in a Protestant working-class household:
You’re led to believe you’re British, yet the English don’t recognize you as such. On the other hand, you’re Irish because you’re born in Ireland, but the people in the Free State [the Republic of Ireland] don’t recognize you as such. The working class element adds another dimension, because you are alienated from the Unionist establishment. You feel conversant with all those things, but not obliged to any of them.
Parker ultimately came to think of himself as an Irish nationalist—indeed, a republican. Yet he believed that Northern nationalists had it wrong in viewing partition as the root rather than the symptom of their problems. He also believed that religious and political differences were not the real cause of the division between the Catholic and Protestant communities of Northern Ireland. Instead, he proposed that both sides needed to recognize that each held legitimate claim to an Irish identity. Catholics needed to acknowledge the right of Protestants to be considered fellow Irishmen. Protestants, in turn, needed to cast off their British dependency and acknowledge their own Irishness. Catholics also needed to take an active role in understanding and appreciating the distinct cultural contributions of Protestants to the culture of Ireland as a whole.
“Not until the North can put words to its sense of selfhood,” he stated, “will the island become united again, whether the Border goes or stays.”
Richtarik brilliantly demonstrates the mission of Parker as artist, to establish a distinct Northern Irish selfhood by providing through his plays a living embodiment of the history and values actually shared by Protestants and Catholics. Just as he had consciously purged himself of the bigotry, Puritanism, and resentment of his own tribal attachments, so Parker worked to achieve a similar equanimity in the minds and hearts of his audience.
As a writer, Parker particularly looked to the example of James Joyce. He admired Joyce’s inclusiveness and vision, as well as his humor, verbal dexterity, positive energy, and, above all, his “decent generosity.” Just as Joyce obsessed over affectionately recording the lives of his fellow Dubliners, so Parker set out to celebrate the wonderfully tough-minded, high-spirited, resilient people of Belfast.
In his all-too-short life of 46 years (Parker died of stomach cancer in November 1987), he wrote an astonishing 23 plays for radio, television and the stage. As Richtarik notes, the very fact that he earned his living as a professional writer under extraordinarily challenging circumstances (including that he never found a permanent home for his creative work), stands as a considerable accomplishment.
Parker rightly considered his rich and varied body of work as a playwright to be his major achievement. Yet only one of his plays, Spokesong (1975), actually achieved international recognition. Significantly, it had to wait for its first Belfast production until 1989, as the challenges of the play lay far beyond the resource of any theater there. Even so, in some ways it is the Parker play most deeply rooted in the spirit of Belfast.
Spokesong depicts a bicycle shop owner who rebels against the plans of Belfast city fathers to build a motorway that would destroy the center of Belfast along with its historic neighborhoods. Frank, owner of the shop, hatches a plan to ban motor vehicles entirely in favor of a fleet of 50,000 free bicycles, in effect returning control over personal life to ordinary people. The resistance offers a metaphor for the need to preserve human values against the depersonalization of life in a modern world.
A quite different side of Parker’s art comes in three history plays: Northern Star (1984), Heavenly Bodies (1986) and Pentecost (1987). Richtarik considers these Parker’s best works. He aimed to explore the Troubles—and the troubled relationship between Protestants and Catholics—by placing that relationship in historical context: “How do you cope with the present when the past is still unfinished?”
Northern Star focuses on what is perhaps the most remarkable, but little-known, chapter in the entire history of Northern Ireland.
The United Irishmen, a group of middle-class Presbyterians, lived in Belfast in the 1790s. They set out to redress wrongs done to both the Protestant Dissenters and Catholics of Ireland under the British Crown and its representatives in Dublin. Inspired by the political and social ideas of the Scottish Enlightenment and the American and French Revolutions, they succeeded in founding the republican movement that ultimately led to the independence of Ireland from British rule.
Parker wrote the play partly through his belief that Protestants needed to understand their part in the national story. He chose as the hero of his play one of the most gallant leaders of the United Irishmen, a lawyer of Scottish heritage named Henry Joy McCracken, executed for his part in the failed Rebellion of 1798.
The play unfolds in seven scenes, each written in a different style modeled after seven major Irish dramatists, all Protestants: Sean O’Casey, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, Dion Boucicault, John Millington Synge, and Samuel Beckett. The play climaxes in a nightmarish gallows scene in which McCracken expresses his apprehension about a horrific Irish future … a future that actually came to pass:
A place of perpetual breakdown, incompatible voices screeching obscenely away through the smoky dark wet…. We can’t love it for what it is, only for it might have been, if we got it right… We never made a nation. Our brainchild. Stillborn. Our own fault. We botched the birth. So what if the English do bequeath us to one another someday? What then? When there’s nobody to blame except ourselves?
The lasting failure of the United Irishmen? Their lofty ideals foundered in the sea of violence and sectarianism that emerged from the debacle of the 1798 Rebellion. As Parker sees and portrays it in his play, this failure contained the seeds of the entire failed state of Northern Ireland.
Astonishingly, when Northern Star premiered in November 1984 at the Lyric Theater, it arrived as the first Parker play ever to open in Belfast. The BBC Northern Ireland commissioned many of Parker’s radio and television plays, but Parker considered them mostly hack work that paid the bills. Mass media, he felt, proved inimical to work of a serious nature. It was programmed to reach people in the “inner sanctum” of their own homes, and for this reason felt “relentlessly cheerful, mechanically chirpy and bright-eyed, intimate, domestic, triviology.”
Heaney, always a friend and admirer of Parker, stated his lasting legacy: He gave the people of Northern Ireland “a renewal of trust in the possibility of trust itself.”
Despite such respect, the dreary grind of not only creating work but having to promote it to audiences completely indifferent to its meaning or significance, wore Parker out. In a 1985 diary note, he wrote, “Exhaustion is clearly not far away these days and I am terrified of being entirely overcome by it.” Two years later he was dead.
As with Parker, integrity also stands as the hallmark of the eloquent and brave endeavor of biographer Richtarik. She honors the life and work of Stewart Parker as it deserved to have been honored while he was still alive.
One can only hope that her labor of love finds an equivalent response not just in the world of academia but in the practical world of the living theater. That’s where the work of an artist like Parker is sorely needed—nowhere more so than in Northern Ireland among the people he most wanted to reach.
James W. Flannery is Director of the W.B. Yeats Foundation and Winship Professor Emeritus of the Arts and Humanities at Emory University. He was the first American ever to direct at The Abbey Theatre, The National Theatre of Ireland founded by W.B. Yeats, and he is widely recognized as one of the most notable Irish-Americans in the United States.