Stewart Parker: A Life by Marilyn Richtarik Review

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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.

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