Playwright Stewart Parker was born in October 1941, some months after the Belfast Blitz, and wrote that he carried pre-natal memories of that event. He speculated over whether memory begins in the womb, or whether "I dreamed the scene so intensely, it became true: and this kind of truth, the truth of memory and literature, is more important than the trivial reality of what actually happened." This conception of truth is reflected in Parker's aesthetic, with his imaginative, even absurdist, explorations of life, death and the Troubles. He wrote for radio, television and stage, but following his premature death in 1988, his work all but disappeared from the theatre repertory. His niece Lynne Parker directed Pentecost in Dublin in 1995, but it was not until this century that he attracted sustained critical interest.
Marilynn Richtarik's biography sets out to explore the relationship between Parker and Belfast in the wider context of Irish artistic exile. Meticulously researched and detailed, the book situates the author against the backdrop of Belfast from the 1940s through the 1980s, tracing his networks of collaborators and friends in the US, the UK and the Republic of Ireland, and offering a rich portrait of a particular time and place. Her description of Parker's early years and university studies identifies significant experiences for him - for example, his engagement with the artistic and literary circles being formed in the 1960s around Philip Hobsbaum, then a lecturer at Queen's University Belfast.
Briefly that decade it appeared that Northern Ireland was on the brink of an artistic revolution: Parker founded the literary magazine Interest, which published the creative writing of Hobsbaum's Belfast Group, and he and his fellow students staged their own work as well as plays by contemporary playwrights in the group DramSoc, and organised the first Belfast Festival at Queen's in 1961. The members of his group were influenced by the Beat movement and were conscious of themselves as a generation that came of age in the era of potential mass nuclear destruction. Other significant influences on Parker were his commitment to working-class politics, the tension between his intellectual ambition and his working-class family, and his loss of a leg to bone cancer before his 20th birthday. This last experience shaped his work ethic, his awareness of the shortness of life and his dark, absurd sense of humour. Richtarik traces his journey from Belfast to the US where he taught at Hamilton College in New York State and later Cornell University during the civil rights movement, his return to Belfast during the worst years of the Troubles, and his move to London in 1982.
In her record of Parker's life and work, Richtarik charts the deterioration of Belfast from a city on the brink of cultural blossoming to a society sundered by civil war, its citizens reluctant to venture into the public spaces of pubs and restaurants, and frightened of speaking openly in front of possibly hostile listeners. Parker's approach was to treat this as grotesque and darkly comic, reflecting the surreal quality of daily life in his creative work. Richtarik situates his writing in this social and cultural context, exploring how he reacted to events in the city, his ambivalence about his final exile, and his involvement in community politics and urban development as well as the arts.
With 79 pages of notes, this is a valuable contribution to Irish theatre scholarship. It is not a work of theatre criticism, however: it is a vivid, engaging portrait of a talented and charismatic man, and, through his life and work, a portrait of a city in turmoil.
Stewart Parker: A Life
By Marilynn Richtarik
Oxford University Press
Published 6 September 2012