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Stewart Parker, A Life

Marilynn Richtarik

Parker's aim of holding a mirror up to Belfast never faltered. Shortly before he died he wrote a synopsis for a screenplay about an upwardly mobile couple who own a wine bar and a sportswear boutique, signalling his intention to continue to explore new facets of life in Belfast.

In 1976, Parker discussed Joyce, his greatest influence, in terms that also describe what makes his own work compelling, citing his sense of humour, 'verbal felicity', and 'positive vision of life'. Perhaps most important to Parker, Joyce 'had a sense of the poetry of fact, of using actual information about things in a way that tran­scends documentary and gives you an insight into people's lives, relationships and history'. Both men put extensive research into their writing, but the work they produced combines meticulous attention to detail with radical formal experimen­tation. For his play Nightshade (1980), which features an undertaker, Parker stud­ied the theory of embalming but also decided that his protagonist should be an amateur magician. One of the main characters in Spokesong, a play inspired by the historical fact that John Boyd Dunlop invented the pneumatic tyre in Belfast, is the Trick Cyclist, who punctuates the action with fancy riding and cabaret songs, in addition to taking several parts in the play. In Northern Star, Parker underlines the way in which decisions made in the 1790s continued to influence Irish politics in the 1970s and beyond by including in the play seven scenes corresponding to the seven ages of man and seven stages of the United Irish movement, each written in the style of a different Irish dramatist. 'I've always loved theatricality', Parker remarked in 1985. 'Playwrights write for themselves in that sense. You write the sort of plays you've always wanted to see.'

Despite his tragically foreshortened life, Parker produced a rich and varied body of work. However, a number of factors have combined to obscure his achievement. The first has to do with the nature of drama itself. Most artists deal with commercial constraints to a certain extent, but playwrights are at the mercy of the whims and priorities of others to an extraordinary degree. In the other liter­ary genres, a writer controls, more or less, the final form of his or her work. A dramatist does not have this privilege. A script, no matter how polished, is only the blueprint for a performance. Unless a play is produced, and produced well, it cannot achieve its apotheosis. Unfortunately, as Parker learned early in his career, 'It needs a combination of good luck and miraculous intervention to get a play presented properly.'

First, a playwright (or his or her agent) has to interest a producer in the script. Someone appropriate must be found to direct it. Then, actors need to be recruited to play the characters. These, ideally, should be the right age and have the right 'look' for their roles, as well as having the talents and skills to perform them con­vincingly. There are also a host of other people who contribute to a play's success or lack of it: the set, lighting, and costume designers; composer; musicians; construction crew; stage manager; house manager; and so on. But even when the people with whom you wish to work also want to work with you, they may not be available to do so. The most committed producers may be unable to find a suitable venue in which to mount the play, or the dates offered by a desirable venue may be less than desirable. And even with all the goodwill and theatrical…..