Sunday 16 June 2019

Parker's 'lost treasure' of literature

Fiction: Hopdance Stewart Parker, Edited by Marilynn Richtarik, The Lilliput Press, €12

Belfast poet and playwright Stewart Parker
Belfast poet and playwright Stewart Parker
Deirdre Conroy

Deirdre Conroy

It is no mean feat to resurrect an unfinished manuscript, with stacks of handwritten scenes and assemble them into a posthumous novel. Hopdance is the semi-autobiographical work of the Belfast dramatist, Stewart Parker, whose life was tragically cut short at the age of 47 in 1988. He began the work as a screenplay in early 1970, but never completed more than a few scenes, returning to prose format in 1972.

His editor, Marilynn Richtarik, has submerged herself in his world since working on her master's thesis about the Field Day Theatre Company in 1989. She says of her first experience of Parker's drama, ''I dragged myself along to a Lyric Theatre production of his 1975 play Spokesong… hardly expecting enjoyment from a play set in Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles. Instead, as Parker had intended, I had one of the best theatrical experiences of my life, surprised and delighted by his deployment of songs, trick cycling and vertiginous time shifts to make an hilarious but ultimately serious comment about individual responsibility for communal conflict.''

At the outset in Hopdance we meet Tosh, an aspiring literature student, suffering from the pain of a swollen lump below his knee. By grounding his prose on a very personal and traumatic experience - Parker was diagnosed with a rare form of bone cancer and the consequent amputation of his leg at age 19 - he invites the reader into a complex combination of youthful cynicism, erudition, wit, politics and playtime.

Tosh's unpunctuated dialogue with his tutor and fellow students is essentially Joycean. Fragments of memory, figments of an impressionistic mind are remembered with surrealistic intensity.

A callow youth, in constant pursuit of women, despite having a loyal girlfriend, Prudence, Tosh depicts a frenzied, drunken period of student life in parallel with sectarian chaos in Northern Ireland.

The prose is essentially self-referential, though Parker was determined that the loss of his leg would not interfere with his ambition, his alter ego observes the outside world as somebody with a missing limb, channeling difference.

In a searing definition of the 'artistic impulse' Tosh describes it as ''the obsessive need to rehearse your memory of hell. If you don't enact it from time to time, it'll rend out your heart''.

The author's intellectual playfulness, skipping back and forth in an anachronistic format, could effectively marginalise his style and alienate a reader. Unlike the visual and aural drama of a play, where the audience is engaged empathetically, the voice in a novel must be exceptionally vivid to captivate the reader.

It is Tosh's passion for writing that gives the novel its strength. As he confronts a sneering tutor, he declares: ''The title of writer is one which I intend to win.''

Hopdance combines Parker's preoccupations as a playwright, poet and his homage to Joyce's autobiographical form in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. He has certainly won his place as one of Ireland's leading playwrights.

The Field Day Theatre Company premiered his final play Pentecost with Stephen Rea in the main role of Lenny. Set during the Ulster Workers' Strike of 1974, Parker juxtaposes Christian beliefs with the atrocities carried out in religion's name. The theme of lost hope is constant, until the controversial ending in Pentecost. Demonstrating that hope can be lost, Parker's death validates his fear that cancer would recur, a fear that he suppressed by taking almost two decades to arrange the narrative of Hopdance.

Parker's other work would be well-known to Dublin theatregoers, having been staged by Rough Magic at the Project Arts Centre. His niece, Lynn Parker, creative director of Rough Magic, has championed her uncle's work.

As a child she associates him with Christmas, and recalls a ''magical, somewhat exotic figure, replete with the stylishness of 1960s New York State bohemia, adding saturnalian spice to a jovial but very ordinary family party''. Lynn has directed Heavenly Bodies for the Abbey, but has stated: ''Stewart's work has been horrendously ignored by some of the major institutions.''

Among other celebrated 20th-century classic plays are Catchpenny Twist (1977), Nightshade (1980), Northern Star (1984), as well as numerous award-winning plays for television and radio, such as I'm a Dreamer Montreal and The Kamikaze Ground Staff Reunion Dinner.

The recently launched book contains more than Parker's prose; Richtarik has documented the development of the editing process in her appendices, making this not only a superb model of fiction, but also a source of dramatic and poetic reference for writers and creative writing students alike.

Marilynn Richtarik is a professor of English at Georgia State University, Atlanta, and author of the biography Stewart Parker, A Life (Oxford University Press 2012). She is currently a Fulbright Scholar at Queen's University Belfast.

That Parker's painful, sincere narrative should be published 30 years after his death is testament to his unique appeal.

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