Stewart Parker: A Life by Marilynn Richtarik (review)
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Stewart Parker: A Life, by Marilynn Richtarik, pp. 329. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. $58 (cloth); $40 (paper).

Marilynn Richtarik’s Stewart Parker: A Life offers a detailed biography of one of the most thought-provoking writers of his generation. Born in 1941, Parker emerged from his working-class East Belfast roots to become an original member of the Belfast Writers’ Group and in time, a playwright who oversaw productions of his plays in New York, London, Dublin, and other cities across the globe. Cancer cut Parker’s life short at the age of forty-seven. The extent of his diverse output—poetry, short stories, plays, newspaper columns, essays, theater reviews, editorials, teleplays, radio plays, and films—belied his relatively young age.

As the first book-length consideration of Parker and his work, Richtarik’s study is an accomplishment on its own right. The author states that she approached writing this biography invested in telling the story of a “charismatic and courageous person.” She guides us through the highs and lows of Parker’s professional, personal, and physical life, while also navigating the political and social backdrop of Northern Ireland in the 1970s and 80s. Her greater achievement is to draw attention to Parker as a humanist and dramatist. Stewart Parker: A Life reveals a complex writer who infused his work with the histories of the island; who wrote life-affirming plays with an optimistic spirit; and who challenged sectarianism during a turbulent time in the North’s history.

Richtarik situates her inquiry primarily on the “relationship between Stewart Parker and Belfast,” largely a love-hate relationship with his native city. Parker suffered a continual crisis of identity and believed that he lived in a “no-mans land.” He moved away from Belfast several times, and lived abroad for most of his playwriting years; nonetheless, Richtarik writes, his hometown never left him nor did the idea of a “Belfast identity.” Parker was born into what he later called “’an average Unionist family, without being hardline,’” and yet his allegiances were never fixed. He preferred an identity as an independent thinker with a nonsectarian outlook. Richtarik expounds on how Parker’s Belfast identity made [End Page 151] him feel like an exile in his homeland, considered too British in the Republic, too Irish in Britain, and yet neither entirely British nor Irish. She explains, “The image of no man’s land recurs in Parker’s commentary on Northern Ireland, and it epitomizes how he saw himself in relation to his native place. He belonged to the North, he readily admitted, yet the very nature of his belonging ensured that, emotionally, he would always be an outsider. No man’s land was his own precarious ‘home’: unclaimed ground between two warring sides, riddled with ambiguity.” Parker negotiated his Protestant Unionist upbringing with his Irish nationalist affinities alongside enormous sectarian strife. Richtarik concludes that it was the “Troubles” that made Parker into a “Belfast playwright.” Parker the writer and Parker the man came to be powerfully attached to this place; he compellingly commented on present-day Belfast by way of the past, in what were to be famously known as his “Belfast history plays.”

The book is divided into fourteen chapters, with such titles as “A British Boyhood,” “‘Calling Myself a Writer,’” “Living in Interesting Times,” “Suddenly Somebody,” and “Leaps of Faith.” The first chapter centers on Parker’s early life. He began writing at the age of thirteen, and by fifteen, he realized he wanted to make a living at it. Richtarik stresses that writing as a career choice was a “huge ambition for a working-class boy in the mid-1950s—in Belfast, of all places.” The next chapters revolve around his studies at Queen’s University and a cancer diagnosis at age nineteen that required his left leg to be amputated while still at university. Facing death at such an early age deeply influenced his writing from that moment on. In 1987, Richtarik notes, Parker admitted that he wrote plays because he was “much obsessed by death; and by the spiritual void from which many of us have to confront it. Images present themselves to...