Parker, (James) Stewart (1941–88), playwright and writer, was born 20 October 1941 at 86 Larkfield Road, Sydenham, east Belfast, son of George Herbert Parker (1912–96), tailor's cutter, and his wife Isobella (née Lynas; 1913–87). The family was of protestant, skilled, working-class background, ‘an average unionist family without being hardline’; relatives worked in the nearby Harland & Wolff shipyard and Shorts aerospace factory. During his childhood Parker suffered from pleurisy exacerbated by industrial smog; his health caused his family to move out of Belfast towards Hollywood. Parker failed to sit the eleven-plus examination and was sent to a secondary modern school, Ashfield boys’ school, Sydenham. Here he came under the influence of John Malone, an inspiring teacher of English literature whose zeal to emancipate the minds of his pupils was underpinned by Christian socialism and Leavisism. Parker's introduction to theatre came through a school production of the medieval drama ‘Everyman’ in 1955; from around this time he saw himself as a writer. (He was also an active boy scout and birdwatcher; in 1956 he saw the first red-necked phalarope observed in Ireland since 1892.)
Parker succeeded in securing a transfer to a grammar school (Sullivan School, Hollywood) and then went to QUB (1959–64), graduating BA (1963) in English literature. Here he co-founded a student literary magazine, Insight, and mixed with students who were to make their mark on the cultural scene in future decades; they included Derek Mahon, Seamus Deane, Bernard MacLaverty, Stephen Rea, Phil Coulter, and the ‘Group’ presided over by Philip Hobsbaum, members of which were Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley, and James Simmons (qv).
Parker remained acutely conscious of his background; he later attributed his fascination with the mechanics of stagecraft to his artisan background. He compared the experience of watching the 1960 production of ‘Over the bridge’ by Sam Thompson (qv) with his shipyard-worker uncle to being a member of a lost tribe seeing itself in a mirror for the first time. Parker developed a lasting admiration for Thompson (though he met the playwright and labour politician only once); in 1970 he edited Over the bridge for publication and his introduction describes Thompson as having come nearer than anyone else to providing the great missing factor in Northern Ireland politics – ‘a sane and compassionate leader for the protestant working class’.
In 1961, as the result of a kick on the knee while playing football, Parker developed Ewing's sarcoma, a bone cancer which resulted in the amputation of his leg, ending a promising acting career. He spent a year in hospital and described the experience of pain as worse than the amputation. He came to terms with what he had endured in an autobiographical novel, ‘Hop dance’ (undertaken for therapeutic purposes and left unpublished) and a poem sequence, The casualty's meditation (1966). A second novel, the black comedy The tribulations of S. T. Toile, was to be published posthumously. In 1964, driven by a desire to escape from Northern Ireland, Parker took up a teaching position at Hamilton College, New York state. In 1967, after receiving an MA with honours (1966) from QUB for a study of poetic drama (with particular emphasis on its non-realistic elements), he moved to Cornell University, where he expressed sympathy with student protesters during campus disturbances. His impressions of America are reflected in the poetry pamphlet Maw: a journey (1968).
In 1969, having decided that teaching impeded his writing abilities and feeling a need to come to terms with his sense of ‘atavistic attachment’ to his native place, Parker returned to Belfast as a freelance writer. His return coincided with the outbreak of the troubles. In 1971–6 he contributed a music column, ‘High pop’, to the Irish Times. Parker's aesthetic was heavily influenced by popular music (which forms an integral part of many of his works) and cinema; he also admired the Beat poets. He told interviewers that he found official theatre class-bound, and he wrote extensively for television and radio as well as for the stage. He stated that his east Belfast upbringing, with its ambivalent Irishness and Britishness, gave him a sympathy for the urban Jewish sensibility. He believed that in a globalising society, where two dying political myths coexisted uneasily with international popular culture, the task of the artist was to present an image of wholeness to which society might aspire. (Parker made extensive use of Christian symbolism, though he was not a religious believer.) He thought that the Irish theatrical tradition was weakened by the absence of strong intellectual or critical foundations, which might under different circumstances have developed from the work of Sean O'Casey (qv) or the ‘maverick’ Denis Johnston (qv). He respected Brecht but believed that Brecht's English-language admirers adopted an overly didactic approach, failing to grasp, in their assertion of individual freedom, that play and fun were part of the educative experience. Parker's emphasis on verbal wit and dark farce driven by the characters’ confinement within their own illusions, where ‘every joke is a nightmare and every nightmare a joke’, led to accusations of frivolity. ‘It's not intended to be a lighthearted frolic,’ he protested about his first major play, ‘Spokesong’. ‘It's an uncompromising statement based on a gut feeling. Underneath all the jollity on the surface you're watching a man being destroyed’ (Belfast Newsletter, 21 Feb. 1977).
Parker's first significant radio play was ‘The iceberg’ (1975), which features an arrogant Thomas Andrews (qv), chief designer of Harland & Wolff, and the ghosts of two shipyard workers killed in accidents while building the Titanic. In the same year ‘Spokesong’, about a bicycle shop threatened by redevelopment (partly inspired by a local campaign against plans to demolish large areas of inner-city Belfast to build a motorway), won him the London Evening Standard award as most promising young playwright of 1976. ‘Catchpenny twist’ (1977) depicts two cynical songwriters who compose ballads for republicans and loyalists alike before trying to win the Eurovision Song Contest; it was (very remotely) influenced by the killing of Miami Showband members by loyalists. ‘I'm a dreamer, Montreal’, a 1977 radio play about a Belfast showband singer, was adapted for television in 1979, and received the Ewart Biggs memorial prize. ‘Kingdom come’ (1978, with music by Shaun Davey) is a reggae musical set in a Caribbean island on the eve of decolonisation.
In 1978 Parker moved to Edinburgh, declaring that he had left Ireland ‘more or less for good’; he felt that he had exorcised his ghosts, and that Ireland's cultural atmosphere was too thin to support a lifelong career. But he stated: ‘I shall never stop writing about [Belfast] and no matter where I live I will never stop thinking of myself as a Belfast person.’ In 1982 he moved to London. Parker regarded ‘Nightshade’ (1980), a black comedy about an undertaker, as his most personal play, in which he expelled a devastating awareness of death that overcame him in his thirties. His plays for BBC TV Iris in the traffic, Ruby in the rain (1981, about two women wandering around Belfast on the same day – an echo of Stephen and Bloom in Ulysses) and Joyce in June (1982) show the strong influence of James Joyce (qv).
The 1980s saw the realisation of two projects on which Parker had been at work since the late 1960s: Lost belongings (1987) is a six-part TV version of the Deirdre myth, set in contemporary Northern Ireland; and the stage play ‘Northern star’ (1984) presents the life of Henry Joy McCracken (qv) in successive scenes that form a pastiche of the ‘seven ages of the Irish theatre’. The play reflects on the bruised hopes of the 1960s, with which Parker continued to identify himself; the self-regarding romanticism of McCracken is contrasted with the steadfast radicalism of James Hope (qv). Though it received critical acclaim, the numerous local references in ‘Northern star’ give it limited stage appeal outside Northern Ireland. It forms a loosely defined trilogy with ‘Heavenly bodies’ (1986), a heroic farce on the life of Dion Boucicault (qv), and ‘Pentecost’ (1987), in which four characters in a haunted house during the Ulster Workers’ Council strike represent ‘my own generation making its scruffy way onto the stage of history’. At the time of his death Parker was working on a television play in which a gay Mormon missionary appears as a latter-day St Patrick.
Stewart Parker died 2 November 1988 of stomach cancer in London. He is commemorated by the Stewart Parker Trust. His niece Lynne Parker was director of the Rough Magic theatre company. There is no question about the importance of Parker's experiments or the extent of his artistic potential, but critics dispute how far his promise was fulfilled. On 26 August 1964 Parker married Kathleen Ireland. Their marriage ended in divorce, and in his last years he cohabited with the playwright Lesley Bruce, née Barnett. He was childless.