Ten years ago, we saw Anna Manahan on stage in Dublin in Martin McDonagh’s black comedy, ‘The Beauty Queen of Leenane’. Going to the theatre on a Dublin summer’s evening seemed an occasion for casual clothes; an open necked shirt and chinos seemed in keeping with most of the audience. Many of the seats around us were occupied by American visitors, who must have travelled with very full suitcases, for some of the women were in evening dress, with ankle length skirts. They took the occasion with the utmost seriousness; while most of us had gone along to enjoy an evening of humour, they treated the experience with an altogether greater degree of gravitas.
Watching RTE’s ‘Cloch Le Carn’ programme reflect on the life of Anna Manahan, who died last year, there was a feeling that perhaps the Americans were those appropriately dressed. The Tony award winning Manahan was an extraordinary woman, but one much more personal moment of her story struck home.
While a young woman, Manahan went touring to Egypt with Michael MacLiammoir, Hilton Edwards and her new husband Colm O’Kelly. O’Kelly went for a swim in the Nile and contracted polio on a Thursday and died the following Tuesday. Manahan and O’Kelly had been married just ten months; the evening after losing her husband, Anna Manahan went on stage to play her part as scheduled.
At a time when almost every serious programme seems to come with the announcement that anyone affected by the issues raised can phone a helpline, Anna Manahan’s stoicism seems something from another age. Sitting beside a lady at a senior citizens’ dinner yesterday who remembered with clarity the events of the Second World War and the need to simply get up, dust oneself down and carry on, the question arises whether a generation raised on a diet of counsellors for every eventuality is better able to cope with the horrible realities that inevitably arise in everyone’s lives.
A BBC Radio 4 programme in 2005 to mark the sixtieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War featured a series of personal recollections. One man talked of heading to school in the company of his mother and a classmate when a bomb exploded in the street. His classmate disappeared under the rubble and was never again seen alive. The man’s mother had later taken him on to the school and told him to apologize to his teacher for being late. The man believed it was the only way they could have coped; no amount of discussion was going to change things.
What would modern analysis suggest regarding Anna Manahan’s behaviour in going on stage even though her husband has just died? Probably that she was anaesthetised by the shock, even in denial about what had happened. Maybe so, but she coped with her bereavement and went on to become a world-acclaimed actress.
Horrible stuff can’t be talked away. Maybe Manahan and the man who lost his friend were right; sometimes you just have to get up and get on.