Manning, Mary (1906–99), playwright, novelist, and critic, was born on 30 June 1905 in Dublin, the eldest of three children, to Fitzmaurice Manning, a civil servant in the colonial service, and his wife Susan (née Bennett), sister of the suffragist and peace activist Louie Bennett (qv). Manning’s father was a distant figure to his children: his work kept him abroad for two-year periods at a time, and he was killed in 1918 whilst serving in West Africa during the first world war, leaving the family in straitened circumstances. Her mother ran a celebrated teashop, ‘The sod of turf’ in Dublin city which was much frequented by writers and poets. When her mother inherited money, the family moved to Wellington Place and Mary was educated at Morehampton House school and Alexandra College.
On leaving school, Manning studied acting at the Abbey School under the auspices of Sara Allgood (qv) and Ria Mooney (qv). She had small parts with the Irish Players in England, and with the Abbey, before joining the Gate Theatre as publicity manager where she founded and edited Motley, the theatre’s short-lived but influential magazine that published the works of Austin Clarke (qv), Frank O’Connor (qv), Francis Stuart (qv) and Mainie Jellett (qv), among others. Micheál MacLiammóir (qv), who appeared in her first play, ‘Youth’s the season…?’ (1931), wrote that ‘her brain, nimble and observant as it was, could not yet keep pace with a tongue so caustic that even her native city was a little in awe of her’ (All for Hecuba, 146), but he also noted her impulsive sympathy. The play was well-received and subsequent critics have termed it one of the most accomplished first plays ever seen in Dublin. Unique in dealing with Dublin high life, it had a note of sardonic disillusionment and was given the modernist touch by the presence of an eerily silent character, Egosmith, included at the suggestion of Manning’s lifelong friend Samuel Beckett. She wrote two further plays for the Gate, ‘Storm over Wicklow’ (1933), which was also well-received, and ‘Happy family’ (1934), which was less so. Neither were subsequently published.
In 1935 Manning emigrated to America, where she married Harvard law professor and civil rights activist Mark de Wolfe Howe. The couple settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and had three daughters: the poets Susan and Fanny Howe, and the sculptor Helen Howe Braider. She wrote her first novel Mount Venus (1938) and continued to engage with theatre in Cambridge. She initially ran the Radcliffe drama programme, where she directed a young Jack Lemmon as Christy in a student production of ‘The playboy of the western world’, and in 1950 she founded a small theatre company known as the Poets’ Theatre, which became a site of pioneering experimental verse drama, setting young American writers such as John Ashbury, Richard Eberhard, Alison Lurie and Frank O’Hara on their paths to long and illustrious careers. In 1952 the Poets’ Theatre brought Dylan Thomas over for his first American reading, and in 1956 actress Siobhan McKenna (qv) and playwright Brendan Behan (qv) were brought over to speak. One of Manning’s career highlights was her staging of James Joyce's (qv) Finnegans wake (1955). During this period she wrote her second novel, Lovely people (1953), about the Boston upper middle classes.
Manning returned to Dublin following her husband’s death in 1968 where she was the drama critic for Hibernia, the Irish Times and other publications. Her perceptive, caustic reviews were occasionally threatened with libel actions. She also returned to playwriting, producing a widely praised adaptation of Frank O’Connor’s novel The saint and Mary Kate (1968), and wrote a series of short stories entitled The last chronicles of Ballyfungus (1978) that took a satiric look at modern Ireland. In 1980 she returned to America and married Boston lawyer Fanaeuil Adams. She remained gregarious and well-loved – just two weeks before her death she hosted one of her famous parties in the reception room of her retirement home. She died on 27 June 1999.