Manning, Mary (1906–99), playwright, novelist, and critic, was born 30 June 1906 in Dublin, eldest among three children of Fitzmaurice Manning, civil servant in the colonial service, and Susan Manning (née Bennett), daughter of an auctioneer and art dealer who was Christie's Dublin partner, and sister of Louie Bennett (qv). Fitzmaurice Manning was a distant figure to his children, only able to return from the colonies at two-year intervals; he fought in the first world war and was killed in West Africa in 1918, leaving his family in straitened circumstances. Susan Manning then ran a celebrated teashop, ‘The Sod of Turf’, on the corner of Anne St. and Dawson St.; it was under the Irish Bookshop and much frequented by writers and poets. She eventually inherited enough money to buy, and move her family into, a house in Wellington Place. Mary was educated at Morehampton House school and Alexandra College and was already famous among her schoolfellows for her insouciance and wit.
On leaving school, she studied acting at the Abbey school and played small parts with the Irish Players in England and with the Abbey, before joining the Gate as publicity manager and editor of Motley, the theatre's short-lived magazine, whose unpaid contributors included Frank O'Connor (qv), Austin Clarke (qv), Francis Stuart (qv), and John Betjeman. Micheál MacLiammóir (qv) wrote of her then 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 noted also her impulsive sympathy. He appeared in her first play, ‘Youth's the season . . . ?’, directed by Hilton Edwards (qv) in 1931. It was marvellously 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 wan sardonic disillusionment, given the modernist touch by the presence of an eerily silent character, Egosmith, who was included at the suggestion of Manning's lifelong friend, Samuel Beckett (qv). Her next play for the Gate, the one-act ‘Storm over Wicklow’ (1933), was likewise well received, but the third, ‘Happy family’ (1934), less so. Neither delivered on the great promise of her first and they have not been published. She later said of her early work: ‘They were too much part of the period. Spring days, not good in winter’ (Luke, 35).
In 1935 she married Mark de Wolfe Howe (1906–67), Harvard law professor and civil rights activist, and moved to Boston. There she was one of the founders of the avant-garde Cambridge Poets' Theatre, which brought Dylan Thomas over for his first American reading and staged the first American production of Beckett's ‘All that fall’, in 1955 putting on her successful adaptation of Finnegans wake by James Joyce (qv), called variously ‘Passages from Finnegans wake’ and ‘The voices of Shem’. During this time she wrote two novels, Mount Venus (1938) and Lovely people (1953), about the Boston upper middle class.
On her husband's death she returned to Ireland and was the drama critic for Hibernia. Her perceptive, caustic, erratic reviews were occasionally threatened with libel actions. She returned to playwriting, producing a fine adaptation of the Frank O'Connor novel The saint and Mary Kate (Abbey, 1968). In 1978 she published a volume of short stories, The last chronicles of Ballyfungus, which took a satiric look at modern Ireland. In Dublin she continued holding, from her house in Monkstown, the large, eclectic parties for which she was known in Boston.
In 1979 she returned to America and married a Mr Adams. She died on 27 June 1999 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA. She had three daughters with her first husband, two of whom became artists and one the poet and novelist Fanny Howe .