Irish actress credits writers with her stage successes


Knight Ridder

But for a tattoo and a condom and a case of Guinness stout Anna Manahan might have had a very different career.

Manahan, generally regarded as the greatest Irish actress of the second half of the 20th century, came to prominence starring in the European premiere of the Tennessee Williams play "'The Rose Tattoo," in Dublin in 1957.

Because a scene in the play concerns a packaged condom and because all contraceptives were illegal in Ireland at the time, police raided the theater, Manahan told a worshipful crowd Monday night during a lecture-performance at the University at Albany. They arrested the director even though the condom envelope was empty.

Soon after, the famed and famously soused Irish writer Brendan Behan marched into the alley behind the theater, case of Guinness in his arms, spouting voluble vituperations about the authorities.

Manahan's performance in "The Rose Tattoo," combined with the notoriety of the case, were the beginning of a career during which she would come to be regarded as an incomparable interpreter of the words of Sean O'Casey, J. M. Synge, James Joyce, Christy Brown, Brian Friel and other Irish writers.

More than 40 years later, Manahan won the 1998 Tony Award for her performance in "The Beauty Queen of Leenane," by Martin McDonagh, another celebrated Irish writer, this one at the beginning of his career.

Although she has been widely celebrated for her artistry, Manahan said Monday she must redirect part of the credit back to those writers who first created on paper the words she makes magnificent in the air.

"An actor should be a channel for a writer's words to come out and touch the audience," Manahan told 150 people in a Univeristy at Albany recital hall. The appearance was part of a series of the New York State Writers Institute designed to complement the university's Irish Semester.

"My love of words (is) one of the virtues of being Irish," she said.

Manahan performed monologues from plays including Synge's "Riders to the Sea"; "Big Maggie," written for her by John B. Keane; Brian Friel's "Lovers," for which she received her first Tony nomination, in 1968, when she performed it on Broadway with Art Carney; "The Importance of Being Earnest," by Oscar Wilde; and McDonagh's "Beauty Queen."

She also recited excerpts of Molly Bloom's notorious soliloquy from James Joyce's "'Ulysses" (a friend of the author's described Manahan as "the Molly that Jimmy wrote about"), and touchingly told Wilde's children's tale "The Selfish Giant."

Wilde's grandson Merlin Holland will speak tonight at UAlbany, also as part of the Irish Semester. When asked, during a question and-answer session, what she would would say to Wilde, Manahan said:

"Be proud of the wonderful legacy you left. . .Before it became popular to love you, I loved you."

Copyright 1999, Capital Newspapers Division
of The Hearst Corporation, Albany, N.Y.