Soon after I first moved to Dublin in 1999, I went to see 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. However, 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.
Manahan was an extraordinary woman, and one personal moment of seems particularly pertinent.
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.
Is a generation raised on a diet of counsellors for every eventuality better able to cope with the horrible realities that inevitably arise in everyone’s lives? Or is stoicism a better response? Does the Manahan attitude create a greater degree of resilience?
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.
My grandfather served in the National Fire Service in London during the Second World War. He was a Section Leader, the Fire Service equivalent of an NCO. During the winter of 1939-40 he saw horrifying sights, burnt remnants of flesh that were once a human being, people dying ghastly deaths. His experience was a common one. Hundreds of thousands of people suffered severe emotional trauma, yet all the talking in the world was never going to change the facts. There was no choice other than to carry on.
Counselling does not change reality. Facts are not changed by attempting to finesse or nuance them with pseudo-scientific language. Horrible stuff can’t be talked away.
Anna Manahan was right, and those American theatre-goers knew how seriously she should have been taken. You just have to get up and get on.