Anna Manahan and The Rose Tattoo

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Anna Manahan PortraitIn advance of the Irish Theatre Archive moving to its new home in the planned new City Library at Parnell Square Cultural Quarter, Dublin City Archives are focusing on cataloguing their backlog of theatre collections. I began working as the theatre archivist in July of this year and the first collection I tackled was the Anna Manahan Papers. One of the most interesting incidents in her career was her performance of the lead role in the Irish premiere of The Rose Tattoo in 1957. The run proved to be a historic moment for Irish theatre and in Anna’s words sent her career “rocketing”.

Anna Manahan was a Waterford born actor who performed on stage, film and television for over 60 years throughout Ireland, Europe, the USA and Australia. In the 1940s and 50s, before making a name for herself,  Manahan learned her craft touring the country with different theatre companies and freelancing at Dublin theatres.

One such theatre Manahan performed in was the Pike Theatre, a tiny venue with only 35 seats located in Herbert Lane, Dublin. It was established in 1953 by husband and wife team Carolyn Swift and Alan Simpson and specialised in staging late night revues and the work of modern playwrights.

One such playwright was Tennessee Williams and in May 1957 the Pike Theatre opened the inaugural Dublin International Theatre Festival with the European English-speaking premiere of his play The Rose Tattoo. The play follows the story of an Italian-American widow ‘Serafina’ who has withdrawn herself from society after her husband’s death and remains devoted to his memory, expecting her daughter to do the same.

The rising young actor, Anna Manahan, was cast in the lead role of ‘Serafina’, playing the part of a grieving widow on stage. Just over a year earlier Manahan had performed this role in earnest. In April 1956, less than one year after marrying, Anna Manahan found herself a widow.  Her husband, Colm O’Kelly, died in Alexandria on 10 April 1956 after a brief illness. He and Manahan were on tour in Egypt with the Gate Theatre Company at the time. The night of his death Manahan went on stage in A Moon for the Misbegotten and dedicated her performance to him.

The Rose Tattoo opened at the Pike Theatre on 12 May 1957 for a two week run. Manahan’s performance was praised in the press as displaying “acting ability on a more than ordinary level” and proclaiming “all are agreed on the brilliance of Anna Manahan’s acting”. However, as well as the critics, the play also drew the attention of An Garda Síochána.
Rose Tattoo ProgramRose Tattoo Program
(Rose Tattoo Program)

During The Rose Tattoo part of the stage direction calls for a condom, described in the stage direction as “a small cellophane-wrapped disk”, to fall out of an actor’s pocket on stage. For the Pike Theatre production this action was mimed. However, despite no condom actually being produced on stage, the director Alan Simpson was first threatened with arrest and then arrested and charged with “presenting for gain an indecent and profane performance”. On subsequent hearings one of the Detective Gardaí who attended the play refers to it as “indecent” and full of “illicit sex” while admitting that the stage direction calling for a condom to fall on stage was omitted from the performance.

The arrest resulted in a planned run of performances at the Gate Theatre in the following weeks being cancelled. Members of the theatrical professions and other artists rallied round Simpson and the Pike Theatre and eventually the charges were dismissed.

Speaking about the play in 2007 Manahan reflected on the impact the death of her husband had on her performance; “I suppose the deep sorrow I felt came out through the play. I felt a depth of emotion I had never felt before and I knew how to harness it.”

Eilís McCarthy, September 2018.

Note: The full collection list can be viewed here.

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