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John Hartley Manners: A Life Well Spent

By Carly Hughes
From Insights, 2006

 

John Hartley Manners was a man I had never heard of until just a few days ago, and unless you are someone who has received a doctoral degree chronicling twentieth century playwrights, I am guessing I am joined by most of you. Hours and hours of research through the internet and in the belly of libraries didn’t remedy the situation of ignorance either. The amount of information concerning this man is just a smidgeon above nil. Ironically, I found my solution in that very predicament. Life doesn’t converge to clean-cut plotlines which entertainment depends upon, but if J. Hartley Manners’s life could be a story, I imagined it would be a tragedy of greatness never attained, a life lived somewhere in the gray area between infamy and obscurity. The bulk of humanity will exist there as well, but when one in the ranks craves to be known, even receives a fleeting taste of it as Manners did, it is even more disappointing when time slowly erodes notoriety into nothing but a few words found in dusty encyclopedias and university archives.

This is how Manners’s existence initially appeared to me, an onlooker trying to piece together a life decades after it ceased. But if a life that does not endure in the minds of succeeding generations is considered a tragedy, then that is a very dire prediction for most of us. I don t imagine my own life will be discussed and written about in my lifetime or after my death, nor most of the people I admire, but the words I would choose to describe these lives would be beautiful, passionate, and rich with experience, anything but tragic. J. Hartley Manners spent his life pursuing his passion for writing, with over thirty plays to his credit in his lifetime (Manners, John Hartley. American National Biography, Volume 14. Edited by John A. Garraty and Mark L. Carnes, 1999). This cannot be something to be mourned in any sense, and through the glimpses of his life yet to be read, I hope a glimpse of a life successful in the truest sense can be seen.

J. Hartley Manners was born in London, England, but was of Irish descent and raised as a devout Catholic; his mother had hopes that he would enter into the priesthood, but that was not to be (American National Biography). After a brief stint in the British civil service, he heard the call of the stage and began to devote himself to acting, making his entrance onto the stage at Melbourne, Australia in 1898 (Manners, John Hartley. Dictionary of American Biography, Volume VI. Ed. By Dumas Malone, 1933]. Only one year later he returned to England and continued to act in such prestigious companies as Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson’s and George Alexander’s, notably being cast in the role of Laertes during these years in a production of Hamlet (Dictionary of American Biography). However, though he did not lack talent for the stage, it was playwriting that soon became his sole pursuit. After the popularity of a one-act entitled The Queen’s Messenger, he received a commission to write a play for a well-know actress, Lily Langtry, in which he also starred (American National Biography). The success of the play took the production to America where he stayed to simultaneously act and write plays until the production of Zira which, after launching the career of actress Margaret Anglin, persuaded Manners to retire from acting and devote himself entirely to writing (American National Biography). The next few years were moderately successful, but in 1912 his popularity exploded with the production of his most enduring play, Peg o’ My Heart. It catapulted not only him, but the star of the play, Laurette Taylor, whom he wed the same year, into the spotlight (Dictionary of American Biography). From then on, Manners and his wife were a team as he wrote play after play that showcased her acting ability and endeared her to theatre goers (American National Biography). Both Peg o’ My Heart and Happiness were eventually made into movies in 1922 and 1923 respectively, with none other than Ms. Taylor playing the signature parts. With Manners’s well-written characters and his wife’s talent for bringing them to life, their success extended not only to America and England, but to Europe as well (Dictionary of American Biography). It was only ended in 1928 when cancer took the life of Manners and the future works he might have produced (Dictionary of American Biography).

Over seventy-five years later, here I sit, trying to piece together a portrait of a man from this small portion of highlights that left so much in the dark. Manners may not be easy and intriguing cocktail party conversation, his writing might not leave any anecdotal imprint on the mind, and if you are an aspiring playwright, Manners’s almost dogged devotion to characterization may not seem applicable in a world accustomed to fast-paced plots, but it cannot be denied that he was passionate and driven. If these qualities, as fuel for his writing, managed to inspire even the glimmer of a smile in a play attendee, they were well placed, and his life well spent.


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