Theater Review - Emory University pays tribute to the late Frank Manley

Memorial service takes place Feb. 1 at the Canon Chapel

When Frank Manley arrived at Emory University as a student in 1948, he had no ambitions of becoming a writer. "I wanted to do something that would use my life well, that would fill my life with interest and enthusiasm," he told me in a 1998 Creative Loafing interview.

Manley died on Nov. 9, 2009, at the age of 79, and his friends and colleagues attest that Manley lived an enthusiastic life that brought out the enthusiasm of others. His poetry, prose, plays and scholarship earned Manley multiple honors, including two Georgia Author of the Year Awards; two Guggenheim Fellowships; a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship; and first prize at the 1985 Humana Festival of New American Plays for his play Two Masters, which starred Kathy Bates. At the time, the Boston Globe's Kevin Kelly wrote, "Frank Manley has the uncanny ability to dramatize scenes that, at first, seem alien and almost incidental, only to reveal themselves as universal."

Ironically, given Manley's achievements, he became a writer gradually. He majored in Renaissance literary history at Emory, and after serving in the U.S. Army, earning a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University, and teaching English at Yale University, he returned to Emory in 1964, where he taught until his retirement in 2000. He turned to verse in the late 1960s in response to that decade's social and political upheaval. "I began to write poetry to create a small world of clarity and order at that time," Manley said. He began writing short stories and plays in the '80s, and published works such as the anthologies Within the Ribbons and Among Prisoners. His novels include 1998's The Cockfighter and 2002's True Hope.

Emory professor and former colleague Vinnie Murphy, who adapted The Cockfighter for the stage, says Manley's influence extended beyond his own work. "Frank single-handedly made Emory's Creative Writing Program happen, where he cultivated talents like Ha Jin, who won the National Book Award, and Natasha Trethewey, who won the Pulitzer Prize. Our workshops of Frank's play The Evidence launched Emory's Brave New Works program and the Playwriting Center of Theater Emory. He was a self-deprecating and demanding collaborator who would never stop at easy solutions."

Emory University will hold a memorial service for Manley on Feb. 1, which will include eulogies and a staged reading of "The Campfire" (an excerpt from Manley's play The Evidence) and other examples of his work. The gathering should trace the author's themes of hope and liberation back to Manley's "well-used" life.

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