• Mansfield Musings

Life after Death

How do you create a lively musical centred on a leading character who dies early? Sue Casson tackles the 'elephant in the room' in Two TIgers.

The death of Katherine Mansfield haunted the first production of Two Tigers. In presenting her life for the stage the idea that her early death somehow defined it was inescapable, even though it was very much her lively pioneering spirit that drew me to her as a subject. In writing terms alone, her years of ill health were her most productive. And as she recognised herself, the way she straddled life and death in those final years as she fought TB enabled her to focus on what really mattered. With the heightened clarity of vision often granted to those subject to phthisis her exploration of universal themes is acute and precise in a way that defines her writing.

Theatrically speaking, death carries huge dramatic weight – signalling an end, arousing emotions of fear and loss, its’ presence as part of a play has the power to overshadow the whole unfolding drama. Despite the success of Evita it sits uneasily at the centre of a musical, shadowing high spirits and lighter numbers.

In terms of performance there are also certain practical considerations with the central character becoming ill. In a musical drama the reality of a person with advanced tuberculosis and attendant cough singing is a difficult one to overcome, and there is also the possibility as life seeps from the show’s star, of an unfillable void arising at the very centre of the piece, quite literally draining the life out of it.

Originally the show opened with an imagined heated exchange between Katherine and Murry at Gurdjieff’s newly opened ‘Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man’ in Fontainebleau on the final night of her life. She had been at the former priory for nearly 3 months, when Murry arrived to see her. Although he was perhaps rightly sceptical of a ‘cure’, her ‘radiant’ appearance showed the psychological benefit of her time at the commune.

After her sudden collapse, the play of her life followed as if flashing before her eyes, before returning to the scene as a coda. This device was abandoned before the Edinburgh opening, and the story of her life was told chronologically, from New Zealand to Fontainebleau, with excerpts of her stories as punctuation.

We are presently considering how our current re-imagining will arrange events but taking our inspiration from the fragmentary style that defined the Modernists, our focus this time is to show the life force of Mansfield. In one way she has transcended death 100 years on - her writings continuing to enchant readers, to grow in literary stature, her spirit still captivating her many fans. We want to show Mansfield at her most ‘tigerish’, rather than wasted by the trials of illness. This may mean leaving her at a point where there are 'intimations of mortality' rather than following her to the bitter end.

A Ghost Story?

Although transcending death will be the focus of Two Tigers in its' new incarnation, turning the telling into a ghost story might be a step too far. Strangely however, the idea of a radiant living ‘Tig’ is firmly rooted in eyewitness accounts at the time of her death. Biographer Kathleen Jones in Katherine Mansfield: The Storyteller collects together a series of fascinating reports of Katherine’s visitations to the circle of friends she had so abruptly left.

In this, unsurprisingly, Tiger 2 Murry leads the field, not only as Jones dryly remarks in the way his wife’s spirit never really leaves him, but in this psychic experience he relates in The Adelphi magazine a month after KM’s death, when he is sitting by the fire in his cottage.

‘The room was filled with a presence, and I knew I was not alone – that I could never be alone anymore… The ‘presence’ was definitely connected with the person of Katherine Mansfield… I was immediately and deeply convinced that ‘all was well with her.’

Her closest friend and lifelong supporter Ida Baker also reports seeing her ‘suddenly, unexpectedly with me’ as she is helping Murry to sort manuscripts after Katherine’s death ‘her face full of light like a halo.’

Painter Dorothy Brett, with whom Katherine stayed in London before leaving for Fontainebleau claims to have encountered Katherine on the stairs of her house in Pond Street, whilst Brett’s charlady says she has seen her sitting in the room where she stayed.

The mystery of these ‘manifestations’, along with Virginia Woolf’s recurring dream of the dead Katherine in a white wreath, which haunted her for months, and a medium, a neighbour of Murry’s who claims to be possessed by Katherine’s spirit so when she talks, KM speaks through her, however credible, confirm the strength and vibrancy of her spirit. This is the Katherine I most want to celebrate. The perfect expression rather than the oppressive reality.

As DH Lawrence wrote to Murry when he learns of Katherine’s death, on the point of sending her a book.

‘I wanted Katherine to read it. She’ll know though. The dead don’t die.’

It’s clear one hundred years on that the name, talent and draw of Katherine Mansfield did not die with her, or fade away, but are stronger than ever. In an age where death is so widely feared, what could be more uplifting as a subject for a show?

There'll be another thought-provoking Mansfield Musing in a couple of weeks. Why not subscribe at the link above to make sure you don't miss it?

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