• Mansfield Musings

Shaking Free

The early Twentieth Century, an exciting time of change for all branches of creative arts, forms the backdrop to Two Tigers. Sue Casson takes a closer look.

Woodcut from Rhythm magazine by Margaret Thompson

The story of Two Tigers prowling literary London is set at a moment in history that I find particularly compelling. The early part of the Twentieth Century was a time of cross-cultural artistic ferment; Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes were touring the opera houses of Europe from 1909, leaving Russian mania in their wake. In London the 1910 Japanese British exhibition gave Londoners their first taste of the delicacy of Japanese art, whilst later the same year it played host to an exhibition of Monet & the Post Impressionists.

All these events affected the newly arrived Katherine Mansfield. Always keen to experiment with different costumes and personalities, for a time she called herself Katya or Yekaterina. Her visit to the Japanese exhibition prompted a change of hairstyle to a fringed bob, whilst visitors to her flat in Gray’s Inn Road were served tea out of bowls, sitting on cushions. From the Post-Impressionists, which she visits many times, KM takes away a connection between their style and the way she aspires to write. She sees Van Gogh’s paintings as ‘a kind of freedom – a shaking free.’

This ‘shaking free’ could be seen across all aspects of art as old traditions were questioned and an exciting breath of what became known as Modernism blew through.

During his final year at Oxford, John Middleton Murry visited Paris which was then ‘seething with ideas and activity in every branch of the arts’. He eagerly immersed himself into café society and found himself amongst a cosmopolitan group of artists and writers drawn to the city by its’ intellectual freedom.

Though still an undergraduate, on his return to London he set about launching a small magazine dedicated to new ideas in art and literature as a platform for their work. The first issue of Rhythm, so called because of its’ emphasis on harmony and balance in art, boasted an illustration by Pablo Picasso, the first to be published in England, and by the time the magazine closed in 1913, the list of contributors read like a Who’s Who of what is now regarded as Modernism.

Soon Mansfield was to join him as an assistant editor, and and a series of names that remain familiar to us today were parading through their makeshift office presenting copy for their latest edition. Novelist Gilbert Canaan dubbed them ‘the two tigers’ after a woodcut illustration by Margaret Thompson that appeared at the top and bottom of one of the magazine’s pages, showing a tiger chasing a monkey.

Two tigers / Stalking living Art / Willing to be bold
Two tigers / Fighting from the start / Breaking up the mould
With contributors fit / To make competitors quail / We can't fail

When Two Tigers was produced in Edinburgh the Times Literary Supplement review showed I’d managed to capture some of this excitement onstage.

‘Makes the business not only of writing and criticism but even of theatre reviewing, seem a romantic adventure’

The idea of two committed young literary tigers working together to stir a small-scale cauldron for change with whatever came to hand is a dramatic one, and there is a huge cast of potential characters; from DH Lawrence and his wife Frieda, whose relationship provided an interesting counterpoint to that of the Rhythm editors in the early years of their association, to Virginia Woolf and the ‘Blooms berries’ as Katherine called them.

A Literary Cast

Giving such famous names form on stage requires some delicacy, and even more in giving them lines to sing. The first time around in Two Tigers the artists that encircled the tigers were so fascinating they almost threatened the heart of the show. In setting out to write a musical biography it seemed natural to flesh out significant characters in a life.

This time my interest is in approaching the biography from the inside - bringing the concerns of the central characters, and primarily Katherine, into sharper focus. The historical setting is important for the audience in providing context, but the story is a human and universal one, of striving to make a mark and become the best you can be.

With that in mind, the voices of contemporaries can be heard – but only in how they impact on Mansfield and Jack. The dynamic of the central relationship is allowed to be centre stage without other characters pulling focus, but with the excitement of the time in which they were living an important backdrop to their lives.

Join me for my next Mansfield Musing when I'll be looking back at my own first encounters with KM and JMM. Add your email at the top and subscribe to get a reminder direct to your inbox!

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