Updated: Jan 6
Songwriter Sue Casson writes about revisiting the Two Tigers - writers Katherine Mansfield and John Middleton Murry - a lifetime on....
I first began to write what became the musical drama Two Tigers when I was a fledgling writer of musicals in the mid-1980s. Thirty years on I'm returning to those songs to re-imagine the show in time for the centenary of Katherine Mansfield's death next year, In this series of blogs I shall be looking at different aspects of her life and writing, what they mean to me and how they touch on my own preoccupations as I piece together a new version of Two Tigers. So do join me over the coming weeks as I muse on Mansfield.
There is something about Katherine Mansfield that I find utterly captivating.
I could read her notebooks, biographies about her, fictional reconstructions of her life, until there was no more left to read. Something about her, her life and the way she has related it, strikes a chord within me that goes beyond fandom. I know I am not alone in feeling I identify with her, partly because she writes so clearly from the inside out that readers like me empathise and feel with her, but also because, like the very best writers, when she writes her own experience, it is as if she writes of ours as well.
When I first started to write Two Tigers in the mid-1980s, although it was nearly 100 years on from her birth, much less was known about Katherine Mansfield. Talking to people about what I was working on I'd find myself tagging her 'New Zealand short story writer' just to avoid the question of who she was,
Over the years since, ironically the same number as would have measured out her short life, more papers have come to light, more biographies written. Now as we approach the centenary of her death, her literary reputation has grown, whilst the other Tiger of the title, John Middleton Murry, the man who shared her adult life, and continued to feed the public appetite for her work as her literary executor, ensuring her legacy lived on, is all but forgotten. Ironically, his own considerable body of work - novels, poems, essays – the books that made him an influential editor who cut a more obviously successful figure, particularly during Mansfield’s lifetime, is now largely picked over to uncover more details about his first wife.
'A writer first and a woman after'
Returning to my tatty folder of notes now, I am intrigued at how their lives, together and apart, fed the work that was so important to KM. ‘I am a writer first and a woman after’ she wrote in a letter to Murry in 1920, and with Two Tigers, what I wanted to do then, as now, was somehow to paint a portrait of her inspiration, to explore how it arose from her situation, her extraordinary life and ambition, to somehow dramatise that extraordinary magic.
Perhaps it’s not surprising, given that ambition, and my tender age when I was first approaching the writing, that I didn’t nail it. The songs I wrote are strong, as reviewers remarked at the time, and as I return to this work now, twenty-five years older than KM was when she died, I am looking with the eyes of experience to see how I can build on them to make this clearer.
Why now? The 100th anniversary of Mansfield’s death seems a clarion call, if I was ever to return to Two Tigers and not consign it to the drawer, and there’s much there to build on. It seems the times in which we live now may be more open to a show about her life. For just as Mansfield’s literary reputation has grown over the intervening years, so has the appetite for what were her recurring preoccupations.
Identity. How to achieve one's full potential, the fight to ‘be all I am capable of becoming’. The value of opening oneself up to ‘the whole octave of experience’ – love, loss, struggle – and setting it down truthfully, fearlessly.
These themes are timeless. But they also have an inspiring topical modern resonance and go a long way towards explaining why we are still reading her writing a century after her death, and why the time to revisit her life and work is now.
There are more Mansfield Musings to come. In the next I'll be exploring her affinity with music. Come back soon to ensure you don't miss it!