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A Modernist Musical

Ground-breaking writer Katherine Mansfield is at the heart of musical Two Tigers which English Cabaret are currently presenting at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in the centenary year of her death. Whilst re-imagining her show, writer Sue Casson has been exploring new facts about her life that have emerged 'a lifetime on' from its' first production (for the centenary of her birth) in a series of Mansfield Musings, which we are re-publishing from the beginning.

Two Tigers is billed as a kaleidoscopic modernist musical of a literary pioneer. Composer Sue Casson explains the inspiration behind the shaping of the show.

‘There is a really superb professional pianist here. He plays all day and one writes to his music.’

This observation from one of Katherine Mansfield’s letters is the starting point for our re-imagining of Two Tigers. A writer. A pianist. Telling the story of the one, with the other, and in the process freeing it from the strict biographical chronology that proved problematic in the first staging.

‘Mansfield is widely considered one of the most influential and important authors of the modernist movement.’

This movement, that touched both art and literature was blowing across Europe during her lifetime. It was characterised by what she called ‘a shaking free’ a conscious break with the past in search of new forms of artistic expression. (I've written more about this movement here.)

In re-imagining Two Tigers we sought inspiration from this free Modernist approach, to move through a series of significant scenes in a less rigid, more dreamlike progression.

A musical is anyway a collection of moments heightened emotionally in song, and already a step away from naturalism. Knowing Mansfield’s affinity with music the idea that a companionable pianist might feed her writing, direct her thoughts, suggest memories, act as a soundtrack to her experience and the way she records it, is a strong one.

KM’s story Where the Wind Blows crystallised this idea for me. This story, first published in Signature magazine in 1915 as Autumn II, moves from intensely imagined moment to moment, carried along by a strong wind. Matilda, the central character, awakens in an emotional state that she can’t quite account for. She attends her music lesson and then goes for a windy walk with her brother, Bogey. By the end of the story, the beginning is obliquely revealed as a memory.

It is interesting that this story’s central character is also the name KM chooses as the author of this story – not Mansfield, but Matilda Berry – and her brother, who Katherine calls Bogey, also appears. It was written around the time she and Chummie / Bogey had been spending time together enjoying reminiscing about New Zealand, (Do you Remember?) and the memories they share here prefigure those that she will shortly be revisiting for The Aloe, and later Prelude.

Both structurally and psychologically Berry/Mansfield is playing sophisticated games with the reader, who comes away with a series of vivid impressions – the hands and scent of the piano teacher, the intensity of Matilda’s feelings, first anger, then sadness - the set of experiences heightened by an uncontrollable and intrusive billowing wind that carries the reader from scene to scene.

Telling a story in this way puts the reader unusually inside the mind of the writer, dreaming their dream, and this became a model for Two Tigers. It means in one sense the theatrical setting can be a changing state of mind, rather than a fixed set – convenient for the fringe, as getting on and off a stage in five minutes either side of the show has limitations.

But practically speaking, context is important. To be true to KM, to make her real, she needed to be placed somewhere – in time and space, to show her history. Thinking of Katherine’s pianist, we could have settled on Paris 1922, where she is living when she writes that letter.

Instead, we select an earlier time Bandol four years earlier. It is a pivotal moment for Katherine. Although ill health has dogged her for some years, it is here, at this time that she first spits blood – a worrying indication of the tuberculosis that is going to kill her. Physically she is on the threshold of becoming an invalid – though she is still young the adventures that have formed her life are almost behind her.

Mentally her imagination is already beginning to take flight from her body, one of the symptoms of TB. While she is here she dreams a whole story, ‘even down to its’ name which was Sun and Moon.

‘I didn’t dream that I read it. No, I was in it, part of it and it played round an invisible me.’

She is writing furiously, in a way that she recognises as being a departure or a progression.

'I've written such different things just lately - much much better - and I'm going to go on writing them.'

Shortly after her arrival she starts work on Je ne Parle pas Francais, a story inspired by events that led up to her first visit to Bandol with Jack, two years earlier. (Read more about these here.) Prelude has just been published, by the Woolf’s Hogarth Press, the autumn before her arrival, and many more of her most famous stories are still to be written and published. Recognition for her talent is just around the corner.

Katherine has known all her life of what she feels capable, and with the clock ticking, she is on the edge of realising it. There will be personal sacrifices to be made to get a body of work complete. There will be more time apart from Jack, she will need care from LM, to

‘manage things for me as if I were a man’

There will be a life that she will miss out on – as a mother, as a homemaker. This is the beginning of her recognition that she will be ‘a writer first, a woman after,’ fashioning her own myth as far as she can, in the way she always has.

It is because she is an extraordinary writer that we are telling her story today. But at this moment in the Bandol she is a fiercely ambitious woman on the edge of a dream. She is living her life for as long as she can before it becomes notable, documented, famous. Bandol is the fulcrum – the point where the lever that is her life, pivots.

This blog was first published in a series of Mansfield Musings on

Two Tigers is playing at 1.15 each day at C aquila at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe from 2nd - 27th August (Not 14.) BOOK NOW!

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