Updated: Mar 27
Ground-breaking writer Katherine Mansfield and her literary soulmate John Middleton Murry are at the heart of musical Two Tigers, which English Cabaret are producing later in the year. Over the last year whilst re-imagining her show, writer Sue Casson has been exploring the background to the life of the Two Tigers in a series of Mansfield Musings which we are re-publishing here. To start at the beginning...
In this first blog Casson writes about revisiting the inspiration for her show - a lifetime on.
Two Tigers was my very first musical. I began writing it in the mid-1980s and it was first produced in 1988, the centenary of Katherine Mansfield's death. Returning to that show, and its' songs 30 years on to re-imagine it for the centenary of her death this year, the first thing I discover is that I'm as mad about Mansfield now as I was when she first inspired me.
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, 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 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, over 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. In the last 30 years it is not just the way that we view this pioneering modernist writer that have changed, but our whole outlook, on women, talent and identity. KM was always ahead of her time, in insisting on her sexual equality, and the independence to live her life as she chose, as well as the way in which she developed a unique writing style to express it, and it seems the times in which we now live may be more open to a show about her life.
Her ambition, both personal and professional to achieve her full potential, the fight she fought to ‘be all I am capable of becoming' is a universal one. She saw the value of opening oneself up to ‘the whole octave of experience’ – love, loss, struggle – to live every moment as completely and mindfully (though she wouldn't recognise that word to describe the impulse) as she could - and capture it on the page, set it down truthfully, fearlessly.
These themes are understandable to today's audience, who may be astonished to find these were the recurring preoccupations of a woman who lived a hundred years ago. They have an inspiring topical modern resonance and go a long way towards explaining why we are still reading Mansfield's writing a century after her death, and why there is no better time to revisit her life and work, than the present.
This blog was first published as the first in a series of Mansfield Musings on www.SueCasson.co.uk
Portrait of Katherine Mansfield and John Middleton Murry. Murry, John Middleton, 1889-1957 :Photographs relating to Katherine Mansfield. Ref: PA1-o-1791-35. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/35708105