The Critical Response to Katherine Mansfield

By Jan Pilditch | Go to book overview

Judith Dale, "Performing Katherine Mansfield"

The notion of 'performing Katherine Mansfield', or Katherine Mansfield in performance, has several possible interpretations and all of them interesting. Mansfield was a good comic performer and supplemented her income when she returned to London by hiring herself out as an entertainer, writing and acting in her own skits and sketches. 1 She was unusually fond of the working-class entertainment of Edwardian music-halls and this provides the idea for Vincent O'Sullivan's new playscript Jones & Jones which picks up the nicknames Mansfield invented for herself and Ida Baker and recreates them as a performing duo. Mansfield was also given to 'putting on a performance' in a more ordinary sense. The construction and reconstruction of her life has occupied biographers since her death but the woman born Kathleen Mansfield Beauchamp was her own lifelong fictionaliser and we see her, and see her as 'performing Katherine Mansfield' from her earliest years.

Through the Journal there emerges Mansfield's developing understanding of the 'self' as a series of masks and faces, (re)constructions and performances. The image of Katherine Mansfield in dinner suit and tails which comes to mind from Jones & Jones or Cathy Downes' solo piece The Case of Katherine Mansfield is doubtlessly historically inaccurate, but there's no doubt that in the performance of her life as of her art Mansfield explores (what we now identify as) the social constructions of gender. Her instinct was to try on, to pick up, to unpick and refurbish, the various societal garbs and garments around her, and she even went so far as to identify as her 'philosophy'--'the defeat of the personal'. The critic Kate Fullbrook claims that the ideas underlying Mansfield's statements about consciousness and identity 'need to be seen in terms of the symbolist theory of the mask. . . . She conceived of self as multiple, shifting, non-consecutive, without essence, and perhaps unknowable.' 2 This in turn becomes characteristic of her writing: the voicing of the roles and guises of one fictionally constructed character after another; the conflating of a series of perceptions of consciousness; indeed, the loss of a clearly identified single narrating subject altogether.

Although Mansfield didn't write plays, dramatists today can find in her thinking a model for deconstructing what constitutes a gendered self, in the uniquely provocative modes of theatre. Cathy Downes' Case, O'Sullivan Jones & Jones and above all, Alma de Groen The Rivers of China explore the phenomena of roles, masks and constructs of selfhood in entirely theatrical terms. The Rivers of China at one point quotes the Shakespearean epigraph Mansfield had used for her story "This Flower", which Murry subsequently inscribed on her tombstone. 3 Hotspur, gallant, swaggering and soon to die, blurts out in the course of a soliloquy, '. . . but I tell you, my lord fool, out of this nettle, danger, we pluck this flower, safety.' These three Mansfield plays construct theatrical images and narratives around a sense of danger in the postures of personhood, as the ebullient Hotspur of a Mansfield did herself.

If theatre does things other art forms don't, prose fiction does things that theatre cannot. So what does one want from a short story read aloud? The Concert Programme ran a comprehensive series of talks on Mansfield including

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