Prelude: The Life and Work of Katherine Mansfield

Walkabout Theater Company

at the Chopin Theatre

By Kerry Reid

In a journal entry near the end of her brief life, Katherine Mansfield wrote, “Take the case of K.M. She has led, ever since she can remember, a very typically false life. Yet, through it all, there have been moments, instants, gleams, when she felt the possibility of something quite other.”

In Loren Crawford’s ambitious but flawed new play about Mansfield’s life and work, the K.M. we meet seems not so much false as obscured by the impasto of biographical detail presented onstage. There are, however, many moments, instants, gleams when Mansfield’s fascinating character and unparalleled artistry shine through.

Crawford, who won plaudits last year for her adaptation and performance of Mansfield’s story “The Canary,” bears a striking resemblance to the writer and plays her well here. Under Stephan Mazurek’s detailed direction, Prelude: The Life and Work of Katherine Mansfield often uncovers the yearning, wit, rage, and passion at the heart of this complicated woman. Most impressive, Crawford believably conveys Mansfield’s losing battle with tuberculosis, never resorting to gimmickry or losing track of the character’s continued vitality.

Crawford’s script does suffer from excess, however. At nearly three hours with two intermissions, the show provides a deluge of names and fleeting impressions of Mansfield’s lovers, publishers, friends, and family. Many of the nuances and shifts in her life dramatized here probably won’t resonate with someone who hasn’t recently immersed herself in Mansfield’s work and biography (Crawford draws heavily on Antony Alpers’s well-respected The Life of Katherine Mansfield as well as original sources such as her letters and journals). And yet there’s the occasional surprising omission.

“Prelude” is also the title of one of Mansfield’s best works, a rich memory piece about her New Zealand childhood first titled “The Aloe.” It gained greater poignance when Mansfield went to the south of France in 1916 to mourn her beloved only brother, Leslie (nicknamed “Chummie”), a soldier who died in a hand grenade accident during World War I. The story served in some ways as an olive branch to her family, from whom (with the exception of Chummie) Mansfield had been largely estranged since her early 20s. Chummie’s death and the war marked Mansfield indelibly, and Crawford’s play succeeds at capturing the horror and carnage of the front through Mansfield’s rage and sorrow–rage at the inability of her Bloomsbury peers (particularly Virginia Woolf) to adequately address the war in their work, sorrow at the loss of connection with her family. In the play, we see a very weak Mansfield near the end of her life turning in a review of Woolf’s novel Night and Day, a work she describes to her husband, critic and publisher John Middleton Murry, as “a lie in the soul. The war never has been: that is what its message is.” But we don’t ever see Woolf or her husband onstage, which is puzzling since they published “Prelude” through the Hogarth Press.

In Mazurek’s staging a large white scrim is suspended at the rear of the stage, behind which shadowy figures from Mansfield’s life haunt her imagination and memory. This device is overused but sometimes effective, working best in the scenes between Mansfield and her overbearing parents. After Mansfield’s one-day marriage to George Bowden in 1909 (she left him on their wedding night and subsequently became pregnant by Garnet Trowell, a suitor her family had earlier deemed inappropriate), her mother sails from New Zealand to England to inform Mansfield that she must take herself off to a Bavarian “rest spa.” Here the comically grotesque figure of the mother looms large over the frightened, downhearted young Mansfield.

This early experience had great ramifications for Mansfield’s career and life: her first collection of short stories, the 1911 In a German Pension, grew out of her stay in Bavaria, where she suffered a miscarriage. Yet in the play the situation is sketchy. We hear about Trowell, mostly through letters from Chummie (played by Jeff Grafton with an openheartedness that borders on the puppylike), but Trowell’s emotional importance to Mansfield remains foggy.

So do many of Mansfield’s emotional attachments, to men and women alike. Even her passion for her husband is difficult to understand. F. David Roth plays Murry as a reticent but basically decent chap overwhelmed by life with a dying woman (Mansfield was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1917 and died in 1923). When Mansfield decries Woolf’s novel, her tirade turns into a coughing fit; Roth’s Murry covers his mouth and nose with a handkerchief and silently turns away. That image says far more than anything else in the play about the effect of her illness on their marriage.

Less clear is the couple’s thorny relationship with D.H. Lawrence and his wife, Frieda. Though Mansfield and Murry are widely accepted as the models for Gudrun and Gerald in Lawrence’s Women in Love, Crawford’s script is murky on the nature of this four-way friendship. The one thing that’s eminently apparent in John Bryce Fischer’s fearsome portrayal of Lawrence is that the man was a world-class shit; a scene where he beats his wife in the presence of Mansfield and Murry is quite disturbing, all the more so for Susan Karsnick’s layered, anguished portrayal of the oft maligned Frieda.

In many regards the most interesting and enduring relationship in Mansfield’s life was with Ida Constance Baker, a classmate at Queen’s College in London who proved the most loyal of the writer’s friends. Their interactions illustrate one of the least savory aspects of Mansfield’s character: a tendency to turn on those who loved her when her need for solitude was overwhelming. It’s deeply unsettling to see Mansfield all but physically toss Baker out when her friend follows her to the continent on a rest cure. Rae Dawn Belt makes Ida a simple, loving presence yet suggests deeper currents under a smooth surface. And Baker forms an interesting contrast to Mansfield, whose clothes and demeanor evolve from provincial schoolgirl to Bloomsbury sophisticate while Baker’s garb and persona change scarcely at all. (Katherine Bus’s smartly detailed period costumes and Vince Dolittle’s stark projections of World War I battle scenes are among the show’s many evocative visual elements.)

Crawford often incorporates Mansfield’s writing in the script and creates an alter ego, based on the young Mansfield in “Prelude,” named Kezia (sounds like “desire”). But the device of having Kezia recite sections from the stories wears thin, and Jessica Dunton’s occasionally uncertain enunciation causes us to miss some of the poetry in these passages. Several cast members play multiple roles, sometimes very well. Fischer shines as a grieving man torturing an insect in “The Fly,” and Karsnick brings comic buffoonery to a smug German matron in a scene from the 1911 “Frau Brechenmacher Attends a Wedding” (which chillingly foreshadows Germany’s aggression).

Ultimately the play’s greatest strength proves its downfall: Crawford obviously loves her subject so much and has learned so much about her that she had a difficult time editing and shaping her script to convey her vision to an audience. Yet her passion is almost enough to overcome the show’s flaws. I hope Crawford and Mazurek continue working on this piece, because Mansfield deserves to be brought into sharp focus by people with this much skill and love.