Alma De Groen’s ambitious play is still challenging, exciting and provocative almost 25 years after it was written.
The Rivers of China was first produced in 1987, but De Groen started writing it in 1974. It’s an incredible piece of work, managing to weave together feminist theory, the last months in the life of Katherine Mansfield (dying of TB), her rather bizarre treatment at the hands of Gurdijeff, and a dystopian alternative present day where women hold power and men are the second class citizens.
At first, I found the sci-fi present day narrative intrusive and wanted to be left with Katherine Mansfied’s story, which is fascinating on its own. But as the play progresses and we start to see the connections it all comes together beautifully.
In De Groen’s imagined contemporary world, men aren’t allowed to write or create. They work for little money in menial positions and all historic works by men are banned. Shakespeare, Tennyson and Shelley have never been heard of by contemporary man, who is made to believe that only women are capable of creating works of beauty or intelligence. This repression of men has resulted in high rates of male suicide.
In the course of the play we get to see Katherine Mansfield realising that Gurdijeff, the guru she’s studying under, is a sexist old man: using his position to get into the pants of his female followers, at the same time as we see Wayne (an orderly in the contemporary hospital) realise that men are capable of creating things of beauty and that things haven’t always been the way they currently are.
In an intriguing twist, the patient whom Wayne has become obsessed with is a man who has attempted suicide and been hypnotised to believe that he is Katherine Mansfield. It sounds terribly confusing but it all becomes clear as you read. And it’s enhanced by beautiful writing about the importance of writing and seeking your own truth. This next piece is said by the man in hospital who believes that he’s Katherine Mansfield:
MAN: When I write a story I choose not only the length of every sentence, but the sound. I choose the rise and fall of every paragraph to fit the mood or the character on that day and that moment. After I’ve written it I read it aloud, until I get it right, until there’s not a single word that could be taken out. While I am writing I am engulfed. Possessed. Anyone who comes near me is my enemy. It takes the place of religion for me. It is my religion.
Earlier in the play, Katherine Mansfield talks about finding the truth:
KATHERINE: In the past all my biggest mistakes were because I was afraid and didn’t face things. It’s taken me till now to understand this. If we set out on a journey we must submit to the journey. We’re afraid. We resist. The little boat enters the dark gulf and our only wish is to escape: ‘Put me on land again’ But it’s no use. The shadowy figure rows on. One ought to sit still and uncover one’s eyes.
This is beautiful writing with a strong message and heart. As relevant now as it was 25 years ago.
Publisher: Currency Press
Cast: 4M, 3F (contains some doubling – could be played by a larger cast)