Alma de Groen, the author of The Rivers of China, is an Australian playwright, born in New Zealand.
In The Rivers of China two plots interweave: the Fontainebleau narrative and the Sydney narrative, both involved with the life and death of the New Zealand-born writer Katherine Mansfield, and both concerned with the place of women and artists in a patriarchal society. In 1923 the writer Katherine Mansfield went to the guru Gurdjieff in Fontainebleau that he might "cure her soul." In the 1980s (or 'today') in Sydney, a young man awakes in a hospital to find himself in a world dominated by women. As they struggle to discover their true identity, their separate stories intriguingly interweave. Alma De Groen makes free use of Mansfield's journals and letters and the writings of Gurdjieff.
Katherine Mansfield Beauchamp Murry (14 October 1888 – 9 January 1923) was a prominent modernist writer of short fiction who was born and brought up in colonial New Zealand and wrote under the pen name of Katherine Mansfield. At 19, Mansfield left New Zealand and settled in the United Kingdom, where she became a friend of modernist writers such as D H Lawrence and Viriginia Woolf. Her life-style was 'bohemian'. She had lovers of both genders and whilst romantically engaged with Arnold Trowell took his brother, Garnet, as her lover. Pregnant by Garnet, Mansfield quickly married George Bowden, but left him the same evening before the marriage could be consummated and returned briefly to Garnet, but lost the baby after her mother dispatched her to Bavaria. Shortly after her mother cut her out of her will.
She then began on a tempestuous relationship, and marriage, with the magazine editor John Middleton Murry.
Mansfield was greatly affected by the loss of her brother in France during WW1.
Mansfield spent her last years seeking increasingly unorthodox cures for her tuberculosis. The play The Rivers of China is a based on the time she spent Georges Gurdjieff's Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man in Fontainebleau, France. She died of TB aged only 34 in 1923.
George Ivanovich Gurdjieff (January 13, 1866–1877? - October 29, 1949), was an influential spiritual teacher of the early to mid-20th century who taught that most humans live their lives in a state of hypnotic "waking sleep", but that it is possible to transcend to a higher state of consciousness and achieve full human potential. At different times in his life, Gurdjieff formed and closed various schools around the world to teach The Work. He claimed that the teachings he brought to the West from his own experiences and early travels expressed the truth found in ancient religions and wisdom teachings relating to self-awareness in people's daily lives and humanity's place in the universe.
Gurdjieff was born in culturally diverse Kars, a former outpost of the Ottoman Empire, and grew up speaking Armenian, Pontic Greek, Russian and Turkish before acquiring various European languages. He traveled widely, funding himself through various 'business' enterprises along the way. As well as seeking 'the Truth', Gurdjieff was a writer, choreographer, composer and lecturer who gave assistance to members of his extended family fleeing from Russia.
The establishment at Fontainbleu was spartan and Gurdjieff put into practice his teaching that man needs to develop physically, emotionally and intellectually, hence the mixture of lectures, music, dance, and manual work and Gurdjieff was often harsh on his pupils. He acquired notoriety as "the man who killed Katherine Mansfield" after she died under his care. However, another school of thought is that Mansfield knew she would soon die and that Gurdjieff made her last days happy and fulfilling.
During the play the author directs some of Gurdjieff's music to be used. You can find it here:
The Rivers of China also makes reference to various other works, most notably the three poems below:
The Soul has Bandaged moments - Emily Dickinson
The Soul has Bandaged moments -
When too appalled to stir -
She feels some ghastly Fright come up
And stop to look at her -
Salute her, with long fingers -
Caress her freezing hair -
Sip, Goblin, from the very lips
The Lover - hovered - o'er -
Unworthy, that a thought so mean
Accost a Theme - so - fair -
The soul has moments of escape -
When bursting all the doors -
She dances like a Bomb, abroad,
And swings opon the Hours,
As do the Bee - delirious borne -
Long Dungeoned from his Rose -
Touch Liberty - then know no more -
But Noon, and Paradise
The Soul's retaken moments -
When, Felon led along,
With shackles on the plumed feet,
And staples, in the song,
The Horror welcomes her, again,
These, are not brayed of Tongue –
On First Looking into Chapman's Homer - Keats
Much have I travell'd in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow'd Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star'd at the Pacific—and all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
Rarely, rarely, comest thou - Shelley
Rarely, rarely, comest thou,
Spirit of Delight!
Wherefore hast thou left me now
Many a day and night?
Many a weary night and day
'Tis since thou are fled away.
How shall ever one like me
Win thee back again?
With the joyous and the free
Thou wilt scoff at pain.
Spirit false! thou hast forgot
All but those who need thee not.
As a lizard with the shade
Of a trembling leaf,
Thou with sorrow art dismay'd;
Even the sighs of grief
Reproach thee, that thou art not near,
And reproach thou wilt not hear.
Let me set my mournful ditty
To a merry measure;
Thou wilt never come for pity,
Thou wilt come for pleasure;
Pity then will cut away
Those cruel wings, and thou wilt stay.
I love all that thou lovest,
Spirit of Delight!
The fresh Earth in new leaves dress'd,
And the starry night;
Autumn evening, and the morn
When the golden mists are born.
I love snow, and all the forms
Of the radiant frost;
I love waves, and winds, and storms,
Which is Nature's, and may be
Untainted by man's misery.
I love tranquil solitude,
And such society
As is quiet, wise, and good;
Between thee and me
What difference? but thou dost possess
The things I seek, not love them less.
I love Love—though he has wings,
And like light can flee,
But above all other things,
Spirit, I love thee—
Thou art love and life! Oh come,
Make once more my heart thy home.