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James Fisher

 

People said that I was a visionary youth — an idealist — they meant it well. So did I, but I went better than that. I did what I meant, at the first opportunity, and I still do. People said I was a dreamer, but it seems they erred, for I have proof that I did what I dreamed. I began to do so in 1900.
Edward Gordon Craig1

The legacy of Edward Gordon Craig (1872-1966), to those generally aware of his iconoclastic vision and his multiple challenges to artists of the modern stage, seems to be present on stages everywhere. Perhaps this is because many of the aspects of the theatre’s history inspiring to Craig – open air theatre, Asian classic forms, commedia dell’arte, puppets and marionettes – have similarly inspired twenty and twenty-first century theatrical practitioners. The February 2004 issue of the monthly American Theatre magazine featured a cover story by Wendy Weisman entitled “Where Do Puppets Come From?,” an essay exploring the achievements of current puppetry artists, and an interview with five contemporary playwrights, including Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist Paula Vogel, who confesses to “puppet love.”2 These artists increasingly use puppetry in varied ways in new works, Weisman explains.3 A striking accompanying photo shows ten puppeteers maneuvering the strings connected to a single marionette. The photo caused me to wonder why this image seemed familiar until I realized it called to mind Craig’s drawings for a scene in his 1901 Purcell Operatic Society production, The Masque of Love, in which a chorus of harlequins manipulate a second chorus of pierrots. Both choruses were played by human actors serving as puppeteers and puppets, all part of Craig’s experimentation in this extraordinary production. Focused on ideas about the puppet, all of which would frequently recur in his theoretical writings for the remaining sixty-five years of his long life, this production demonstrates “puppet love” among Craig’s many forerunning notions – and lasting legacies.

In her article, Weisman would have her readers believe that the modern explosion of interest in puppetry dates only from Jim Henson’s extraordinary success with The Muppets, a contention that fails to take into account the many theatrical practitioners who have found myriad ways to rescue the puppet from fairground booths and children’s theatre, reinvigorating this iconic human image as a central element of modern drama. If Craig is not the sole early twentieth century figure to proclaim the puppet’s return to center stage, he is certainly its most effective proponent. In numerous books and articles, in the pages of his long-running (1908-1929) periodical, The Mask, and in the lamentably short- lived, but more appropriately titled periodical, The Marionnette (1918-1919), Craig argued the merits of the puppet and, of course, his “puppet love” inspired perhaps his best-known and certainly most controversial essay, “The Actor and the Über-marionette,” which both infuriated and intrigued theatre artists. This essay made Craig a figure of international significance, simultaneously lionized and much-maligned. Weisman’s article is but a small indication that Craig’s impact on modern theatre practice has been profound.

“The Actor and the Über-marionette” is of interest for many reasons; in discussing Craig’s importance it is essential because although a superficial understanding of it suggests Craig’s proposition banishing the living actor from the stage (to be replaced by a super-marionette), it more importantly embodies ideas (expressed in dozens of other writings) encapsulating his legacy. What Craig proposed in his self-stated goal of reforming modern theatre practice, some of which will be addressed in this essay, is important, but so are his background, the widely varied (and often contradictory) inspirations on his work, and the sources he sought to assist him in realizing his ideas.

Most studies of Craig focus on the years following the publication of his first books, The Art of the Theatre (1905) and its later expanded version On the Art of the Theatre (1911), and the first issues of Craig’s journal, The Mask, founded in 1908, which featured “The Actor and the Über-marionette” in its second issue. His early work, both as an apprentice actor in Henry Irving’s Lyceum Theatre company and as a young director/designer in a handful of shoe- string productions in London at the turn of the century, is often referred to as formative, but rarely have these productions been directly linked to the evolution of Craig’s most important theories and his lasting legacy.

Before his theories, Craig indulged in practical experimentation with the ideas running through the nearly sixty years of theoretical essays and “theatre love” articles Craig supported himself with following the initial theatrical earthquake that accompanying the publication of The Art of the Theatre. Thrust into the limelight as a result of his radical notions, Craig permanently adopted the mantle of provocateur, ridiculing antiquated practices, attempting to incite change, and, most certainly, writhing in frustration over his often futile attempt to more frequently produce theatrical work. After the emergence of The Art of the Theatre, Craig’s actual productions virtually ceased – aside from his designs for Eleonora Duse’s production of Ibsen’s Rosmersholm (used for one performance only in Florence in 1906) and some designs he sent to producer George C. Tyler for a short-lived 1928 New York production of Macbeth (for which he cynically signed his sketches “Craig pot-boiler”), his only two significant post-1905 productions are his famous 1908-1911 collaboration with Constantin Stanislavsky on a production of Hamlet, at the Moscow Art Theatre, and his 1926 designs for Ibsen’s The Crown Pretenders, produced by the Royal Theatre of Copenhagen for which, it must be noted, he recycled designs and ideas from his 1903 London production of Ibsen’s The Vikings at Helgeland. He drew from his formative designing/directing years (1900-1903) for The Crown Pretenders (as he did for all of his later works), and these productions provided an arena, however modest, in which he experimented with ideas and techniques which would form the foundation for his theoretical writings.

One of the legends about Craig – one that is at least partially true – concerns his intractability and fiery temperament. This behavior manifested itself in unreasonable demands on producers and explosions of anger when things went amiss, all of which made it impossible for him to find suitable production opportunities. However, the years between 1900 and 1903 prove that Craig could work his theatrical wonders under the least desirable circumstances. If he would later be known to make unrealistic demands in time and budget, during his early productions he was able to create extraordinary effects with very little of both.

As the spoiled love child of legendary Victorian actress Ellen Terry and Edward William Godwin, a seminal figure of the Aesthetic Movement, Craig began his theatrical career under the most lavish of circumstances, “walking-on” in productions at Irving’s Lyceum Theatre from childhood. This led to his formal acting debut opposite his mother in Watts Phillips’s melodrama of the French Revolution, The Dead Heart, in 1889. Having begun his career under such comfortable circumstances makes it all the more surprising that this pampered, temperamental young artist could adapt himself to the modest circumstances under which he typically worked when not at the Lyceum.

Craig half-heartedly pursued an acting career through the late 1890s, reaching his peak playing Hamlet and Romeo at London’s Parkhurst Theatre in 1896. Admiring of Irving’s acting and, at the same time, resistant to established stage traditions embodied in Irving’s elaborately picturesque Lyceum Theatre productions, Craig began to imagine himself at the head of a theatre aimed at moving stage practice – especially in the areas of acting, staging, and the visual elements – beyond the common standard of his time. Craig began a life-long interest in researching theatrical history in this period, locating eras and techniques he believed would provide a theoretical base for his imagined stage revolution.

Whether or not Craig first tested his theories in an 1893 production of Alfred de Musset’s No Trifling with Love, staged at the Uxbridge Town Hall, remains to be seen. No visual evidence of this production survives (nor do contemporary reviews or other accounts), although Craig remembered in his 1957 autobiography, Index to the Story of My Days, that he played the lead and “designed the scenes, helped the carpenters to make them – painted them and rehearsed the piece.”4 Comparatively little else is known and it is possible that this production was so early in his adult theatrical experience that none of his seminal ideas were as yet effectively formulated. Continuing to act for Irving, as well as provincial tours, Craig soured on acting, partly because he believed that he could never equal Irving. More importantly, at the same time, he began to understand that the theatre Irving represented was wanting in many aspects. In the six years between No Trifling with Love and Craig’s next directorial and design work, beginning in 1899 with the planning of his first Purcell Operatic Society production, Dido and Aeneas, Craig considered various alternative approaches to the nineteenth-century staging traditions he had been trained in.

When Lee Simonson expended a full third of his 1932 book, The Stage Is Set, to refute Craig’s theories, his too literal response to the imaginative Craig’s grandiose published designs failed to take into account that the “unproduced” Craig had, in fact, designed and staged several productions whose specifics inform his “impractical” theories and imaginary productions. Simonson’s mistaking Craig’s “imagined” designs as proposed “real” projects is the central damning flaw in Simonson’s attack, but many others accepted this assault as a compelling rejection of Craig and his theories. Simonson triumphantly pointed to the lack of realized productions in Craig’s past (Adolphe Appia similarly realized few actual productions, but Simonson demurs from attacking Appia’s concepts on these grounds), and although it is certainly true that Craig was frustrated about the lack of production opportunities afforded him, in his published designs and theories he intended to be less literal and more inspirational.

Comparing a Craig design for Macbeth with an eight-story building is Simonson’s coup de grace, but it only serves to underscore Simonson’s fundamental (and willful) misunderstanding of the intent of much of Craig’s published designs. Craig’s eight-story Macbeth suggests the ideal size and scope for a vast play impossible to fully capture on any actual stage. Craig certainly understood that such a design was intended to inspire – the design would have to be modified (lamentably) to suit the realities of whatever stage it might be used on and within whatever budget available. His understanding of the limitations of the stage is fully evident in his early productions, however he may have longed for more elaborate opportunities.

Craig readily made adjustments to size, space, and budget constraints in his impressively varied 1900 through 1903 productions (Simonson, by the way, seems to have little awareness of Craig’s realized productions). In essence, before the theory – theories that have both inspired theatrical artists and generated controversy – Craig tested his ideas in these productions. In fact, these productions should be seen as the genesis of his major theories. That he imagined grander, larger-scale productions than he actually ever produced is a comparatively minor point – the essential Craigian ideas were explored before he put them in writing. He continued to explore them in the “unrealistic” inspirational designs intended to excite the imaginations of his readers, including an international array of major theatre practitioners. Among the many theories Craig articulated in the immediate aftermath of his early productions, some of which were first published in The Art of the Theatre in 1905, a few essential Craig concepts emerge:

  • The central importance of unifying voice, movement, and scene
  • Total control over all elements of production by a master artist trained in performance, design, and all other production requirements, as well as in art, music, literature, and history
  • Rejection of “photographic realism”; affirmation of theatre as an imaginative realm
  • Development of an acting style in which the actor’s voice and movement were placed under greater control, preferably by the master artist.

Craig’s interest in puppets supported the last, inspiring the über-marionette theory which suggested the replacement of the living actor with a life-sized marionette. Debate has traditionally centered on whether or not Craig was actually calling for the elimination of the living actor, but surely he could not have been. Was he then suggesting a life-sized marionette theatre to co-exist alongside the living theatre? Possibly, but it seems more likely that he was suggesting the über-marionette as an ideal – promoting the need for the actor to more fully understand and control his/her body and voice. In espousing the über-marionette theory, Craig was most certainly thinking of Irving, whose carefully planned scheme of gestures and movements – along with his “Ichabod Crane-ish” body – made Craig think of Irving as a living marionette. To Craig, Irving was the model of a craftsman-like actor striving for complete physical and vocal control. In promoting the über- marionette theory, Craig found that his contemporaries assumed this radical revolutionary had instead crossed the line of sanity – virtually none of his contemporaries could imagine the living actor replaced by a puppet, even with puppet theatres of all sorts historically prevalent in most cultures (although at a somewhat diminished level in England at the time).

The oft-repeated criticisms of Craig’s theories continued throughout his life, fueling the belief that his ideas were too radical and that his working expectations were far beyond the realm of the work-a-day theatre. Certainly no sane producer would employ a director/designer with such dangerous notions. In truth, to understand Craig, one must understand his theories and their origins; to understand Craig’s theories, one must understand his actual productions and the ways in which they illuminate his theories. One of Craig’s early productions, For Sword or Song (1903), requires little attention as Craig merely supplied designs for three scenes in this melodramatic boulevard entertainment produced by his uncle, actor-manager Fred Terry. Craig did not direct the play and his designs were simply included among the more standard settings employed in the production. The originality of Craig’s contributions was celebrated by a few critics and impressed Terry, who had agreed to use his nephew’s talents at the behest of his sister.

Craig’s other productions of this period are informative in regard to the evolution of his theories and, in particular, to the concept of the über-marionette. A brief chronological look at each of these productions demonstrates not only the development of Craig’s ideas and the historical influences on them, but the adaptation into “practical” form the “unrealistic” Craig designs Simonson and others railed against.

From Shakespearean comedy to Ibsen verse spectacle, from Christian pageant to British opera, the diverse works making up Craig’s early productions each provide unique insights in appreciating Craig’s concepts. Each was fully realized by Craig, if, in most cases, on a modest scale.

Dido and Aeneas (1900)

Featuring approximately eighty mostly amateur participants, Dido and Aeneas was produced at London’s Hampstead Conservatoire from May 17-19, 1900. The hall was not actually a theatre and it featured immovable platforms of different heights intended for singers and orchestra. Craig had no choice but to work these into his visual scheme. The plot of the opera, concerning Dido, Queen of Carthage, and her love for a Trojan warrior, Aeneas, is complicated by a Sorceress who plots to destroy the lovers and trick Aeneas into thinking that Jove has ordered his immediate departure from Carthage. The lovers are parted and, in the final scene, Dido kills herself in grief. Craig looked to the traditional conceptions of Greek architecture and clothing for the production, but radically simplified them, maintaining basic shapes while eliminating extraneous historical details. A series of simple curtains with a sky cloth at the back of the stage served for all scenes. In front of the sky cloth, a gauzy scrim-like drop was placed leaving room between the two for lighting, thus creating an illusion of a limitless sky. This was accomplished by lights from behind the gauzy drop, limelights from above the proscenium, and electric lights from the sides. Craig eliminated the traditional footlights of the period, and the effect of that, coupled with his other lighting innovations, created a mystical environment. The only moveable piece of scenery was a throne for Dido modeled on the tall four-poster beds Craig had seen at Hampton Court, along with four walls of trellis covered with artificial vines and grapes. One critic wrote that

A broad simple tone of the violet of night was given on back-cloth — the stage being kept free from all petty and distracting detail. The players at once took on their full size, dignity, and individuality. The result was a haunting impression in which, all unwittingly, the eye helped the ear in grasping the intention of the scene.5

Emphasis was placed on movement and the illusion of dance, although the movements were not patterned on traditional dance or ballet. Craig’s instead imagined how a chorus might have moved in classical drama. He did not employ puppets in any obvious way, instead placing an emphasis on movement and the illusion of dance in an attempt to get at the control Craig could later imagine in his theories that the puppet might supply him in the role of “master artist” of the stage.

Overall, Craig emphasized simplicity in the acting, partly because he knew his amateur cast could not master complicated moves. He set the actors in simple choreographed movements against the powerfully evocative setting. The movement created an effect William Butler Yeats regarded as, “a new and distinct art. It is something that can only exist in the theatre. It cannot even be separated from the figures that move before it. The staging of Dido and Aeneas and of The Masque of Love will some day, I am persuaded, be remembered among the important events of our time.”6

The Masque of Love (1901)

The Masque of Love was adapted in 1901 by Craig and Martin Shaw from Henry Purcell’s music for the Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher drama The Prophetess, or The History of Dioclesian. Purcell’s opera, entitled Dioclesian (1691), was inspired by the composer’s affection for Italian music. Seeking Italianate influences to support the scene, Craig looked to the characters and images of commedia dell’arte, the improvisatory Italian street theatre of the sixteenth century, and the variant forms of puppetry inspired by commedia. he basic setting was a box-like structure of light gray fabric (no painted scenery) and the commedia/puppet influence provided Craig with the production’s highlight: a chorus of pierrots attached to strings like marionettes manipulated by a group of harlequins, the scene I remembered while looking at the photo of the puppeteers in American Theatre. The main colors of the setting were black and white, with little splashes of color subtly added. The fabric was washed with colorful lighting, and the figures moved in and out of different fields of color creating the illusion that their costumes were continually changing color.

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Craig, The Masque of Love (1901).
Drawing of Pierrot.

Movement for The Masque of Love, this time more in the spirit of a modern ballet, was emphasized once again, underscoring Craig’s goal of exercising complete control over carefully planned movement and gesture. Foreshadowing his oft-expressed opinion that theatre depended too much on words, Craig eliminated approximately sixty percent of the opera’s original libretto (thus inspiring the opera’s name change – it was, in essence, a completely new work), allowing the movements, gestures and lighting, along with the music, to tell the story.

In the program for a revival of The Masque of Love (on a double bill with Craig’s next production, Acis and Galatea) at the Queen Street Theatre on March 10, 1902, writer Christopher St. John (Cristabel Marshall) synopsized the plot of the masque, presumably to assist the audience in following a mostly pantomimic and movement-oriented performance. Set in the palace of the God of Love, The Masque of Love delicately balanced the pathos of star-crossed lovers with the embellishments of Craig’s commedia/puppetry-inspired imagery.

The imagery of commedia and puppets pervaded Craig’s creative work from its beginning. The visual possibilities of both made a deep creative impression on Craig and the image of Pierrot so fascinated him that in 1897 he created an entertainment based on a Hans Christian Andersen story, and called it What the Moon Saw. Craig, “dressed as a Pierrot,” recited Andersen’s story standing in front of a setting of a night sky and moon.7 What the Moon Saw was never publicly performed, but Craig often found himself sketching commedia- inspired performers, puppets and marionettes while attending performances at theatres and music halls. Late in life, Craig, highly critical of most of his realized productions, felt that The Masque of Love was “the best thing I ever did on a stage.”8 Craig added, regarding his famous production of Hamlet with Constantin Stanislavsky at the Moscow Art Theatre, “I won’t say it will equal the touch of ‘Masque of Love’ or ‘Acis,’ but it will do its best under the disadvantage of having cost the management over £14,000.”9 Craig did not miss the irony that his finest realized work (at least in his own eyes) was done with virtually no financial resources, mostly amateur players, and little but his own ingenuity to create striking effects.

Max Beerbohm, in attendance at a performance, remembered “those slow- moving harlequins with surcoats of dark gauze over their lozenges, setting the huge candles in the candelabra of the Prison of Love — they and the rest are ineffaceable pictures in my memory.”10 Other iconoclastic theatrical artists took notice, too. William Butler Yeats, who attended performances of both Dido and Aeneas and The Masque of Love, recalled that:

. . .they gave me more perfect pleasure than I have met with in any theatre this ten years. I saw the only admirable stage scenery of our time, for Mr Gordon Craig has discovered how to decorate a play with severe, beautiful, simple, effects of colour, that leave the imagination free to follow all suggestions of the play. Realistic scenery takes the imagination captive and is at best but bad landscape painting, but Mr Gordon Craig’s scenery is a new and distinct art. It is something that can only exist in the theatre. It cannot even be separated from the figures that move before it. The staging of Dido and Aeneas and of The Masque of Love will some day, I am persuaded, be remembered among the important events of our time.11

These productions initiated the most intensive period of Craig’s production activity, firing his quest away from realistic illusionism toward a new theatre drawing strength from a master artist capable of conceiving and realizing, as well as unifying, all aspects of an impressionistic theatrical production. This experimentation continued in Craig’s next Purcell Operatic Society production, Acis and Galatea.

Acis and Galatea (1902)

For Acis and Galatea, Craig’s final production for the Purcell Operatic Society, he again made use of commedia/puppet elements in some provocative half-masks he designed. Composed by Handel in 1718, with a text by John Gay, Acis and Galatea was frequently performed in revivals in England beginning in 1731 and continuing to 1742. However, by the time Craig and his musical director, Martin Shaw, produced it, Acis and Galatea had long since been largely forgotten. Written as a masque and often described as a “little opera,” it is distinguished by a richness and inventiveness of melody and harmony, a sophistication in texture and the creation of characters, ranging from the tragic (Acis) to the grotesquely comic (the giant, Polyphemus). These aspects undoubtedly attracted Craig to this work. He used a single theme — Arthur Symons referred to it as a “pattern” — in costume, scenery, and movement. The subtle shifting of the various moods carried the audience into a fantasy world aimed at arousing their senses and imagination. As Irène Eynat-Confino writes, the illusion created and the orchestration of the various moods plunged the audience into an avowedly make-believe world strongly appealing to the senses and imagination; the spectator was left with the feeling of living through an extraordinary, intense experience. This was particularly true in Craig’s treatment of the giant, Polyphemus, who, through clever use of lighting, was shown only as an enormous apparition – in essence, the shadow of a giant puppet-like image created by placing an actor in front of a carefully aimed off-stage light.

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Craig, Acis and Galatea (1902)

The Purcell Operatic Society’s first two productions received enthusiastic response from the London critics, but this time several critics wondered why a pastoral opera was presented without anything overtly pastoral on the stage. No grassy mats? No cut-out trees? Failing to recognize that once again Craig was creating a mood scheme intended to symbolize a pastoral environment, this time employing color, movement, and gesture only. Children tossing paper roses to each other, straw hats, ribboned costumes and scenery, and colorful balloons were present, but the expected grassy mats, trees, and sky were omitted in support of Craig’s commitment to avoid what he called “photographic realism.” To some extent, Craig was striving for an environment like that which Peter Brook realized for his famous 1970s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Brook, a self- confessed Craig disciple, banished the usual forest scenery for Dream, instead presenting the play on a stage consisting of a massive white wall (with many doors and openings) splashing the brightly colored pajama-like costumes of the actors (which fit in no particular period) against this white background. Brook found a novel approach to capturing Dream’s spirit without being tied to its specifics and, similarly, Craig’s emphasis on shifting colors was intended to create a mood not a place. Instead of creating a realistically accurate portrait of place, Craig set out, as director William Poel recalled, to “delight the eye.”12 Poel might have added that Craig also worked to achieve a complete unification of actor and scene. Irène Eynat-Confino writes that Craig “used dance elements, all movement was stylized here into straight lines and right angles, resulting in a puppetlike rigidity where no ‘curves’ were allowed.”13 In dealing with the staging

Craig integrated [the chorus] into the setting and turned the whole thing into a writhing, living body. An instance of this method is caught in a photograph of the chorus published by Edward Craig. The photograph shows the merging of scenery, costumes and actors, not only through the visual leitmotiv of the square but also through movement: narrow strips of cloth, hanging down from the flies, mix with the strips hanging from the sleeves and headdress of the actors. Thus, the chorus became technically part of the scenery and the two together formed a living, moving universe. For the strips belonging to the scenery shifted at the slightest movement of the actors, making the actor part of, and reflected in, a larger body. This technique would recur in the famous gold cloak scene, the court scene, of the Moscow Hamlet (act I, scene 2); here, the actor became an undifferentiated element of the chorus that was, in its turn, part of the scenery.”14

Bethlehem (1902)

For Laurence Housman’s nativity play, Bethlehem, Craig continued his collaboration with musical director Martin Shaw. The production was staged at the Imperial Institute in South Kensington in December 1902. In his memoirs, Craig recalled that in the great hall of the Institute “we constructed a tent for the spectators and a large stage for the performers. . . . It had taken some six months to prepare.”15 Bethlehem was similar in concept to the Purcell Operatic Society productions. A standout element was a sky backcloth in which Craig cut small holes. By using light from behind he was able to create the illusion of stars twinkling in the distance. Janet Leeper described another powerful effect: “Craig dressed his shepherds in hessian, a material not used as yet as he used it in the theatre, and in the strong light, covered the stage with sacks and hurdles, representing the flocks of sheep, achieving thus a homogeneous picture, far from reality and preciousness.”16 A few dim photographs of this production survive, one showing part of this scene of the shepherds and the artificially created sheep. Continuing to experiment with the idea of the puppet – or, at least, inanimate objects representing living creatures, used rough materials to create an illusion of the animals – Craig, had time and budget permitted, surely would have considered creating sheep puppets to enhance this illusion. If that is so, Craig anticipates Julie Taymor, who famously mixed puppets with actors to create the striking visual elements that have made The Lion King an international hit.

As with the Purcell Operatic Society productions of Dido and Aeneas, The Masque of Love and Acis and Galatea, critics were respectful and audiences were appreciative (but small). And, as with the Society productions, the visual triumphs did little to raise Craig’s stock among London’s major theatre managers. However, his work did not go unnoticed. A decade after the production, a Craig contemporary and acquaintance, Harley Granville-Barker, wrote to the London Daily Mail about Bethlehem and Craig’s influence:

Now, as will all idealists, Mr Craig’s influence has been mainly destructive. Certainly his own production twelve years ago of Mr. Laurence Housman’s ‘Bethlehem’ destroyed for me once and for all any illusion I may have had as to the necessity of surrounding every performance of a play with the stuffy, fussy, thick-bedaubed canvas which we are accustomed to call stage scenery, while he opened my eyes to the possibilities of real beauty and dignity in stage decoration. I owe him (we all should) a great debt of gratitude. I gladly acknowledge it.17

Following Bethlehem, Craig turned his attentions to creating the aforementioned scenes for his uncle Fred Terry’s production of For Sword or Song before taking his greatest production risk: a two-play season at London’s Imperial Theatre bankrolled by his mother, Ellen Terry, who would star in the elaborately staged productions. Accentuating the risk was the decision to begin the season with a work by Henrik Ibsen, who, despite the efforts of George Bernard Shaw and others, remained a controversial name for British audiences. Instead of choosing one of Ibsen’s more characteristic “social problem plays,” Craig and Terry selected Ibsen’s little-known 1858 verse drama, The Vikings at Helgeland, previously unproduced on London stages. Not only did the production mark Terry’s first appearance in one of Ibsen’s plays, but it gave full sway to Craig’s radical (by the standards of the time) design and staging concepts.

The Vikings at Helgeland (1903)

It is interesting to note that among Craig’s few realized productions, three were from the pen of Henrik Ibsen. Along with The Vikings at Helgeland, Craig created designs for Eleonora Duse’s production of Rosmersholm in 1906 and twenty years later his last significant production work was for a 1926 staging of The Crown Pretenders at the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen under the direction of Johannes Poulsen. The Crown Pretenders, like The Vikings, is not in the tradition of the realistic dramas with which Ibsen revolutionized European drama. However, Rosmersholm was one of these realistic works and Craig’s remarkable treatment of it involved eliminating most of those aspects of the modern realistic theatre Craig railed against in his subsequent writings, calling it “an agitated caricature of Man and his Life, a figure gross in its attitude and hideous to look upon. This is true neither to life nor to art.”18 Craig warned that to stage or act Ibsen’s plays solely on the level of realism was to make the works “insignificant and mean. Therefore we must remember our artistry and forget our propensity towards photography – we must for this new poet re-form a new theatre.”19

With those notions in mind, Craig’s reinvention of Rosmersholm involved throwing out the heavy Scandinavian furniture Duse had acquired to use in performances of the play and, in place of walls, doors, and the other accoutrements of realism, Craig spread fabric over some cubes. Only a small curio cabinet to house small portraits of the ancestors of Rosmer (whose presence hang heavily over the play), and a large free hanging window overlooking a limitless sky, were used. Duse and fellow artists were impressed, but when a stage carpenter modified the size of Craig’s elements for a second performance of the play in Nice, Craig flew into a rage and confronted Duse, who, in turn, ordered him from the theatre. It was another frustrating end to a vivid demonstration of Craig’s ideas.

In producing The Vikings, Craig faced many difficulties beyond a general resistance to Ibsen’s work among the English public. Ellen Terry worried that audiences and critics might not accept her in the leading role of Hjordis, “a fierce virago who kept chained bears in the house”20; Terry had been most appreciated as a romantic heroine and Shakespearean comedienne. Despite concerns, Craig deeply involved himself in the design of the set, lights and costumes for the play: “I made some fifty or so drawings and some hundred sketches, working, as the theatre-folk in those days had to work – all day and all night – for months.”21 Viewing the play as “an allegorical combat, body versus soul, pagan versus Christian, rather than a human conflict” and to stress the work’s universal qualities, he “substituted generalized, emotionally evocative scene titles for Ibsen’s descriptions of specific places. ‘Helgeland, the seashore’ and ‘A hall in Gunnar’s house’ became ‘Act I – The Rocks, Act II – The Feast, Act III – Light, Act IV – The Storm’.”22 As in Craig’s prior designs, extraneous details were eliminated and carefully selected symbolic images predominated. To achieve his effects, Craig gutted the backstage area of the Imperial and abolished “foot and border lights, sending shafts of luminosity from above. . .We see no ‘flies,’ no shaky unconvincing side scenes, no foolish flocculent borders, no staring backcloths”, all of which were standard staging practices in that era.23

While Ibsen strove to make his legendary characters more human, Craig emphasized their iconic qualities through stylized movement and bold lighting effects. Once again, Craig looked to the inherent control offered by the puppet, especially in the areas of movement and in achieving striking, carefully planned effects. This time, however, Craig met with serious difficulties. The amateur performers of the Purcell Operatic Society productions had gone along with Craig’s novel approach to acting, but the experienced West End players Terry had enlisted for the Imperial season, including Oscar Asche, Holman Clark, Hubert Carter, Conway Tearle, and Hutin Britton, were resistant. Undoubtedly outraged by the notion that a mere “scene painter” was dismissive of their familiar, cherished acting styles, the actors did not respect Craig enough to adapt to a staging style that has come to be regarded as one of Craig’s lasting legacies. Unifying the actor with the visual elements (scene and lighting) and music has become commonplace, but in 1903 the professional actor could hardly imagine what total integration with the visual scheme portended. To them, the scenery was merely a picturesque backdrop in front of which they acted. Scenery was decorative, not integral to anything of concern to the actor.

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Craig, The Vikings at Helgeland (1903).
Costumes and platforms covered with canvas to simulate a rocky bluff.

The Vikings opened on April 15, 1903 to a large, enthusiastic audience present to witness the legendary Terry in her first attempt at a role written by one of the cutting edge dramatists of the modern era. Terry was well-received by the audience, but critics shared her own doubts about her appropriateness for the role (as they had decades earlier when she first played Lady Macbeth opposite Irving). Craig’s designs and staging generated the expected controversy. He provided “a new sensation,” as one critic wrote, but the reaction was decidedly mixed.24 George Bernard Shaw, Max Beerbohm, William Rothenstein and William Butler Yeats attended performances and their reactions were similarly mixed – some applauded Craig’s experiments, while others felt the staging techniques detracted from the play itself.

Despite mixed opinions and audience apathy, surviving designs for The Vikings, as well as newspaper photographs and drawings, suggest that this large- scale production was, to date, the most fully developed treatment of Craig’s concepts prior to his published theorizing.

This mixed reception did not bode well for the Imperial Theatre’s future and when the box office failed to ignite, Craig and Terry decided to shorten the run of The Vikings and move as quickly as possible into a sure thing: Ellen Terry as Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, a role she had played successfully for many years in tandem with Irving.

Much Ado About Nothing (1903)

Attempting to recoup the financial losses resulting from the commercial failure of The Vikings, Craig leapt directly into realizing his ideas for William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Terry’s merry and tender Beatrice had already become one of her signature performances and although in 1903 she was in her mid-fifties, audiences were still prepared to accept her in one of her most beloved roles. In this case, Craig’s designs were destined to matter little. Terry, along with Oscar Asche as Benedick, and much of The Vikings cast in support, reverted to familiar acting methods and Craig, undoubtedly feeling rushed in completing his design (only two weeks were possible) and frustrated by the resistance of the actors, opted to create a simple Italianate background for the play.

Craig removed the stage borders, raised the fly system well above view behind the proscenium, and constructed a lighting bridge behind and above the proscenium in order to create his now typically extraordinary lighting effects. In every way, he resisted the traditional way of producing the play despite the now urgent financial restrictions caused by The Vikings failure. Craig’s dilemma is spelled out in a surviving letter from his mother outlining her concerns:

Now whilst there is time to simplify the scenery and lighting for Much Ado, I want to impress upon you that everything depends upon the quick changing of the scenes on the first night – it’s no use afterwards, for the newspapers speak of the first night. It will mean ruin to me if this play don’t succeed and I shall close the theatre and finish up on the following Saturday if things don’t go smoothly on the Tuesday – It wd mean ruin to me if this Play don’t succeed, for I should with that play be losing about £150 or £200 a week — & for you it would be ruin, as making ‘impossible’ from an all round point of view to do Craig’s beautiful work. . . .To get through this season quietly without obvious disaster must be our united aim.25

This was Craig’s first production of a Shakespearean play as director and designer, although throughout his long career he would write about Shakespeare, make models and designs for imaginary productions of Shakespeare’s plays, and involve himself in two later Shakespearean productions. Craig deeply admired Shakespeare’s canon, especially Hamlet and Macbeth, and when he developed his patented scenic screens (used in his production of Hamlet in Moscow and also by Yeats at the Abbey Theatre), it was, at least in part, an attempt to locate a visual power matching the poetic grandeur of Shakespeare’s works. The screens might have provided a good solution to the problem of doing Much Ado, especially under severe time and budget constraints, but Craig had not yet created them, so he had to look elsewhere for solutions.

phoca_thumb_l_much-ado-1

Craig, Much Ado About Nothing (1903).
Drawing for the church scene.

Craig’s ideas on producing Shakespeare’s plays have been called neo- romantic and in producing Much Ado he was tied to many traditional production concepts, but he insisted that Shakespeare’s plays should not be treated in either a stilted formal or “classical” manner. In fact, he even wondered whether Shakespeare’s plays could be satisfactorily captured on any stage. In his experiments and numerous designs, he clearly attempted to reach beyond the bounds of realism and the still primitive conventions of the stage of his day to find a scheme suitable for the plays: “Shakespeare is distinctly Romantic; often vulgar in colour, breaking all law; and I hold that when we produce him on the stage we should try to match his Romance and his lawlessness as well as we can. . . .”26

To Craig, Shakespeare’s tragedies were vast dreams, but he saw the comedies as lighthearted fantasies requiring music, movement and dance, with an emphasis on the actor as improviser. To this end, he noted the contribution of the Elizabethan comic actor, as influenced by the traditions of commedia dell’arte. Craig had first become aware of commedia, and the later forms it influenced, in the early 1890s when he saw the popular French Pierrot play, L’Enfant Prodigue, in London. He later saw pierrot troupes performing by the English seaside, inspiring him to sketch them as well and, more significantly, to create a little entertainment called What the Moon Saw, adapted from Hans Christian Andersen’s stories of the same name. As previously stated, Craig himself played Pierrot, supported by Martin Shaw’s music, this slight effort cemented their friendship and desire to collaborate, leading to the Purcell Operatic Society productions. Craig’s interest in commedia continued throughout the remainder of his life, even inspiring him to write an essay, “Shakespeare’s Collaborators,” in which he imagines the Globe Theatre’s comic actors improvising the farcical scenes of Much Ado, which, Craig posits, Shakespeare then crafted into the polished scenes featured in the play. Commedia and puppet imagery may well have been on Craig’s mind as he set to designing Much Ado, but other influences proved even more significant.

In preparing Much Ado, Craig was surely influenced by Irving’s production of it, but also by the work of his father, Edward William Godwin, whose designs were painstakingly detailed and historically accurate, based on research of the proper period and local color appropriate to the play. In 1908, when Craig commenced publishing his journal, The Mask, he often printed Godwin’s research for various Shakespearean productions, including Much Ado. Although it is unlikely that Craig found his father’s method completely satisfactory in that it was part of the nineteenth-century approach Irving employed at the Lyceum, and despite the time constraints he faced at the Imperial, he, too, turned to historical research. Unlike his father, however, the historical research was merely a jumping-off point in preparing designs in which the historical details would be simplified, boiled down to the essential visual elements.

While looking at the history of Italian art, Craig discovered Sebastiano Serlio’s sixteenth-century treatises on architecture, works which became an endless source of inspiration in his future designs. Following nineteenth-century tradition, Craig placed an entire act of Much Ado in one scenic location whenever possible. Bearing in mind the need to shift scenes quickly and simply, Craig searched for a dominant element to unify all of the scenes, while, at the same time, creating the illusion of a new environment for each scene. He found the inspiration he sought in Serlio, who provided the accurate proportions of a Tuscan pilaster. Craig designed eight of them (each eighteen feet high) and, with these as the basis for the setting of each scene, he was able to create various locations in the play (Leonato’s House [Act One]), Leonato’s Garden [Act Two, Scenes 1, 2, 3; Act Four, Scenes 2, 4], a Prison [Act Four, Scene 1], and the Monument of Leonato [Act Four, Scene 3]) by simply moving the pilasters to different positions and adding curtains, railings or back-cloths to create the illusion of a complete change. A street scene (Act Two, Scene 4) was presented “in one,” created from a frontcloth painted in perspective.

Serlio’s inspiration was central, but the production’s most memorable scene was the church (Act Three) which, according to Craig’s son and biographer, Edward A. Craig, was inspired by the paintings of fourteenth-century artist Taddeo Gaddi, a relatively insignificant pupil of Giotto. However, Craig did not strive to reproduce period architecture. The critic of Modern Society provided a vivid description of Craig’s church scene:

Stage and auditorium are in utter darkness at first. The music of an organ swells out from the gloom of the stage. Then a shaft of light suddenly illuminates the jeweled patriarchal cross on the altar just beyond the centre of the scene; a mysterious blueness, vague, translucent, like the blue atmospheric space, grows out of the darkness beyond the altar; a warmer glow suffuses the whole stage; dim forms of worshippers take shape and colour; arched mosaic columns spring up on either side; and so, little by little, with the cross, the altar, the priest, and Claudio and Hero for the central group there grows out of darkness a scene of Byzantine splendour. It is as though one were within the walls of a vast cathedral with a vista beyond the altar that seems to soar outward and upward into illimitable space. That scene is a triumph of which Mr Craig might well be proud. 27

The triumph referred to was one striking scene in one production – which, it should be noted, also failed to find more than critical praise for Craig. With its failure, he left England for the continent, hoping for greener pastures there. Despite a few subsequent productions, his greener pastures turned out to be the over thirty books, countless essays and reviews, and hundreds of woodcuts and drawings of scenes for real and imagined productions. His promotion of puppets, novel approaches to movement, lighting, costume, acting, and, of course, design inspired dialogue among theatre artists throughout the world. For every Lee Simonson, there were a dozen other artists who found Craig’s ideas a positive, invigorating challenge. Craig’s legacy revolutionized theatrical production, inspiring stage artists, even those who have never heard Craig’s name.


Notes

  1. Edward Gordon Craig, Woodcuts and Some Words (New York: E. P. Dutton and Company, Inc., 1924), 4. [back]
  2. Gretchen Van Lente, “What’s That Puppet Doing in My Play?” American Theatre, 21, 2 (February 2004):24.[back]
  3. Wendy Weisman, “Where Do Puppets Come From,” American Theatre, 21, 2 (February 2004): 20-23, 76-77. [back]
  4. Edward Gordon Craig, Index to the Story of My Days (New York: Viking Press, 1957), 149. [back]
  5. Haldene Macfall, “Some Thoughts on the Art of Gordon Craig with Particular Reference to Stage-Craft,” The International Studio, XIV (October 1901), 246.[back]
  6. William Butler Yeats, in The Letters of W. B. Yeats, ed. Allan Wade (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1955), 366. [back]
  7. Craig, Index, 188. [back]
  8. Ibid., 235.[back]
  9. Cited in Edward A. Craig, Gordon Craig. The Story of His Life (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1968), 271. [back]
  10. Ibid, 136-37. [back]
  11. Yeats, 366.[back]
  12. William Poel, Shakespeare in the Theatre (New York: Benjamin Blom, 1968), 224.[back]
  13. Irène Eynat-Confino, Beyond the Mask: Gordon Craig, Movement, and the Actor (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1987), 38. [back]
  14. Ibid. [back]
  15. Craig, Index, 242.[back]
  16. Janet Leeper, Edward Gordon Craig. Designs for the Theatre (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1948), 9. [back]
  17. Cited in Granville Barker and His Correspondents, ed. by Eric Salmon (Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1986), 527-528.[back]
  18. Craig, Edward Gordon. Towards a New Theatre (London and Toronto: J. M. Dent & Sons, Ltd., 1913), 89. [back]
  19. Enid Rose, Gordon Craig and the Theatre (London: Sampson Low, Marston & Co., Ltd., 1931), 67.[back]
  20. Martin Shaw, Up to Now (London: Oxford University Humphrey Milford Press, 1929), 35. [back]
  21. Craig, Woodcuts, 36. [back]
  22. Christopher Innes, Edward Gordon Craig (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 93. [back]
  23. James Huneker, Iconoclasts. A Book of Dramatists (London: Scribner’s, 1905), 32. [back]
  24. Referee, April 19, 1903. [back]
  25. Edward A. Craig, 174-175. [back]
  26. R. S. [pseudonym for Edward Gordon Craig], “Foreign Notes,” The Mask, II, 1-3(July 1909):44. [back]
  27. Modern Society, May 30, 1903, 950.[back]



James Fisher is Professor of Theatre and Head of the Department of Theatre at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where he received an MFA in Acting/Directing in 1976. He taught theatre at Wabash College for twenty-nine years, including thirteen as Department Chair. Fisher has authored several books, including Understanding Tony Kushner and The Historical Dictionary of the American Theater: Modernism, and edited several others, including "We Will Be Citizens": New Essays on Gay and Lesbian Theatre. He is the recipient of the 2007 Betty Jean Jones Award for Excellence in the Teaching of American Theatre from the American Theatre and Drama Society.