Craig, Edward Gordon

Craig, Edward Gordon

Craig, Edward Gordon, 1872-1966, English scene designer, producer, and actor. The son of Ellen Terry, Gordon Craig began acting with Henry Irving's Lyceum company (1885-97). Feeling that the realism in vogue was too limiting, he turned to scene design and developed new theories. He strove for the poetic and suggestive in his designs in order to capture the essential spirit of the play. His ideas gave new freedom to scene design, although many were impractical in execution. Among his notable productions were The Vikings and Much Ado about Nothing (both in 1903 for Ellen Terry) and Hamlet (with the Moscow Art Theatre in 1912). At Florence, Italy, he founded (1913) the Gordon Craig School for the Art of the Theatre; he also edited a magazine, The Mask (1908-29). He wrote On the Art of the Theatre (1911, rev. ed. 1957), The Theatre Advancing (1921), Scene (1923), and biographies of Henry Irving (1930) and Ellen Terry (1931).

See his memoirs (1957); biographies by his son Edward Craig (1968) and by C. Innes (1983); I. Eynat-Confino, Beyond the Mask: Edward Gordon Craig, Movement, and the Actor (1987); M. Holroyd, A Strange Eventful History (2009).

Edward Gordon Craig (16 January 187229 July 1966), sometimes known as Gordon Craig, was a English modernist theatre practitioner; he worked as an actor, producer, director and scenic designer, as well as developing an influential body of theoretical writings.


The illegitimate son of the architect Edward Godwin and actress Ellen Terry, Craig was born Edward Godwin on 16 January 1872, in Railway Street, Stevenage in Hertfordshire, England, and baptized, at age 16, as Edward Henry Gordon. He took the surname Craig by deed poll at age 21.

In 1893, Craig married May Gibson and had four children: Rosemary, Robin, Peter, and Philip. With his lover Elena Meo he had two children, Nelly and Edward Carrick (1894-), art director of British motion pictures. With his lover, the dancer Isadora Duncan, Craig had a daughter, Deirdre (1906-1913), who drowned at the age of seven. Craig died in Paris in 1966 at the age of 94.


Craig asserted that the director was "the true artist of the theatre" and, controversially, suggested viewing actors as no more important than marionettes. He designed and built elaborately symbolic sets; for instance, a set composed of his patented movable screens for a Moscow Art Theatre production of Hamlet. He also was the editor and chief writer for the first international theatre magazine, The Mask.

He worked as an actor in the company of Sir Henry Irving, but became more interested in art, learning to carve wood under the tutelage of James Pryde and William Nicholson. His acting career ended in 1897, when he went into theatrical design.

Craig's first productions, Handel's opera Acis and Galatea and Ibsen's The Vikings were produced in London. Neither was a success, but Craig had already begun to develop his style. He concentrated on keeping the designs simple so as to set off the movements of the actors and of light, and introduced the idea of a "unified stage picture" that covered all the elements of design.

After finding little financial success in Britain, Craig set out for Germany in 1904. While there, he wrote one of his most famous works, the essay The Art of the Theatre (later reprinted with the title On the Art of the Theatre). In 1908, Isadora Duncan introduced Craig to Constantin Stanislavski, who invited him to direct their famous production of Hamlet with the Moscow Arts Theatre, which opened in December of 1911. After settling in Italy, Craig created a school of theatrical design with support from Lord Howard de Walden.

Craig was considered extremely difficult to work with and ultimately refused to direct or design any project over which he did not have complete artistic control. This led to his withdrawal from the practical theatre production. He received the OBE and in 1958 was made a Companion of Honour.


Craig's idea of using neutral, mobile, non-representational screens as a staging device is probably his most famous scenographic concept. In 1910 Craig filed a patent which described in considerable technical detail a system of hinged and fixed flats that could be quickly arranged to cater for both internal and external scenes. He presented a set to William Butler Yeats for use at the Abbey Theatre in Ireland, who shared his symbolist aesthetic.

Craig’s second innovation was in stage lighting. Doing away with traditional footlights, Craig lit the stage from above, placing lights in the ceiling of the theatre. Colour and light also became central to Craig’s stage conceptualizations.

Under the play of this light, the background becomes a deep shimmering blue, apparently almost translucent, upon which the green and purple make a harmony of great richness.

The third remarkable aspect of Craig’s experiments in theatrical form were his attempts to integrate design elements with his work with actors. His mise en scene sought to articulate the relationships in space between movement and sound, line and colour. Craig believed in a theatre of the craft of the director – a theatre where action, words, colour and rhythm combine in dynamic dramatic form.

All of his life, Craig sought to capture "pure emotion" or "arrested development" in the plays on which he worked. Even during the years when he was not producing plays, Craig continued to make models, to conceive stage designs and to work on directorial plans that were never to reach performance. He believed that a director should approach a play with no preconceptions and he embraced this in his fading up from the minimum or blank canvas approach (Walton 1983).

As an engraver and a classical artist, Craig found inspiration in puppets and masks. In his 1910 article "A Note on Masks", Craig expounds upon the virtue of using masks as a mechanism for capturing the audience’s attention, imagination and ‘soul’. He also proclaimed “…There is only one actor – nay one man (sic) who has the soul of the dramatic poet, and who has ever served as the true and loyal interpreter of the poet. This is the marionette…” (Walton 1983), asking for actors to lose their prominence.

'On the Art of the Theatre' (Craig 1911), is an imaginary dialogue between a Playgoer and a Stage Director examining the problems of the nature of stage directing. Craig suggests that the first dramatists were not playwrights, but performers who made the first pieces of drama using action, words, line, colour and rhythm. Craig goes on to contend that only the director who seeks to truly interpret drama and commit to training in all aspects of dramatic art, can restore the ‘Art of the Theatre’ (Wills 1976). Maintaining that the director should seek faithful interpretation of the text, Craig pointed out that audiences go to the theatre to ‘see’ not hear ‘plays’. A director must find the rhythm, movement, tone and colour of the text and these elements are more fundamental than the play’s scene and staging details. The design elements can transcend reality and function as symbols, communicating a deeper meaning, rather than simply reflecting the real world.


Further reading

  • Bablet, D. The Theatre of Edward Gordon Craig, Eyre Methuen, London, 1981.
  • Brockett, O. History of the Theatre, Allyn and Bacon, Boston, 1994.
  • Craig, E.G. On the Art of the Theatre, Routledge, London, 2008, first published 1911.
  • Innes, Christopher. 1983. Edward Gordon Craig. Directors in Perspective ser. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521273838.
  • Johnston, M. Directing Methods, Singleton Press, San Paolo, 1972.
  • Leiter, S.L. The Great Stage Directors, Facts on File, New York, 1994.
  • Steegmuller, F. Your Isadora: The Love Story of Isadora Duncan & Gordon Craig, New York: Random House, 1974.
  • Taxidou, Olga. 1998. The Mask: A Periodical Performance by Edward Gordon Craig. Contemporary Theatre Studies ser. volume 30. Amsterdam: Harwood Academic Publishers. ISBN 9057550466.
  • Walton, J.M. Craig on Theatre, Methuen, London, 1983.
  • Wills, R. The Director in a Changing Theatre, Mayfield, Palo Alto, 1976.

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