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The legacy of Edward Gordon Craig

PUBLISHED: 09:38 23 July 2016 | UPDATED: 09:38 23 July 2016

Gordon Craig (Photo: with kind permission of the Edward Gordon Craig Estate)

Gordon Craig (Photo: with kind permission of the Edward Gordon Craig Estate)

with kind permission of The Edward Gordon Craig Estate

The illegitimate son of a leading actress, Gordon Craig was a radical who changed the spectacle of theatre. On the 50th anniversary of his death this month, Steve Roberts looks at the life and legacy of the Stevenage son

Craig's influential book on The Art of the Theatre (Photo: with kind permission of the Edward Gordon Craig Estate)Craig's influential book on The Art of the Theatre (Photo: with kind permission of the Edward Gordon Craig Estate)

Eccentricity, innovation and sparks of genius can raise suspicion. In extreme cases, a prodigious talent will uproot and find an appreciative audience elsewhere. So it was with Hertfordshire actor Edward Gordon Craig, who journeyed to Italy, then France, where his qualities on stage attained fruition.

Born in January 1872 in Stevenage (his Daily Telegraph obituary erroneously states his birthplace as Harpenden), Craig was an actor turned producer and stage designer. It was his actor’s perspective that gave him a fresh insight into theatrical design, prompting him to simplify sets to emphasise the actors’ presence.

Yet the designs also have great impact and a timeless quality. He pushed the boundaries. His radical 1901 production of The Masque of Love stripped back the set to just three large cloth sheets while the costumes were sacks stitched together. He became known for his powerful set designs, characterised by blocks and pillars and strong light and shade – a kind of brutalist Art Deco. Some of his ideas were not realised until recent decades.

Britain wasn’t ready for such revolutionary techniques, and, literally following Shakespeare’s assertion that all the world’s a stage, Craig headed for the land of the Renaissance, becoming a pseudo-Florentine. Acting ran in the family. Craig was the son of Ellen Terry, a renowned Victorian actress and daughter of a provincial actor. Surrounded by the art of storytelling, Craig inherited a love of theatre and a powerful appreciation of artistic beauty.

Set design for Hamlet at Moscow Art Theatre (Photo: with kind permission of the Edward Gordon Craig Estate)Set design for Hamlet at Moscow Art Theatre (Photo: with kind permission of the Edward Gordon Craig Estate)

Craig was an illegitimate offspring of a six-year affair that began in 1868 between Terry and the brilliant Bristol-born architect Edward Godwin, who was also a theatre pioneer with revolutionary stage designs, an architectural approach that would influence his son. So Craig was born a Godwin, in a Victorian semi on Railway Street, now 23 Orchard Road. Craig would later throw off his father’s name – and the shame of illegitimacy - aged 21, when by deed-poll he became Craig, allegedly after Ailsa Craig, the great island rock off the Ayrshire coast – perhaps a symbol of strength in a storm.

It was not long before the young boy was on stage. His first appearance came at the Court Theatre, aged just six, in Olivia. By the time he was a teen, he was acting in Chicago. Treading the boards was in the genes and for eight years from 1889 he was one to watch at the Lyceum in the West End under Sir Henry Irving, a thespian who formed a famed theatrical partnership with Craig’s mother, the pair often acting opposite one another, especially in Shakespearean plays.

Come 1897 though, and, aged only 25, Craig had retired from acting, possibly because he idolised Irving and couldn’t see himself matching his performances, never mind surpassing them. But he also had other ambitions.

His mother went into theatre management in 1903 and engaged her son to produce Ibsen’s Vikings. The three productions he was responsible for were failures (possibly due to that English conservatism). But the literati in Germany, Italy and Russia proclaimed him a success and Craig accepted voluntary exile in Berlin in 1904, where he began writing – the start of a prodigious output that would continue for the rest of his life.

In 1905, Craig met Isadora Duncan, the famed American dancer, with whom he travelled throughout Europe, producing Hamlet at the Moscow Arts Theatre in 1912 before moving to Florence, where he founded a short-lived theatrical art school in 1913 (it closed in 1914 due to the outbreak of the First World War). While in Italy, he also began publishing a quarterly, The Mask, which ran from 1908 to 1929, and which he used as a vehicle for publishing his theatrical ideas. And it was in Florence that Craig invented portable folding screens that would become de rigueur in theatre-set designs.

Craig’s ideas greatly influenced scenic design and theatre development in Europe and America in the early 20th century and beyond, his books The Art of the Theatre (1911) and Towards a New Theatre (1913) becoming essential reading for designers. Craig’s skill as an engraver was shown in the latter book, which included 40 plates of his original scene designs. His woodcuts, which he began in 1898, were considered among the finest of the time. Aside from many books on the theatre, his writing also included biographies of his mother and of Irving.

In 1931, Craig went to live in France. He continued to travel, being invited back to Moscow in 1935. In 1948, he made his home in the south of France, where he set to work on his memoirs. He was made a Companion of Honour in 1958. He died in 1966 , 50 years ago this month in Vence, near Cannes, aged 94.

He was the only Englishman of the time whose ideas about stage direction and design were considered of international importance, though he never had much opportunity to put his theories into practice.

As a visionary, he was derided at home. And even abroad, where minds were more receptive, it was difficult to pin Craig down to the nuts and bolts of actually staging a play, things often taking longer than commercially viable. His ideas, however, had lasting impact on the plays of others.

Stevenage’s Gordon Craig Theatre opened its doors nine years after his death in 1975 in recognition of the master of stagecraft – a fitting legacy in the town where it all began. w

Gordon Craig events

A day of events, Edward Gordon Craig: 50 Years On, will be held on July 31 at the Gordon Craig Theatre in Stevenage featuring talks, demonstrations and discussions on the man, his parents and his inspiring vision for theatre.

The event is organised by Stevenage Arts Guild with support from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

An exhibition celebrating Craig’s life and work, also supported by lottery funding, will open in December at Stevenage Museum.

Volunteers who would like to get involved in researching Gordon Craig for the displays should go to the website at whoisgordoncraig.co.uk

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