Volume 12, 2008

   Volume 5, December 2004

Volume 11, 2008
Volume 10, 2008
Volume 9, 2007

Volume 8, 2007
Volume 7, 2006
Volume 6, 2005
Volume 5, 2004
Volume 4, 2001
Volume 3, 2000
Volume 2, 1999
Volume 1, 1999


Edward Gordon Craig, On The Art of the Theatre. Ed., intr. Franc Chamberlain (London: Routledge, 2009. $28.78 paperback; $99.00 hardback). Pp. 192. ISBN: 978-0-415-45034-8.

Had a London theatre critic of the year 1900 been transported via time machine to 2009, he would surely have been bewildered by the “physical theatre,” director-led theatre, and performance art that flourishes today. He might have pitied Alia Bano, whose stage-romcom Shades has just been premiered at the Royal Court on a minimalist “catwalk” of a set. He might have been enraged by Simon McBurney’s company Theatre de Complicité, known for commitment to thematically polymathic, multisensory spectacles of total theatre. What, our time-travelling critic might wonder, has happened to his London, with its theatre’s fixation on the verbal, domination by actor-managers, and indexically naturalistic sets?

          One answer might be “Edward Gordon Craig.” In a series of controversially innovative productions, which he directed, designed, and in which he sometimes acted, Craig developed a new theatrical language which dispensed with literal visual realism, the primacy of the text, and the star-driven stage play in favour of a holistically designed, subtle, atmospheric, visual and physical event. In several essays, letters, and whimsical, cantankerous dialogues, Craig outlined his criticism of the old theatre and his intended reforms. In 1905, some of his criticism was first published as On the Art of the Theatre. This year, Routledge has brought out Franc Chamberlain’s new edition as part of their Theatre Classics series.

          This edition is a book that every student, and perhaps every lover, of the modern theatre should read. It is often rather prophetic, as many twenty-first-century theatre practitioners and their twentieth-century forebears have followed Craig’s advice. It is also provocative, as some of Craig’s anxieties, frustrations, and prejudices bleed through his angriest words to demand further debate. For readers new to Craig’s work and world, Chamberlain’s contextualisation is accessible but never condescending – unlike, it may be said, Craig himself.

          The son of Victorian actress Dame Ellen Terry and protégé of her professional and romantic partner Sir Henry Irving, Craig grew up immersed in theatre, as did his sister Edith Craig, who became, like her brother, a performer, costumer, and director. Trained to carry on the family traditions of acting and actor-management, Edward quickly grew frustrated with Victorian theatre craft and management conventions. From the text of Craig’s Art of the Theatre, it is easy to see why. In Craig’s time, one method of acting pedagogy was for a novice actor to stand alongside an established one, copying his or her movements and speech patterns as they rehearsed together a great, timeless role, often from the Shakespeare canon. Craig recalls a young actor performing for him the role of Macbeth, as allegedly played by the great Irving – a performance that this actor knew only from the recollection and mimesis of other actors, but which Craig had seen firsthand. Similarly, Craig witnessed an actress performing what she called the Lady Macbeth of Sarah Siddons, an eighteenth-century actress whose work had entirely passed from living memory. These two copies of great performances, Craig judges, were “utterly worthless insofar as they had no unity...and so I began to see the uselessness of this kind of tuition” (4). Consequently, Craig turned, as Chamberlain remarks, “against realism, the star system, the vanity of actors, commercialism, and the domination of theatre by literature” (Chamberlain iv).

          The sort of “unity” Craig sought was a union of all the elements of a single production, rather than apparent unity, across time, within one role. He insisted that a “director” with a thorough understanding of all these elements, from acting to text to design, organize a coherent production; his own work fulfilled this expectation. As Chamberlain relates, Craig “stepped beyond the role of the actor-manager and into the then-emerging role of “director.” No longer taking centre stage and arranging everything around himself like Irving and other actor-managers, Craig stepped out into the auditorium to shape the whole event” (viii). Despite his family connections, Craig’s most important work was not always presented in prestigious contexts. One of his now-living acolytes, the visionary director Peter Brook, claims that “Gordon Craig influenced Europe for half a century through a couple of performances given in a Hampstead church hall” (66).

          Craig was frustrated with the “realism” of nineteenth-century scenography, which, to modern eyes, looks obtrusively, unintentionally artificial. He moved the theatre “away from painted backdrops and detailed historical settings,” successfully, if we are to believe the 1901 report of playwright and Irish Abbey Theatre co-founder William Butler Yeats. In Yeats’s view, “Realist scenery takes the imagination captive and is at best 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” (Chamberlain ix). Craig invented the lights bridge and abolished the footlights, an archaism also condemned by his fellow theatre reformer, the eccentric Swedish playwright and director August Strindberg. One of Chamberlain’s notes captures perfectly the creative, abstract thinking that informed Craig’s stagecraft. In one production, Chamberlain explains, “Craig created the image of a flock of sheep by filling sacks with wood shavings and then tying the corners to suggest ears” (x). As Craig put it in a program note, which Chamberlain quotes, “Realism is only Exposure, whereas Art is Revelation” (xii).

          Craig’s contributions to directing were no less cataclysmic than his shake-up of design. From Isadora Duncan, a sometime lover as well as an inspiration, “Craig took the idea that movement was the root of the art of the theatre, although he was to distinguish this from dance,” a belief that is “one of the roots of contemporary physical theatre practice” (Chamberlain ix-xv). This belief gave the director a new prominence, as the choreographer of much of that movement; the forger of an entire cast’s harmonic physical activity. It accorded with the practice of another great theatre innovator contemporaneous with Craig, Vsevolod Emilovich Meyerhold, who developed biomechanics as an alternative and complement to Stanislavski’s more thought-based acting system. Along with designers, directors, and actors, playwrights should familiarize themselves with Craig’s Art of the Theatre. As Craig declared in that text, “only when the playwright has practiced & studied the crafts of acting, scene-painting, costume, lighting, and dance” can he or she write with full command of the medium. Unfortunately, in Craig’s view, “playwrights who have not been cradled in the theatre know little of these crafts” (87).

          Theatre practitioners should read Craig, but critically. “Cradled in the theatre” is only one of many instances in Craig’s Art of Theatre in which he draws metaphors from his particular family background. In a fictional dialogue between a naïve Playgoer and an innovative, assertive, and clearly autobiographical Director, the Playgoer says, “I always was led to suppose that it had sprung from speech, and that the poet was the father of the theatre” (73). The Director counters that “the first dramatist is the dancer’s son…not the child of the poet” (75). In that interchange, the metaphor is clear enough, but what does it mean for an aspiring writer to be “cradled in the theatre,” for any person who was not, like Craig, once the literal infant son of a world-famous actress? How might an autodidactic writer make him- or herself so familiar with all aspects of the medium that their self-instruction resembles Craig’s upbringing? These are not questions that Craig chooses to answer.

          If his family’s “cradling” prepared him exceptionally well to reform the European theatre, Craig saw that role in a distinctly theatrical way. It is difficult not to think of Macbeth, whom Craig portrayed onstage, or the Prince Hal of Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays, when reading some of Craig’s advice to his fellow travellers. “To achieve the theatre of the future,” he instructs, “run no risks. Keep our convictions to ourselves,” at first. Later, as established, accepted artists, “unfurl your banner” and “claim your kingdom” (21).

          Craig’s most misunderstood idea is that of the “über-marionette.” As he wrote, “the actor must go, and in his place comes the inanimate figure – the über-marionette we may call him, until he has won for himself a better name.” Is this an actual puppet, replacing living actors? Does Craig want to replace Terry and Irving with Punch and Judy? Certainly not. The “über-marionette” is not a “doll” but a “descendant of the stone images of old temples” who is able to maintain character, no matter what the reactions of the audience. “Though drenched in a torrent of bouquets and love, the face of the leading lady,” if she is a true über-marionette, “remains as solemn, as beautiful, and as remote as ever” (39-40). In essence, the über-marionette is an actor who does not allow ego, and the external conditions of performance, to disrupt the creation of the role. The actor who plays a fixed, media-supported persona, such as Bernhardt arguably often did, may be less acceptable in the theatre now than in Craig’s time. On the other hand, star personae dominate the Hollywood film industry, and many West End and Broadway productions have their media profiles, if not their artistic merit, enhanced by the casting of film stars whose ability to create and fully inhabit scripted characters is often debatable.

          For Craig, the über-marionette is also an actor with the impressive, awe-inspiring dignity of a “stone god” to its ancient worshippers. That is not desirable in every play of the modern theatre, but Craig desired it because he believed that the theatre had lost its ability to awe and inspire. Decades later, Brook’s ideal of the “holy theatre” of “rituals that” once “made the invisible incarnate” and may again do so, echoes Craig’s dreams of über-marionettes (Brook 45). The similarities between Craig’s vision and Brook’s are also suggested in the Hungarian director Alexander Hevesi’s judgement of Craig, which Chamberlain quotes. In 1911, Hevesi called Craig “the truest revolutionist I have ever known, because he demands a return to the most ancient traditions of which we can dream. Revolution and revelation are not far from each other” (Chamberlain 26).

          Today, it may still seem very “insulting” to parallel an ideal actor with a marionette, or an inanimate “stone god.” In Craig’s time, however, a great deal of theatre discourse employed the metaphor of the puppet or automaton. According to the theatre historian Harold B. Segel, the last years of the nineteenth century and first of the twentieth “far surpassed previous periods in its susceptibility to the allure of the puppet figure,” which “led to new perspectives” on the concept of “invented man and had a decisive impact on the art of the stage” (Segel 34). One of Craig’s contemporary inspirations, the Belgian playwright Maurice Maeterlinck wrote plays for marionettes which he evidently intended to be performed by living actors “performing in the manner of marionettes” (Segel 49). Chamberlain clarifies Craig’s use of puppet imagery by documenting his rejection of the literal “marionette” as actor’s exemplar. Craig was horrified to discover that some of his readers “took me to mean,” by über-marionettes, “pieces of wood one foot in height. They talked of it for ten years as a mad, a wrong, an insulting idea” (Chamberlain 22).

          The new Routledge edition contains an array of images. Some, primarily the examples of Craig’s own visual art, are illuminating. Others, such as a photo of an aging Craig, are less so. The reader who wishes to more fully explore Craig’s visual imagination and stagecraft should consult the 1905 Art of the Theatre, which showcases many more reproductions of Craig’s scenographic sketches.1 In one, Craig’s “design for a scene for Electra,” the heroine’s shadow on an upstage flat is huge and opaque. Electra herself is small, with no visible face and gloved hands. Her dark robes blend in with the floor. Upstage, is a huge doorway, monolithic and rectangular. A crowd cowers against the wall inside the perimeter of Electra’s shadow: they come to the shadow’s knees and no higher. Near the stage left wing, another group surrounds Creon, who stands judgementally with left hand at his side. Electra’s dark-gloved hand points an accusing finger at him. The minimalist yet holistic and striking design and blocking of this scene illustrates Craig’s theories in a strong complement to his words. By making those words available to contemporary readers, with a helpful and engaging introduction and notes, Chamberlain and Routledge are certain to “cradle” yet another generation of Craig’s figurative children.



University of Gloucestershire



1 Robertson is perhaps best known for costuming Sarah Bernhardt’s banned 1893 London premiere production of Oscar Wilde’s Salome, Princess of Judaea. In this edition, the illustrated pages are not numbered.


Works Cited

Brook, Peter. The Empty Space. New York: Atheneum, 1968.

Craig, Edward Gordon. On The Art of the Theatre. Ed., intr. Franc Chamberlain. London: Routledge, 2009.

---. The Art of the Theatre Together with an Introduction by Edward Gordon Craig and a Preface by R. Graham Robertson. Edinburgh and Londond: T.N. Foulis, 1905.

Segel, Harold B. Pinocchio’s Progeny: Puppets, Marionettes, Automatons and Robots in Modernist and Avant-Garde Drama. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.


 Webmasters: Neic Rãzvan and Crăciun Bogdan