Edward Gordon Craig

Edward Gordon Craig was a prominent English modernist set designer and theorist from 1900 until the time of his death. Starting out his career as an actor he began to design sets and create theories which had greatly impacted the theatre of today. During his time and now some of his concepts and ideas on theatre are so interesting and influential. His ideas throughout


Edward Gordon Craig was born January 16th, 1872 in Stevenage Hertforshire, England. He was the second child to the actress Ellen Terry and the architect Edward William Godwin. Between 1878 and 1884 Craig played a few rolses as a nonspeaking actor. He made brief appearances in Olivia at the Court theatre in Charles I at the Alexandra Theatre, and in a few plays for the Lyceum Theatre Company in London. In 1885 Craig caught his first big break and got a speaking role in the performance of Eugene Aram, done in Chicago (Innes, 309). From there he began to participate in several other acting companies spanning over the years 1885-97.

Craig in his early 20's

Craig in his late years, most likely around the time he was writing the "Index to the Story of my Days"

Craig within his middle-age years

As time went on he grew tired of just acting because he felt that “the pseudo-realism in vogue was too limiting,” so he was hoping to begin a new style of theatre design with more freedom that takes Drama beyond reality (Innes, 267). In 1900 he undertook his first job as a set designer for Henry Purcell's Dido and Aeneas at the Hampstead Conservatoire alongside Martin Shaw (Innes, 309). After his concepts were viewed he was also hired by George Frideric Handel to produce the set for Acis and Galates in 1902 for the Purcell Operatic Society. Then to further his career he accepted commission by Ellen Terry to design the set for The Vikings and Much Ado about Nothing in 1903 (Lees, “Edward Gordon Craig Collection”). Also during 1903 Craig started the “Gordon Craig School for the Art of the Theatre” (Lees, “Edward Gordon Craig Collection”). This school thrived for a few years off his concepts and ideas, but was ended after World War I.


In 1904 Craig accepted an invitation from Count Harry Kessler to visit Germany. During his time in Germany he wrote an essay entitled The Art of the Theatre, it was an article that basically described some of his ideas and theories (Innes, 311). Within a year he was designing sets for plays, such as The Tempest and Bernard Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra for director Matt Reinhardt, although both these designs never reached the stage for Craig demanded complete control and Reinhardt wouldn't allow him. In 1906 Craig published Isadora Duncan: Six Movement Designs which was an essay written by Craig detailing the movements of Isadora Duncan herself. He wrote how much he enjoyed them for "unlike other pioneers of modern theatrical dance...she danced alone, without conventional costume or even the barest of scenery" (Innes, 115). Soon he was co-producer at the Moscow Art Theatre in 1908, helping Konstantin Stanislavsky produce a recreation of Hamlet, he created costumes and “screen scenes” (Innes, 312). Craig began to record his theory of theatre on copperplates; he would etch, or engrave, all his findings onto these plates so they could be used later. Alongside of the etchings, he founded and began to edit his new international review, The Mask (1908-1929), it was a periodical which allowed for his reputation to spread (Lees, Edward Gordon Craig Collection). This new review allowed Craig to attack “commercial theatre” and all of the aspects of it on which he disapproved (Lees, Edward Gordon Craig Collection). The Mask was written as a chance to speak out against all forms of theatre Craig objected to, however he did this through slightly unconventional means. Craig's son claims that Craig chose the title so that "it would hide the identity from the man behind it..." and "would be used like the Greek mask to throw the voice so people could hear it from afar" (Guidry, 6). Craig wrote under more than sixty pseudonyms and claimed each of the writers was a real person until an interview in 1962 when he finally admitted they were all him. Craig said he used the names so "that I wasn't always there... so The Mask could do anything" (Guidry, 8). Essentially the names allowed for him to use critiques and not gain fame through them so that he wasn't attributing to the issues within theatre he hated.

the mask.jpg
"The Mask"

With then end of the war and the end of his school he began to write more historical plays such as Henry Irving, in 1930, and Ellen Terry and Her Secret Self, in 1931. Before this however he took part in some outstanding productions. He directed and designed scenery for Ibsen's The Pretenders, produced in Compenhagen in 1926, and Macbeth, done in New York in 1928 (Lees, Edward Gordon Craig Collection). In 1957 after completing his works and the last of his sets he moved into the Southern region of France where he settled and wrote his memoirs, entitled Index to the Story of My Days. On July 29th, 1966 Craig passed away in his home in Vence, France (Innes, 313).


Craig introduced many new concepts and ideas to theatre. He hoped that staging and lighting when combined with acting could project a new form of art in theatre that would be more astatically pleasing to the audiences. Craig believed if the three of these theories the audience would be able to experience the play in a new way, one which had not been seen before. Craig felt that a play should not mainly be built upon an audible means but a visual one (Craig, 278).

In one of Craig's main new ideas of theatre he used more neutral and yet mobile screens as staging to create more diverse and sophisticated sets (Craig, 279). In 1910 he patented a system of hinged and fixed pieces that could be arranged to show internal or external scenes (Innes, 309). This idea was presented to William Butler Yeats in Ireland for use at the Abbey Theatre first. With this staging the transitions from inside to outside were much easier for the stage could just be opened and transformed. This created a new era in staging allowing the audience to physically see both the scenes that took place outdoors and those which took place inside, for the set could be changed to show both (Innes, 278).

Another innovation of Craig's was the new set up for lighting. He did away with the traditional footlights and placed them upon above the stage, literally putting them in the ceiling and behind the screens allowing for the light to be controlled (Innes, 281). This new lighting provided for more in-depth staging which and made the stages look slightly more realistic. By not only placing them where he did but by adding light Craig was able to create a stage that in his mind, could invoke a feeling of emotion (Innes, 288).
Design Concept for one of Craigs Productions
Soon along with his new design, the color, and lighting, the actors themselves became important as well. Craig began to create certain atmospheres for his actors, in an attempt to relate the set itself along with the movements, and words of the actors (Craig, 257). After all this went together he had hoped that his theatre would become a form where the action, words, color, and rhythm could create a more dynamic and better drama. After contemplation and many studies Craig began to think of new concepts for actors. Craig is noted for trying to create plays where the movements of the actors began to tell the stories and not the actual settings. He began to attempt to create a type of play where the lighting and the motions of the actors told the plot not just the words (Innes, 138).
Design Concept of one of Craig's productions
After attempting to create plays with motions and lights he deemed a new theory. Craig claimed that actors were “tainting” the performance because every actor brought about their own emotions and feelings into the roles (Craig, 61). He said that the actor’s emotion would confuse the audience and create a sense of reality instead of just seeing the art within the production (Innes, 183). To counter all these issues he began a new concept in which he hoped to replace actors in general with large puppets which he called “Uber-Marionettes” (Craig, 61). These puppets would essentially replace the roles of the actors, and would only express the emotions and carry out the actions necessary to portray what is intended. Craig believed that actors affected the audience’s opinion of the pieces for they attempted to play the characters “rather than be them” (Craig, 63). Craig’s “Uber-Marionettes” were in his mind the perfect actor. He writes that the marionette “hearts beat no faster, no slower, their signals do not grow hurried or confused; and, though drenched in a torrent of bouquets and love, the face of the leading lady remains solemn,” through this it can be seen Craig felt the actors and actresses within plays begin to lose focus on why they act (Craig, 82). He sees that the emotions tied with living people create shows that are less than perfect in his mind. He argues that puppets could replace the actors and outperform them for they do not get nervous or become affected by the applause. It is his idea that the marionettes embody the role of the character and they don’t just copy the nature of it. “The uber-marionette will not compete with life—rather it will go beyond it” (Craig, 84).
Craig has been noted as arguing that audiences go to plays to see them, not hear them. He says they are more interested in the physical performance and the design then the actual words. He claimed that with the incorporation of all his new ideas would create an atmosphere that would symbolize the real world and create an emotional response within the audience (Craig, 57). With this conclusion Craig decided that the theories he insisted on would create a new experience for audiences, one that could revolutionize theatre and drama.

1. Craig, Edward Gordon. On the Art of the Theatre. New York: Theatre Arts, 1956. Print.
2. Guidry, Lorelie. The Mask Edited by Edward Gordon Craig. N.p.: Benjamin Blom, 1968. Print.
3. Innes, Christopher. Edward Gordon Craig: A Vision of Theatre. Amsterdam, The Netherlands: Harwood Academic, 1998. Print.
4. Lees, Dorothy Nevile. "Edward Gordon Craig Collection." The British Institute of Florence. The British Institute of Florence, Apr. 2006. Web. 08 Apr. 2013. <http://www.britishinstitute.it/en/archive/craig-collection.asp>.