Term Paper: Edward Gordon Craig

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Edward Gordon Craig: The Master Designer

Theater is an impermanent art, yet the name of Edward Gordon Craig lives on. Not so long ago, the idea of a designer being influential in a theatrical production would have been incomprehensible. Now, in works such as "The Lion King," "Les Miserables" and countless other operas and art-house productions on the commercial and repertory stages all over the world Craig's influence is evident, even if the totality of his radical ideas and ideals have not been embraced by modern theatrical culture. Craig's symbolist vision which attempted to return theater to a series of visual, emotional impressions were ahead of their time, and are perhaps most fully realized in modern deconstructionist theaters that emphasizes gestures over words. Many of Craig's most ambitious designs for the theater were not realized in his lifetime. His ambitions for overturning the conventional philosophy of theatrical productions were titanic -- he wished to "create a theatre which was a fusion of poetry, music, performer, color and movement" (Theatre is Style: Adolphe Appia and Edward Gordon Craig," City College, 2008).

During his lifetime, Craig was extremely controversial. He was born in 1872, the son of Ellen Terry, a gentle, famous Victorian actress known for her feeling and heartfelt impersonation of some of Shakespeare's most beloved heroines, like Portia and Imogen (Jason 2008). But Craig, although he began his theatrical career as an actor, went on to outrage many actors, theatergoers, and directors. Instead, he followed the path of his father, scenic designer Edwin Godwin. His writings have been called "deliberately arrogant and inflammatory," towards both actors and playwrights, for "Craig was a proponent of the stage-director as creator," and master designer not an interpreter. The master designer was the author of the production, and a play was merely words, an actor merely a body, a kind of representational figurine, in Craig's view. Ultimately, Craig came to envision a theater where the age-old hierarchy "between dramatist, director, and performer is perpetuated in literary theatre" would be undone (Pepiton 2008). Craig envisioned a 'total theater,' writing that "the Art of Theatre is neither acting nor the play, it is not scene nor dance, but it consists of all the elements of which these things are composed" (Theatre is Style: Adolphe Appia and Edward Gordon Craig," City College, 2008). Craig called for a new focus, a holistic creation, one where an audience must witness a live performance to receive the complete form of a play, a cry echoed in theatrical circles today, as committed theater professionals stress the need to maintain a commitment to live theater, despite the distracting presence of often soulless, disembodied and prefabricated media experiences of isolated experiences, like television and cinema (Pepiton 2008).

To label his approach "new" is wrong, Craig argued, because drama used to be created in consort with all persons involved in the production. "The dramatist made his first piece by using action, words, line, color, and rhythm, and making his appeal to our eyes and ears by a dexterous use of these five factors' [Craig wrote]" (Pepiton 2008). These five essential tools are "the basis of true theatrical creation. The original dramatist took inspiration from the world around him before theatrically and visually expanding that impulse for the stage. Craig seeks to reopen the theatre to a wide variety of catalysts. This notion is at the very heart of devising" (Pepiton 2008).

These conceptions ran contrary to the zeitgeist of Craig's day. In contrast to the cerebral, word-based theater of Henrik Ibsen and George Bernard Shaw, two of the most influential modernist playwrights of his day, the symbolist Craig wanted to create a theater that was based upon primeval, visual suggestion, evocation and symbolic representations that disdained literalism and reproductions of reality. Craig loathed drawing-room comedies and dramas that attempted to show real life with sofas, shutting doors, and gunshots from off stage. Craig was not interested in being faithful to a text, an attitude that drove many of the playwrights of the day, with their fanatical emphasis on 'the word' completely mad -- hence his favoring of epic works, often of playwrights long-dead, or playwrights sympathetic to his aims.

Craig's "last and most well-known production was 'Hamlet' with Stanislavsky at the Moscow Art Theatre," a production that was fraught with personal problems, not the least of which was Stanislavsky's emphasis on realistic action and acting, which would later form the philosophy of so-called 'method' acting. Craig was interested in the visual look of the production, of which the actors were but one element, not the main element. The Master Designer (that is, Craig) would orchestrate the impressions. The design of the Moscow Art Theatre "Hamlet," was supposed to capture Hamlet's claustrophobic interior life was also technically flawed. It "consisted of large screens designed to offer 'A Thousand Scenes in One.' They could suggest a claustrophobic inner world or light filled doorways and corridors according to arrangement, these were originally designed to move smoothly in full view of the audience but their construction was such that this was not possible" (Theatre is Style: Adolphe Appia and Edward Gordon Craig," City College, 2008). The technical demands of the production, such as the need to be seen and heard by all audience members were of less interest to Craig than realizing his living, performative vision.

Eventually, Craig became less and less interested in the real theater at all -- and he had long discarded any interest in verbal theater. In "1905 he created a set of abstract designs to illustrate his theories: The Steps - a set of designs for the theatre of the future, a theatre of architecture and movement, free of words" (Theatre is Style: Adolphe Appia and Edward Gordon Craig," City College, 2008). Although he had once insisted in a concept of total theater and an integration of all of the elements of a production, Craig's dissatisfaction with the demands of real performance moved him to create a concept of the theater that was more abstract. Fixed words were not really a part of the ideal theater, merely a distraction.

While Adolphe Appia, the set designer for many of Wagner's operas, shared many of Craig's symbolist and impressionistic design philosophy, Appia always insisted on the centrality of the actor in a production. But the actor for Craig was a being that should represent emotions to through physical gesture and impression but feel "as little of them as necessary" and never strive to impersonate nature. Unlike Hamlet, who enjoined the players to "hold the mirror up to nature," Craig wished the actor would be a "super puppet,' an "Uber-Marionette" in the hands of the master designer and director. "This is a contentious term which Craig never properly defines. Some people believe he meant a puppet others suggest he is referring to a depersonalized actor robed and masked which comes from the performers of ritualistic theatre" (Theatre is Style: Adolphe Appia and Edward Gordon Craig," City College, 2008).

Craig did have great respect for dancers, whom he saw as physical creators of impressions, rather than the embodiment of characters or emotions like dramatic actors. Isadora Duncan praised Craig for bringing back a true classical tradition of Dionysian emotion: "According to the ideas of Gordon Craig the only hope of reforming the theatre is for it to return to its original state - that state can be ascertained by a backward glance over the centuries till the eye rests on the theatres of China, India, and Greece" (Duncan 1999). Eventually, Craig wrote in the Art of Theater that if his vision of theater was realized, " we shall no longer need the assistance of the playwright - for our art will then be self-reliant" and the actor's role will return to that of its original status, that of a dancer of impressions (Pepiton 2008).

Although many of his ideas are radical, even today where most theatrical directors attempt to do justice to playwright's works and value the actor's input and emotions in creating a theatrical experience, the philosophy of Craig's total theater and the need to create impressions rather than reproduce reality remains influential. The era when he wrote held realism as the gold standard of how the theater should appear, where forest scenes were often created with real animals transported to the stage to create an image of verisimilitude. For Craig the set design should create an "atmosphere" and not reproduce an actual location -- an important idea today, in a world where film can reproduce reality far more accurately than the stage. "I let my scenes grow out of not merely the play, but broad sweeps of thought which the play has conjured up in me" (Theatre is Style: Adolphe Appia and Edward Gordon Craig," City College, 2008).

It should be noted that, in the totality of Craig's work and vision, he did occasionally see the value of a text. But ideally the text should be an unfinished creation that the director, designer, and company… [END OF PREVIEW]

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