Edward Gordon Craig

Last updated

Edward Gordon Craig

Portrait of Edward Gordon Craig.jpg
BornEdward Godwin
(1872-01-16)16 January 1872
Hertfordshire, England
Died29 July 1966(1966-07-29) (aged 94)
Vence, France
OccupationStage designer, theatre director, theatre theorist, actor
Period Modernism
Literary movement Symbolism
Notable worksOn The Art of the Theatre (1911)
The Mask (1908-1929)
MAT production of Hamlet (1911-1912)
SpouseMay Gibson

Edward Henry Gordon Craig [notes 1] CH OBE (born Edward Godwin; 16 January 1872 – 29 July 1966), sometimes known as Gordon Craig, was an English modernist theatre practitioner; he worked as an actor, director and scenic designer, as well as developing an influential body of theoretical writings. Craig was the son of actress Dame Ellen Terry.


The Gordon Craig Theatre, built in Stevenage (the town of his birth), was named in his honour in 1975.

Life and family

Craig's mother, Ellen Terry, ca. 1880 Ellen terrymus.jpg
Craig's mother, Ellen Terry, ca. 1880
Craig's daughter, Nelly Gordon, with Ellen Terry in her garden, ca. 1918 Ellen-Terry-and-Granddaughter.jpg
Craig's daughter, Nelly Gordon, with Ellen Terry in her garden, ca. 1918

The illegitimate son of the architect Edward Godwin and the actress Ellen Terry, [1] Craig was born Edward Godwin on 16 January 1872 in Railway Street, Stevenage, in Hertfordshire, England, and baptised at age 16 as Edward Henry Gordon. He attended Bradfield College in Berkshire from May 1886 to July 1887. He took the surname Craig by deed poll at age 21. [2]

Craig spent much of his childhood backstage at the Lyceum Theatre, where his mother was the leading lady to actor Sir Henry Irving. Craig later wrote a vivid, book-length tribute to Irving. Craig's sister was Edith Craig.

In 1893 Craig married Helen Mary (May) Gibson, with whom he had five children: Philip Carlisle (born 1894), Rosemary Nell (born 1894), Henry Edward Robin (born 1895), John (born 1896) and Peter (born 1897).[ citation needed ]

He met Elena Meo, a violinist, daughter of artist Gaetano Meo, in 1900, and they had three children together: Ellen (1903–1904), Nell (1904–1975),and Edward (1905–1998). Craig lived with Elena Meo and their two surviving children on and off, in England and Italy. May Craig would not consent to a divorce until 1932, after Craig and Elena Meo had permanently separated. Craig fathered other illegitimate children: a daughter with actress Jess Dorynne, Kitty; a daughter with dancer Isadora Duncan, Deirdre Beatrice (1906–1913), who drowned at the age of seven with another of Duncan's children, Patrick Augustus, and their nanny; a son, Davidino Lees (1916–2004), with poet Dorothy Nevile Lees, and a daughter with his secretary/translator Daphne Woodward. [3]

Craig lived in straitened circumstances[ why? ] in France for much of his life and was interned by German Occupation forces in 1942. He died at Vence, France, in 1966, aged 94. [2]


Craig as Hamlet, Olympic Theatre, 1897 Edward Gordon Craig as Hamlet in 1897.jpg
Craig as Hamlet, Olympic Theatre, 1897

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 the Moscow Art Theatre production of Hamlet. He was also the editor and chief writer for the first international theatre magazine, The Mask . [4]

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, Purcell's Dido and Aeneas , Handel's Acis and Galatea (both inspired and conducted by his lifelong friend Martin Shaw, who founded the Purcell Operatic Society with him to produce them), and Ibsen's The Vikings at Helgeland, were produced in London. The production of Dido and Aeneas was a considerable success and highly influential in reviving interest in the music of Purcell, then so little known that three copies of The Times review were delivered to the theatre: one addressed to Mr Shaw, one to Mr Craig, and one to Mr Purcell. Craig concentrated on keeping his 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 Konstantin Stanislavski, the founder of the Moscow Art Theatre, who invited him to direct their famous production of Hamlet with the company, which opened in December 1911. After settling in Italy, Craig created a school of theatrical design with support from Lord Howard de Walden, the Arena Goldoni in Florence. During World War I, he wrote a cycle of puppet plays, the Drama for Fools [5] and published a little theatre magazine, The Marionnette (1918).

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 practical theatre production. [6] His later career is remarkable for how little he achieved after the age of forty, during a long period of over fifty years. In 1929, Craig produced a remarkable series of woodcuts as illustrations for a special edition of Hamlet published by Count Harry Kessler in a german translation by Gerhardt Hauptmann, an English edition of which appeared the following year.

He received an OBE and in 1958 was made a Companion of Honour.


While often working under his own name, Craig also signed work with a large number of other names, including Oliver Bath, Julius Oliver, Giulio Pirro, Samuel Prim, and Stanislas Lodochowskowski. [7]

The Art Record noted in 1901 that Oliver Bath was “a gentleman who is believed to subsist on an exclusive diet of the famous Bath Oliver Biscuit”. [8]


Caricature of Craig by Max Beerbohm from A Survey, published in 1921. A-survey-gordon-craig.jpg
Caricature of Craig by Max Beerbohm from A Survey , published in 1921.

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.[ citation needed ]

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. [9]

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 scène sought to articulate the relationships in space between movement, sound, line, and colour. Craig promoted a theatre focused on the craft of the director – a theatre where action, words, colour and rhythm combine in dynamic dramatic form. [10]

Ellen Terry by Craig, from The Dome Edward Gordon Craig, Ellen Terry.jpg
Ellen Terry by Craig, from The Dome
"Dumas Papa" by Craig, 1899 Edward Gordon Craig, Dumas Papa, 1899.JPG
"Dumas Papa" by Craig, 1899

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. [11]

As an engraver and a classical artist, Craig found inspiration in puppets and masks. In his 1910 article "A Note on Masks," Craig expounds the virtue of using masks as a mechanism for capturing the audience’s attention, imagination and soul. "There is only one actor – nay one man who has the soul of the dramatic poet, and who has ever served as the true and loyal interpreter of the poet," he proclaimed, and "this is the marionette." [12]

On the Art of the Theatre (1911) is written as a dialogue between a Playgoer and a Stage Director, who examine the problems of the nature of stage directing. Craig argues that it was not dramatists, but rather performers who made the first works of drama, using action, words, line, colour and rhythm. Craig goes on to contend that only the director who seeks to interpret drama truly, and commits to training in all aspects of dramatic art, can restore the "Art of the Theatre." [13] Maintaining that the director should seek a faithful interpretation of the text, Craig argues that audiences go to the theatre to see, rather than to hear, plays. The design elements may transcend reality and function as symbols, he thought, thereby communicating a deeper meaning, rather than simply reflecting the real world.

On 29 June 1908 the Polish theater director, playwright, and theoretician of drama Leon Schiller initiated a correspondence with Craig. Together with his letter Schiller sent Craig, in Florence, his essay, "Dwa teatry" ("Two Theaters"), translated into English by Madeline Meager. Craig responded immediately, accepting the essay for his magazine, The Mask. [14] This was the beginning of a productive collaboration between the two prominent theater directors, who introduced each other's theoretical writings to foreign readers. [15]


One of the largest collections of Edward Gordon Craig's papers is held at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. The 32-box collection includes Craig's diaries, essays, reviews, notes, manuscripts, financial records, and correspondence. [16] Over 130 personal photographs are present in the archive. [17] The Ransom Center's art holdings including some of Craig's woodblocks from the Cranach Press Hamlet as well as proof prints made during production of the book. The center's library holds over 300 books from Craig's personal collection. [18] In addition to the archive of Edward Gordon Craig, the Ransom Center holds important holdings relating to Craig's mother Ellen Terry, as well as the archive of his son Edward Carrick.

The Edward Gordon Graig Lecture

The Society of Theatre Research offers the annual Edward Gordon Craig lecture in conjunction with The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. [19]


Source: Edward Gordon Craig: A Bibliography (Society For Theatre Research) 1967. [20]


  1. Some sources give "Henry Edward Gordon Craig".

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Ellen Terry</span> English actress (1847–1928)

Dame Alice Ellen Terry,, was a leading English actress of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Henry Irving</span> English stage actor of the Victorian era

Sir Henry Irving, christened John Henry Brodribb, sometimes known as J. H. Irving, was an English stage actor in the Victorian era, known as an actor-manager because he took complete responsibility for season after season at the West End’s Lyceum Theatre, establishing himself and his company as representative of English classical theatre. In 1895 he became the first actor to be awarded a knighthood, indicating full acceptance into the higher circles of British society.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Leon Schiller</span>

Leon Schiller or Leon Schiller de Schildenfeld was a Polish theatre and film director, as well as critic and theatre theoretician. He also wrote theatre and radio screenplays and composed music. He was born in Kraków under the Austrian rule during the foreign Partitions of Poland, to a family of Austrian origin that had been ennobled by Empress Maria Theresa.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Lyceum Theatre, London</span> West End theatre in London

The Lyceum Theatre is a West End theatre located in the City of Westminster, on Wellington Street, just off the Strand in central London. It has a seating capacity of 2,100. The origins of the theatre date to 1765. Managed by Samuel Arnold, from 1794 to 1809 the building hosted a variety of entertainments including a circus produced by Philip Astley, a chapel, and the first London exhibition of waxworks by Madame Tussauds. From 1816 to 1830, it served as The English Opera House. After a fire, the house was rebuilt and reopened on 14 July 1834 to a design by Samuel Beazley. The building is unique in that it has a balcony overhanging the dress circle. It was built by the partnership of Peto & Grissell. The theatre then played opera, adaptations of Charles Dickens novels and James Planché's "fairy extravaganzas", among other works.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Martin Shaw (composer)</span> English composer and conductor

Martin Edward Fallas Shaw was an English composer, conductor, and theatre producer. His over 300 published works include songs, hymns, carols, oratorios, several instrumental works, a congregational mass setting, and four operas including a ballad opera.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Fred Terry</span> 19th/20th-century English actor

Fred Terry was an English actor and theatrical manager. After establishing his reputation in London and in the provinces for a decade, he joined the company of Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree where he remained for four years, meeting his future wife, Julia Neilson. With Neilson, he played in London and on tour for 27 further years, becoming famous in sword and cape roles, such as the title role in The Scarlet Pimpernel.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Matheson Lang</span> Canadian actor

Matheson Alexander Lang was a Canadian-born stage and film actor and playwright in the early 20th century. He is best remembered for his performances roles in Great Britain in Shakespeare plays.

Moscow Art Theatre production of <i>Hamlet</i> 1911–12 production of Hamlet by the Moscow Art Theatre

The Moscow Art Theatre production of Hamlet was a 1911–12 production of Hamlet, produced by Konstantin Stanislavski and Edward Gordon Craig. It is particularly important in the history of performances of Hamlet and of 20th-century theatre in general. Despite hostile reviews from the Russian press, the production attracted enthusiastic and unprecedented worldwide attention for the theatre, with reviews in Britain's The Times and in the French press that praised its unqualified success. The production placed the Moscow Art Theatre "on the cultural map for Western Europe", and it came to be regarded as a seminal event that influenced the subsequent history of production style in the theatre and revolutionised the staging of Shakespeare's plays in the 20th century. It became "one of the most famous and passionately discussed productions in the history of the modern stage."

<span class="mw-page-title-main">J. Comyns Carr</span> British critic

Joseph William Comyns Carr, often referred to as J. Comyns Carr, was an English drama and art critic, gallery director, author, poet, playwright and theatre manager.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Edith Craig</span> British actress, theatrical producer, theatre director, and suffragette (1869–1947)

Edith Ailsa Geraldine Craig, known as Edy Craig, was a prolific theatre director, producer, costume designer and early pioneer of the women's suffrage movement in England. She was the daughter of actress Ellen Terry and the progressive English architect-designer Edward William Godwin, and the sister of theatre practitioner Edward Gordon Craig.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Smallhythe Place</span> Historic house and theatre museum in Small Hythe, Kent, England

Smallhythe Place in Small Hythe, near Tenterden in Kent, is a half-timbered house built in the late 15th or early 16th century and since 1947 cared for by the National Trust. The house was originally called 'Port House' and before the River Rother and the sea receded it served a thriving shipyard - in Old English hythe means "landing place".

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Clare Atwood</span> British painter

Clare "Tony" Atwood was a British painter of portraits, still life, landscapes, interiors and decorative flower subjects. Atwood lived in a ménage à trois with the dramatist Christabel Marshall and the actress, theatre director, producer and costume designer Edith Craig from 1916 until Craig's death in 1947.

<i>Up to Now</i> (autobiography)

Up to Now is the autobiography of the British composer, conductor and theatre producer Martin Shaw (1875–1958). It was published by Oxford University Press in 1929, when Shaw was 53. His reminiscences cover the early period of his life, his family and upbringing, his early career working with Gordon Craig, Isadora Duncan and Ellen Terry, his marriage, and the development of his work in church music, especially his collaborations with Percy Dearmer and Ralph Vaughan Williams. The book contains many anecdotes, largely about Shaw's friends and colleagues in the theatre and music world but also ones relating to other prominent figures such as the British statesman Viscount Grey.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Purcell Operatic Society</span>

The Purcell Operatic Society was a short-lived but influential London opera company devoted to the production of stage works by Henry Purcell and his contemporaries. It was founded in 1899 by the composer Martin Shaw and folded in 1902. Its stage director and production designer was Gordon Craig whose productions for the company marked the beginning of his career as a theatre practitioner. Their debut production of Purcell's opera Dido and Aeneas in 1900 was one of the earliest staged performances of the work in modern times.

<i>Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth</i> Painting by John Singer Sargent

Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth is an oil painting by John Singer Sargent now in Tate Britain. Painted in 1889, it depicts actress Ellen Terry in a famous performance as Lady Macbeth in William Shakespeare's tragedy Macbeth, wearing a green dress decorated with iridescent beetle wings. The play was produced by Henry Irving at the Lyceum Theatre, London, with Irving also playing Macbeth opposite Terry. Sargent attended the opening night on 29 December 1888 and was inspired to paint Terry's portrait almost immediately.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Terry family</span>

The Terry family was a British theatrical dynasty of the late 19th century and beyond. The family includes not only those members with the surname Terry, but also Neilsons, Craigs and Gielguds, to whom the Terrys were linked by marriage or blood ties.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Gaetano Meo</span> Italian-British artists model and painter

Gaetano Giuseppe Faostino Meo was an Italian-British artist's model, landscape painter, and a noted craftsman in mosaic and stained glass. His unpublished autobiography is a useful source for art historians of the Aesthetic Movement and Edwardian Era.

Edward Carrick was an English art designer for film, an author and illustrator.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">University of Bristol Theatre Collection</span>

The University of Bristol Theatre Collection was founded in 1951 to serve the University of Bristol Department of Drama. It is now one of the world's largest archives of British Theatre History. It is a fully accredited Archive and Museum and home to the Live Art Archive.

<i>The Lyons Mail</i> (play)

The Lyons Mail is an 1877 drama by Charles Reade based on his play The Courier of Lyons (1854). The new version was written for Henry Irving for performance at the Lyceum Theatre.


  1. Innes (1998, 27)
  2. 1 2 Hamilton, James. "Craig, (Edward Henry) Gordon (1872–1966)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edition, May 2008, retrieved 19 May 2014 (subscription or UK public library membership required)
  3. Holroyd, Michael. A Strange eventful History. The Dramatic Lives of Ellen Terry, Henry Irving and their Remarkable Families. Chatto & Windus (2008)
  4. Taxidou (1998).
  5. Craig, Edward Gordon. The Drama for Fools / Le Théâtre des fous. Montpellier, L'Entretemps, 2012
  6. Leiter (1994, 84).
  7. Edward Gordon Craig: An Exhibition of Wood-engravings and Woodcuts, University of York, Heslington Hall, 10 February-5 March 1982 (University of York, 1982), p. 23
  8. The Art Record: A Monthly Illustrated Review of the Arts and Crafts (Volume 2, 1901), p. 488
  9. Craig in Bablet (1981).
  10. Brockett and Hildy (2003, 414).
  11. Walton (1983).
  12. Quoted in Walton (1983).
  13. Wills (1976).
  14. Jerzy Timoszewicz, "Mała kronika życia i twórczości Leona Schillera, 1887–1924" ("A Brief Chronicle of the Life and Works of Leon Schiller"), in Leon Schiller, Na progu nowego teatru, 1908–1924 (On the Threshold of the New Theater, 1908–1924), edited by Jerzy Timoszewicz, Warsaw, Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy, 1978, p. 9.
  15. Jerzy Timoszewicz, "Mała kronika życia i twórczości Leona Schillera, 1887–1924" ("A Brief Chronicle of the Life and Works of Leon Schiller"), in Leon Schiller, Na progu nowego teatru, 1908–1924 (On the Threshold of the New Theater, 1908–1924), passim.
  16. "Edward Gordon Craig: An Inventory of His Collection at the Harry Ransom Center". norman.hrc.utexas.edu. Retrieved 3 November 2017.
  17. "Edward Gordon Craig Photography Collection Literary File at the Harry Ransom Center". norman.hrc.utexas.edu. Retrieved 3 November 2017.
  18. "University of Texas Libraries / HRC". catalog.lib.utexas.edu. Retrieved 3 November 2017.
  19. "The Edward Gordon Craig Lecture". The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama.
  20. "Edward Gordon Craig: A bibliography". 1967.