The review ‘Theatres in the Air’ by John Drinkwater about "Towards a New Theatre" by Edward Gordon1 Craig , reaffirms the notion of criticism towards art, specifically new ideas and interpretations of theatre2 and stage design.
"Towards a New Theatre", written by Craig in 1913 in Florence and published later the same year in London, contains 40 plates of his original scenic design. Drinkwater writes that they are "full of imaginative beauty”, and no one can look at them without realising that Mr. Craig is one of the most gifted men of his time. He has, as we have said, dreamy finely and cleanly; “the imagination is never dissipated into mere fancy."
Nevertheless, continues Mr. Drinkwater, that Mr. Craig calls his book “Towards a New Theatre” is problematic. "A great play does not necessarily need the stage to prove its greatness," he writes, adding, "It is certain that the dramatist can only achieve high mastery of construction by knowledge of, and in terms of, the theatre."
Edward Gordon Craig, with his visions and drawings, certainly contributed to a pivotal change regarding the notion and nature of the theatre as space and as activity, and the relationship between those two. His ideas allowed the imagination to spread wide and to give an alternative to theatre as then imagined.
Craig’s revolutionary concepts may be summarised as follows:
- Theatre needs to be presented as a unified whole. The movement of the performers, lighting, physical design, music and soundscape all need to support each other.
- Scenery, costumes, lighting and colour palette must be the product of one artistic imagination.
- The essence of theatre art is symbolic movement with the subsequent demand that the human actor must be replaced by a more perfect instrument, one capable of perfect movement and not subject to human fallibilities (marionettes).
Particularly important to him was the use of footlights in stage lighting, something that following generations would successfully embrace. His conceptualisation of staging revolved around use of colour and light, which he considered could be used to great effect to change the mood of a production, and interchangeable sets. At the core of his ideas was the use of a neutral, mobile, non-representational screen as a staging device.
Moreover, he asserted that the director was “the true artist of the theatre” and, controversially, suggested actors should be viewed as marionettes under the direction/control of the puppeteer playwright.
Craig rose in opposition against the decorative style of the Romantic theatre and the uncommunicative facets of the naturalistic stage, declaring that it is not the presentation of realistic detail which is the purpose of the stage setting but rather the creation of a “place which harmonises with the mind of the poet.” This idea is in line with his thoughts of unified symbolic design, and his demand for a single powerful stage-director.
I believe that his ideas are particularly innovative and fascinating, despite being strongly criticised at the time for their high demands. I would suggest that, nowadays, thanks to the advanced technology, his ideas could be fully realised with collaboration and substantial dialogue between an experienced set designer - an architect able to realise magnificent and surprising settings taking account of all the safety measures required - and the director or choreographer in charge.
Drinkwater writes: "It is questionable whether, apart from his gain, the artist can secure any profound and lasting pleasure from work in the theatre, but, however this may be, every artist who has any experience of such work knows that whatever the theatre may or may not be, it cannot possibly be a place of dreams."3
I rather believe that despite possible conflict and immediate and practical difficulties on stage, the theatre can be a place of dreams. I believe it to be a place where dreams can be solicited and fostered, and entirely lived by performers and the spectators.
Edward Gordon Craig was among the first to sense the intrinsic relationship between the idea of a play and the creation of its scene. His goal in the development of that scene was, as he points out, to produce “an atmosphere, not a locality.”
I also consider that the theatre set should create ‘atmospheres’ appropriately relative to the dramaturgy and in line with the intentions of the director or choreographer, and actors or dancers. Moreover, I believe there should be an embodied experience, from the actors and the audience, in relation to the space created by the theatre or dance piece and its set. The stage setting should have a decisive impact on the actors involved, the work, and the audience’s perception, understanding and involvement.
It is important to remember that Craig introduced a concept in which the art of the theatre would, in reality, be transcended and interpreted by symbols rather than using a traditional representational method.
To him, outlines, forms, colours, and lighting were a means of creating an atmosphere. His most original theatrical concept was that the entire 'scene' in a dramatic work should be movable in all respects. For example, he says that both the floor and ceiling should be composed of squares that, under the control of the artist, could be moved up and down independently or in groups within a constantly changing pattern of light. The consequence of all this would be for an emotional response to arise in the audience through the abstract movement of these plastic forms.4
Craig’s stage productions and, even more, his writings and his highly stylised stage design, woodcuts and etchings strongly influenced the anti-naturalist trends of the modern theatre in the first half of the 20th century. However, very little that he designed was actually staged.5
Craig describes the composite art by saying: “The art of the 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: action, which is the very spirit of acting; words, which are the body of the play; line and colour, which are the very heart of the scene; rhythm, which is the very essence of dance."6
In his mind the production should be directed by a single individual who can co-ordinate its many elements. “That is the only way the work can be done, if unity, the only thing vital to a work of art, it is to be obtained.”7
Craig insists that the scene design must be considered alongside acting, movement, and voice. He encourages the director to let their mind "leap around" and that the 'thing' should be considered from "every standpoint and every medium" to produce an imaginative statement.8
Considering the resources and technology available for set and stage design today, I believe it is quite possible to create the wonderful type of settings for theatre that Craig envisioned a century ago. I believe his ideas, highly innovative and challenging a century ago, should also be a point of reference for those designing for theatre today and in the future.
In every era, theatre, as well as museums, both temples of culture, should be constantly questioning and continually trying to find effective and new ways to communicate, enliven and make people dream and grow.
- The Blue Review, Volume I, Number II, Martin Secker Publisher, Number Five John Street 1 Adelphi (June 1913) pp. 113-116
- Edward Gordon Craig, Towards a New Theatre, J.M. Dent & sons, ltd. (London, 1913)
- John Drinkwater, Theatres in the Air, pp. 114-115
- Craig, On the Art of the Theatre (London 1911) p.138
- Ibid., p.31