EUGENE O'NEILL AND EDWARD GORDON CRAIG
In the early twentieth century, Edward Gordon Craig (1872-1966) symbolized the "new movement in theatre" that Eugene O'Neill (1888-1953) later associated himself with in America. Craig was among the first to resist the juggernaut of realism and naturalism in Europe at the turn of the century; and although his seemingly radical notions often caused him to be denounced as an impractical dreamer, many of his ideas helped shape the "new stagecraft" and the "little theatre" movements that were to significantly change the American theatre. The Provincetown Players, perhaps the most important "little theatre" in America, introduced the early works of O'Neill (and the scenic art of Robert Edmond Jones), setting the stage for the era of experimentation that followed World War I. Although they never collaborated, or even met, the iconoclastic Craig recognized the importance of O'Neill in the changing world of the theatre.
Craig, son of actress Ellen Terry, began his theatrical career as an actor, but in his youth he turned away from acting and began his highly controversial journey towards a new theatre. In his periodicals The Page (1898-1901), The Mask (1908-1929), and The Marionette (1918-1919), as well as in numerous books, especially his manifesto The Art of the Theatre (1905, expanded as On the Art of the Theatre in 1911), Craig explored his notions of a non-realistic, symbolic theatre under the control of a master artist exceptionally proficient in all aspects of theatrical production. Between 1900 and 1911, when he produced a landmark Hamlet at the Moscow Art Theatre for Constantin Stanislavsky, Craig tested his theories in imaginative but, unfortunately, little known productions. His unique ideas became widely influential, however. through his writings and designs, and much of what he suggested was to be carried forth in productions by Max Reinhardt and several Russian visionaries, including Vsevelod Meyerhold, all of whom relished Craig's ideas of a unified, symbolic, anti-naturalistic theatre.
But what did Craig know of the American theatre and the impact there of these particularly European ideas? In 1912, Craig wrote, "Americans are queer, adorable and abominable.... They have the biggest cities in the world and the biggest jungles, and nothing very vital seems to come out of either of them" (V, 2, October 1912, 169).* Craig was concerned about the move toward commercialism in the theatre and chose to instruct American theatre artists on this subject: "Study what belongs to the art of the Theatre and what belongs to the trade of the Theatre, but never mix the two" (IV, 1, July 1911, 27). Although he had some of his earliest roles with Henry Irving's Lyceum Theatre on an American tour in 1884, Craig never returned. He did design a production of Macbeth for American producer George C. Tyler in 1928, but the production, which he himself labeled a "Craig Pot-Boiler," was only based on his designs.
Craig ultimately paid some attention to the American drama, at least through published plays and critical and historical accounts of the American theatre. In The Mask Craig admiringly quoted George Pierce Baker's call for a union of scholarship and art. He also admired the scene designs of Robert Edmond Jones (which is not surprising since the influence of Craig's designs on Jones is obvious), and in reviewing Continental Stagecraft by Jones and Kenneth Macgowan he stated that the "forty sketches by Mr. Jones are all one wants--they could not be more expressive--one only wants more of them" (IX, 1923, 35). When he reviewed five one-act plays by American writers influenced by the new movement in theatre, Craig zeroed in on the then virtually unknown Theresa Helburn's play Enter the Hero: "I think Miss Helburn has the genius of the theatre in her veins.... For Miss Helburn...bravo America!" (VIII, 12, 1918-19, 53).
And what of O'Neill? Certainly Craig never saw an American production of O'Neill's work, and it is unlikely that he ever saw an O'Neill play in a European performance. Mention of the playwright first appeared in The Mask in 1928 when Craig reviewed Barrett H. Clark's Eugene O'Neill. Although most often thought of as a scene designer, Craig always referred to himself as an actor (although he never acted publicly after 1897), and it is interesting to note that he found O'Neill's early experiences as an actor in his father's company significant in the playwright's development.
Later in 1928, however, while reviewing the published playscript of Lazarus Laughed, Craig decried "the habit of printing plays which should be heard and seen and never read" (XIV, 4, October-December 1928, 177). and proceeded to make his case with characteristic vitriol, after quoting a passage from the play:
Craig goes on to suggest that the play is "much too
full of stage directions"
Craig's reaction to O'Neill's stage directions is undoubtedly also a result of his suspicion of the predominance of literary drama. Craig felt that literary men, such as George Bernard Shaw, had drained spontaneity from the theatre, particularly undermining the actor, in a misguided move toward naturalism. Although the power of O'Neill's stage directions and character descriptions, especially in the later plays, is widely considered essential, in the case of Lazarus Laughed Craig may have a point:
But finally, in spite of his criticisms, Craig recognized the tragic imagination and extraordinary creative ambition that brought O'Neill world acclaim when he noted (XIV, January-March 1928, 42):
* All quotations in this essay are from Craig's periodical, The Mask. Each parenthetical citation provides volume, number, date, and page, in that order.
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