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Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. X, No. 1
Spring, 1986


(IN THIS ISSUE)

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:

Lazarus: (His voice is heard in a gentle, expiring sigh of compassion. followed by a faint dying note of laughter that rises and is lost in the sky like the flight of his soul back into the womb of Infinity). Fear not. Caligula! There is no death!

Well, we should call this devilish highbrow in England. and in Italy we should call it precisely highbrow, and in France they would call it a lot more. And what would they say in Germany? I think they would rather like it. but I also think that the printing of a play is a most unfair proceeding, because it has to come before ordinary men with a sense of humour and other common senses, and when they read this.--

Ha-ha--ha-ha! Ha-ha-ha-ha!
Let us die, Lazarus!
Mercy, Laughing One!
Mercy of death!
Ha-ha-ha-ha! Ha-ha--ha-ha!

---No, it simply won't wash, they are in no laughing mood. and although 1 am pretty positive that O'Neill is not a man with a great sense of humour, yet with a lot of practicability in his nature, with the sense of a theatre man and a really most able being, in the piece I have quoted there is so much insincerity and so much twaddle, that I am forced to believe that it is not O'Neill's fault but the fault of the beastly print....(XIV, 4, 177)

Craig goes on to suggest that the play is "much too full of stage directions"
(XIV, 4, 177). When working on a project Craig typically removed the stage directions from the script to allow himself freedom of interpretation. He always bridled at perceived attempts to limit the creative powers of any individual artist of the theatre, particularly the actor, feeling that all aspects of production should be given equal importance. After his landmark essay. "The Actor and the Uber--marionette," first published in The Mask in 1908, Craig was accused of wanting to do away with the living actor, replacing him with a larger-than-life puppet. Craig later explained that he wanted the actor to re--emerge as the eloquent symbol of humanity through intense training that stressed improvisation. He pointed to the Italian actors of the commedia dell'arte for examples of the triumph of this type of theatre, as well as the ancient Greek. Roman, and Oriental theatres, that succeeded. in his opinion, as a result of the use of masks and symbolic ritual, both of which Craig felt of maximum importance if the theatre truly hoped to move beyond naturalism. In observing Lazarus Laughed, Craig stressed the limiting nature, and the ultimate futility, of specific stage directions:

Between almost every speech is a stage direction. Mary is to say "hysterically", the father is to say "frenziedly". the mother is to say "fanatically" or "tearfully". Mary is to speak "defiantly". Now there are at least seventy shades of defiance per person, one hundred shades of hysteria and frenzy, and therefore it is making it so easy for the actor when he is told as here that all he has to do is to be frenzied or defiant in one and the same old way--the one and only way according to the author.

If there are going to be long stage directions I like them to be all of a more subtly discriminating nature than this. Let the author look into the whole past life of Mary and the father and the mother. Let us hear what kind of voice Mary actually had. How it was affected by a feeling of defiance on Monday, Tuesday, and so on. What sort of thing made her snap or snarl her words. What made her coldly defiant, frantically defiant, and sincerely defiant and so on. But that would mean long discussions of Mary and her ways, her life, and even then I doubt if we would get it. Surely the great actor is needed at last. (XIV, 4, 177)

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:

Pompeia walks to the dais which she ascends slowly until she stands by Caesar's couch, beside him, confronting Lazarus.

The stage directions continue for another six lines and end up:

Pompeia leans over and takes a peach from the bowl of fruit on Caesar's table, and taking Tiberius' hand in the other, she kisses it, and calls insistingly: "Caesar, it is I, Pompeia".

Now when you have to tell actors there have to be peaches, and not pears, in a bowl on a table and this chief actress has to walk slowly to a dais, and that she has to stand behind, and not at the side of Caesar, things are getting very impracticable. Suppose in King Lear we had some such strange and useless stage direction. Take for instance Cordelia's line: "And so I am". You all remember it. Good! Now let us rewrite the stage direction:

Lear: "...Believe this lady to be my daughter".

Cordelia: (walking to the dais, up to which she trips with rapidity, and stands behind Lear's couch. Lear continues to stare into space. His whole being relaxing, a dreary smile softens his hard mouth. Cordelia runs over, taking a wisp of hawthorne from a bowl on the right of Lear, and stroking the white hair of her father with the bough, kisses his forehead, coos into his ear:) "And so I am".

Now doesn't this spoil the whole thing? (XIV, 4, 177)

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):

At the age of thirty-five he had found that "happiness is a word," and believed that he perceived it hidden somewhere in tragedy.

And so we may note that O'Neill has put himself a most difficult task--the most difficult in this remarkably false age ... to smash up that barred door which is guarded by prejudice against all arts and all the artists is something that has to be done to balance things a bit better.

And it won't hurt anyone; it will do the reverse.

I hope O'Neill will be writing when the door is down.

--James Fisher

* 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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