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Dramatic scenes from Hamlet and Macbeth come to life in the wooden engravings and imaginative etchings lining the walls of the Pusey Library in “The Art of the Theater,” a recently-opened retrospective on the life and works of the pre-eminent British theater designer and critic Edward Gordon Craig.
The exhibition sheds light on Craig’s work and personal life and features both a comprehensive series of his published manuscripts and etchings, as well as a rich body of personal correspondences, according to the show’s curators.
A champion of symbolist, non-realistic design, Craig was one of the foremost theatrical designers of the early twentieth century. Born in 1872 to English actress Ellen Terry and architect Edward Godwin, Craig performed with his mother on stage in his youth but ultimately found theatrical design to be his true passion.
In an era dominated by nineteenth century realism, Craig introduced modular structures and movable screens to the theatrical stage.
Among Craig’s most famous productions was a 1912 collaboration with Konstantin Stanislavksy at the Moscow Art Theatre on Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
The Pusey exhibition includes one of Craig’s model stages in his signature minimalist style. There is also an elegant set of nine miniature screens that evoke forest imagery through the use of abstract, intricate lines. Craig completed the work at the Arena Goldoni during his expatriate residence in Florence.
The project that preoccupied Craig for much of his life was his self-run and self-produced magazine, The Mask. It was published from 1908 to 1929 as “the journal of the art of the theater” and was really a personal showcase for Craig to express his views on everything theater-related, from the role of the actor to movement design.
“Movement was at the roots of the Ancient Theater and will ever remain the very Essence of the Art,” Craig wrote in a Mask excerpt quoted in the exhibit. “We must translate movement through the medium of inanimate forms and thereby produce once more an impersonal Art.”
The serious tone of Craig’s articles belied a sometimes playful side to his personality. He wrote under many pseudonyms, such as “Tom Fool” and “John de Bras Semar.” In one edition of The Mask, Craig fabricated an extensive biography for John Semar, later publishing numerous additional correspondences between himself and “Semar.”
The exhibition features several of the original magazine manuscripts and a photograph of Craig at work in the office of The Mask. They are accompanied by the covers of four palm-sized issues of The Marionette, a similar magazine that Craig published for a year.
It was at The Mask that Craig met his lover Dorothy Nevile Lees, a British author and translator for Craig who remained devoted to Craig throughout her life. Even during Craig’s times of financial trouble, she supported his work at The Mask. The exhibition features several letters which Craig wrote to Nevile Lees, instructing her both on running the magazine and on personal matters.
In a letter to Nevile Lees in March 1917, Craig instructs her on what to prepare for a clandestine visit to his house in Rome, writing, “dine first–dine well and have a good bottle of vino for the sake of me—capito?”
He then added, “You know I like things loose. Veiled is best.”
Craig liked women, and attracted many of them during his lifetime. He had ten children by five different mothers, including the dancer Isadora Duncan. He had a son with Nevile Lees in 1917.
In contrast to his popularity with women, Craig’s projects were never financially successful. According to the curator of the exhibition, Beth Carroll-Horrocks, Craig frequently asked his actress mother for money, and while writing for The Mask he sold wood engravings on the side.
Nevertheless, Craig occupies a prominent place in the New Stagecraft movement in the early twentieth century. For a short period he ran a school promoting his own theories, but it was later closed due to financial failure. Craig also wrote several books, including The Art of the Theatre in 1905 and Towards a New Theatre in 1913.
According to Carroll-Horrocks, the exhibition seeks to bring to the public the extensive materials on Craig in the Harvard collections and also the newly organized Edward Gordon Craig and Dorothy Nevile Lees Papers.
“These [materials] come from many different collections and times, but they complement each other nicely,” says curator F.W. Wilson, who selected the works featured in the exhibition from the Harvard Theatre Collection and collections in the Houghton Library.
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