Edward Gordon Craig

Edward Gordon Craig was a key figure in the New Stagecraft movement, he published a artistic theatrical journal called the mask that explained his theories, here is a video series that explains more about him and his life.

I have focussed on Craigs use of masks in the theatre but he was also an advocate and visionary for puppetry on the stage.

He was also the inventor of the role of director in the stage, as well as his innovative invention of screens as representational scenery rather than realistic representations. he was also the first to use steps on stage and light the back of the stage to change scenes. He also used chalk dust and large beams of slanting lighting.

I refered to Craigs work and theories alot in my dissertation via a review of his work by  Irène Eynat-Confino called Beyond the Mask: Gordon Craig, Movement, and the Actor. 


Here are some key quotes that defined his work and have inspired mine:

“Simply that Craig definitely wanted to avoid the use of mimetic elements and cliches,  and this made his task almost impossible. transparent simplicity in a universal, symbolic pattern of movement”  pg 80

“The mask was an essential tool for the symbolic acting that Craig proposed.  he considered it “ the only right medium of portraying the expressions of the soul as shown through the expressions of the face.”  besides, the mask was a proper means for reducing expression and thereby intensifying it. as a director,  he had already used masks in his London Productions and was aware of their dramatic immediacy.  Furthermore, he missed trusted man’s innate mimetic tendency, and the mask was one means by which the director’s control on expressive movement could be enhanced.  but the mask is also so closely related to to Craig’s conception of the ideal heart of the theatre as ceremony in praise of creation and linked to the restoration of Belief to the world.  it’s ritualistic, sacred origin and the dualism of life and death embodied in it make it a symbolic means par excellence.” pg 80

The mask is, however,  a deceptive vehicle: it enhances illusion while it destroys it,  and by doing so it enforces the symbolic aspect of the performance;  in other words, the mask is both the cover and the sign of empirical reality.  it is part of the aesthetic game,  while it is also a constant aside to the audience,  an essential factor for distancing. for the actor, The Mask is the sign of the identity of the other,  designed to prevent him from impersonation or identification;  on the other hand, it may also provide for him the proper cover under which he does merge  himself with the character.  one effect is certain:  the mask calls attention to the expressivity  of body movement, endowing it with a salience not possible otherwise.  this is why a different body training is needed for the actor ( the coordination of the body movement with the mobility of the head and the spirit of the Mask), along with a psychological state of Readiness,  of acceptance of the other self imposed and emphasized by The Mask – a state that may lead the actor either to identification or to distancing. Craig did not propose such a training; furthermore, he suggested using not one but several masks for one character during the performance.” pg 80

Below is a section from My chapter on the masks in theatre from my dissertation where I discuss his work and analyze the text:

Edward Gordon-Craig was a fundamental theorist in perpetuating the New Stagecraft movement that enabled theatre to move away from realism. Playwrights aimed to encompass all the arts within theatre, including “Folk celebrations, festivals, circuses, and puppet shows” (Smith 1984) to create a new form of theatre called Total theatre. In this new form of theatre, influences were taken from the often ritualistic or symbolic aesthetics of these folk aspects of masking and disguise. The concept for this was to utilise the mask as a form of visual communication, bringing to the stage, and allowing the modern audience to experience the theatre through the original esoteric uses of the mask. By using masks and other signifiers the actor is able to unconsciously affect the audience, communicating deep levels of abstract meaning through movement and imagery rather than relying on large sections of speech and dialogue. (Smith 1984) He was also an enthusiastic advocate for returning the mask to mainstream theatre. In the early years of the 20th century, he aimed to create new innovative modes of theatre. By harnessing a new form of symbolic movement through the use of masks, he aimed to create a simple and universal form of communication with his audiences.  He believed the mask to be the tool to help him reinvent theatre and to stay away from clichés and classic mimetic elements that traditional theatre embodies. (Eynat-Confino 1987)  He considered the mask to be “the only right medium of portraying the expressions of the soul as shown through the expressions of the face.”  […] the mask was a proper means for reducing expression and thereby intensifying it.” (Eynat-Confino 1987) It’s clear he believed that by donning a mask the actor would use their body movements to compensate for a lack of facial expression as stated by Eynat-confino when he says “the mask calls attention to the expressivity of body movement, endowing it with a salience not possible otherwise.” (Eynat-Confino 1987) He wished to depersonalise the actor and utilise the intrinsic ability of the mask to transform an actor into what he called “the übermarionette (“super-marionette”)” (Grahame Rea 2019) Thereby removing the normal dramatic constraints from the actor and applying a new set of rules for them to use to help them connect with their audiences, on what he thought would be a more all encompassing format. In this respect the mask was a way to let the true intentions and meanings of the director be expressed without using a realistic context. In the postwar era of the 1920’s The New Stagecraft movement aimed to move away from realism, embracing avant garde design and surrealism in its place. (Grahame Rea 2019)  The advantage of this was that not all audiences could relate to all naturalistic contexts as their understanding of the message would always come from a subjective view. Smith backs this up by saying “The naturalistic stage is limited to the particular whereas the experimental stage addresses itself to larger issues in larger, more general images.” (Smith 1984) She postulates here that characters in all productions are not singular personalities they are merely representing different versions of people and archetypal norms. Therefore, by communicating with audiences through broader imagery and abstract messages, the meaning becomes accessible to all. It is therefore arguable that although the mask conceals the actor’s identity and depersonalises them, in doing so the actor can more easily convey the message of his director to all audiences. Therefore it could be argued that the mask allows for the widespread objective understanding of the director’s true intentions and in turn their underlying identity. “

Total theatre brought influences from the ritualistic or symbolic aesthetics of these folk aspects of masking and disguise to the stage. I propose with this project to use all of these themes Gordon Craig used but bring the style back to the modern day descendants of these folk traditions. I want to utilise the mask for my performance in the same way he proposed by using the body to convey meaning rather than using speech. 

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