The Gordon Craig Theatre, built in Stevenage (the town of his birth), was named in his honour in 1975.
The illegitimate son of the architect Edward Godwin and the actress Ellen Terry, Craig was born Edward Godwin on 16 January 1872 in Railway Street, Stevenage, in Hertfordshire, England, and baptised at age 16 as Edward Henry Gordon. He took the surname Craig by deed poll at age 21.
Craig spent much of his childhood backstage at the Lyceum Theatre, where his mother was the leading lady to actor Sir Henry Irving. Craig later wrote a vivid, book-length tribute to Irving. Craig's sister was Edith Craig.
In 1893 Craig married Helen Mary (May) Gibson, with whom he had five children: Philip Carlisle (born 1894), Rosemary Nell (born 1894), Henry Edward Robin (born 1895), John (born 1896) and Peter (born 1897).
With his lover, the violinist Elena Fortuna Meo (1879–1957) he had three children: Ellen Gordon (1903–1904), Ellen Gordon ("Nelly"; 1904–1975) and Edward Anthony Carrick (1905–1998; an art director of British films). With his lover, the dancer Isadora Duncan, he had a daughter, Deirdre Beatrice (1906–1913), who drowned at the age of seven. With his lover, the poet Dorothy Nevile Lees, he had a son, Davidino Lees (1916–2004), a noted Italian photojournalist. His granddaughter is the illustrator and author Helen Craig.
Craig lived in straitened circumstances in France for much of his life and was interned by German Occupation forces in 1942. He died at Vence, France, in 1966, aged 94.
Craig asserted that the director was "the true artist of the theatre" and, controversially, suggested viewing actors as no more important than marionettes. He designed and built elaborately symbolic sets; for instance, a set composed of his patented movable screens for the Moscow Art Theatre production of Hamlet. He was also the editor and chief writer for the first international theatre magazine, The Mask.
He worked as an actor in the company of Sir Henry Irving, but became more interested in art, learning to carve wood under the tutelage of James Pryde and William Nicholson. His acting career ended in 1897, when he went into theatrical design.
Craig's first productions, Purcell's Dido and Aeneas, Handel's Acis and Galatea (both inspired and conducted by his lifelong friend Martin Shaw, who founded the Purcell Operatic Society with him to produce them), and Ibsen's The Vikings at Helgeland, were produced in London. The production of Dido and Aeneas was a considerable success and highly influential in reviving interest in the music of Purcell, then so little known that three copies of The Times review were delivered to the theatre: one addressed to Mr Shaw, one to Mr Craig, and one to Mr Purcell. Craig concentrated on keeping his designs simple, so as to set-off the movements of the actors and of light, and introduced the idea of a "unified stage picture" that covered all the elements of design.
After finding little financial success in Britain, Craig set out for Germany in 1904. While there, he wrote one of his most famous works, the essay The Art of the Theatre (later reprinted with the title On the Art of the Theatre). In 1908, Isadora Duncan introduced Craig to Konstantin Stanislavski, the founder of the Moscow Art Theatre, who invited him to direct their famous production of Hamlet with the company, which opened in December 1911. After settling in Italy, Craig created a school of theatrical design with support from Lord Howard de Walden, the Arena Goldoni in Florence. During World War I, he wrote a cycle of puppet plays, the Drama for Fools and published a little theatre magazine, The Marionnette (1918).
Craig was considered extremely difficult to work with and ultimately refused to direct or design any project over which he did not have complete artistic control. This led to his withdrawal from practical theatre production. His later career is remarkable for how little he achieved after the age of forty, during a long period of over fifty years.
He received an OBE and in 1958 was made a Companion of Honour.
Craig's idea of using neutral, mobile, non-representational screens as a staging device is probably his most famous scenographic concept. In 1910 Craig filed a patent which described in considerable technical detail a system of hinged and fixed flats that could be quickly arranged to cater for both internal and external scenes. He presented a set to William Butler Yeats for use at the Abbey Theatre in Ireland, who shared his symbolist aesthetic.
Craig’s second innovation was in stage lighting. Doing away with traditional footlights, Craig lit the stage from above, placing lights in the ceiling of the theatre. Colour and light also became central to Craig’s stage conceptualizations.
Under the play of this light, the background becomes a deep shimmering blue, apparently almost translucent, upon which the green and purple make a harmony of great richness.
The third remarkable aspect of Craig’s experiments in theatrical form were his attempts to integrate design elements with his work with actors. His mise en scène sought to articulate the relationships in space between movement, sound, line, and colour. Craig promoted a theatre focused on the craft of the director – a theatre where action, words, colour and rhythm combine in dynamic dramatic form.
All of his life, Craig sought to capture "pure emotion" or "arrested development" in the plays on which he worked. Even during the years when he was not producing plays, Craig continued to make models, to conceive stage designs and to work on directorial plans that were never to reach performance. He believed that a director should approach a play with no preconceptions and he embraced this in his fading up from the minimum or blank canvas approach.
As an engraver and a classical artist, Craig found inspiration in puppets and masks. In his 1910 article "A Note on Masks," Craig expounds the virtue of using masks as a mechanism for capturing the audience’s attention, imagination and soul. "There is only one actor – nay one man who has the soul of the dramatic poet, and who has ever served as the true and loyal interpreter of the poet," he proclaimed, and "this is the marionette.”
On the Art of the Theatre (1911) is written as a dialogue between a Playgoer and a Stage Director, who examine the problems of the nature of stage directing. Craig argues that it was not dramatists, but rather performers who made the first works of drama, using action, words, line, colour and rhythm. Craig goes on to contend that only the director who seeks to interpret drama truly, and commits to training in all aspects of dramatic art, can restore the "Art of the Theatre." Maintaining that the director should seek a faithful interpretation of the text, Craig argues that audiences go to the theatre to see, rather than to hear, plays. The design elements may transcend reality and function as symbols, he thought, thereby communicating a deeper meaning, rather than simply reflecting the real world.
On 29 June 1908 the Polish theater director, playwright, and theoretician of drama Leon Schiller initiated a correspondence with Craig. Together with his letter Schiller sent Craig, in Florence, his essay, "Dwa teatry" ("Two Theaters"), translated into English by Madeline Meager. Craig responded immediately, accepting the essay for his magazine, The Mask. This was the beginning of a productive collaboration between the two prominent theater directors, who introduced each other's theoretical writings to foreign readers.
Craig wrote the following books:Gordon Craig's book of penny toys (1899)
The London school of theatrical art (1905)
On the Art of the Theatre (1911)
Towards a New Theatre (1913)
The Theatre Advancing (1919)
Henry Irving (1930)
Ellen Terry and her secret self (1931)
Index to the stories of my days (1957)