Discouraged in London, Gordon Craig finally compels recognition in Florence.


This obituary was originally published in Theatre Magazine, Vol. 29, No. 4. Ed. Arthur Hornblow. New York: Theatre Magazine Company, 1919. p. 218.

PICTURE to yourself a little summer resort in Italy, the name Forte del Marmi, some fifteen years ago, before the world grew used to mad folk with long hair who did odd things. Picture yourself a pavilion, built out over the blue Mediterranean waters, in which every evening during the warm months people gather in quite an informal way, to dance and chat and eat ices. The dance music is unostentatiously furnished by hand organ.

It is not a fashionable pavilion, not patronized by the smartest set of the place, but quite nice for all that, and frequented by quite nice people, in thin summer frocks, lazily waving fans, and discussing the salad they had for dinner, and who would be up in the next election, and what the weather would be like tomorrow. Mostly Italians from nearby cities, with a sprinkling of middle-aged maiden ladies from Boston, Kansas City, and Liverpool. They are a conservative and well-behaved but quite gay company, and from the vantage-point of the outside, they seem very inviting.

Suddenly a tall handsome figure appears in the doorway, clad in green pajamas and sandals. He wears his hair long, without a hat. There is consternation and horror on every conservative Italian face, and the old maids from Boston and Kansas City are quite positive that such a thing could never happen at home.

THERE is almost an uproar--the handsome figure in the green pajamas is about to be ejected. Being a sensitive person he realizes that something must be done if he is to enjoy the delights of the place. He steps gracefully, politely, and gravely up to the most proper dowager in sight, and offers her his arm. Amazed, not quite understanding, perhaps a little pleased, she rises, takes it, and together they move off, gravely and serenely leading a grand march. A second figure in pajamas appears, ready to follow if afraid to lead, and selecting the next most correct old lady, follows the first couple. Someone else enters into the spirit of the idea, and falls in behind, and the day is saved. Round and round they march, through figure after figure until they finish in a rollicking Barn Dance, improvised on the spot.

The next morning that particular pavilion is famous all over Italy. Evening after evening the place is crowded with people hoping to see the mad genius, Gordon Craig, come to a dance in his pajamas. Why did he do it? Simply because his only suit of white ducks was soiled and he couldn't find a laundress! He couldn't find a room either, the place being crowded, so he and his co-workers, refusing to go back to the heat of Florence, slept in the sand, and worked during the day under umbrellas. Of course, the first night they didn't get much sleep, as the housed population insisted upon investigating them, but after a few days they ceased to be curiosities, and thereafter they worked in peace for the rest of the summer.

IN the winter, during the time he lived in Florence, Craig and his fellow-artists lived and worked in an old monastery just outside of Florence, sleeping, in the beginning, on the floor, on piles of shavings, their only heat from charcoal braziers, and fires of more shavings. They paid their debts when they had money, and begged and borrowed when they had none, mostly, of course, being true lovers of art, they had none. Craig's largest source of income at that time was derived from the checkers in a certain famous café in Florence. Boxwood checkers, large and round, with an excellent smooth back for engraving. "The Guild of Wood Engravers of San Leonardo" they called themselves, a guild of which Craig was the Lord and Master, obeyed, feared and loved. Every evening, sitting int he café, surrounded by idolatrous worshippers, he would teach some rich Italian, or perhaps, if he were lucky, two or three, to engrave on the backs of the checkers. They made themselves book-plates, letter-heads, designs, and--just engraved, but paid Craig for teaching them.

That was nearly fifteen years ago, after he had produced five comic operas, and one serious nativity play in London; enough, one would think, to have established today's greatest creative genius of the theatre beyond the point where he needed the money to be got from teaching chance café acquaintances to engrave book-plates on the backs of checkers, but from the first London opposed him. From the stagehands up through the very backers and "angels" the theatrical world united to exclude him. They resented his iconoclastic ideas, for which they can hardly be blamed. Being poor, and having many friends anxious to help him, he employed them as amateur stagehands, with the result that when he went into a theatre to put on a production he found blown-out plugs in the fuse boxes, tangled lines, dust and disorder everywhere. Undismayed, though probably cursing, he and his friends again and again spent days and nights restoring order.

The professional actors hated him because he found them untractable and unwilling to accept his ideas.

HE substituted amateurs at first, but finding them incapable, if willing, he finally reverted to puppets. After his views had been given a little publicity no professional actor would work for him, or, ostensibly working for him, would really work against him. The managers hated him because, managing himself, he reversed their time-honored decisions, and called them fools and idiots when they persisted misunderstanding and refusing his ideas. They would not let him hire theatres, and called him mad.

Finally he went to Berlin on the invitation of Professor Max Reinhardt, where he worked with him, establishing Reinhardt's Theatre. Later, after Craig had gone to Florence to try to work out, under a warmer sky, the ideas that London scorned, Reinhardt took back those same ideas, and put on Craig's productions, line for line, and color for color, for the very managers who had turned Craig away time after time. They were huge successes. Packing the theatres to the doors, London vindicated Craig in Reinhardt's name.

Craig, working madly in Florence to earn a living and develop his ideas at the same time, was moved to tears and laughter--and stimulated to fresh efforts. Terribly nervous and high-strung, with this proof of the ultimate success that awaited him, he got the ear of Eleonora Duse, who listened not only respectfully but delightedly. Great artist that she is, she recognized in Craig a kindred spirit, a brother in genius, and promptly engaged him to put on for her a production of Ibsen's "Rosmersholm." He combed Florence for scene painters, stage carpenters, stage hands, only to find that there were none to be had. All Italian theatricals start from Naples, or Milan, and there are no men to be found familiar with the theatre outside of those cities. Again he called together his friends and they built the stuff with the help of ordinary carpenters, of paper and lathe, and painted it with quartets of brushes tied to mop handles. Two plumbers temporarily out of jobs managed the lime lights, in lieu of electricity, and, slowly, Craig, speaking through an interpreter, working under every difficulty, staged a production. It ran for three weeks in Florence--a long run, for Florence is a small city with a large, poor population. Probably every able-bodied person with the price of a seat in or near the city saw the Duse-Craig "Rosmersholm." Craig was successful at last. He was going on tour with Duse, to Milan, Nice, Marseilles--all over Europe--working as they traveled on other plays. The programme was a large one, but promised every chance of success--the most popular actress on the continent staged by the greatest imagist of the theatre!

Craig stayed behind the company a few hours, in Florence; Duse went to Pisa, where the theatre was a little smaller than the one in Florence and the scenery didn't fit very well. The stage manager told Duse; she said, "Don't bother me, do what is necessary." So, Craig arrived, and found six feet cut off the bottom of his carefully planned scenery. Ornament that should have been above the actors' heads reached to their shoulders; his carefully-got feeling of exaggerated height was gone, his huge portal an ordinary door. Furious, he rushed to Duse, and impolitely told her that she was no artist; she retorted that he was no gentleman and they parted.

Craig went back to Florence to start there his school of the theatre, his two magazines, The Mask, and The Marionette, and to work on the production that brought him finally, so late as 1911, the success and recognition that had so long been denied him--the "White" Hamlet at the Moscow Art Theatre. At last all Europe rang with applause. He had been working on "Hamlet" since he was a boy. He had played it countless times himself. His conception of the part was a figure in black, walking through a white play to his doom, and at the end, the world, uncaring, clanging about its business again. A great success! He had become at last a big figure, but he no sooner saw the "Hamlet" produced than he went home, and made an entirely new series of designs for another production to be done some day, somewhere. The new designs are a secret, and rightly so, but we can guess that they are beautiful, imaginative, and very carefully planned, and we may be sure that though his success has been slow in coming it will also be slow in fading, for it was Gordon Craig who showed the way for all the Art Theatres that are springing up so thick not only in this country but in England--youthful theatres breathing youth and freshness into an old profession.

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