The Skeleton: Edward Gordon Craig’s contribution to post-dramatic playwriting

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The Skeleton: Edward Gordon Craig’s contribution to post-dramatic playwriting


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The Skeleton: Edward Gordon Craig’s contribution to post-dramatic playwriting

Introduction by Didier Plassard (Univ. Paul Valéry – Montpellier 3, France)


Craig in 1916

The years of World War I were, for Edward Gordon Craig, a time of maturation and paradoxical changes. Brutally deprived of what were his previous major concerns – the acting school of the Arena Goldoni in Florence and the journal The Mask, both interrupted because of the lack of funding –, as well as of large parts of his international network of fellow artists, friends, and art collectors, he suddenly felt isolated. In November 1916, he left Florence where he had established himself nine years before, and went to Rome with the hope of building a new circle of patrons. Then, he asked his wife Elena di Meo and their two children, who lived in London, to come to Italy to join him: in November 1917, they moved together to Sant’Ambrogio, close to Rapallo in Liguria, where he would remain till the mid-1930s.

Although he had provoked an earthquake in the theatrical world by declaring, in The Actor and the Übermarionette (1908), that actors were not artists, and by announcing their replacement by artificial performers1, he, the prophet of monumental moving stages for new theatrical rituals, was now travelling around Italy to meet traditional puppeteers and to learn from their street shows. And although he was constantly repeating that the theatre of the future, being built upon silence and movement, would leave no place for playwrights and spoken drama, he began to compose a gigantic cycle of 365 puppet plays and interludes, The Drama for Fools, which was to be performed a whole year long, from April 1st to March 31st – each day a new part of it and in a different place, in front of a different audience2.

In May 1916, while fully occupied by his new activity as a playwright for the puppet stage, Craig had the desire to explore more deeply his contradictions by composing a “realistic” drama, this time for actors, The Skeleton. His first intention was not to propose this one-act play for public performances, but only to use it as training material for young actors when his school reopened after the end of the war: a dream that was broken a few months later when the Arena Goldoni was requisitioned by the Italian Government, which used it as a military depot, and the belongings Craig had left there were all destroyed.

“A realistic thing”

Yet, much more than an “exercise for Dramatic Schools”, The Skeleton seems to be an exercise in playwriting. The detailed stage directions, the importance given to sound and light effects, the precise depiction of gestures, atmospheres, and accents: all these aspects give us the sensation of a naturalistic “tranche de vie” borrowed from everyday life in a London middle-class house. This is a world which Craig, when writing his play in the summer light of Marina di Pisa, could look at both with amusement and with a hint of nostalgia, as we might infer from the comparison between English and Italian cooking, followed by Minnie’s remark ‘I am glad we’re back’.

But a “realistic thing”, as Craig calls his play ironically, is not a realistic drama. The Skeleton does not actually reproduce the characteristics of Edwardian theatrical productions: either it brings them much further (for example the use of popular speech; if we compare Jane’s cockney English with Eliza Doolittle’s in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion), or it undermines them, by refusing any kind of plot, story, or even conflict. In the long introduction to the Drama for Fools, Craig would develop at length his arguments against the representation of conflict (“Quarrel”) on stage3, but we can already catch a comical glimpse of them when Jane says how deeply Hamlet was shocked by the way Shakespeare portrayed his relationship to his mother, as well as, more seriously, in Craig’s Second Epilogue, “A Note to the Reader”. Realism, as introduced in playwriting and stage design in the 19th Century, did not fundamentally transform the narrative patterns of Western drama, which was based upon the predominance of interpersonal conflicts and the mechanisms of cause-and-effect relationships.

On the contrary, the realism (or should we name it the “hyper-realism”?) of The Skeleton aims at a meticulous imitation of everyday life: a life where people have lunch and talk of insignificant matters in their usual elliptic way; where everyone is looking after his or her own business, at his or her own pace, without caring about others; and where no reason can be found for strange and unexpected little events. Many things happen on stage, but remain meaningless and disconnected; they appear as fragments from different stories whose beginnings and endings will never be told. Half-mysterious, seen as though through a fourth wall of transparent and hermetic glass, the happenings in the Jeekle family are certainly not less “queer” than those the young Jack is peeping at in the neighbours’ house.

A Post-dramatic play?

This deconstruction of narrativity, or more exactly, this refusal to develop any continuous story within the play, goes far beyond the “crisis of modern drama” which Peter Szondi could identify in the theatre of the turn of the century, through the works of Ibsen, Strindberg, Maeterlinck, or Chekhov. But the mimeticism of everyday life also provides the disconnected actions of The Skeleton, paradoxically, with the opacity and the unpredictableness of a real world. This discontinuity has therefore nothing in common with the disruptions caused by illogism, chance, onirism or seriality in the Futurist, Dadaist or Surrealist plays, nor with their partial revival in the theatre of the 1950s and the 1960s. On the one hand, the mix of a realistic environment with various inexplicable and somewhat threatening micro-events can be seen as a typical feature of the Fantastic genre, in Tzvetan Todorov’s definition, and obviously the author delights in preparing the audience for some macabre apparition – that, maybe, of a real skeleton – and then deceiving these expectations.

But on the other hand, the accumulation of such “mysterious happenings which have no motive and lead to no conclusion”, as Craig defines them in his Second Epilogue, can also be considered as anticipating some of the most typical features described by Hans-Thies Lehmann in his essay on Post-dramatic theatre. The discontinuity between what happened on stage and the final event (the notice of the cook’s suicide), for example, is very similar to the gap produced by unexpected events which put an end to Thomas Bernhard’s plays: Höller’s heart attack in Vor dem Ruhestand, the burning presbytery in Der Theatermacher, or Mrs. Schuster’s fainting spell in Heldenplatz. Both Craig and Bernhard refuse to follow the Aristotelian laws of necessity and organicity, revealing thereby the artificiality of theatrical performance – but giving it, also, a greater resemblance to the happenings of real life, where events are seldom related or expected.

Another “Post-dramatic” aspect of The Skeleton is the reduced status it gives to language. If the play begins with an ordinary use of theatrical dialogue, it progressively becomes obvious that scenic action and speech progress separately: while strange events begin to happen (the three taps heard on the door, the dysfunction of clocks, the apparitions in the neighbours’ house, etc.) and when all the members of his family leave the dining-room, Mr. Jeekle goes on reading aloud his newspaper. Step by step, with the coming of the fog and the darkening of the room, his admiration for the entomologist Jean-Henri Fabre’s research, as reported in the newspaper, becomes more insignificant, if not ridiculous, while a vague but growing menace surrounds him. Language, at that moment, ceases to be the vector of theatrical action, and is replaced by light and sound effects. This transformation of scenic images into dramaturgical components, and of human speech into a mere stream of sound, offbeat and meaningless, stays very close to the use of mental landscapes in Post-dramatic theatre: one may think, for example, of Philippe Quesne’s productions, like La Mélancolie des dragons or Swamp Club, where slow movements and bits of commonplace dialogue fill the stage with a dream-like atmosphere.

Such similarities do not lead, of course, to the re-examination of the categories generally used in the historiography of contemporary theatre, nor should they enroll Edward Gordon Craig in the ranks of avant-garde playwrights. But they remind us that the sequencing of theatre history, just as that of other branches of social life and human activities, is not made of distinct segments in a linear time: when grouping works or facts under common denominations, we must never forget that these groups may partially overlap, or, like the two waves of Dada and Surrealism, according to André Breton, ‘cover each other by turns’.4 Post-dramatic features can appear before the “birth” of Post-dramatic theatre, and dramatic features can be reintroduced after it.

About this edition

As far as we know, no attempt was made by the author to publish or to perform The Skeleton, and he only kept a few typed copies of it: one is now held in the Edward Gordon Craig Collection of the Harry Ransom Center in the University of Texas (Austin); another belongs to the National Trust and is held in Smallhythe Place (Kent), Ellen Terry’s cottage; a third one is included among the manuscripts of the Drama for Fools which belong to the Institut International de la Marionnette (Charleville-Mézières): it is from this last copy that we can publish here the play, together with its First Epilogue (“Enter Jane”) and its Second Epilogue (“A Note to the Reader”), thanks to the generosity of the Edward Gordon Craig Estate and of the Institut International de la Marionnette, to both of whom we are very grateful.

As he always did with his writings, Craig reread the typescripts of The Skeleton on different occasions of his life, amending them and adding manuscript notes which he accurately dated: we have followed all the corrections and kept all the commentaries he made on the copies in the IIM’s collection. To better distinguish them from the editor’s explanatory notes, these last ones are in brown.

1. For new materials and a renewed approach of Craig’s Übermarionette projects, see Didier Plassard, « La velocità del cavallo e quella della lumaca : teorie e pratiche della Übermarionette in Gordon Craig » / « La vitesse du cheval et celle de l’escargot : théories et pratiques de la Surmarionnette chez Edward Gordon Craig », Acting Archives Review, VIII – 15, May 2018 (Italian and French versions)

2. Edward Gordon Craig, The Drama for Fools / Le Théâtre des fous, edited by Marion Chénetier-Alev, Marc Duvillier and Didier Plassard (Montpellier : L’Entretemps, 2012).

3. E. G. Craig, “Introduction”, The Drama for Fools / Le Théâtre des fous, p. 32-40.

4. André Breton, Conversations: The Autobiography of Surrealism, trans. Mark Polizzotti (New-York: Paragon House, 1993), p. 43-47.