Edward Gordon Craig and Japanese Theatre

By Lee, Sang-Kyong | Asian Theatre Journal, Fall 2000 | Go to article overview
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Edward Gordon Craig and Japanese Theatre


Lee, Sang-Kyong, Asian Theatre Journal


Edward Gordon Craig's conception of theatre was stimulated not only by the European past but also by the Far East, especially the Japanese theatre. This influence can be claimed in particular for his endeavors to devise an aesthetic in which all the arts combined on stage to create a "total" theatre and in his emphasis on dance and color symbolism. Professor Lee's essay offers a detailed account of the myriad ways in which Craig was influenced by traditional Japanese theatre.

Sang-Kyong Lee, born in Korea, teaches comparative drama and Far Eastern theatre at the University of Vienna. He holds a doctorate from the University of Innsbruck and has been a visiting professor in Japan and Switzerland. Professor Lee has published six books (four in German, one in Japanese, and one in English) and ninety articles, has edited two books, and has translated three Korean novels into German.

Edward Gordon Craig was born in 1872 in Stevenage, Hertford, to the famous actress Ellen Terry and the theatrical architect Edward William Godwin. He received his first stage training from Henry Irving, the Victorian acting idol, under whose guidance he had a successful career at London's Lyceum Theatre. He later achieved European-wide influence as a champion of theatrical symbolism. Craig's conceptions ushered in a new epoch in European theatre. From early on he turned against the prevalent naturalist style, proposing in its place a new concept demanding severity and simplicity in stage decor and performance style, as well as skilled use of lighting and color to achieve striking effects.

First Impressions

The earliest influences of Japanese theatre upon Europe find effective expression in Craig's reformist notions. Craig seems to have derived his first inspirations from Japanese art during his youth, when he came into contact with the artists around Whistler who were fascinated by the Japanese art of woodcuts, especially their use of color. His earliest stimulus from the Japanese theatre itself came from the touring performances of the troupe run by Kawakami Otojiro. This company, which undertook two world tours (1899 and 1903), sought, on the one hand, to imbibe something of European theatrical art and, on the other, to introduce Japanese theatre to the West. We know that Craig saw at least one of this troupe's performances and occupied himself intensively with their theatrical style because he provided detailed and decisive views on Kawakami Sadayakko, the troupe's female star, usually billed in the West as Sada Yakko (or Yacco). Here he encountered anew the color symbolism that, in accordance with Japanese theatrical tradition, is employed to portray inner states of mind or express characterization. Craig also began at this time to turn his attention to other Asian forms of theatre, Chinese, Indian, and Indonesian, and to articulate his views programmatically in numerous articles and reviews in issues of The Mask, a journal he created and edited for many years. [1]

Even as early as the last quarter of the nineteenth century, Japanese painting had become the ideal of French impressionist and symbolist artists like Van Gogh and Monet, as well as the American Whistler and others. They were attracted, above all, by Japanese art's sensitivity, coloring, and composition. In accordance with the universal, all-embracing influence of the impressionist movement within all spheres of art, Japanese woodcut artists and painters, such as Katsushika Hokusai (1760--1849) and Ando Hiroshige (1797--1853), became well known and esteemed in literary circles, too. It is typical, therefore, that James Whistler, for example, in whose pictures the influence of Japanese woodcut art is clearly discernible in composition and coloring, should have introduced Algernon Swinburne and Oscar Wilde to Japanese art and impressionism. As a result these two writers assimilated the stimuli thus received into their own work, each in his own distinct manner (Miner 1958, 80).

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