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.
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. 
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).
From the 1870s until around 1910 one encounters again and again the slogan "Whistler and the Japanese" in English literary circles (Miner 1958, 80). As early as 1893 Craig revealed himself to be impressed by woodcut art, which he had come across in a neighboring village, and from 1895 he began to produce his own woodcuts and occasionally earned his living through them (Craig 1957, 168). Even at that time, his hand-painted woodcuts, of which he included drawings in his art journal The Page (1898-1901), found definite appreciation of their beauty in connoisseur circles (Rose 1931, 27). We can therefore assume with a reasonable degree of probability that by the 1890s he had come into contact with the widespread color woodcuts of Hokusai. In any case, he mentions them frequently in his programmatic journal The Mask, which appeared from 1908 onward. 
Kawakami's troupe visited London in June 1900 after touring America. It performed The Geisha and the Samurai at the Criterion Theatre in Picadilly (Kimura 1972, 149). The audience was thrilled by the melodramatic scenes, sword dances, and dances of demented and dying characters adopted from the kabuki.  At the invitation of the royal family, Kawakami Sadayakko, a former geisha, gave a special performance at Buckingham Palace before Queen Victoria and the Prince of Wales (Edward VII), in which Craig, Ellen Terry, and Henry Irving participated (Kimura 1972, 149). After the performance, Terry enthusiastically embraced Sadayakko, saying, "What a great lesson in dramatic art this has been for me" (Pronko 1974, 120). Impressed, Queen Victoria asked Sadayakko what she could do for her. In response, Sadayakko requested that the queen put in a good word for her with the Japanese emperor so that she might gain permission for further appearances on the stage, not only in Europe but Japan too, where actresses were st ill a rarity. 
The influence of this Japanese troupe upon Craig's artistic conceptions should not be overstated, however. Craig's theatrical thinking had been stimulated before the Kawakami company's arrival by the impressionist circle around Whistler, to which, no doubt, the "trace of Japonisme" in Craig's production of The Masque of Love can be attributed (Bablet 1965, 65).  On March 27, 1901, a Daily Graphic theatre critic refers to this influence (Bablet 1965, 65): "Mr. Craig did well to avoid the modern Realism of stage design, which would have harmonised badly with the conventional character of 17th century opera. He seems to have been inspired by Japanese art. An expansive background of clear colour and a simple, sober stage set are the essential elements of his system."
Craig did not favor Sadayakko's death scene, which thrilled European audiences, because, contrary to Japanese theatrical tradition, it was performed naturalistically. Sadayakko, though, was seeking a renewal of Japanese theatre by adopting European naturalism. To this effort Craig responded as follows:
Although all these things may be improvements it by no means follows that their art can be improved by changing the methods and materials which have been employed to such great results in the past.
Sada Yacco was the first lady to go upon the stage in Japan. The innovation was a pity. She then passed into Europe to study the modern theatres there, and more especially the Opera House in Paris, intending to introduce such a theatre into Japan--it is to be presumed with the idea of advancing the art of the Japanese theatre.
There can be no hesitation in saying that she is doing both the country and its theatre a grievous wrong. Art can never find a new way of creating better than the primitive way which the nation learned as children learn from Nature. ["Sada Yacco," Craig 1919, 233]
Craig was in fact altogether opposed to the appearance of women on stage and articulated his views on this again and again in his writings. In his opinion, the introduction of women upon the stage invited the downfall of the theatre. He writes on the debut of Sadayakko in a decidedly unsympathetic tone:
The introduction of women upon the stage is held by some to have caused the downfall of the European theatre, and it is …
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Publication information: Article title: Edward Gordon Craig and Japanese Theatre. Contributors: Lee, Sang-Kyong - Author. Journal title: Asian Theatre Journal. Volume: 17. Issue: 2 Publication date: Fall 2000. Page number: 215. © 2008 University of Hawaii Press. COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group.
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