Saturday, 9 May 2009

Edith Craig (1869-1947): Dramatic Lives by Katharine Cockin

Edith Craig was one of the two children of the actress Ellen Terry and the architect William Godwin. Terry never married Godwin, and decided on the surname Craig for her children. Edith was known by her middle name, Ailsa, in her childhood and it was her stage name for her brief career as an actress. Looking at the real Ailsa Craig, you have to wonder what Terry was about in naming her daughter.

Both Edith and her brother Edward Gordon Craig went on to work in the theatre, both mainly offstage in the role of director or producer. Edward Gordon Craig became immensely celebrated, his innovations in staging and lighting making him a familiar figure in the history of modernist theatre. Terry, of course, was one of the most famous actresses and the most famous women of her generation. Edith, although probably equally talented and innovative, has been rather eclipsed by her mother and brother, and this book seeks to reclaim her life and restore her reputation.

Craig's story is interesting: she was an eminent director of pageants, that forgotten art form; she campaigned for women's suffrage and lent her skills to this campaign; she developed private theatre societies that were able to evade the censor; and she worked for many years to develop amateur theatre to a high standard. She lived for many years in a lesbian menage à trois with Tony (or Clare) Atwood and Christopher St John; the success of this relationship is not much explored by Cockin, who focuses more on Craig's career and its limitations. There is some effort to consider whether Edith's career was limited because she was a woman, or a lesbian, or a lesbian in a complex three-way relationship; personally I wondered if her (admittedly limited) private income meant that she did not have to press for professional, paid work. There's considerable food for thought in Craig's choice of artistic medium, her work in middlebrow genres such as amateur theatre, pageants and nativity plays.

Cockin has, however, set herself a hard task. Original archival material is limited, having been selectively destroyed. Consequently, the history and impact of Edith's career have to be reconstructed from other contemporary sources and press archives. This leads to a slight surfeit of biographer's tricks, the "must haves" and "may haves" that allow a narrative to be constructed out of a small amount of evidence, and gives the book a strenuous quality that doesn't make for easy reading. There's a also quite a significant amount of repetition; we're told twice in the space of ten pages, for example, that Craig's arthritis in later life meant that she sometimes used a wheelchair. This gave the impression that the book wasn't really meant to be read, but used as a reference tool, and that Cockin has tried to make sure the facts are available to the casual browser of the index. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that this book is the result of commendable scholarship and its efforts to retrieve Craig from historical oblivion, existing only as a footnote in biographies of her mother and brother, are laudable.

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