A Better Mousetrap

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Last August, barely back from the Watson and unsure of what to do next, I received an email from Thomas Leabhart, asking if I would be interested in installing and assisting in the curation of a small museum exhibit that would open in March of 2013. Titled A Better Mousetrap: Gordon Craig's Designs for Hamlet, the exhibit traced Edward Gordon Craig's relationship to the play, Hamlet, and explores how it evolved over the course of his career. Through an impressive collection of original sketches, proofs, patents, letters, photographs, and many woodblock prints, it presents Craig's early developments in scenic design and dramatic theory, the attempt to realize them in a production of Hamlet devised in collaboration with Stanislavski and the Moscow Art Theatre in 1911 - 1912, and his much later partnering with the Cranach Press to publish a special edition of the play filled with original woodblock prints that stage the story as you read.

After many months in Special Collections, tracking down and working with Craig's original materials, the exhibit finally opened late last week. I was given a modest space for the exhibit, but in some ways it suited Craig's designs. His work makes beautiful use of negative space, building grandiosity and a sense of kinetic energy through the interplay of light, grand, geometric, columns and empty space; ultimately, I found the white walls in my small, but open, room complementary to the spirit of his work. I'm afraid to say that I don't think I did a great job presenting that sense in the photos below, but I hope you get at least a little bit of an idea.

 

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A staging plan from the Moscow Art Theatre's rehearsals for Hamlet.

A staging plan from the Moscow Art Theatre's rehearsals for Hamlet.

As I have mentioned here and there in the past, Edward Gordon Craig's writings and ideas were some of earliest sources of inspiration for my Watson Fellowship proposal. Having the opportunity to work so closely with his materials became a meaningful touchstone for me in my first months back from my fellowship. The Norman Philbrick Collection, from which I drew my materials, has an enormous catalogue of all things Craig-- photographs, drawings, and scribbled manifestos, yes, but also postcards and annotated flyers and dinner invitations. After traveling for a year and, in doing so, enjoying a feeling of liberation found in experiencing how small I measured up against the entire world, it felt peculiar to see one man's life so carefully documented and preserved. Craig had a real knack for bombastic proclamations and glorious (and borderline utopic) imagery. Despite his-- at times-- infuriating knack for self-contradiction, many of his contributions to the theatre worked their way into our water system. They find their way into you (at least they did for me) and then they really latch on-- not in a way that makes them all-consuming or even overly influential, but rather, in a way that makes them unshakeable. As I worked with Craig's materials, I found myself wondering-- and, in full disclosure, I'm a little embarrassed to admit this, but, in any case-- I wondered, what confluence of talent and willpower, vision and just sheer luck, makes something like this possible?

 

 A page from the original German edition of the Cranach Press Hamlet.

And then, of course there's the work itself. Spending so much time with the Cranach Press figures led me to developing Hamlet's Last Act , a Shadow Puppet play of Hamlet , with puppet designs inspired by Craig's woodblock prints. I'm going to share more about that in a future post.

Two Prints.
Samuel GoldComment