Edith Craig

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Edith Craig

Edith Ailsa Geraldine Craig (9 December 1869 – 27 March 1947) was a prolific theatre director, producer, costume designer and early pioneer of the women's suffrage movement in England. She was the daughter of Victorian era actress Ellen Terry and the progressive English architect-designer Edward William Godwin, and the sister of theatre practitioner Edward Gordon Craig.

As a lesbian, an active campaigner for women's suffrage, and a woman working as a theatre director, Edith Craig has been recovered by feminist scholars as well as theatre historians.[1][2][3] Craig lived in a ménage à trois with the dramatist Christabel Marshall and the artist Clare 'Tony' Atwood from 1916 until her death.[4][5][6][7]

Early years[edit]

Edith 'Edy' Craig, like her younger brother Edward, was illegitimate, as her mother, Ellen Terry, was still married to her first husband George Frederic Watts when she eloped with Godwin in 1868. Edith Craig was born the following year at Gusterwoods Common in Hertfordshire, and was given the surname 'Craig' to avoid the stigma of illegitimacy.[8][9] Terry was looked after carefully by her mother. Ellen believed that disruptive colours and unsightly objects could have a negative effect on Edith's growth and behaviour. The family lived in Fallows Green, Harpenden in Hertfordshire, designed by Godwin, until 1874. The couple separated in 1875. In 1877 Terry married her second husband, Charles Wardell, who became a father figure for the children leading to Craig taking the name Wardell. However, in 1907 Terry married her third husband, James Carew, whom Edith Craig did not like. Craig and her mother,Terry, had a strained relationship, and Craig openly felt that her mother favourited her brother, Edward. As a young child, Craig was harshly criticised by her mother, leaving scars and insecurities that were carried with Craig into adulthood.

Craig was educated at Mrs Cole's school, a co-educational institution in Earls Court in London, and at the Royal Academy of Music. Craig made her first appearance on the stage in 1878 during the run of Olivia at the Royal Court Theatre. She trained as a pianist under Alexis Hollander in Berlin in Germany from 1887 to 1890. She also occasionally studied under Elizabeth Malleson of Dixton Manor Hall, Winchcombe, Gloucestershire,[10] one of the pioneers of Women's Suffrage.

Theatre career[edit]

Ellen Terry and Edith Craig onstage at the Lyceum Theatre c.1895

Craig joined the Lyceum Theatre company as a costume designer and actress, touring America in 1895 and 1907 under the stage name Ailsa Craig. Edith was not a particularly spectacular actress but, she was noted for her expertise in historically accurate costumes and began to gain recognition for them. Like her younger brother, Craig appeared with Henry Irving in a number of plays, including The Bells (1895). In 1895 her performances in Pinero's Bygones and Charles Reade's The Lyons Mail respectively were praised by George Bernard Shaw and Eleonora Duse. George Bernard Shaw was a family friend of Craig's, he wrote several roles specifically for her. In Bernard Shaw's play Candida, it is believed that the role of Prossy was created for Craig, who originally played the role. Prossy is described as being a sexually autonomous woman who did not abide by society's definition of what a woman should be. She lived a vastly different life from most females of her time. She chose to remain unmarried and live with other women. This description, from what historians can tell, is almost identical to Craig's life during the time the play was being written and originally produced.

Craig also acted in plays by George Bernard Shaw and Henrik Ibsen, toured with Mrs Brown-Potter and the Independent Theatre. In 1899, Irving employed her to make the costumes for his production of Robespierre, which led to her going into business as a dressmaker. Although her studio in Covent Garden was well patronised, it was more successful artistically than financially and had a short life. After Ellen Terry left the Lyceum Theatre and went into management, Craig accompanied her on her tours in the English provinces and America as her stage-director, and from then play-production became her chief occupation.[10]

Craig founded the 'Pioneer Players' (1911–1925), a theatre society based in London that produced plays supportive of women's suffrage and other social reforms and, from 1915, plays in translation which associated them with art theatre.[11] The Pioneer Players were known for producing formerly banned plays, plays on social humanism, and foreign plays in addition to suffrage and feminist works. This allowed the group to reach beyond the Actresses Franchise League and to be accepted into mainstream English theatre. Craig's mother, Ellen Terry, was president of the society. Craig served as the managing director / stage director, her partner, Chris St. John served as the secretary, there were also nine members that made up an advisory committee, including George Bernard Shaw, Mrs. Bernard Shaw and the President Gabrielle Enthoven.[12] The Pioneer Players has been described by some critics as a women's theatre company,[13] for whom Craig produced 150 plays. Her work with the Pioneer Players undoubtable helped Edith become known as "a pioneer responsible for the ever increasing opportunities for women in theatre".

After the 'Pioneer Players' finally closed, Craig produced plays for the 'Little Theatre' movement at York, Leeds, Letchworth and Hampstead. In 1919, she was an important figure in the British Drama League (BDL), which had been formed to promote theatre throughout the United Kingdom, and to encourage a lasting peace after World War I.[14] Later Craig directed the Everyman Theatre Hampstead and Leeds Art Theatre.[15] In 1929, the year after Ellen Terry's death, Craig converted the Elizabethan barn adjacent to Terry's house at Smallhythe Place into a theatre which she named The Barn Theatre. Here she produced Shakespeare every year to commemorate the anniversary of her mother's death. Craig also appeared in a number of silent films.[16]

Craig was involved in many suffrage groups, and sold newspapers on behalf of that cause in the street. After she met a woman selling newspapers for the Women's Freedom she became a member and worked at branch level for that group. She did not fully understand the meaning of suffragism, but formed strong opinions about it quickly. She stated that's "[she] grew up quite firmly certain that no self-respecting woman could be other than a suffragist". Craig used her theatrical experience on behalf of the Actresses' Franchise League and was also involved in various suffrage productions. She directed A Pageant of Great Women, a play she devised with the writer and actor Cicely Hamilton, after encouraging Hamilton to write the play. It which was performed across the United Kingdom before large audiences. "A Pageant of Great Women" followed the concept of a morality play in which the main character, Woman, is confronted by the antagonist, Prejudice, who believes that men and women are not equal. Another leading character, "Justice" proceeds to travel through time with Prejudice and Woman and introduce them to historical female figures, who prove Prejudice wrong again and again. Edith was actually inspired by a cartoon she saw of Woman chained to the feet of Justice, which moved her to develop this concept.The play is written with so many characters that it can easily have forty to ninety women in the cast, each with a speaking role. The women were categorised as The Learned Women, The Heroic Women, The Artists, The Saintly Women, The Rulers, and The Warriors. Craig frequently played the role of Rosa Bonheur, a lesbian artist. It is speculated that Craig used this role as a form of her own identity as a lesbian.[10]

Personal life and death[edit]

The composer Martin Shaw proposed to her in 1903 and was accepted. However, the marriage was prevented by Ellen Terry, out of jealousy for her daughter's affection, and by Christabel Marshall (Christopher St. John), with whom she lived from 1899 until they were joined in 1916 by the artist Clare 'Tony' Atwood, living in a ménage à trois until Craig's death in 1947, according to Michael Holroyd in his book A Strange Eventful History.[4][5][6][7] Her lesbian lifestyle was looked down upon by her family. Her brother Edward said Edith's sexuality was a result of her "hatred of men, initiated by the hatred of her father". Craig became involved in several books about her mother and George Bernard Shaw which created a rift in the relationship with her brother, who asked Craig not to write about their mother, and specifically not to share the details of the family's innermost problems. Edward Gordon Craig's book Ellen Terry and her Secret Self (1931) explicitly objected to Ellen Terry and Bernard Shaw: a Correspondence (1931) edited by Christopher St. John. In 1932 Craig co-edited with St. John Ellen Terry's Memoirs in which she replied to her brother's representation of their mother. Also in 1932 Craig adopted Ruby Chelta Craig. Craig was reconciled with her brother some time before her death.[10]

On the death of her mother Craig changed, and committed her life to preserving her mother's legacy. She opened the family home, Smallhythe Place in Kent, England to the public. From 1939 she was supported in running the house by the National Trust. On her death she left Smallhythe Place to the National Trust as a memorial to her mother.[17] Craig died of coronary thrombosis and chronic myocarditis on 27 March 1947 at Priest's House, Smallhythe Place while planning a Shakespeare festival in honour of her mother. Her body was cremated. Many believe the lack of recognition given to her was a direct result of society's disapproval of lesbian culture.

Edith Craig suffered from acute arthritis especially in her hands. In her younger days, this painful condition prevented her from becoming a professional musician. She attended the Royal Academy of Music and held a certificate in piano from Trinity College. In her later years, after the death of her mother, wishing to write her own memoirs, Craig had to resort to dictating to her friend Vera Holme, known as 'Jacko'. Jacko wrote down Craig's memoirs in a quarto notebook which was 'lost in an attic' for decades and then sold to Ann Rachlin in 1978. Craig's personal reminiscences of her childhood and her life with Ellen Terry, Edward Gordon Craig and Henry Irving, are printed in their entirety in Rachlin's book Edy was a Lady, published in December 2011.

Virginia Woolf is said to have used Edith Craig as a model for the character of Miss LaTrobe in her novel Between the Acts (1941).[14] [18]

Selected filmography[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Christine Dymkowski, 'Edy Craig's Pioneer Players' in The New Woman and Her Sisters, Harvester, 1991
  2. ^ Katharine Cockin, Edith Craig: Dramatic Lives, Cassell 1998
  3. ^ Roberta Gandolfi, Edith Craig: La Prima Regista, 2003
  4. ^ a b Holroyd, Michael. A Strange Eventful History, Chatto and Windus (2008)
  5. ^ a b Los Angeles Times Review A Strange Eventful History: The Dramatic Lives of Ellen Terry, Henry Irving, and Their Remarkable Families by Michael Holroyd, 23 March 2009
  6. ^ a b Jill Rudd & Val Gough (editors) Charlotte Perkins Gilmore: Optimist Reformer University of Iowa Press pg 90 (1999) Google Books
  7. ^ a b Law, Cheryl Suffrage and Power: the Women's Movement, 1918–1928 i B Tauris & Co pg 221 (1997) Google Books
  8. ^ Booth, Michael R. "Terry, Dame Ellen Alice (1847–1928)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, September 2004; online edn, January 2008, accessed 4 January 2010
  9. ^ Profile of Terry by Amanda Hodges
  10. ^ a b c d Katharine Cockin, 'Craig, Edith Ailsa Geraldine (1869–1947)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Sept 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 accessed 10 March 2010
  11. ^ Cockin, Katharine. Women and Theatre in the Age of Suffrage: The Pioneer Players 1911–25, Palgrave 2001
  12. ^ Who's Who in the Theatre, 8th edition 1936, ed. John Parker
  13. ^ The Orlando Project of Women Writers
  14. ^ a b Katharine Cockin , Dame Ellen Terry and Edith Craig: suitable subjects for teaching
  15. ^ Cockin, Katharine. Edith Craig (1869–1947): Dramatic Lives Cassell (1998)
  16. ^ Craig on the Internet Movie Database
  17. ^ Ellen Terry and Edith Craig Database
  18. ^ Ellen Terry and Edith Craig Archives Database Project – University of Hull

External links[edit]