The Donald Oenslager Collection of Edward Gordon Craig is an artificial collection containing correspondence and artwork created by the noted theatrical designer and graphic artist, Edward Gordon Craig. These materials were collected by Craig's colleague, Donald Oenslager. Oenslager, an American stage designer and longtime faculty member of the Yale School of Drama, often claimed Craig to be one of the chief influences on his own work. The majority of the correspondence in the collection dates from 1945-1963 and is primarily from Craig to his friend, Ewald Junge, who often helped him to generate an income by arranging for the sale of prints, books, and other items from Craig's personal collection and performing other personal favors. A good deal of the material in this segment of Oenslager's collection of Edward Gordon Craig was obtained by Oenslager through Junge. Another, smaller set of correspondence in the Donald Oenslager Collection of Edward Gordon Craig is between Oenslager and Junge (as well as other collectors and dealers) and relates mainly to the acquisition of the prints included in the collection. Also forming part of this collection are two sets of index card files, which catalog individual items in Oenslager's collection.
As can be seen from these indices, Oenslager's collection of Edward Gordon Craig was quite extensive and some of the materials described in the catalogs may have been dispersed following Oenslager's death in 1975. Few of the prints contained in this collection are accounted for in the indices and most appear to have been acquired by Oenslager in the period just before Craig's death in 1966. Well-represented in the collection are many early "black figure" wood engravings, as well as varying versions of the Hamlet blocks to which Craig returned repeatedly throughout his career. Also included among the prints are illustrations for an edition of Robinson Crusoe, a project that never found a publisher. Some portion of the Craig material collected by Oenslager that is not in the present collection can be found at Yale University's Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. The current location of other Craig material that may be cited in the card indices is unknown.
Donald Mitchell Oenslager (1902-1975), an American stage designer and professor, was born in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania on 7 March 1902. Oenslager began his career in the theater as an actor, working at the Greenwich Village Theatre and the Provincetown Playhouse during the early 1920s. He became interested in theater design after studying in Europe and his first project as a designer was in 1925 for a ballet, Sooner or Later. Oenslager was active as a designer through the 1960s, working on many notable Broadway productions, including Of Mice and Men (1937) and A Majority of One (1959), for which he received a Tony Award. He also served as a faculty member of the Yale School of Drama, teaching design from 1925 until his death in 1975 and publishing many works, including, Scenery Then and Now (1936) and Notes on Scene Painting (1952). Profoundly influenced by the European stage designers, Edward Gordon Craig and Adolphe Appia, Oenslager brought a new emphasis on symbolism over realism to American theater design. Throughout his life, Oenslager built up an extensive collection of materials on both Craig and Appia. Following his death, Oenslager's widow, Mary, gave portions of the Craig material to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Billy Rose Theatre Collection, while other parts of the collection went to Yale University.
Edward Gordon Craig (1872-1966), the object of Oenslager's collecting efforts and study, was an actor, artist, theater designer and director. Craig was the second of two children produced from the liaison between the actress Ellen Terry and the architect Edward William Godwin. Exposed to the theater from an early age, Craig had a promising start as an actor, but turned, almost by chance, to a career as a graphic artist and stage designer. Craig first learned various techniques of printmaking around 1893 and he developed an enthusiasm for wood engraving in particular. By the end of 1899 he had engraved nearly 200 blocks, started his own magazine and published a book. His interest in stage design developed almost in tandem with his work as a graphic artist. His 1900 production of Dido and Aeneas was groundbreaking in its approach to stage design. The limitations of the space (the Hampstead Conservatoire) enabled Craig to depart from the elaborate, realist traditions of Victorian stagecraft.
Craig's innovations in lighting and design were admired by critics and radical artists, but often proved impractical to mount in the conservative climate of the English commercial theater. In 1904, Craig moved to Berlin for greater opportunities and it was in Germany that he met the American dancer, Isadora Duncan. Although their affair was relatively brief in duration, Duncan was to be a major influence on Craig. The two shared a belief in a theater in which all of the arts were united. It was his association with Duncan that earned Craig an invitation from Konstantin Stanislavsky to design an influential production of Hamlet for the Moscow Art Theatre in 1912. Following that success, Craig opened his own School for the Art of the Theatre in Florence. Craig continued to live in Italy following the war, but he began to shift away from practice into theory, focusing more of his attention on his writings and wood engravings. By the late 1920s, Craig had executed what would be his final stage designs. Among his wood engravings, Craig's work on the 1929 edition of Hamlet for the Cranach Press is often viewed as one of his greatest accomplishments. Following the end of World War II, Craig settled in the small town of Vence in the south of France, where he completed an autobiography, Index to the Story of My Days (1957), and was visited frequently by his admirers until the time of his death in 1966.