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  • Laughter and Civility: the Theater of Emma Gad by Lynn R. Wilkinson
  • Ulla Kallenbach (bio)
Lynn R. Wilkinson. Laughter and Civility: the Theater of Emma Gad. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2020. Pp. 328 + 8 b/w illus. $79.95 cloth.

This book is unusual in that it concerns a Danish female playwright, Emma Gad (1852-1921). The name Emma Gad is well known in Denmark—probably one of the most known historical female figures—but her career and significance as a playwright is, to the general public, utterly unknown. Rather, Emma Gad's claim to fame is the book Takt og tone: Om Omgang med Mennesker (Tact and tone: How we act in society, 1918), which to this day remains the quintessential Danish book on good manners, and which unfortunately has given her a legacy as a somewhat prudish and uptight woman. This is unfortunate since she evidently was not. Besides her career as a playwright and author of etiquette books, she was also the first female journalist on a permanent contract in the Danish press, and she co-founded (and later headed) the Association of Danish playwrights.

Unearthing Gad's contribution to the modern breakthrough in drama and presenting her as "the most successful woman playwright in Scandinavia between 1886 and 1916" (5) is thus an important scholarly contribution to the history of Scandinavian drama and more broadly of its female playwrights, sparsely explored in Scandinavian language books such as Margareta Wirmark's Noras Systrar: Nordisk Dramatik Och Teater 1879-99 (Noras Sisters, Nordic Drama and Theatre, 2000) or Birgitta Johansson Lindh's Som en vildfågel i en bur: Identitet, kärlek, frihet och melodramatiska inslag i Alfhild Agrells, Anne Charlotte Lefflers och Victoria Benedictssons 1880-talsdramatik (Like a Wild Bird in a Cage: Identity, Love, Freedom and Melodramatic Elements in Alfhild Agrell's, Anne Charlotte Leffler's and Victoria Benedictsson's 1880s Drama, 2019). Gad is nowhere to be found in Frederick J. and Lise-Lone Marker's A History of Scandinavian Theatre (1996), and she hardly figures in Danish language theatre histories such as Kvam, Risum & Wiingaard's Dansk teaterhistorie (Danish Theatre History, 1992). In Danish literary histories and biographies, her work as a playwright has been largely overlooked, and, according to Wilkinson, disregarded (9).

Wilkinson's point of departure is that Gad's modernist vein—which she sees as pointing forward to the works of Freud, Brecht, and Strindberg's chamber plays—was and remains unrecognized. The theories of Mikhail Bakhtin serve as a framework for understanding Gad's plays (22-23) in her interest in hierarchical structures, the body, with Wilkinson asking "to what extent do Gad's plays exhibit what Bakhtin has called heteroglossia, or a multitude of voices?" (23).

Framed by an introduction and conclusion, the book progresses chronologically, decade by decade, through Gad's career as from the 1880s to the 1910s. Chapter 1, "Etiquette High and Low: The Faces of Emma Gad" presents Gad's authorship of etiquette books which frames her career as a playwright, [End Page 544] while chapters 2-6 offer in-depth analyses of Gad's oeuvre as a playwright. The book also includes a full translation of Gad's third play Genklang, which was never published—perhaps due to negative reviews (including one by friend Edvard Brandes).

Gad's career as a playwright impressively spans thirty years, from 1886-1916. Her oeuvre consists of short and full-length plays, mainly comedies, but also comprise more serious drama, farce, a scenario for a ballet, and a musical drama. Her early plays take their point of departure in the so-called Sædelighedsfejde (morality debate) of 1883-1887; a fierce public discussion across the Nordic countries about gender and hypocritical sexual morals for men and women, spurred by Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson's (1832-1910) 1883 publication of the play En Hanske (A Gauntlet). Responding to Georg Brandes' call in his in the opening lecture in his famous series Main Currents in the Literature of the 19th Century (Hovedstrømninger i det 19de Aarhundredes Litteratur, 1871, published 1872) for writers to put problems under debate (63f.), Gad's plays explore themes such as unhappiness...


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