Lynn R. Wilkinson

Torsdag (Thursday), 10:00–10:30, H104 (Hörsalen)

Affiliering (affiliation): University of Texas, Austin, USA


Laughter and Civility? 
Emma Gad and the Modern Breakthrough


My proposed talk focuses on some of the issues raised in my book, Laughter and Civility:  The Theater of Emma Gad (University of Wisconsin Press, 2020), with an emphasis on their implications for a reconsideration of the importance of comedy within the context of the Scandinavian Modern Breakthrough.


Most Danes know Emma Gad (1852-1921) as the author of the classic etiquette book, Takt og Tone, published in 1918, but still in print, and imagine her along the lines suggested by the photograph that features as the frontispiece in many editions of this work:  a heavy-set, dour, killjoy, a Victorian grandmother from hell.  Few know that she also wrote a parody of an etiquette book, Man skal altid (1888), as well as twenty-five plays performed in Copenhagen and elsewhere between 1886 and 1916, most of which were comedies, many resounding theatrical successes.  Gad was also the hostess of a salon that attracted many Danish notables, including the Brandes brothers, and a pioneering journalist.  She imagined comedy as an essential element in social life and politics, both in and outside of the home.  Just as her salon brought together people with conflicting views on political and cultural issues, her plays appealed to divergent audiences, encouraging spectators to laugh at themselves, as well as others.

Like the comedies of George Bernard Shaw, however, Emma Gad’s plays respond to the work of Ibsen, although the works of both writers also point – quite seriously – beyond the individualistic focus of his contemporary plays.   In my book on Gad’s theater, I argue that her plays need to be considered in an international context, in which they take their place alongside the works of Oscar Wilde, as well as Shaw, and appear as predecessors to what the American philosopher Stanley Cavell has called the Hollywood comedy of remarriage, a genre in which couples renegotiate their relationships in response to changing gender roles in the United States between 1930 and 1950.

Resituating Gad’s plays in the context of the Modern Breakthrough, however, entails recognizing the importance of sociability in the intellectual culture of Scandinavia during the decades surrounding 1900 – in contrast to the focus on the individual struggles of writers such as Ibsen and Strindberg, a focus the writers themselves encouraged.  Her best works – plays such as Fælles Sag (1889), I veldædigt Øjemed (1891), Den mystiske Arv (1906), and Ægtestand (1913) – demonstrate that comedy also plays a significant role in the emergence of modern and modernist drama in Scandinavia at this time.  In a present-day context, moreover, Gad’s comedies suggest how the genre can serve to foster civility in politics and society.

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