Birgitta Johansson

Emotion and Liberation - Sentimental and Melodramatic Elements in Women's Socio-realistic plays of the Modern Breakthrough

The aim of this project is to reintroduce Swedish drama of the modern breakthrough, by illuminating how elements of a sentimental and melodramatic theatrical tradition are constructed and evaluated in women author's socio-realistic plays about marriage in the 1880's. How does the emphasis on emotion contribute to ideas of liberation? What discourses on gender and modernity do the sentimental and melodramatic features help generate? What role did these elements play in the European circulation of the women's plays? To what extent have they contributed to the eliminating of these plays from literary and theatre histories.? Alfhild Agrell's, Victoria Benedictsson's and Anne Charlotte Leffler's drama recieved attention in Europe during the 1880's and 1890's. Nevertheless, research about their plays is scarce. A sentimental and melodramatic tradition influenced European theatre throughout the 19th century. Hence a mode of interpretation that focuses sentimental and melodramatic features is important in order to show the distinctive dramaturgic and thematic character of these plays, and to illuminate the roles of their authors as cultural intermediaries of ideas. The circulation of women's socio- realistic drama at European theatres, in translations, in newspapers and magazines will be examined.

Birgitta Johansson Göteborg University

In the research project 'Emotion and liberation - sentimental and melodramatic elements in women's socio-realistic plays of the Swedish modern breakthrough' Afhilld Agrell's, Victoria Benedictsson's and Anne Charlotte Leffler's plays of the 1880s are investigated. In undertaking this I maintain that sentimental and melodramatic elements are used to create narrations of women's experience in order to criticise established gender norms. They are deployed in accordance with the gender radical story that the playwrights want to have communicated from the stage but also with consideration to the moral norms at theatres and the expectations of the audiences.

To begin with, prestigious mainstream Swedish theatres were moral and didactic institutions for regulating and preserving traditional gender identities and behaviour. Love, marriage and family were the dominant subjects. These topics were also strenously debated in public in Scandinavia during the 1880s. Hence they are treated as nodal points in the analyses of the gender-criticism of the plays. My use of the term 'experience' draws on a theoretical framework that springs from the phenomenologists Iris Marion Young and Sonia Kruks. Theory by Sarah Ahmed, Adriana Cavarero and Hannah Arendt is used to discuss the concepts of emotion and freedom.

By the 1880s melodramatic and sentimental features had become theatrical conventions, and appeared in most plays that frequented the stages of Stockholm theatres. They were part of a normative way of addressing the audience, and so I regard them as strategies that playwrights had to take into consideration when composing a play. The aesthetics of idealism dictated the moral standards and the prevailing gender ideology at the prestigious mainstream theatres and is regarded as part of the horizon of possibilities and restrictions affecting the work of 19th century playwrights. Gender is considered a structure within the theatrical field that influenced the choices and possibilities of the individual playwright.

Changes of purpose
Compared to the application for funding the aims of the research have slightly changed throughout the project. There is now a greater emphasis on the gender discourse of the plays and on creating a method of analysis that takes the historical theatrical conditions into consideration. Originally, a greater emphasis was placed on the sentimental and melodramatic features for the reception and evaluation of the plays in an international context. The reception analyses are now restricted to the plays and to the reviews on theatrical performances at two Stockholm theatres, in order to foreground the women playwrights' positions and gendered spaces in the theatrical field.

1) The sentimental and melodramatic elements vary in frequency and dramaturgical function in the different plays. They build a dramaturgical position from which the protagonists' emotions and moral conflicts can be dramatized. They contribute to a rhetorical position from which a radical gender discourse can be expressed with ethical credibility. Furthermore, melodramatic motifs are used to represent conflicts between emotional depth, moral truth and authenticity one the one hand and superficiality, pretence, wealth and other social merits on the other. Thus, they help to criticise patriarchal and bourgeois ideals of femininity and masculinity, the bourgeois marriage of convenience and the power structures of heterosexual desire. At the same time they help produce alternatives in a way that is in part compliant with the aesthetics of idealism. Melodramatic elements are furthermore deployed to modify creations of female sexual desire. While mold-breaking interpretations are made possible, the danger in transgressing traditional norms can be emphasized in a reading or a theatrical production that is compliant with the aesthetics of idealism. Thus, melodramatic traits construct a phenomenological mimesis, which helps create the female protagonists' emotions and moral conflicts while delivering them in a way that is ambivalent in relation to the aesthetics of idealism. By voicing women's experience with the help of melodramatic features the three women playwrights contribute to a re-negotiation of the dramaturgical norms of 19th century mainstream theatre.

2) In the plays the influence of economic market structures on identity, love and marriage are highlighted. Women's youthful bodies and virginity are represented as assets on the market of marriage. Freedom constructed on individualism, autonomy and sovereignty is severely criticised. It is represented as part of a destructive system founded on economic market structures and patriarchal hierarchy.

3) Present conditions of deprivation or the prospect of future loss for the protagonists make them show desire to be treated as unique individuals or force them to actually step forward to display their individualism, thus breaking the norm of the subservient woman. The motif of love between mother and child and reminiscences on experiences of childhood are turned into a model for relationships in which the need to be recognised as a unique individual is met. It becomes a topos for the ideal love-relationship, combining physical intimacy and a shared view of each other as unique individuals. The vision of freedom in the plays rests on the desire to be recognised as a unique individual, which can only be actualised in community with others. Most of the plays indicate the sphere of intimacy as the stage on which freedom can be enacted, but a few of them either point to politics in public arenas or to work, in which the individual can convince society of her capability.

New Research Issues
My research in "Emotion and Liberation" has resulted in my participation in two new research projects. The first one is 'Swedish Women Writers on Export in the 19th Century: New theoretical perspectives on methods on literary theory', led by Prof. Yvonne Leffler, University of Gothenburg. Within this project I study the European dissemination and reception of Anne Charlotte Leffler's works. In addition to an empiric study of the British reception of the play 'True Women', the theoretical concept of 'impact' will be evaluated, discussed and developed. The second project is 'Turning points and continuity: The changing roles of performance in Society 1880-1925, led by Prof. Lena Hammergren, Stockholm University. Within this project I will deal with the changing conditions of women playwrights in the Scandinavian theatrical field at the turn of the 1880s into the 1890s. Both projects are financed by The Swedish Research Council (VR) and my work will result in articles in Swedish and English in 2017 and 2018.

International Connections
Research in melodrama is an internationally established interdisciplinary field. 'Emotion and Liberation' also has affinities with research on affects, intimacy and the field of new materialist theory, which are all established international interdisciplinary areas. More specifically, results of my research have been presented and discussed in two international contexts. The first is within the network Women Writers in History. In September 2016 I presented my research at a seminar at the Dimitire Cantomir University in Bucharest. Together with Dr Carmen Beatrice Dutu and Dr Ramona Mihaila I am now planning a conference in 2017 and an anthology on the topic 'Rethinking intimacy - women's reading and writing in European fringe countries". The other international context is IFTR's annual international conferences. I regularly take part in the work group on feminist research and have presented the paper 'Women Playwrights in the Transition and Changes of the Modern Breakthrough' and an article "Women's Experience as Feminist Resistance in Late-19th-century-plays' (not yet published).

Measures Outside the Academic Community
Lecture ""Den omoraliska estetiken - Kvinnor och normbrott i dramatiken och på teatern" at Gothenburg Museum of Art. Jan. 22, 2016
Lecture on Swedish 19th century women playwrights at Unga Folkteaterns scenkonstlaboratorium, The Civic Theatre in Gothenburg, Dec.7, 2015
Lectures in courses at undergraduate level in Theatre Studies and Scandinavian Studies, University of Gothenburg 2011-2014
Lecture "Radical Geniuses and Indignant Women in the Scandinavian Modern Breakthrough" at Plymouth University (Erasmus Exchange) Oct. 25, 2013.
"Barn och Barndom i 1880-talets äktenskapsdramatik" in Arche 2013, 44-45, s. 35-45.
"Känslor och frigörelse; Melodramatiska inslag i Alfhild Agrells, Anne
Charlotte Lefflers och Victoria Benedictssons dramatik" in Dette skrev kvinner, ed. Lene T. Teigen, Vidarforlaget, 2012 s. 67-88

The two main publications
A monograph with the preliminary title "Som en vildfogel i en bur" - identitet, kärlek och frihet i Alfhild Agrells, Victoria Benedictssons och Anne Charlotte Lefflers 1880-talsdramatik, which will be published at Makadam Publishing House in 2017.

"'Som en vildfogel i en bur'. Gestaltningen av kvinnlig erfarenhet i Anne Charlotte Lefflers Elfvan" i LIRjournal 2015:5, s 88-106.

Publication Strategies
The mongraphy will be peer-reviewed and open- access- published. The article 'Women's Experience as Feminist Resistance in Late-19th-Century-Plays' will be developed and prepared for the planned anthology 'Rethinking Intimacy - Women's Reading and Writing in European Fringe Countries'. For publishing we will turn to the 'Women- Writers- in- History' series at Brill-Rodopi Editions, Amsterdam.


Artiklar i vetenskapliga tidskrifter (Peer review)

Johansson Lindh, B, (2015) ”Som en vildfogel i en bur”. Gestaltningen av kvinnlig
erfarenhet i Anne Charlotte Lefflers Elfvan i i LIRjournal 2015:5, s. 88-106.

Johansson, B, (2011) ”Balancing on the Edge of Indecency: Melodramatic Strategies in Alfhild Agrell’s Räddad (Saved) and Anne Charlotte Leffler’s Sanna
Kvinnor (True Women)” i Nordic Theatre Studies vol. 22

Artiklar i övriga tidskrifter

Johansson, B, (2013) ”Barn- och barndom i 1880-talets äktenskapsdramatik” i Arche 2013:
44-45, s. 35-45.


Johansson, B (2014) ”Skådespelerskans konstnärskap och iscensättningen av genusidentiteter
i Victoria Benedictssons Romeos Julia” i Litteratur, liv och lust. Festskrift till Lisbeth Larsson
Makadams förlag, s. 43-54

Johansson, B (2012), ”Känslor och frigörelse; Melodramatiska inslag i Alfhild Agrells, Anne
Charlotte Lefflers och Victoria Benedictssons dramatik” i Dette skrev kvinner, red. Lene T.
Teigen, Vidarforlaget s. 67-88

Johansson, B. (2010) "Melodramatiska inslag och
äktenskapskritik i Alfhild Agrells Räddad" i
Nordisk Drama. Fornyelse og Transgresjoner , red. Maria Sibinska et. al. (Gdansk)


Johansson, B, (2013) Recensionen av Att skapa en framtid – Kulturradikalen Anne Charlotte
Leffler. Red. David Gedin & Claudia Lindén. Rosenlarvs förlag. Årsta 2013, Samlaren vol.
134 s. 342-346

Antagen för publicering

Monografin ”Som en vildfogel i en bur” – identitet, kärlek och frihet i Alfhild Agrells, Victoria Benedictssons och Anne Charlotte Lefflers 1880-talsdramatik, planerad utgivning på Makadam förlag under år 2017.

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