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The Invisible Stage Hand; or, Henrik Ibsen's Theatre of Capital

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  27 July 2018

Extract

“Theatre is not political action. Political action happens in the streets.” This is how the German director Thomas Ostermeier addressed the audience in a recent conversation with Branden Jacobs-Jenkins at the Brooklyn Academy of Arts. All theatre can do is make us realize the “lies we tell ourselves.” Thomas Ostermeier made a name for himself staging the socially conscious dramas of Sarah Kane and Mark Ravenhill. After becoming the artistic director of Berlin's Schaubühne, Ostermeier turned to Henrik Ibsen because he thought that Ibsen's bourgeois world would appeal to the patrons of the Schaubühne: “Characters in Ibsen constantly worry about money.” Perhaps, this is also the reason behind Ostermeier's desire to bring his production of Ibsen's An Enemy of the People, adapted into English by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, to the patrons of Broadway in the fall of 2018. It's a Trojan Horse. Get the haves into the theatre and make them see their own complicity in perpetuating the injustices of capitalism. Ostermeier's version of An Enemy of the People breaks the fourth wall during the play's town hall meeting and invites the audience to share their thoughts about capitalism and democracy. Ultimately, this audience participation reveals the anxiety that theatre might simply be a distraction.

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Copyright © American Society for Theatre Research 2018 

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References

1. Stevens, Wallace, in “Adagia,” Opus Posthumous (New York: Vintage Books, 1957), 165Google Scholar. Akhtar, Ayad, “The Poetics of Money,” preface to Junk: A Play (New York: Back Bay Books, 2017). xivGoogle Scholar.

2. Thomas Ostermeier, “Iconic Artist Talk,” with Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, 12 October 2017, Brooklyn Academy of Arts, Brooklyn, New York.

3. As of March 2018, the production is indeed scheduled for autumn of 2018. Rachel Shteir, “Ibsen Wrote An Enemy of the People in 1882. Trump Has Made It Popular Again,” New York Times, 9 March 2018, Arts section, www.nytimes.com/2018/03/09/theater/enemy-of-the-people-ibsen.html, accessed 10 April 2018.

4. Ridout, Nicholas, “From the Editor,” Theatre Survey 58.1 (2017): 12Google Scholar, at 1.

5. Ibid., 2.

Ibid

6. For the rhetorical role of theatre and the theatrical actor in Marx's immanent critique of the political economy, see Boyle, Michael Shane, “Performance and Value: The Work of Theatre in Karl Marx's Critique of Political Economy,” Theatre Survey 58.1 (2017): 323CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

7. Butler, Judith, “Performative Agency,” Journal of Cultural Economy 3.2 (2010): 147–61CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 148.

8. Ibid., 149.

Ibid

9. My term for this theatrical tradition is inspired by the title of essay, Jane Moody'sThe Drama of Capital: Risk, Belief, and Liability on the Victorian Stage,” in Victorian Literature and Finance, ed. O'Gorman, Francis (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 91109Google Scholar.

10. Akhtar, Junk. 148.

11. J.C.T., “Q&A: Ayad Akhtar,” The Economist, 3 September 2015, www.economist.com/blogs/prospero/2015/09/american-literature, accessed 25 October 2017.

12. A junk bond is a risky investment, but it has speculative appeal because of a much greater yield than a bond with a better credit rating.

13. For more on how twentieth-century US culture (especially the novel and the horror film) responded to the 2008 crisis, see McClanahan, Annie, Dead Pledges: Debt, Crisis, and Twenty-First Century Culture (Stanford: Stanford University, 2017)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

14. Ayad Akhtar, interview by Ruthie Fierberg, “Greed Is Good Drama,” Playbill, October 2017, 5, Measure for Measure at the Public Theater, New York. (This can be found online as Ruthie Fierberg, “Why You Won't Be Able to Stop Thinking about Ayad Akhtar's New Broadway Play Junk,www.playbill.com/article/why-you-wont-be-able-to-stop-thinking-about-ayad-akhtars-new-broadway-play-junk, posted 2 October 2017, accessed 5 June 2018.)

15. Boyle, 19. He is careful to note, however, that to “ask whether theatrical labor has been subsumed to capital requires examining the social relations that give form to value itself” (ibid., 4).

16. Brecht, Bertolt, “The Modern Theatre Is the Epic Theatre (Notes on the Opera Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny),” Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic, 1957, ed. and trans. Willett, John (New York: Hill & Wang, [1957] 1992), 3342Google Scholar, at 41.

17. Shaw, Bernard, “Preface to Major Barbara, First Aid to Critics,” June 1906, Major Barbara with illustrations from the motion picture as produced by Gabriel Pascal (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1941), 141Google Scholar, at 41. Shunters are workers who move railroad cars around.

18. One possible scenario involves dramatic writers who, disappointed with the institution of theatre, begin writing closet dramas (plays not intended to be performed). See Puchner, Martin, Stage Fright: Modernism, Anti-Theatricality, and Drama (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002), 59116Google Scholar.

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20. Ferguson, Robert, Henrik Ibsen: A New Biography (London: Richard Cohen Books, 1996), 217Google Scholar.

21. For more on the financial background of Ibsen's authorship, see Fulsås, Narve and Rem, Tore, Ibsen, Scandinavia, and the Making of World Drama (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018)Google Scholar.

22. Ferguson, 165.

23. Lisi, Leonardo F., “Aesthetics of Fragmentation in Henrik Ibsen's Peer Gynt,” Marginal Modernity: The Aesthetics of Dependency from Kierkegaard to Joyce (New York: Fordham University Press, 2013), 87116Google Scholar, at 104.

24. Ibid., 105.

Ibid

25. Moretti, Franco, “The Grey Area: Ibsen and the Spirit of Capitalism,” New Left Review 61 (2010): 117–31Google Scholar, at 129; italics his. A version of the article appears as Chapter 5 (“Ibsen and the Spirit of Capitalism”) in Moretti, Franco, The Bourgeois: Between History and Literature (New York: Verso, 2013), 169–88Google Scholar.

26. In Religion and The Rise of Capitalism, R. H. Tawney argues that, by alluding to “the invisible hand,” Smith sees “in economic self-interest the operation of a providential plan.” Tawney, R. H., Religion and the Rise of Capitalism [1926], with a new introduction by Adam B. Seligman (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1998), 192Google Scholar. For similar assessments of “the invisible hand” as originating from Providence, see Denis, Andy, “The Invisible Hand of God in Adam Smith,” Research in the History of Economic Thought and Methodology: A Research Annual 23A (2005): 132Google Scholar; Clark, Charles, Economic Theory and Natural Philosophy: The Search for the Natural Laws of the Economy (Aldershot, Hants, UK: Edward Elgar, 1992), 47–8Google Scholar; Werhane, Patricia, Adam Smith and His Legacy for Modern Capitalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 102Google Scholar; Evensky, Jerry, “Ethics and the Invisible Hand,” Journal of Economic Perspectives 7.2 (1993): 197205CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

27. Nietzsche, Friedrich, The Birth of Tragedy: Out of the Spirit of Music [1872], new ed., ed. Tanner, Michael, trans. Whiteside, Shaun (New York: Penguin Press, 2003)Google Scholar, 92, 85.

28. Ibid., 85.

Ibid

29. Sofer, Andrew, Dark Matter: Invisibility in Drama, Theater, and Performance (Ann Harbor: University of Michigan Press, 2013)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 4, italics his.

30. Harvey appeared in Isaac Julien's KAPITAL (2103), part of a film installation at SFMOMA Artist Gallery, Venice Biennale, Venice, Italy, 2015; described (with the quotation) at https://fortmason.org/event/playtime/, accessed 12 May 2018.

31. Harvey, David, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 161Google Scholar.

32. Vercelli, Alessandro, “Financialization in a Long-Run Perspective: An Evolutionary Approach,” International Journal of Political Economy 42.4 (2013): 1946CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 19; and Graeber, David, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (Brooklyn: Melville House, 2011), 38Google Scholar, italics his.

33. Sejersted, Francis, The Age of Social Democracy: Norway and Sweden in the Twentieth Century, trans. Daly, Richard “with editing by” Adams, Madeleine B. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011), 22–3Google Scholar, quote at 23.

34. Moretti, “Grey Area,” 124.

35. Ibid., 118.

Ibid

36. Ibid., 131.

Ibid

37. Bjørnson, Bjørnstjerne, En fallit, 2d ed. (København: Gyldendalske Boghandels Forlag [F. Hegel & Søn], 1878)Google Scholar. Subsequent citations are given parenthetically in the text. Translations from Norwegian, for this and other works herein, are my own unless otherwise noted.

38. Brooks, Peter, The Melodramatic Imagination: Balzac, Henry James, Melodrama, and the Mode of Excess (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976), 20Google Scholar.

39. On Victorian financial melodramas, see Guest, Kristen, “The Subject of Money: Late-Victorian Melodrama's Crisis of Masculinity,” Victorian Studies 49.4 (Summer 2007): 635–57CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Moody, Jane, “The Drama of Capital: Risk, Belief, and Liability on the Victorian Stage,” Victorian Literature and Finance, ed. O'Gorman, Francis (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 91109CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

40. Ibsen, Henrik, Ibsen: Letters and Speeches, ed. Sprinchorn, Evert (Clinton, MA: Colonial Press, 1964)Google Scholar, 170.

41. Ibsen, Henrik, Samfundets støtter (København: Gyldendalske Boghandels Forlag [F. Hegel & Søn], 1877)Google Scholar. Subsequent citations are given parenthetically in the text.

42. Robert F. Sharp translates Bernick's phrase as “the hand of Providence,” thus echoing Vigeland's, two lines earlier: “There is no denying that it looks as though Providence had just planned the configuration of the country to suit a branch line” (144). Henrik Ibsen, The Pillars of Society (1877), in The Pretenders; Pillars of Society; Rosmersholm, trans. R[obert]. Farquharson Sharp (London: J. M. Dent, 1913). Text online at University of Adelaide Library, https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/i/ibsen/henrik/pillars/, act I, accessed 20 August 2017.

William Archer translates the phrase as “a special guidance” (23). Ibsen, Henrik, The Pillars of Society (1877), trans. Archer, William (Boston: Walter H. Baker, 1890)Google Scholar; https://archive.org/stream/pillarsofsociety00ibse#page/23/mode/1up/search/guidance, accessed 20 August 2017.

43. Styrelse can acquire a religious connotation in certain expressions when coupled with specific modifiers. Otherwise, it is more generic than forsynet, which has a strong religious significance. I thank Leonardo Lisi for helping me with the connotations of these Norwegian terms.

44. Roach, Joseph, “Gossip Girls: Lady Teazle, Nora Helmer, and Invisible-Hand Drama,” Modern Drama 53.3 (Fall 2010): 297310CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 297.

45. Norsk Jernbanemuseum [Norwegian Railway Museum], “Norwegian Railway History,” http://jernbanemuseet.no/norsk-jernbanehistorie/, accessed 20 August 2017. Bradshaw's Shareholder's Guide, Railway Manual and Directory, for 1857: A Hand-Book for Companies & Shareholders (London, W.J. Adams, 1857)Google Scholar, 322. Text online athttps://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=wu.89097040810;view=1up;seq=13, accessed 20 August 2017.

46. It appears once in Smith's posthumously published essay “History of Astronomy” (in Essays on Philosophical Subjects [Dublin, 1795]) as a reference to pagan superstitions about phenomena that have a scientific explanation (“The invisible hand of Jupiter,” 34); once in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), ed. Haakonsen, Knud (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002)Google Scholar, where Smith argues that feudal lords “are led by an invisible hand” to divide with the poor “the produce of all their improvements” (215); and once in An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (London: Strahan & Cadell, 1776), where Smith alludes to the caution and the risks that induce some merchants to prefer domestic trade over foreign, thereby unintentionally benefiting their native country's economy (2: 572). There is much debate among historians of economics what Smith might have meant by his reference to an invisible hand. For an excellent survey of the myth of “the invisible hand” in economic theory as well as the current debate about what Adam Smith might have meant, see the exchanges between Gavin Kennedy and Daniel Klein: Kennedy, Gavin, “Adam Smith and the Invisible Hand: From Metaphor to Myth,” Econ Journal Watch 6.2 (2009): 239–63Google Scholar; Klein, Daniel, “Adam Smith's Invisible Hands: Comment on Gavin Kennedy,” Econ Journal Watch 6.2 (2009): 264–79Google Scholar; Kennedy, Gavin, “A Reply to Daniel Klein on Adam Smith and the Invisible Hand,” Econ Journal Watch 6.3 (2009): 374–88Google Scholar.

47. Kennedy, “Adam Smith and the Invisible Hand,” 242. For a discussion of “Thy Bloody and Invisible Hand” and its pertinence to Smith's “invisible hand,” see Harries, Martin, Scare Quotes from Shakespeare: Marx, Keynes, and the Language of Reenchantment (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000), 1418Google Scholar; and Halpern, Richard, Eclipse of Action: Tragedy and Political Economy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017), 2974CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

48. Kennedy, “Adam Smith and the Invisible Hand,” 254.

49. Tawney, 192. See also note 26.

50. Harrison, Peter, “Adam Smith and the History of the Invisible Hand,” Journal of the History of Ideas 72.1 (2011): 2949Google Scholar, at 30–1.

51. Schmitt, Carl, Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, trans. (from Ger., 1922) Schwab, George (1985; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 36CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

52. Blumenberg, Hans, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, trans. (from Ger., 1966) Wallace, Robert M. (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1983)Google Scholar. For more on the debate between Schmitt and Blumenberg, see Ifergan, Pini, “Cutting to the Chase: Carl Schmitt and Hans Blumenberg on Political Theology and Secularization,” New German Critique 37.3 (2010): 149–71CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

53. Harries, 15, 1. My own thinking about Ibsen's drama is indebted to Harries's analysis of Adam Smith's “invisible hand” as a kind of scare quote:

Adam Smith's “invisible hand” has at once become a powerful scare quote in its own right, and has a possible origin in Macbeth. Smith's suggestive figure conjures a supernatural index at the heart of a rationalized economy, pointing the way to, controlling, or grasping the wealth of nations. That the phrase so often appears outside its context is also germane to this study; as slogan, the scare tactic inherent in “the invisible hand” goes unexamined. The success of the phrase relies on its not being subject to examination; it is not part of a syllogism, but an article of economic faith. Indeed, the phrase discourages examination. It demarcates an area where investigation must necessarily encounter a dead end: the hand promises the faithful that the series of effects called the economy has an organizing force at its core, but at the same time warns that this force will never be seen. In the work of editorialists and speech writers, the “invisible hand” is then the perfect quotation of the kind Debord has in mind. The phrase alludes to an authoritative concept, but the phrase figures the concept in such a way that challenging it is impossible. If one illuminates the hand, it is no longer “invisible,” no longer the object one hoped to investigate. The phantom heart of the economy is unrepresentable. (14–15)

54. According to Bernard Dukore, “Ibsen spells out the deficiencies of both his protagonist and his protagonist's society; he has this protagonist see the light, confess his guilt publicly, and take what remedial steps he is capable of taking; and the playwright provides a pithy moral to the tale, that the spirits of truth and freedom should become the real pillars of society.” Dukore, Bernard, Money and Politics in Ibsen, Shaw, and Brecht (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1980), 165Google Scholar. Toril Moi also takes Bernick's conversion at the end at face value, arguing that, in the final scene, Bernick says “farewell to the theatricality produced by the unlivable ideals of idealism.” Moi, Toril, Henrik Ibsen and the Birth of Modernism: Art, Theater, Philosophy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 221Google Scholar. By contrast, in his biography of Ibsen, Robert Ferguson reads Bernick's public confession as a cynical “object lesson in opportunism and finely judged business acumen” (219). Ferguson describes Bernick in the following manner: “A hundred years on he would be a television evangelist and make himself a great deal more money out of religion than ever he made out of shipping” (220). This interpretation flattens Bernick's character to a mere villain—precisely the kind of melodramatic type that Ibsen's drama resists.

55. Henrik Ibsen, John Gabriel Borkman (København: Gyldendalske Boghandels Forlag [F. Hegel & Søn], 1896). Subsequent citations are given parenthetically in the text.

56. For more on Plato's influence on the major European dramatists of the twentieth century, see Puchner, Martin, Drama of Ideas: Platonic Provocations in Theatre and Philosophy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

57. “For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, for ever and ever.” Matthew 6:13 (KJV).

58. Shell, Marc, The Economy of Literature (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978), 11Google Scholar.

59. Ibid., 8–10.

Ibid

60. Brand (1865) and Peer Gynt (1867) were originally written as closet dramas.

61. Martin, Felix, Money: The Unauthorized Autobiography—From Coinage to Cryptocurrencies (New York: Alfred Knopf, 2014)Google Scholar, 12, 14. Martin brings up the example of the economy of Yap, which relied on fei—“‘large, solid, thick stone wheels ranging in diameter from a foot to twelve feet’” (13). Martin is not the first to posit the credit theory of money. For example, he cites Henry Dunning Macleod's The Principles of Political Economy (1882): “We may therefore lay down our fundamental Conception that Currency and Transferable Debt are convertible terms; whatever represents transferable debt of any sort is Currency; and whatever material the Currency may consist of, it represents Transferable Debt, and nothing else” (28, quoting Macleod, 188). For the meaning of money in Ibsen's Peer Gynt see Lisi: “What money points to is not the shapes that it assumes in the world but the work that constitutes the precondition for such signification to occur” (104).

62. Meyer, Michael, Ibsen: A Biography (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1971), 286Google Scholar, 410.

63. Nisbet, Robert A., Social Change and History: Aspects of the Western Theory of Development (New York: Oxford University Press, 1969), 4Google Scholar.

64. Turner, Victor, Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University, 1974), 25Google Scholar.

65. Tawney, 13.

66. Ibid.

Ibid

67. Ibid., 13, 61, 65, 137.

Ibid

68. See Steiner, George, The Death of Tragedy (1961; New York: Knopf, 1980)Google Scholar.

69. Halpern, 33.

70. Ibid., 31.

Ibid

71. “The original essence of tragedy consists then in the fact that within such a conflict each of the opposed sides, if taken by itself, has justification; while each can establish the true and positive content of its own aim and character only by denying and infringing the equally justified power of the other.” G[eorg]. W[ilhelm]. F[riedrich]. Hegel, Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art, vol. 2, trans. Knox, T. M. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975), 1196Google Scholar.

72. Halpern, 37.

73. The fuller title of Defoe's article is telling: “The Anatomy of Exchange-Alley; or, A System of Stock-Jobbing. Proving that Scandalous Trade, as it is now carry'd on, to be Knavish in its Private Practice, and Treason in its Publick: … By a Jobber.” Quoted in Urs Stäheli, Spectacular Speculation: Thrills, the Economy, and Popular Discourse, trans. Savoth, Eric (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013), 31Google Scholar.

74. Ibsen, Henrik, En folkefiende (København: Gyldendalske Boghandels Forlag [F. Hegel & Søn], 1882)Google Scholar.

75. Agamben, Giorgio, The Kingdom and the Glory: For a Theological Genealogy of Economy and Government (Homo Sacer II, 2; 2007), trans. Chiesa, Lorenzo with Mandarini, Matteo (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011), xiiGoogle Scholar.

76. My discussion of Thomas Ostermeier's production is based on its 2013 performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, as part of the Next Wave Festival.

77. For more on Ibsen's challenge to idealism, see Moi, esp. 9 and 91–6.

78. Marx, Karl, The Grundrisse, in The Marx-Engels Reader, 2d ed., trans. Tucker, Robert C. (New York: W. W. Norton, 1978), 221–93Google Scholar, at 283.

79. Quoted in Carlson, Marvin, Theatre Is More Beautiful than War: German Stage Directing in the Late Twentieth Century (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2009), 166CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

80. Socialist realism became the official aesthetic doctrine of the Soviet Union at the First Congress of Soviet Writers in 1934. It was defined by Zhdanov, Andrei as “the representation of reality in its revolutionary development.” Quoted in Abram Tertz, The Trial Begins and On Socialist Realism, trans. Hayward, Max and Dennis, George, intro. Czeslaw Milosz (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1960), 148Google Scholar.

81. Fisher, Mark, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (Winchester, UK: Zero Books, 2009)Google Scholar, 16, 2, italics his.

82. Ibid., 21.

Ibid

83. Ferguson, 266. Hegel “assured him that the outrage most certainly had harmed sales of the book, detailing the extent of the damage done with implacable severity” (ibid.).

84. Shaw, 18. See also Granville-Barker, Harley, The Voysey Inheritance, adapted by David Mamet (New York: Vintage, 2005)Google Scholar.

85. Blumenberg, 224.

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