Miss Julie: Fiery Gloom Onstage

For some writers, persona threatens to overshadow achievement. Such is the case with August Strindberg (1849–1912), best known outside of his native Sweden for his alleged misogyny and tumultuous family life. Married thrice and divorced from all of his wives at a time in Western culture when such marital fluctuation was rare, Strindberg undoubtedly used his own dramatic life as a sourcebook. In 1886 he claimed that a writer’s task was to be a social reporter and documentary analyst, and argued that the one document a person could use as an authority was his own life. To set an example, he began to write, at age thirty-seven, his multivolume autobiographical story The Son of a Servant (1886–1912). Strindberg was, however, first and foremost a creative writer, and even in his autobiography he often favored dramatic and artistic expediency above the literal rendering of his social and psychological background. That is, he could both reveal himself shamelessly in his works and, when it was artistically opportune to do so, disguise his own reality. Writing was no doubt an intense and probably therapeutic way for him to tackle personal conflicts, but it was also a task that demanded an artist’s commitment and a strict daily routine. Therefore he could state in The Son of a Servant: “Much is arranged . . . but I have tried to be honest.”

Strindberg had a fiery temperament that made him write at great speed—a play took him an average of six weeks to finish. Such productivity enabled him to leave behind some seventy volumes of plays, novels, short stories, poetry, essays, scientific speculations, and letters. But for most people, especially outside of Sweden, Strindberg’s writing for the stage takes precedence in his total oeuvre, both in size and literary impact, for he published a number of remarkable plays in every conceivable genre: tragedies, comedies, lyrical dramas, history and pilgrimage works, and his late “chamber plays.” Among these, two major categories of dramatic writing stand out: his naturalistic plays from the 1880s and his dream plays or symbolist dramas from around 1900 and on. Foremost among his naturalistic plays are The Father (1887), Miss Julie (1888), and Creditors (1888). At their conception, Strindberg lived abroad in France, Switzerland, and Germany. Always impressionable to new literary trends and ideas, he had explored the tenets outlined in Émile Zola’s “Le naturalism au théâtre” and in the works of the Goncourt brothers. Their dictum was to depict life through a temperament and to maintain a strict dramatic form resting on the three unities of time, place, and action. In Miss Julie, for instance, Strindberg confines the entire action to the estate kitchen, the conflict takes place in a short time span during Midsummer’s Eve, and the focus is confined to three characters: Julie, the twenty-five-year-old countess; Jean, her father’s valet; and Jean’s fiancée, the robust cook Kristin. Naturalism also decreed that a drama demonstrate a law of nature—in this case it was the survival of the fittest: the proletarian upstart Jean will live on, but Julie, the last member of a degenerate aristocratic family, will succumb.

Strindberg’s famous preface to Miss Julie, one of the milestones in the study of modern drama and stagecraft, was written as an afterthought and at a time when his first marriage was heading toward a separation. His misogyny increased, and this affected his cocky, pseudo-scientific presentation of the characters in the preface, where Julie is described as a “half woman” and Jean as the man of the future. Seen in this light, the play loses its inherent emotional ambiguity and dramatic verve, qualities that have made it one of the most frequently performed Scandinavian dramas in the world. Its impressive stage history reveals that in it Strindberg has captured class and gender conflicts with ramifications far beyond nineteenth-century European society. In South Africa, in the American South, and in Australia, theater directors have intensified the encounter between Julie and her servant by casting Jean as a black man. In Latin America, Julie has been presented as the proud resident of a hacienda, with Jean as her gardener. The strong psychological tension within the play allows for such stage flexibility in terms of the social setting. On the other hand, when attention has been paid to the gender-conservative voice of the preface, Strindberg’s play has tended to take on sexist overtones, as in the case of Alf Sjöberg’s film adaptation. The moment Sjöberg departs from Strindberg’s play text, his screen version becomes slanted in an overstated misogynous direction, for instance by his adding the caricatured portraits of Julie’s “feminist” mother and of her father as a helpless male victim.

As a young man, Strindberg had trained briefly to become an actor. He was encouraged by his teacher at the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm to write plays instead and eventually became the first Swedish writer to be able to live entirely from his pen. Throughout his life, however, he maintained an active interest in the live stage, though limited almost entirely to productions of his own work. In 1888 he founded the Scandinavian Experimental Theatre in Copenhagen. It was patterned on André Antoine’s avant-garde stage in Paris, where Strindberg had hoped to have his naturalistic dramas performed. This was not to happen, however, until 1893. In the meantime, the premiere of Miss Julie was planned for his Copenhagen stage, with his wife, the countess Siri von Essen, playing the title role. But a Danish press campaign lambasted the play, while a Swedish professor of literature publicly deplored a work whose characters spoke a language that “could not be heard anywhere but in dens of drunkenness and vice.” As a result, the Danish police presented a censor’s ban on the Copenhagen production on the eve of its opening, and Strindberg’s Danish theater venture collapsed.

Going hand in hand, Strindberg’s life and writing comprise two distinct, yet partly overlapping, periods, separated by a set of psychic upheavals in the mid-1890s, when he turned to painting and to alchemical experimentation in an attempt to produce gold, the “stone of wisdom.” Usually referred to as the Inferno Crisis, this phase in his life ended with his return to Sweden (from Berlin and Paris) at the end of the century. By then Strindberg had abandoned the atheist viewpoint he had proclaimed during his earlier naturalistic days and had become, under the influence of Swedenborg, Schopenhauer, and East Indian mysticism, a convert to a synchronistic religion, which followed him for the rest of his life. The most important result of this crucial change in Strindberg’s life was a new productive phase in his writing. He now designed a modernist form of stage play that dissolved the earlier naturalistic unities and presented characters involved in a polyphonic conflict of metaphysical, rather than psychological, scope. Foremost among these post-Inferno plays are the trilogy To Damascus (1898–1901) and A Dream Play (1901). In a brief prefatory note to A Dream Play, Strindberg states his ambition to create a drama possessing the spatial and temporal fluidity of our nocturnal psyche. When Sjöberg was to transcribe Miss Julie into a film, he turned deliberately to Strindberg’s A Dream Play, arguing that he had found in this work a more “cinematic” form than the original naturalistic drama could provide.

Strindberg never gave up the idea of starting a theater in his own name. And almost twenty years after his Copenhagen fiasco with Miss Julie, he embarked on a similar venture, this time with the actor and director August Falk, with whom he founded the Strindberg Intimate Theatre in Stockholm, modeled on the German director Max Reinhardt’s concept of the Kammerspielhaus. During his theater’s rather brief duration (1907–10), Strindberg wrote his so-called chamber plays, inspired by the format of chamber music. These plays might be described as dramas for a few voices, held together by a major theme or leitmotif. They include The Ghost Sonata (1907), The Burned House (1908), and The Pelican (1909) and could also be called plays of reminiscence, since they focus on characters looking back on their lives with either bitterness or resignation. The mood harks back to the earlier A Dream Play, which presents the descent and sorrowful earthly journey of Indra’s daughter, offspring of a Hindu god. In Indra’s daughter Strindberg projects an ongoing vision of life as a repetitive nightmare. Structuring his play as an oratorio for many voices rather than as a piece of chamber music, Strindberg dramatizes a series of fleeting encounters between earthly creatures and the woman of divine origin. His expansive tapestry of life presents male and female, young and old, victims and authority figures, and is a sharp departure from the confined world of Miss Julie’s kitchen. But discord and disharmony are the basic chords also in A Dream Play. Misanthropy replaces the sexual warfare and social inequality of Strindberg’s naturalistic drama and becomes a requiem for a deeply flawed existence. While Miss Julie commits suicide, Indra’s daughter departs from life on earth into a burning castle, to return, presumably purified by fire, into an eternal metaphysical realm. This was also how Strindberg envisioned his own end after living a life he had come to view as an agonizing repetition of the same evil dream.

It is not unimportant to note that Strindberg’s dramatized companion in A Dream Play, Indra’s daughter, is a woman. For contrary to our dominant view of him as a woman hater, he himself defined his creative imago as multifarious and universal rather than sexist. In Alone, from 1903, he wrote: “I crawl out of my own skin and speak out of the mouth of children, women, and old men; I am king and beggar, I am a man of high station, a tyrant and the most despised of all, the oppressed hater of tyrants; I possess all opinions and subscribe to all religions; I live in all ages and I myself have ceased to be.”

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