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Drama Courses > Modern Drama: Ibsen to Jean Genet > August Strindberg MISS JULIE
August Strindberg MISS JULIE
Published by Brian on 2008/8/3 (8225 reads)


THE FATHER and MISS JULIE are often anthologized as 'Naturalist' plays and Strindberg wrote a famous Preface to MISS JULIE that is considered a major Naturalist document. Strindberg himself claimed that his method was naturalist. Yet both THE FATHER and MISS JULIE are so perversely selective, so unlike our experienced reality, that they hardly are realist, let alone naturalist,plays. That is, they share with the rest of Strindberg's plays a uniquely obsessional, distorting and strongly subjective vision which, in fact, is closer to Expressionism than it is to any other method. Perhaps the term for plays like THE FATHER, MISS JULIE and THE DANCE OF DEATH is paranoid naturalism But there is no doubt that MISS JULIE is one of Strindberg’s strongest works.

Unlike Ibsen, Strindberg's outlook was conservative. He felt the old order of things to be threatened by the very forces we have been studying (in the Ibsen Course (on from Schiller’s DON CARLOS onward. In the division between Edmund Burke and Tom Paine (cf. 'Revolution and the Romantic Theater) he would have been on the side of Burke. His plays defend the values of a patriarchal, aristocratic, rational order of society against the forces he sees threatening it. He detested A DOLL HOUSE, for example, but admired GHOSTS - perhaps because it exonerated the military Capt. Alving. After early in life being greatly impressed by Ibsen’s BRAND, Strindberg, for the rest of his career professed to detest Ibsen whom he saw as his chief enemy. Ibsen, however, felt a sardonic admiration for Strindberg and kept a portrait of him over his desk, confessing he could not write without “that madman’s” eyes staring down at him.

MISS JULIE is a clear example of Strindberg’s vision of the world. The old aristocratic order represented by Julie and above all by her father, is threatened by new, decadent, subversive forces in society. Socialism, Ibsenism and above all Feminism were the great threats to social order. Yet this is a simplification. Strindberg was a subtle thinker and also understood and sometimes sympathized with expressions of revolt against such order. He was an example of the first-rate thinker who could hold two contradictory viewpoints. This makes for an ambiguity of allegiance and of focus in his plays where it is difficult to see exactly where his sympathies lie.

In the Preface to MISS JULIE (1888) he sets out a naturalistic (i.e. scientific) justification for his presentation of unpalatable facts. He claims to have allowed himself to be led to the theme without outside partisan politics, since the problem of social climbing or falling, of higher or lower, better or worse, man or woman, "has been and will be of lasting interest." Yet 'climbing/falling, higher/lower/, better/worse, are loaded metaphors not scientifically neutral terms and Strindberg is the last man to be scientifically impartial about them. The Preface in fact is not a scientific presentation but a willfully distorted and obsessive exercise in personal prejudice masquerading as scientific toughness. MISS JULIE, however, is also a fine play.

The thesis of the Preface is that Julie comes from degenerate stock. Like her mother, she is a feminist, therefore only half a woman, half a man who cannot produce progeny. She is a symptom of what is decadent in modern society and will be wiped out because her kind is not good for the survival of the species. The Preface, full of such half-baked ideas, is very tough about this. Yet the play itself shows a great deal of sympathy for Julie: she is aristocratic, cultured, intelligent and pitiable in her 'fall'. She is also heroic in her suicide, living up to the standards of her 'class' The play is full of a high-low, filth-purity, female-male, upper class-lower class, dichotomy: [even Julie's thoroughbred bitch has been consorting with the lodge-keeper's mongrel - a canine subplot like the Gloucester subplot in King Lear !] And this leads us to some of Strindberg's perennial themes:

Connected in his imagination with Order, is aristocracy, the masculine principle; it includes purity, the spirit , cleanliness, (the High). Its opposite includes. rebellion; the servant class; the feminine, filth, the flesh, (the Low) These antitheses or antinomies are often locked in battle to the death. Like Nietzsche, Strindberg frequently sees the female principle as weaker and therefore more unscrupulous, more cunning and, therefore, often victorious (as in THE FATHER). Clytemnestra is a recurring archetype in Strndberg’s plays. The weaker female’s victory is, however hollow : the male principle of Order had held together a world of values that the action of revolt cannot replace. Bernard Shaw wrote that Strindberg was the most Shakespearean of modern dramatists and this theme of an unscrupulous but self-destructive force bringing devastation upon the Order that sustains human values is a major theme of Shakespeare – and of most conservative thinkers. Strindberg has no confidence in the positive rebellions of many of Ibsen's characters: he sees only a struggle that tragically debilitates both sides. Strindberg's on stage battles are notable both for their ferocity and their ultimate futility –the conflicts never evolve to dialectic.

The Preface parades its prejudices as objective observation, where Strindberg's obsessions are given a full airing. We meet, here, the natural superiority of the male, the particular inferiority of “man-hating” females, “half-women” who are destined to marry degenerate males and produce an offspring of "indeterminate sex for whom life is a torture" and who will go under because “they are out of harmony with reality." This is the pseudo-science of right-wing writers for popular magazines and best sellers about Mars and Venus. Such ‘scientific’ terminology is no more objective than medieval opinions on witchcraft: it is the latest verbal dress for one's prejudices.

Miss Julie, Strindberg tells us, is a degenerate last spasm of a noble, Aryan stock for whom suicide is the only possible solution. Jean is the new, base class, climbing upward and endangering the noble, established order: like Tennessee Williams’ Stanley Kowalski or the basely aspiring lower orders in Shakespeare. But, conversely, he is also “the new nobility of nerve and intellect” that will sweep away the decadent older aristocracy. Tragedy emerges from the unequal struggle of aberrant individuals like Julie against Nature that has its own tough purposes and will ensure the survival of the fittest.

Strindberg is forced to admire Julie for her aristocratic sense of honor, that Jean does not possess. Jean will survive because he has the “slave’s advantage” of being able to live without honor. He is a “race-founder” coming at the beginning, whereas Julie is the last inheritor of an old race. This makes Jean superior to Julie. And Strindberg does not stop there:

“Apart from the fact that Jean is rising in the world, he is superior to Miss Julie because he is a man. Sexually, he is an aristocrat because of his masculine strength, his more keenly developed senses, and his capacity for taking the initiative.”

Strindberg claims he is giving the objective, scientific truth of the matter but this is Strindberg's familiar stock of obsessions, including misogyny, masquerading in Darwinian costume. In fact, the play is fascinating and satisfying because it is organized not as a naturalist succession of events, a scientific demonstration, but as a confusedly creative polemic and poem, a visual and verbal poem swinging between polarizing metaphors.

The imagery of the play is founded on antitheses that Strindberg cannot dialectically synthesize and which were to torment him all his life. Almost all his dramas display the same binary structure:
an opposition of two lists of contrasting qualities that can be designated as HIGH and LOW.

Count's Study_____________________Kitchen
Count (Father)____________________Mother
Jean ____________________________Kristine
Julie____________________________ Kristine
Purity___________________________ Filth
Soul____________________________ Body
(Julie's purebred bitch)_____(Lodgekeeper's mutt)

The two sides of this structure are made up of the dualisms within Christianity between flesh and spirit and within paganism between aristocratic order, integrity and the underclass (slaves, women, workers) who would try to overthrow the old order. Strindberg, the conservative, sees no way of escaping this conflict, though he takes the side of the threatened Order.

The play swings continuously between these polarities never able to get beyond them. Instead, the play explores the tragic gulf between irreconcilables. This is to be the Strindbergian predicament for the rest of his plays.

In Shakespeare, an ultimately divine and natural order restores the convulsed kingdom after its grievous divisions. Strindberg's world-view, to the end, found it difficult, if not impossible, to locate such a restorative force in the cosmos. (Buddhist passivity was one attempt) He does not believe, with Ibsen, that the death of the present condition is the healthy condition for new life. In THE DANCE OF DEATH, A DREAM PLAY and THE GHOST SONATA, flowers grow out of the filth: the younger generation of Edgar and Kurt establishes love from the conflict of the elders and, in A DREAM PLAY the castle rooted in manure sprouts a chrysanthemum, but these are not convincing solutions. Flowers may grow above filth but they must return there, in a perpetual cycle of torment and the younger generation cannot escape its lethal heritage. In his last plays Strindberg advocates understanding and compassion over the unhappy and unalterable human condition.

The theme of High and Low is clearly represented by the play’s setting. It is the realm of the Low, the kitchen, where Kristin is frying food for Jean, then for Julie’s dog. The kitchen is connected to the ‘High’ realm of the Count by a speaking tube which would normally carry his godlike instructions from above to the servants below. The Count does not physically enter the kitchen nor descend physically to the servants but remains above. Julie, however, intrudes from above into this lower realm and this at once puts her at a tactical disadvantage. This is a good example of the relation of scene to character in drama: Jean and Kristin are at home in the kitchen and can act naturally and confidently there. Julie is as out of place as Blanche du Bois in Stanley Kowalski’s apartment. This is evident in her uncertainty as to whether to assert her rank or to place herself on the same level as Jean and Kristin. Strindberg’s decision to set the action in the servant’s setting and to see the action from their point of view was as bold as Beaumarchais’ setting much of The Marriage of Figaro in the servant’s quarters and from their point of view.

The Aristocratic Garden and Cupid
The stage directions tell us an elegant garden with a fountain and a statue of CUPID and lilac bushes can be seen through the large glass doors to the right. This garden and fountain setting is a place of aristocratic relaxation. The Cupid is a symbol of refined love and courtship that will be parodied by the action of the play. Julie holds a sprig of lilac when JEAN tells her the story of his descent through the outhouse toilet.

The kitchen (work) versus the garden (relaxation), set up visually a major opposition in the play.

When Jean and Julie confide their dreams, the High- Low division persists: Jean has a dream of looking upward from beneath a tree: Julie of looking downward from a tall pillar. In the social scene of the world outside the kitchen the same division exists. Julie’s mother was a commoner married to the aristocratic count. Jean wishes to set himself up in a hotel on Lake Como with Julie at the reception desk helping him fiddle the bills. The guests will be unmarried lovers who pay for six months but leave after three weeks: a sordid business transaction degrading for the aristocratic Julie.

Even the rank of aristocrat can be bought, in Romania, so that Jean, the peasant and servant, could become a count and return to Sweden to join high society. Jean is neither a revolutionary nor a pioneer, but, like Strindberg himself, a conservative. He does not want to change society as the more rebellious of his contemporaries sought to do: nor does he seem to envisage emigrating to the Americas where the old class structure does not exist: He wants instead to be part of the old system, to get into it as an aristocrat and bring up his children within this structure. At the same time he is too intelligent to be fooled into thinking it is not compromised and corrupt. He tells Julie one of the Count’s ancestors got his title by letting his wife sleep with the King: something true of earlier British aristocrats whose wives and daughters - and occasionally sons - caught the eye of a monarch who then raised their families to the 'ranks'.

The class division extends to the outhouse: Julie’s family had a pretty and elegant outhouse shaped like a Turkish pavilion. Jean, as a peasant boy not knowing what it was, thought it a most beautiful structure, entered and had to escape through the lavatory vent, soiling himself and afterwards looking up at Julie dressed in white - at least this is the story he tells Julie while she is holding a lilac sprig. Whether or not the truth, the story is a striking example of the filth-purity obsession of Strindberg all through his plays. “To think that flowers can grow from filth” says Alice in THE DANCE OF DEATH. Beyond the household the world (Europe) is one of class divisions. And Strindberg believes these should be kept up.

Characters in MISS JULIE are divided between genders, classes and ideology. Kristin is the stern, unforgiving Christian who believes she is one of the saved and that all her sins will be forgiven. The opposite pagan attitude is to take sole responsibility for one’s situation (there’s not such thing as sin and forgiveness) and to perform what Julie, like Hedda Gabler does: a ‘noble’ suicide. The play takes place on a night that is both pagan and Christian: St. John’s Eve (Sancthansaften) and also Midsummer Night - the pagan feast. The Count’s aristocratic background, like the General’s in HEDDA GABLER , gives him a ‘pagan’ identity that Julie inherits; but the ordinary folk, too, have pagan substrata beneath their Christian identities.

In Europe, unlike the United States, pagan traditions were never wiped out. This was especially true of Scandinavia which was one of the last places in Europe to become Christian. (Odin and the other gods were worshiped in Sweden up to the 14th. century). Christian churches were built on pagan temple sites and the Christian feasts of Christmas, Easter, Midsummer and Halloween were pagan festivals that the Church could not stamp out and so converted to Christian feasts.

The major divisions in the play are class and gender. In class terms, Julie, the aristocrat, is Jean’s superior and therefore stronger than him . She is able to give him orders, to feel conscious of ‘lowering’ herself by being familiar with him. She carries the strength of the whole aristocratic tradition as the ruling class shaping the lives of the people beneath them. But as a woman in Strindberg’s view, she is inferior to Jean’s natural superiority. When she sets aside class difference and sleeps with Jean she sets aside her one strength and by doing so becomes Jean’s subordinate, finally taking orders from him.

Julie’s mother had brought her up as a boy and made the men on the estate do the women’s work, the women do the men’s, destroying the economy. She had burned down the house on the day the insurance expired and arranged for her lover to lend her husband the money needed to repair the place. (Here the play is in danger of becoming a sex melodrama or even farce instead of Greek tragedy). The mother is modeled on Clytemnestra, but she is a peculiarly eccentric version . Strindberg’s hatred for feminism is now getting out of hand. Finally, however, the Count re-asserted himself and took revenge on his wife. We are not told what that revenge was: just that the male regained the upper hand and set things right. Julie’s aberrant personality comes from this bizarre history.

The time of the action, St. John’s Night/Midsummer Night, is a clash of pagan and Christian. Though not a saint, ‘Jean’ is ‘John’ and the Church sermon, Kristin tells him, will be St. John’s beheading. But the pagan celebration of Midsummer Eve is in conflict with the Christian celebration. Julie, drinking and dancing with the peasant folk and lovemaking with Jean celebrates the pagan festival. Kristin reminds Jean that they must go to Church to hear a sermon on the beheading of John the Baptist but it is Julie, not Jean who will be ‘beheaded’ (cutting her throat).

Unlike the slow build-up to Hedda Gabler’s suicide, the action of MISS JULIE is swift and stark. Julie enters the servant’s quarter (the Kitchen), while her ‘monthly indisposition’ is acting upon her; she dances, drinks, goes to bed with Jean, quarrels with him, hears her father return and then exits to cut her throat with Jean’s razor. That ‘cut-throat razor’ is an effective stage prop: Jean, whose sexual attraction strongly affects Julie, shaved with the razor in front of both Julie and his mistress, Kristin - the shaving being a masculine differentiation from the women. Julie kills herself with this symbol of Jeans’s sexual attraction. In the Strindberg scheme of things this is her acceptance of his natural superiority.

The play is considered a major work of Naturalist drama and Julie’s physical condition (like that of her dog) is an example of an new emphasis on physical realities. Other naturalist actions are the beheading of the canary; the extended scene where Kristin mimes clearing up the table, the frying of the food: all ‘lower level’ details and activity. Even the ‘ballet’ is meant to be a naturalistic rendition of peasant merrymaking. In the canine subplot Julie’s thoroughbred bitch, consorting with the gatekeeper’s mutt, is in the same condition as Julie in the kitchen: the pet dog is in oestrus and Kristin tells Jean Julie’s 'time of the month' is making her behave strangely, consorting with the human mongrels.

The language of the play is direct and brutal and establishes a hierarchy descending from the disembodied Count’s voice in the speaking tube; to the disordered but aristocratic talk of Julie; through the semi-educated and semi-refined Jean, who surprises Julie by speaking fluent French; and down to Kristin who has a totally peasant vocabulary.

Julie’s speech starts out with impudent confidence and condescension towards Jean and Kristin. Jean warns her she is playing with fire but she continues to flirt with and tease him. (Cf. Blanche du Bois with Stanley Kowalski). But she loses her advantage when she makes love to Jean, and her confident language disintegrates when faced with the reality of her new situation.

Jean’s language combines careful class deference towards his superior with at the same time a tone of almost arrogant confidence as a man speaking to a woman. He repeatedly warns her, and when she finally and fatally descends to his level he becomes the superior giving orders. He has the most complex psychology in the play: born into ignorance and poverty, he has educated himself, been abroad, seen society and cynically sized it up; he despises his own background, yet is indignant when Julie makes fun of the sleeping Kristin, insisting that Julie respect the sleep of a woman who has been working all day.

The strongest character in the play is also the least interesting: the stolid, unimaginative Kristin with her comfortably intolerant faith that she is one of the few destined for a heaven that forgives her grocery thefts. Unlike Jean she is content with her place in the world and pronounces on Julie’s and Jean’s affair with ignorant, invincible self-righteousness.

Strindberg makes brilliant use of props. The Count’s riding boots Jean is polishing symbolize his authority and his military-pagan identity. They are intimidatingly present on stage throughout from the moment Jean carries them in. The speaking tube is a brilliant device for keeping the Count remote and godlike while the tragic action takes place below. The birdcage with its doomed greenfinch reveals Julie’s inability to grasp the reality she has created when she insists on taking it with her on their escape abroad. The decapitation of the bird by Jean prefigures Julie’s death with Jean’s razor.

The play deserves its classic status because of its extraordinarily imaginative use of scene, character, action, dialogue and prop elements. The sexual-cultural power struggle will be repeated in later plays like Tennessee Williams’ A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, Edward Albee’s WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF, and David Mamet’s OLEANNA. None is more powerful than MISS JULIE.


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