Background Miss Julie

When August Strindberg (1849-1912) wrote his remarkable dramaMiss Julie in 1888, he had already tried his hand at a dozen plays, including the pioneering historical drama Master Olof (1872) and the brilliant The Father (1887). Himself The Son of a Servant on his mother´s side, the title of his autobiography (1885-86), he had married the Swedish-Finnish noblewoman Siri von Essen in 1877. After six years in Stockholm, devoted to various occupations,  he had moved to France in 1883 with his wife and their three little children to escape the stifling parochialism of Sweden.  Strindberg at this time claimed to be a disciple of Rousseau and styled himself an “agrarian socialist”. In his provocative The Swedish People (1880-82) he had written the history not of Sweden’s kings but of the common people. The work gave rise to a storm of negative criticism. His savage attack on  the Swedish establishment , The New Kingdom (1882), had further tarnished his reputation in his native country. During the next few years he moved restlessly from France to Switzerland, thence to Germany, finally  to Denmark.

In this period he drifted towards ethical nihilism in the spirit of Arthur Schopenhauer and Eduard von Hartmann, and his former egalitarian principles were replaced by the idea of the intellectual superman as described by Max Nordau.  The outstanding Danish critic Georg Brandes, advocate of optimistic individualism and of fiction focused upon current issues, had dominated intellectual life in Scandinavia for a decade. In the lecture series Main Currents in 19th Century Literature (1872-75), he had examined the position of the isolated romantic genius in Germany, France and England.  Brandes introduced Strindberg to Nietzsche’s work.

Strindberg’s ideological change was precipitated by the infamous trial in 1884, in which he was accused of blasphemy because of a disrespectful remark about the Eucharist in one of the short stories in his book Getting Married of that year. Though he was acquitted, his reputation in Sweden was damaged. But Strindberg was hardly one to turn the other cheek. This time the chief targets of his counterattack were his fiercest opponents during the trial: the Christians, the emancipated women, and the small-minded common herd.

In the so-called woman question, Strindberg was on the whole conservative – which did not prevent him from holding progressive ideas in some respects. He defended the traditional agrarian division of work between husband and wife and saw the emancipation of (upper-class) women as adumbrating a future of matriarchy. The suffragists, he argues in the preface to Miss Julie, deny woman’s reproductive function because they have themselves become half-women,  .

In his view of women Strindberg met resistance from many of the writers in his generation who agreed with Ibsen’s positive attitude to emancipation, most clearly demonstrated in A Doll’s House.  But as a naturalist he could gain their appreciation. Following the lead of Zola, many European writers had begun to call themselves naturalists. They subscribed to the view that man’s course is determined by his heredity, his environment,  and by the pressures of the individual situation. They held that the artist should adopt a scientific methods in  order to represent reality as objectively as possible. But Zola’s famous definition of art as “un coin de la nature vu à travers un tempérament” could easily shift its emphasis from the “coin de la nature” to the “tempérament” of the artist-observer. From Théodule Ribot he learned that the self is an evershifting coalition of countless manifestations ( Lindström 116f.). Henry Maudsley’s Pathology of Mind helped making him interested in abnormal states and in hypnosis. And Hippolyte Bernheim’s investigations made him conclude that suggestion is possible also in the waking state. The psychological works which Strindberg read with such keen interest convinced him that psychological dissection – what he called “vivisection” – is very common in life and therefore should be so also in the contemporary literature intended to mirror it. “The battle of the brains”, Strindberg’s name for hypnosis in the waking state, generally results in what he called “psychic murder”, the subtitle of his essay on Ibsen’s play Rosmersholm. In this essay he develops the idea that psychic power has replaced physical power in the struggle for survival and that murder and suicide are nowadays largely cerebral operations. In The Father  the protagonist is driven to insanity by his wife’s use of suggestion, insinuation and trickery. In Miss Julie the title figure is driven to suicide by her servant Jean’s use of hypnosis. And in Creditors (1889), Adolf develops epilepsy ending in death through the fatal influence of the intellectually stronger Gustaf.  Although Strindberg in this period steeped himself in scientific, especially psychological, literature and felt that the writer’s mission is to produce documents humains, his relation to naturalism in its purest form remained tenuous.

In May 1888 the Strindbergs moved into Skovlyst, a ruinous manor house not far from Copenhagen. The estate belonged to Countess Louise de Frankenau. She was forty, unmarried, and quite eccentric.  The young, good-looking Ludvig Hansen was bailiff on the estate. Everyone believed that Hansen was his mistress’ lover; in reality he was her illegitimate half-brother. Hansen was assisted by his sixteen year old sister Martha who looked after the Strindberg children.  Intimate relations between the married couple by this time belonged to the past. Strindberg found Martha sexually attractive; once or twice he had intercourse with her. Hansen spread rumours that his sister was pregnant and then tried to blackmail Strindberg. Again his reputation was tarnished.  In the long novella Tschandala (1888), his most Nietzschean  work, he gives his version of the Hansen affair. Strindberg considered himself victimized by two calculating and greedy pariahs but at the same time he was presumably ashamed of his own behaviour. His reaction can be sensed in his portrayal of Miss Julie who retrospectively regards her coupling with Jean as an act of bestiality.

If Miss Julie is the embodiment of certain aspects of Strindberg himself, she also resembles some real and fictional women. The social gap between Strindberg himself, whose mother had been a servant, and his noble wife Siri von Essen has an obvious kinship to that between Jean and Julie. Both the masculine upbringing and the suicide of Miss Julie resemble what overcame Victoria Benedictsson, one of the leading Swedish writers of the 1880s. Strindberg happened to stay at the same hotel in Copenhagen as Victoria Benedictsson when, in January 1888, she made an unsuccessful attempt to end her life – after a disrupting affair with Georg Brandes.  The following July, when Strindberg was at work on Miss Julie, she succeeded in killing herself – like Julie by cutting her throat with a razor.

In the preface to Miss Julie Strindberg tries to divert attention from these probable life models by claiming to have based his play on a true story he had heard about years earlier. Because this story dealt with the reversal of fortune and the extinction of a noble line, he felt it provided excellent material for a modern tragedy.

In the preface he points to the influence the psychological novels of the Goncourt brothers has had on him. A highly erotic scene in Edmond de Goncourt’s La Faustin (1882) may have been on his mind when writing the first part of Miss Julie. La Faustin has, like Julie’s mother, risen from the people. Despite her acquired aristocratic elegance, she retains her love for the simple life. By turns she plays the role of duchess and grisette. She nearly loses control of herself when she is sexually attracted by a fencing master.

More closely related to the main theme of Miss Julie is another novel that Strindberg greatly admired: the Dane Jens Peter Jacobsen’s Marie Grubbe (1876). Marie Grubbe was a highborn 17th century figure whose story has been retorld by several Danish writers. Her marriage with the royal kinsman Ulrik Frederick ended in divorce and Marie Grubbe left Denmark with a melancholy voluptuory. When their passion cooled, she returned to her father’s manor where, during a fire in the stables, she responded to the physical attraction of one of the grooms whose coarse behaviour and language both attracted and repelled her. Like Julie Marie is compared to her dog which, like Julie’s, carries the symbolic name Diana.  Strindberg was so impressed by Jacobsen’s subtle psychological study of this sado-masochistic woman that in the early 1880s he had plans to dramatise Marie Grubbe.

In one of the relatively few scholarly works devoted to the one-act genre, it is unequivocally stated that “seit Strindbergs theoretischem  Debüt von 1889 muss der Einakter als eigenständige Gattung gelten” (Schnetz 24). To qualify as a one-acter a play must not contain any intermission, curtain or black-out, all of which indicate a change of time and/or place. Miss Julie and Creditors, both evening-filling plays, qualify as one-acters – although the former with its intermediate “Ballet” may seem a disguised two-acter. In accordance with the above mentioned criterion, Strindberg has written fourteen one-act plays, eleven of which were written between 1888 and 1892 during his so-called naturalist period.

When Schnetz speaks of Strindberg’s theoretical debut of 1889, she refers to the article “On Modern Drama and Modern Theatre” published in the Danish journal Ny jord. But Strindberg had, in fact, commented on the one-act form already the year before in his preface to Miss Julie, where he says:

As for the technical aspects of composition, I have, by way of experiment, eliminated all act divisions. I have done this because it seems to me that our declining  susceptibility to illusion would  possibly be disturbed by intervals, during which the spectator has time to reflect and thereby escape from the suggestive influence of the dramatist-hypnotist. (64)

As appears from this quotation, Strindberg’s interest in the one-acter is directly related to his ambition as a naturalistic playwright to create maximal illusion.

In “On Modern Drama and Modern Theatre” he notes that the naturalistic  drama pays more attention to character description than to plot; that the unities of time and place are observed; and that “when searching for the significant motif” the playwrights of this mode focus on life’s two poles, life and death, the act of birth and the act of death, the fight for a spouse, for the means of subsistence, for honour, all those struggles, with their battlefields, cries of pain, the wounded and dead, during which one heard the new view of life as a continuous struggle blow its fruitful southerly winds.

These were tragedies, of a hitherto unknown kind; but the young authors [...] seemed reluctant to impose their suffering on others more than was absolutely necessary; therefore they made the suffering as brief as possible, let the pain pour forth in one act, sometimes in a single scene. (Strindberg 1996:83f.)

Strindberg then sketches the history of the short one-acter. In the quart d’heure  he sees “the type of play for contemporary theatregoers”. At the same time he regards “the extended one-acter” as “the formula for the drama of the future”. In the dramatic  proverb à la Musset, he points out, “one got the heart of the matter [...], the battle of the souls” and “with the help of a table and two chairs one could present the most powerful conflicts life has to offer” by resorting to “the discoveries of modern psychology” (Strindberg 1996:85).

With his eleven naturalistic one-acters Strindberg created a basis for a genre that has proved exceedingly vital ever since. Not only have one-acters for various reasons, not least economic ones, been relished by theatre schools and small theatre groups. The appearance of new media – radio, television – has meant an increasing demand for short plays. Of all Strindberg’s one-acters Miss Julie has been by far the most successful both nationally and internationally. Merely in English there are by now more than twenty translations of the play. It is arguably the only naturalistic play that is still universally read and produced in various media.  Why this is so, the following analysis of the drama text will hopefully clarify.