Imagine, for a moment, a world in which having premarital sex leaves a woman with no option but suicide.
In 1888, when August Strindberg wrote “Miss Julie,” such a scenario was entirely plausible. On Oct. 15 and Oct. 16, in a crowded and sweltering Roble lounge, Stanford celebrated the 100-year anniversary of the death of the esteemed Swedish playwright by staging performances of this controversial play, which explores the sordid topics of lust, love, class and gender. Rehm Rush directed Gabriel Marin (Jean), Danielle Thys (Kristin) and Arwen Anderson (Miss Julie) within the short timespan of three weeks.
“Miss Julie” follows a similar trajectory to “A Doll’s House” and “Hedda Gabler,” both written by Henrik Ibsen, a Norwegian playwright who was writing around the same time period as Strindberg. In both of Ibsen’s plays, a woman rebels against the stifling rigidity of social expectations, and in the end must pay the price. Both Ibsen and Strindberg were pioneers of realism, taking theatre into the living rooms of everyday people going about their lives and exploring situations that were actually possible, instead of using fantastical story lines and having the actors speak to the audience.
“Miss Julie” consists of three characters: the flirtatious and strong-willed Count’s daughter, Miss Julie; Jean, the servant to the Count; and the pious and obedient cook, Christine. There is also a fourth character, the Count himself, whom we never actually see but who maintains an ominous presence on stage in the form of a pair of black leather boots and a bell which he uses to give Jean orders.
Miss Julie, on the night of Midsummer’s Eve, falls victim to passion and sleeps with Jean. In that time, an unmarried woman engaging in sexual relations with someone socially beneath her is catastrophic, and Miss Julie is left with two equally unpalatable options: if she stays, she brings shame to herself and to her father; if she goes, she risks ending up on the streets. In the final minutes of the play, Jean hands her a razor, and she walks offstage.
Miss Julie is a play rife with tension, drama and taboo, regardless of having only three characters and no scene or costume changes. However, the performance lacked the necessary strength to make the characters and the situation believable. The actors playing Miss Julie and Jean were scattered in their portrayal of the characters’ emotions, making it difficult to track their motives, and the attraction between them seemed forced and awkward. The play seemed to be divided into two parts: before and after sex. The before sex portion was reasonably fun, flirty and light; the after, on the other hand, was melodramatic chaos. One element that came across very well, however, was the obvious power shift from Miss Julie (based on class) to Jean (based on gender) after they exited the bedroom.
The play may not have fully embodied the realism of Strindberg and Ibsen, but the panel that followed with Drs. Bjorn Meidal, Myra Strober and Irv Yalom engagingly examined Strindberg and “Miss Julie” from multiple perspectives.
Yalom, as a psychiatry professor, approached the play as though Miss Julie were his patient and took the audience step by step through the hypothetical conversations he would have and the medication he would prescribe.
He concluded by saying, “I think the real patient I would like to see is Strindberg.”
Meidal brought an expert’s opinion to the table, as the former president of the Strindberg Society and the writer of several books on the playwright. He teased out the differences between Ibsen and Strindberg, explaining that Ibsen stuck to a particular style, while Strindberg was in a constant state of reinvention and would fill whatever role was available to him. When it came to his view on women, “the position of the feminist writer was already taken [by Ibsen], so he took the view of the misogynist,” Meidal said.
As the Founding Director of the Clayman Institute of Gender Research at Stanford, Strober responded to Meidal’s point by explaining that, to some feminists, Strindberg could appear misogynistic and to others, he could be considered a feminist.
“To feminists today, he was a misogynist,” Strober said. “For women who are man-hating, this could be a feminist play.”
The panelists discussed many aspects of Strindberg’s play with the audience, ranging from the overarching themes of class, gender and power, to the elements of Greek tragedy in “Miss Julie,” to whether or not Miss Julie actually committed suicide in the end. The high attendance and the engaging post-performance discussion showed that “Miss Julie” and Strindberg still resonate more than a hundred years after their creation.