Inability to Accept Class and Gender Roles

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In his preface to Miss Julie, Strindberg refers to Julie as a "man-hating half woman," and indeed, the playwright draws her as such—though it should be pointed out that Julie despises not only men but women as well Nonetheless, psychologically— considered within the context of her time—Julie is neither wholly male nor wholly female, and she cannot find a place for herself within the social confines of either gender role. In addition, Julie, though an aristocrat by birth, does not fit in with either the upper classes or with the lower. Although she lives in a time during which rigid divisions in class and gender were softening, nineteenth-century Sweden was still a highly structured society with clearly defined class and gender roles. Because Julie cannot distinctly identify with male or female, master or servant, there is no place for her in this world. It is this fact that finally leads to her suicide.

From the beginning of the play, well before she even sets foot on stage, Julie's class and gender confusion become clear as the servants Jean and Kristine discuss their mistress's idiosyncrasies. Julie's inability to act within the bounds of acceptable female behavior is illustrated by an act Strindberg makes so extreme that it becomes ludicrous: Julie "training" her fiancé by having him jump over her riding crop and striking him each jump. Clearly, Julie desires power over men to a point that is pathological.

Strindberg provides further evidence of Julie's lack of class identity. On one hand, Kristine reveals Julie's extreme anger over her dog's sexual encounter with the gatekeeper's dog, an act that foreshadows Julie's own indiscretion with Jean. On the other hand, Julie has chosen to stay at home and dance with her servants when it would be more appropriate for her to be visiting relatives with her father. "Miss Julie," Jean says, "has too much pride about some things and not enough about others." Jean reveals that Julie's mother was the same way. As he recalls, "the cuffs of her blouse were dirty, but she had to have her coat of arms on her cufflinks." Like her mother, Julie is unrefined, even less refined than her own servants. Jean remarks that Julie "pulled the gamekeeper away from Anna and made him dance with her." Such an act is unheard of in the world of the servants. "We wouldn't behave like that," Jean says.

Julie's inconsistency in matters of class is revealed again when she appears onstage for the first time. When Jean points out that, by dancing with him, she risks losing the respect of her servants, she replies, "As mistress of the house, I honor your dance with my presence!" Yet when Jean says he will act "as [she] orders," Julie replies, "don't take it as an order! On a night like this, we're all just ordinary people having fun, so we'll forget about rank" As much as Julie tries to force a sense of social equality, Strindberg makes it clear that she also demands she respect her position dictates.

In her book Acting Women: Images of Women in Theatre , Lesley Ferris pointed out that Kristine, the cook, acts as a counterpoint to Julie. As Ferris wrote, Kristine "clearly knows her place as a woman and a member of the lower class—waiting on Jean, the footman, and enjoying this subservient position." When Jean asks Kristine if she is angry at him for dancing with Julie when he had promised to dance with her, Kristine tells him, "1 know my place." Jean responds, "You're a sensible girl, .. and you'd make...

(This entire section contains 1904 words.)

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a good wife," a statement that plays up the contrast between Kristine and Julie, who is not sensible and would never make a good wife. Shortly after Julie and Jean return from their dancing, Kristine does the sensible thing; she goes to bed. In contrast, Julie stays up with Jean, telling him the story of a recurring dream, in which she is up in a tower and wants only to come down, clearly a reference to her discomfort with her position in society.

As Jean tries to point out to Julie, she is a woman and the mistress of the house, and she tremendously endangers her reputation by drinking alone with him in the kitchen: Julie, however, will not accept (at least initially) the fact that she cannot simply act as she pleases. Even when the other servants arrive and begin to sing the song of the swineherd and the princess, Julie believes they sing out of love for her; she cannot see the gulf between herself and the workers. Finally persuaded that she has invited the disrespect of her servants, Julie hides with Jean in his room, another clear violation of her proper role. Her downfall becomes complete when she willingly has sex with Jean; at this point, her reputation is damaged beyond repair.

After their sexual encounter, Jean and Julie initially seem to believe that they can rectify the situation by fleeing to Switzerland, a place where no one knows them and their class differences will not matter. At this point, Julie, having acted with the sexual freedom reserved for men, now reverts to a traditionally female viewpoint; she wants to turn their purely carnal encounter into an expression of love. Jean, however, will not go along with her romantic fantasy. In addition, the sexual encounter has made them, in a sense, more equal; at least Jean is now able to openly express disdain for Julie. He tells her that her actions make her lower than her servants, calls her a whore, and, fearing no reproach, reveals that he has stolen wine from her father's cellar as well. At this point, Julie no longer wishes to play at social equality, and she attempts to regain her superior position. Insulted by Jean, she
commands him, "You lackey, you menial, stand up when I speak to you!" He responds in kind: "Menial's strumpet, lackey's whore, shut up and get out of here'" This exchange brings Julie to realize the consequences of taking liberties with her socially-prescribed role; the respect that she feels is her due—and which she desperately needs for her self-esteem—has been erased.

At this point in the play, Strindberg chooses to provide the audience with some explanation for Julie's inability to accept her gender and class roles. Strindberg shows Julie as the product of heredity and environment, and his explanation for Julie's gender and class confusion even predates her birth, extending back to the character of her mother. Earlier Jean revealed that Julie's mother tried to act as both master and servant, that she insisted that her dirty cuffs be adorned with cufflinks bearing her coat of arms. After her sexual encounter "with Jean and the ensuing arguments, Julie reveals to Jean more of her background. She describes her mother as "a commoner—very humble background." Because her father is a gentlemen, genetically, Julie truly is a hybrid of the upper and lower classes. Environment, however, has also played a strong part in bringing Julie to her present position. Her mother was "brought up believing in social equality, women's rights, and all that." Julie herself was reared according to her mother's bizarre ideas about gender equality.

As when he described Julie's "training" of her fiancé, Strandberg once again presents a situation so extreme that it becomes ridiculous. Not only did Julie's mother believe women to be equal to men; she actually forced complete changes in gender roles. Male servants were assigned tasks normally reserved for women and women did the work of men. As a child, Julie was not simply freed from the conventional roles of women; she was forced to take on the activities and even the clothing of men. Julie was not brought up to see men as equals but to hate men and to want to make them her slaves. In addition, Julie complains that her father "brought me up to despise my own sex, making me half woman, half man." Because Julie hates women as well as men, she cannot help but hate herself and is doomed to confusion and misery. Because she is an aristocrat who cannot fully take on the role required by her class, there is no place where she belongs.

Up until the end, Julie's sense of gender and class identity remains ambiguous. For a time she is able to convince herself that she can escape her society by going to Switzerland with Jean, again trying to see their relationship as that of equals, but when Jean kills her greenfinch (her pet bird), her hatred of his sex and class resurfaces. Her words are remarkable for their violence: "I'd like to see your whole sex swimming in a sea of blood ... I think I could drink from your skull! I'd like to bathe my feet in your open chest and eat your heart roasted whole!'' In addition to this expression of hatred for men, Julie again reveals her sense of social superiority in her diatribe against Jean: “By the way, what is your family name?... I was to be Mrs. Bootblack—or Madame Pigsty. —You dog, who wears my collar, you lackey." Again, however, Julie changes her attitude. Retaining a sense of ambiguity in matters of class superiority, she essentially orders Jean to tell her to commit suicide, seemingly taking the roles of both master and slave.

John Ward offered a somewhat different interpretation in his book The Social and Religious Plays of Strindberg: "In a sense, Julie decides to kill herself; Jean merely says the words. If anyone is controlled or conditioned, it is Jean by the bell, not Julie who.,. makes her own decision.'' In her book The Greatest Fire: A Study of August Strindberg, Birgitta Steene expressed a similar opinion. During the course of the play, Steene pointed out, Jean and Julie exchange roles. At times Julie acts as the master but at other times assumes the position of servant. According to Steene, however, Julie shows her superiority to Jean in her act of suicide. As she wrote. “While Julie walks to her death holding her head high, Jean cringes in fear before the count's bell. The servant is victorious as a male, but he remains a servant. The aristocrat is defeated sexually and socially, but she dies nobly.''

It is common hi the study of literature to romanticize suicide. In reality, however, the nobility of Julie's suicide is questionable and problematic. Ferns denied that Julie even makes a choice at all. "Miss Julie makes no decision here," she wrote, "except the joint decision with Jean that they have 'no choice.'... there is no option, no choice in this world where the hierarchy of gender and class reigns supreme. Ferris went on to say that "Miss Julie is Strindberg's 'battle of the sexes' personified; her selfhood, whose existence she denies, manifest itself m a psychotic struggle between her male and female halves." One could add that Julie also engages in such a struggle between her aristocratic and common halves. For Ferris, Julie's suicide is not a noble act, but the only way out for one, neither male nor female, neither master nor servant, whose divided identity "gives her no willful action to an autonomous self.'' Having at best a divided identity, Julie sees self-destruction as her only option.

Source; Clare Cross, for Drama for Students, Gale, 1998.

The Camera and the Aesthetics of Repetition Strindberg's Use of Space and Scenography in Miss Julie, A Dream Play, and The Ghost Sonata

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Strindberg succeeded in arriving at theatrical effects that resemble the way a photograph "cuts out" a piece of reality: not a symmetrical joining of one wall to the other walls in the house—the basic fourth-wall technique of the realistic theater—but rather an asymmetrical cutting-out. Furthermore, Strindberg used cinematographic techniques resembling zoom, montage, and cut, which are highly significant from the strictly technical point of view and for the meaning of the plays. Historically, photography and movies were making great strides at the time and were art forms to which he himself— as photographer and as movie writer—gave considerable attention and interest. During Strindberg's lifetime, both The Father and Miss Julie were filmed as silent movies by the director Anna Hofman-Uddgren and her husband, Gustaf Uddgren, writer and friend of Strindberg, but only The Father has been preserved.

Strindberg thus developed dramatic theatrical techniques that, like the movie camera, can bring the viewer very close to the depicted action and, at the same time, can quite easily change the point of view or direction of observing an event or succession of events. The disappearance or near disappearance of the static focal point is largely the result of the introduction of these different photographic and cinematographic techniques. When the characters, the action, and the fictional world are continuously presented, either from partial angles or from constantly changing ones, it is often impossible for the spectator to determine where the focal point is or what the central experiences are in the characters' world. This in turn is a reflection of the constant and usually fruitless search of the characters for such focal points in their own lives.

Whereas Hedda Gabler's lack of will to continue living was based on her refusal to bear offspring within the confines of married life, Miss Julie's despair primarily reflects her unwillingness merely to exist. Of course, there are external reasons for her suicide, and Strindberg has taken great care both in the play and in the preface almost to overdetermine her final act of despair. Nevertheless, as several critics have pointed out, there are no clear and obvious causal connections between her suicide and the motives presented. Instead, this final act of despair is triggered by an irrational leap into the complete unknown, as she herself says "ecstatically" (according to Strindberg's stage direction) in the final scene when she commands Jean, the servant, to command her, the mistress, to commit suicide: "I am already asleep—the whole room stands as if in smoke for me... and you look like an iron stove.., that resembles a man dressed in black with a top hat—and your eyes glow like coal when the fire is extinguished—and your face is a white patch like the ashes." These complex images within images resemble links m a chain, and they illustrate the constant movement or flux of the despairing speaker's mind. For Miss Julie there is no fixed point in reality, no focal point, except her will to die, to reach out for a nothingness.

In Strindberg's description of the set in the beginning of Miss Julie, he carefully specifies how the diagonal back wall cuts across the stage from left to right, opening up in the vaulted entry toward the garden. This vault however, is only partially visible. The oven and the table are also only partially visible because they are situated exactly on the borderline between the stage and the offstage areas. The side walls and the ceiling of the kitchen are marked by draperies and tormentors. Except for the garden entry, there are no doors or windows. As the play reveals, the kitchen is connected only to the private bedrooms of the servants Jean and Kristin; there is no direct access to the upper floor where the count and his daughter, Julie, live except through the pipe-telephone.

In his preface to the play, Strindberg explained: "I have borrowed from the impressionistic paintings the idea of the asymmetrical, the truncated, and I believe that thereby, the bringing forth of the illusion has been gained; since by not seeing the whole room and all the furnishings, there is room for imagination, i.e., fantasy is put in motion and it completes what is seen." Here Strindberg describes the imaginative force of this basically metonymic set. But rather than following the custom in realistic theater of showing the whole room as part of a house that in turn is part of the fictional world of the play, Strindberg very consciously exposes only part of the room. He claims it should be completed in the imagination of the audience As Evert Sprinchorn comments: "The incompleteness of the impressionist composition drew the artist and the viewer into closer personal contact, placing the viewer in the scene and compelling him to identify with the artist at a particular moment."

The audience comes closer not only to the artist through this view of the kitchen from its interior but also, by force of the diagonal arrangements of the set, to the characters inside the kitchen. This is because the fourth wall, on which the realistic theater was originally based, has been moved to an undefined spot somewhere in the auditorium, the spectators are in the same room as the dramatic characters. It is also important to note that, to achieve this effect, Strindberg also removed the side walls from the stage, thus preventing the creation of any kind of symmetrical room that the spectator could comfortably watch from the outside. Furthermore, the audience is not guided regarding the symmetries, directions, or focal points in the set itself, which the traditional theater strongly emphasized. The only area that is separated from the kitchen is the garden, visible through the vaulted entry, with its fountain and, significantly enough, its statue of Eros. Thus, the physical point of view of the audience in relationship to the stage is ambiguous.

What is presented is a "photograph" of the kitchen taken from its interior, drawing the audience's attention to different points inside or outside as the play's action develops. The set of Miss Julie can, furthermore, be seen as a photograph because while the spectators get a close view from the inside of the kitchen, they also experience an objective perception of it and the events taking place there through the frame of the proscenium arch. The comparison between Strindberg's scenic technique in Miss Julie and the photograph is compelling because of the very strong tension between intimacy and closeness on the one hand and objectivity and distance on the other; this sort of tension has often been observed to be one of the major characteristics not only of the play but also of photography, as the practice of documenting and preserving large numbers of slices of reality. The photograph also” cuts'' into a certain space from its inside, never showing walls as parallel (unless it is a very big space photographed from the outside), at the same time it freezes the attention of the viewer upon the specific moment. In photography the focus is on the present (tense), which is "perfected" into a "has been" through the small fraction of a second when the shutter is opened. Barthes even goes so far as to call this moment in photography an epiphany.

This is also what happens in Miss Julie when the attention of the audience is continuously taken from one temporary focal point to the next by force of the gradual development of the action. Our eyes and attention move from the food Jean is smelling to the wine he is tasting, to Miss Julie's handkerchief, to Kristin's fond folding and smelling of the handkerchief when Jean and Miss Julie are at the dance
and so on. In Miss Julie these material objects force the characters to confront one another and to interact They are not objects primarily belonging to or binding the characters to the distant past toward which they try to reach out m their present sufferings—as are the visual focal points in Ibsen's plays or even the samovars and pieces of old furniture in Chekhov's plays. The objects in Miss Julie are first and foremost immersed in the present, forcing the characters to take a stance and their present struggles to be closely observed by the audience.

In Miss Julie the past and the future have been transformed into fantasy, so the only reality for the characters is the present. Because Jean and Miss Julie are forced to act solely on the basis of the immediate stimuli causing their interaction, and because the kitchen has been cut off diagonally leaving no visually defined borders on- or offstage, it is impossible to locate any constant focal points, either outside or inside the fictional world of the play and the subjective consciousness of the characters This "narrative" technique achieves both a very close and subjective view of the characters and a seemingly objective and exact picture of them. The temporal retrospection has also been diminished because Jean and Miss Julie are not as disturbed by irrational factors belonging to a guilt-ridden past as, for example, the Ibsen heroes are. Strindberg's characters are motivated primarily by their present desires.

This of course does not mean that there are no expository, references to the past in Miss Julie, on the contrary, there are a large number of references to specific events in the lives of the characters preceding the opening of the scenic action. The play, in fact, begins with a series of such references, all told by Jean to Kristin. Thus, we learn that Miss Julie is "mad again tonight'' (inferring that it is not the first time this has happened), as represented by the way she is dancing with Jean. And to give her behavior some perspective (just before her entrance), Jean relates to Kristin how Miss Julie's fiancé broke their engagement because of the degradations he had to suffer, jumping over her whip as well as being beaten by it. These events are, however, never corroborated by other characters in the play. Miss Julie's subsequent behavior does to some extent affirm Jean's story, but we can never be completely sure.

What is specific to Strindberg's plays is not the omission of the past—-which absurdist drama emphasizes—but rather a lack of certainty regarding the reliability of what the characters say about that past. And since in many of Strindberg's plays there is no source of verification other than the private memory of the character speaking, the past takes on a quite subjective quality. Miss Julie gives her version of her past and Jean relates his, and the possible unreliability of these memories is confirmed when Jean changes his story of how he as a child watched her in the garden, (pp. 112-15)

The major outcome of past actions, guilt, is objectified in Ibsen's plays. That is the reason why it can be given a specific geographical location in the outside world, which becomes the "focus" (in all respects) for it. In Strindberg's fictional worlds there is definitely an awareness of past actions, that is of guilt, but it exists as a private limbo in the subjective consciousness of the individual characters and thus cannot be projected onto the objective outside world. That is why in Strindberg's plays there is either no visual focus or a constantly moving one.

In Miss Julie the two principal characters continuously try to turn their respective opponents into the focal point onto which their own guilt and related feelings of inadequacy and general frustration can be projected. That is one of the major reasons for their sexual union and the distrust and even hatred to which it leads. Just how fickle those focal points are, however, can also be seen as in Miss Julie's last desperate attempt to find some kind of support in Jean for her step into the unknown realm of death. Jean's face has become a white spot, resembling to Miss Julie the ashes of a fire because the light of the sun—which is rising at this point in the play—is illuminating him. Again the present situation becomes the point of departure for her wishes. And when Miss Julie wants to die, her wish is thus focused on Jean's illuminated face. In Ghosts Ibsen used the same images (the fire and the sun) at the end of the last two acts as objective focal points. Strindberg has compressed these images into one speech in which they are projected onto Jean by the fantasy of Miss Julie's subjective consciousness. Ibsen gives a "scientific" explanation of Oswald's madness for which the sunset is a circumstantial parallel, whereas Strindberg lets the sunset motivate the outburst of Julie's death wish, as expressed from within. Thus the preparations for the introduction of expressionism, wherein everything is projection, had already been made in Strindberg's pre-Inferno plays.

Source: Freddy Rokem, "The Camera and the Aesthetics of Repetition' Strindberg's Use of Space and Scenography in Miss Julie, A Dream Play, and The Ghost Sonata" in Strindberg's Dramaturgy, edited by Goran Stockenstrom, University of Minnesota Press, 1988, pp. 107-28

Two Crazy, Mixed-up Kids

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Miss Julie is something, and with bells on, as the pretty saying goes. The heroine's mind is the battleground for a hundred waning impulses, inherited from a family of distinguished peculiarity, and her behavior, to put it very mildly, is bizarre. She is an incurable aristocrat who hates the idea of class distinctions, a passionate woman (the performance at the Phoenix suggests nymphomania, but I doubt if that was the author's intention) who has a horror of men, an idealist ceaselessly, corrupted by her senses. It is apparently Strindberg's contention that no tragedy has a single, pat explanation, and Julie's ultimate suicide, coming as the climax of her grotesque affair with her father's valet, surely bears this out. She is a figure of infinite complexity, but whether she is pitiful, ludicrous, or simply incredible is quite another point. It is my opinion that a perpetual shifting back and forth between love and hatred for the same things—an emotional confusion nearly indistinguishable from lunacy—is too difficult a conception for the stage, and that Miss Julie is more a pathological curiosity than a clear and moving play. If I'm mistaken—and it should be noted that Miss Julie has been performed regularly since 1888— the blame can be laid partly to Viveca Lindfors' rather lurid rendering of the title role at the Phoenix. It has always been my aim to keep vulgarity as far as possible out of these essays, but I am almost forced to note that Miss Lindfors gives it the old Ophelia, with darker rumblings from Medea here and there. She is abetted by James Daly and Ruth Ford, the second of whom, incidentally, stars in the curtain-raiser, also by Strindberg, a sort of one-woman filibuster called "The Stronger."

Source: Wolcott Gibbs, "Two Crazy, Mixed-up Kids" in the New Yorker, Volume XXXII, no 2, March 3, 1956, pp 63-64.


Critical Overview