Saturday, 1 October 2011

Miss Julie (1971)

By August Strindberg (1888).

Translated by Michael Meyer.

RSC, The Place, London, 1971.

Miss Julie (Helen
Mirren), the daughter of a Swedish count, attempts to escape an existence
cramped by social mores and have a little fun by dancing at the servants’
annual midsummer party. She is drawn to a senior servant, a valet named Jean
(Donal McCann), who is particularly well-travelled, well-mannered and
well-read. The action takes place in the kitchen of Miss Julie’s father’s
manor; here Jean’s fiancée, a servant named Christine (Heather Canning), cooks
and sometimes sleeps while Jean and Miss Julie talk. On this night, behaviour
between Miss Julie and Jean which was previously a flirtatious contest for
power rapidly escalates to a relationship that is fully consummated. Over the
course of the play, Miss Julie and Jean battle for control, which swings back
and forth between them until Jean convinces her that the only way to escape her
predicament is to commit suicide. Throughout the play the Count is an unseen
presence, represented on stage by his boots, an authority figure who is both
Miss Julie’s father and Jean’s employer. [Summary adapted from Wikipedia].

A hundred years after his death, Strindberg is still a
revolutionary. Actors are often baffled by the inconsequentiality of his
dialogue. Characters talk not only to
each other but also past each other.
In the preface to Miss Julie he said
that his aim was to avoid “symmetrical dialogue” in pursuit of the realism of “psychological
process”. There should be no interval, he went on, no pause to give the
spectator “time to reflect and thereby withdraw from the suggestive influence
of the author-hypnotist”. If people can listen to a parliamentary debate for
ninety minutes, they should be able to endure a play of similar length. More
prescriptions follow in the opening stage directions. Make-up should be
minimal. He favoured sidelighting over footlights, an auditorium in complete
darkness during the performance, and actors with the courage to turn their
backs to the audience throughout an important scene. First and foremost, the
action should be played out on “a small
stage and a small auditorium”.

Some of this was followed through in Robin Phillips’s
production for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1971. The original venue was
The Place, the headquarters of the Contemporary Dance Theatre, which the RSC
had hired to create a theatre space seating 330 people, for a limited season.
According to company historian Sally Beauman, “the audience sat on tiers of
wooden benches, perched above the acting space rather like students in a
medical theatre watching the demonstration of an operation”. This came
somewhere close to Strindberg’s ideal of an “intimate theatre”; certainly there
was no room here for the dramatist’s particular bête noire, theatre boxes “with their tittering diners and ladies
nibbling at cold collations”. Later, the cast and set were transferred to
Pinewood Studios and the whole production filmed, enabling it to be seen by

In emphasising his economy of means, Strindberg pointed out
that the plot of Miss Julie would
have sufficed for a five-act play. With most plays of this era we wouldn’t wish
them to be longer than they are; indeed, lines, whole speeches even, are often
cut in modern productions of fin-de-siècle
drama. Yet here, in the compression-chamber of a one-acter, nothing seems

The production, as seen on film, captured the fluctuating
power relations between the principals which are the play’s strength. McCann’s
Jean is a somewhat empty vessel but Mirren’s Miss Julie is brimming with
contradictory impulses. Imperatives alternate with seductive entreaties as she
leads him on, then knocks him back, exploiting her power over him as his employer,
her ascendancy over him as his social superior, and her mesmerising effect as
an attractive woman. “Kiss my shoe!” she orders at one point. He meekly
obliges. “Je ne suis qu’un homme,” he confesses as she removes a speck of dirt
from his eye with rather more physical contact than is necessary. She “plays
games far too seriously” for his liking.

Further into the play we learn of a back-story about
power-play in her parents’ generation. Her mother, a proponent of women’s
rights, never wanted to marry and, when prevailed on to do so, contrived to
keep control of her own finances. She brought up her daughter to know
everything a boy knows. “I’d learnt from her to hate and mistrust men,” says
Miss Julie. “She hated men… and I promised her I’d never be the slave to any
man”. When Miss Julie briefly became engaged herself, she humiliated her fiancé
as her “slave”, forcing him to jump over her riding crop like a trained dog.
The death-instinct also runs deep in her family. Her father is a failed suicide.
When Jean kills her greenfinch (a shocking scene even if only hinted at), she
begs him to “kill me too!” before launching into an extraordinary speech where
the roles are reversed again. Now she is his destroyer: “I think I could drink
from your skull,” she says, carefully measuring out the words. The bell rings,
announcing the Count’s return. At once Jean slips into his livery and back into
his old subservience. “I can’t order you,” he tells Miss Julie, as she looks to
him for command.

The play is still notable for its pioneering sexual realism.
In the words of Strindberg’s biographer, Michael Meyer:

Before Strindberg, sex in drama
is something in which only married people or wicked people indulge… Miss
Julie’s tragedy is that she does not want to make love with Jean; she does not
want to sleep with him; she wants – there is no other word for it – to be
fucked by him, like an animal. When it has happened, she despises herself for
having allowed it, and him for having done it; but she knows she will want him
again; so she sees no alternative but suicide.

No alternative? My problem with this play is the ending.
“It’s horrible,” says Jean, his final line in the play, “but it’s the only
possible ending.” Is Miss Julie’s (implied) suicide a motivated outcome of what
has gone before? Is it not a melodramatic nemesis for such a complex character?
In his preface to the play, Strindberg represents the class conflict between
mistress and servant as a confrontation of old and new ways of being; an “old
warrior nobility” is disappearing in favour of a “new neurotic or intellectual
nobility”. Burdened as she is with an inherited and fatal sense of upper-class
conscience, his heroine, finally, “cannot live without honour”. I would prefer
something more open-ended; but to call for it is probably to misunderstand
Strindberg’s determinism, which understands Miss Julie as

a victim of the discord which a
mother’s ‘crime’ implanted in a family; a victim of the errors of her age, of
circumstances, and of her own flawed constitution, all of which add up to the
equivalent of the old concept of Destiny or the Universal Law.(Preface to Miss Julie

Benedict Nightingale, one of Helen Mirren’s most perceptive
critics among the London press corps, recognised that this was a breakthrough
performance for her. Maybe “the rivets joining her ideas together still
sometimes showed”, but in general

she brought what was becoming her
trademark full-bloodedness to the role, raging and roaring in upper-class
contempt at Jean… but it was the character’s psychosexuality that mainly
preoccupied her. Her hands quivered, kneaded her handkerchief, flailed
frantically, blindly, at her wooer, as if her body was in a state of civil war,
in terror and disgust driving her away from him and then, with a sort of
morbid, self-destructive fascination, to him, into his arms and into his power.


Sally Beauman, The
Royal Shakespeare Company: A History of Ten Decades

Michael Meyer, Strindberg: A Biography

Benedict Nightingale, ‘Life in the theatre’, in Helen Mirren: ‘Prime Suspect’ – A Celebration, ed. Amy Rennert

August Strindberg, Plays: One, tr.
Michael Meyer (1976)

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