First Miss Julie production, November 1906, The People's Theatre, Stockholm. Sacha Sjöström (left) as Kristin, Manda Björling as Miss Julie and August Falck as Jean
|Written by||August Strindberg|
|Characters||Miss Julie, Jean, Christine|
|Date premiered||14 March 1889|
Miss Julie (Swedish: Fröken Julie) is a naturalistic play written in 1888 by August Strindberg. It is set on Midsummer's Eve and the following morning, which is Midsummer and the Feast Day of St. John the Baptist. The setting is an estate of a count in Sweden. Miss Julie is drawn to a senior servant, a valet named Jean, who is well-traveled and well-read. The action takes place in the kitchen of Miss Julie's father's manor, where Jean's fiancée, a servant named Christine, cooks and sometimes sleeps while Jean and Miss Julie talk.
One theme of the play is Darwinism, a theory that was a significant influence on the author during his naturalistic period. This theme is stated explicitly in the preface, where Strindberg describes his two lead characters, Miss Julie and Jean, as vying against each other in an evolutionary "life and death" battle for a survival of the fittest. The character of Miss Julie represents the last of a dying aristocratic breed and serves to characterize women in modernity. Jean represents one who is clambering upwards and who is fitter to thrive because he is more adaptable in terms of the "life roles" he can take on.
The play has various themes, partly because Miss Julie's actions are motivated by a range of factors and influences: her class, her desires and impulsive nature, her father, and the dynamic traumas of her family histories. In utilizing the naturalistic style, the author goes against the dominant theatrical idea that says that characters should be written with only one primary motivation.
Miss Julie is preceded by an author's preface, which is considered a significant manifesto of naturalism in the theatre. In it Strindberg states that the source of the play is an actual story he once heard, which made a strong impression on him, and which "seemed appropriate for tragedy, for it still seems tragic so see someone favored by fortune go under, much more to see a family die out."
Strindberg describes both Jean and Miss Julie as representations of their classes and society. The people in the play are described by Strindberg as "modern characters living in an age of transition [...] more vacillating and disintegrating than their predecessors, a mixture of the old and the new." The preface to the play may not be the best guide to the play, and is at times in variance with the play itself. The prefaces urges naturalism and deterministic readings of the play, but the play seems to offer more anti-naturalism and even feminist readings. Strindberg's play may have other values than his own critical assessment. In the preface, Strindberg discusses aristocracy and classism beyond what occurs in the play itself.
Strindberg wrote this play with the intention of abiding by the theories of "naturalism"-both his own version, and also the version described by the French novelist and literary theoretician Émile Zola. Zola's term for naturalism is la nouvelle formule. The three primary principles of naturalism (faire vrai, faire grand and faire simple) are:
Strindberg believed that French playwrights had been unable to make naturalism, and he felt that he could do it. Miss Julie is not only successful as a naturalistic drama, but it is a play that has achieved the rare distinction of being performed on stages all over the world every year since it was written in 1888.
The play was written as Strindberg was creating a new theatre of his own, the Scandinavian Naturalistic Theater, which would be founded in Copenhagen. Miss Julie would be the premier offering. Strindberg's wife, Siri von Essen, would star in the title role, and she would also be the artistic director. After Strindberg agreed to a small amount of censorship, the play was published a few weeks before the first production. (The first English translations also contain these censored excisions. For example, the first audiences were spared the shock of hearing Miss Julie, in an angry moment, compare making love to Jean to an act of bestiality.) With disastrous timing for new theater, the censors announced during the dress rehearsal that Miss Julie would be forbidden. However, Strindberg managed to get around the censors by having Miss Julie premiere a few days later at the Copenhagen University Student Union.
Miss Julie: Strong-willed daughter of the Count who owns the estate. Raised by her late mother to "think like and act like a man," she is a confused individual: she is aware of the power she holds, but switches between being above the servants and flirting with Jean, her father's manservant. She longs to fall from her pillar, an expression symbolically put across as a recurring dream she has.
Jean: Manservant to the Count. He tells a story of seeing Miss Julie many times as a child and loving her even then, but the truth of the story is later denied (there is good evidence both for and against its veracity). Jean left the town and traveled widely, working many different jobs as he went, before finally returning to work for the count. He has aspirations to rise from his station in life and manage his own hotel, and Miss Julie is part of his plan. He is alternately kind and callous. Despite his aspirations, he is rendered servile by the mere sight of the count's gloves and boots.
Christine (or Kristine): The cook in the Count's household. She is devoutly religious and apparently betrothed to Jean, although they refer to this marriage almost jokingly.
The Count: Miss Julie's father. He is never seen, but his gloves and his boots are on stage, serving as a reminder of his power. When a bell sounds, his presence is also noted more strongly.
The play opens with Jean walking on the stage, the set being the kitchen of the manor. He drops the Count's boots off to the side but still within view of the audience; his clothing shows that he is a valet. Jean talks to Christine about Miss Julie's peculiar behavior. He considers her mad since she went to the barn dance, danced with the gamekeeper, and tried to waltz with Jean, a mere servant of the Count. Christine delves into the background of Miss Julie, stating how, unable to face her family after the humiliation of breaking her engagement, she stayed behind to mingle with the servants at the dance instead of going with her father to the Midsummer's Eve celebrations. Miss Julie got rid of her fiancé seemingly because he refused her demand that he jump over a riding whip she was holding. The incident, apparently witnessed by Jean, was similar to training a dog to jump through a hoop.
Jean takes out a bottle of fine wine with a "yellow seal" and reveals, by the way he flirts with her, that he and Christine are engaged. Noticing a stench, Jean asks what Christine is cooking so late on Midsummer's Eve. The pungent mixture turns out to be an abortifacient for Miss Julie's dog, which was impregnated by the gatekeeper's mongrel. Jean calls Miss Julie "too stuck-up in some ways and not proud enough in others," traits apparently inherited from her mother. Despite her character flaws, Jean finds Miss Julie beautiful or perhaps simply a stepping stone to achieve his lifelong goal of owning an inn. When Miss Julie enters and asks Christine if the "meal" has finished cooking, Jean instantly shapes up, becoming charming and polite. Jokingly, he asks if the women are gossiping about secrets or making a witch's broth for seeing Miss Julie's future suitor.
After more niceties, Miss Julie invites Jean once more to dance the waltz, at which point he hesitates, pointing out that he already promised Christine a dance and that the gossip generated by such an act would be savage. Almost offended by this response, she justifies her request by pulling rank: she is the lady of the house and must have the best dancer as her partner. Then, insisting that rank does not matter, she convinces Jean to waltz with her. When they return, Miss Julie recounts a dream of climbing up a pillar and being unable to get down. Jean responds with a story of creeping into her walled garden as a child-he sees it as "the Garden of Eden, guarded by angry angels with flaming swords"-and gazing at her longingly from under a pile of stinking weeds. He says he was so distraught with this unrequitable love, after seeing her at a Sunday church service, that he tried to die beautifully and pleasantly by sleeping in a bin of oats strewn with elderflowers, as sleeping under an elder tree was thought to be dangerous.
At this point Jean and Miss Julie notice some servants heading up to the house, singing a song that mocks the pair of them. They hide in Jean's room. Although Jean swears he won't take advantage of her there, when they emerge later it becomes clear that the two have had sex. Now they are forced to figure out how to deal with it, as Jean theorizes that they can no longer live in the same household-he feels they will be tempted to continue their relationship until they are caught. Now he confesses that he was only pretending when he said he had tried to commit suicide out of love of her. Furiously, Miss Julie tells him of how her mother raised her to be submissive to no man. They then decide to run away together to start a hotel, with Jean running it and Miss Julie providing the capital. Miss Julie agrees and steals some of her father's money, but angers Jean when she insists on bringing her little bird along-she insists that it is the only creature that loves her, after her dog Diana was "unfaithful" to her. When Miss Julie insists that she would rather kill the bird than see it in the hands of strangers, Jean cuts off its head.
In the midst of this confusion, Christine comes downstairs, ready to go to church. She is shocked by Jean and Miss Julie's planning and unmoved when Miss Julie asks her to come along with them as head of the kitchen of the hotel. Christine explains to Miss Julie about God and forgiveness and heads off for church, telling them as she leaves that she will tell the stablemasters not to let them take out any horses so that they cannot run off. Shortly after, they receive word that Miss Julie's father, the Count, has returned. At this, both lose courage and find themselves unable to go through with their plans. Miss Julie realizes that she has nothing to her name, as her thoughts and emotions were taught to her by her mother and her father. She asks Jean if he knows of any way out for her. He takes a shaving razor and hands it to her. The play ends as she walks through the door with the razor, presumably to commit suicide.
The work is widely known for its many adaptations.