Saturday, October 18, 2014

Some Strindberg filth - Miss Julie - now you know what I’m talking about

Miss Julie (1888) reverses and rearranges The Father.  Now the man will defeat the woman.  What begins as a seduction, with the complicity of the woman, turns into something much uglier, much worse, a battle of willpower that ends with the destruction of Miss Julie’s will, literalized through some kind of hypnosis.

Since the story is about a man revenging himself on a woman for having sex with him, it might seem like the play is Strindberg’s punishment of Miss Julie for her sexual discretion.  Strindberg’s misogyny is infamous.  Miss Julie comes with a preface full of this kind of twaddle:

The half-woman is a type who thrusts herself forward and sells herself nowadays for power, decorations, honours, or diplomas as formerly she used to do for money.  She is synonymous with degeneration.  (60)

Other parts of the Preface are so ironic, even plainly satirical, that I am careful not to take any of it too seriously, but the remarkable thing is that the play itself reverses the claims of the preface and the logic of its own story.  The servant deliberately turns the sexual encounter into a weapon to avenge himself not for the sex, but for earlier humiliations going back to his childhood, humiliations that he attributes to his class but are in fact the result of his own weakness.  Julie’s tragic end is not the result of the erasure of her will, but rather its assertion.  The servant is humiliated again at the moment of his supposed triumph.  He’s the weak one, not Julie.  Seen this way, the play is a double of The Father from the previous year.

Miss Julie introduced me to Strindberg’s filth theme.  If it was in The Father, I missed it.  The servant tells Julie the story of the first time he saw her.  He was a child; he had snuck into the estate’s park to steal apples.  He was intrigued by a building like “a Turkish pavilion” of unknown purpose.

The walls were all covered with portraits of kings and emperors, and over the windows there were red curtains with tassles on them – now you know what I’m talking about.  (82)

Actually, I thought I knew, and I was right, but those portraits threw me off the foul scent for a minute.  So that’s how rich people decorated their outhouses in 19th century Sweden.  The boy, hearing people approach, escapes through the toilet, so when he first sees the “pink dress and a pair of white stockings” belonging to Julie he is literally covered in the excrement of his masters.  The servant is at this point still trying to seduce Julie.

Turning to the introduction of the Oxford World’s Classics edition:  “[Miss Julie] had to wait eighteen years for its first professional production in Sweden and an unexpurgated text was not published or performed there until well into the following century” (xiii).  No kidding.  Sex, filth, death – whatever excesses Freudian critics may have committed against other writers, they are on firm ground with Strindberg.

All of this in one plain set, a kitchen, with three actors plus some mimes.  Kitchen mimes are an example of the Naturalism for which Strindberg is so well known.  I will never stop mocking the term “Naturalism.”


  1. And then there is the Marxist reading: Strindberg versus class distinctions. So, which is more significant? Is it the male v. female agon or the them v. us (class warfare) agon? What do you think? (I think Strindberg is confused -- he conflates the two struggles and cannot separate them, and the muddies the waters in his drama.)

  2. And then, of course, there are the three fates for the three characters. When we consider what happens to each character, we have a pretty good idea about what Strindberg is ranting and raving about in his "Naturalistic" drama (a.k.a., melodrama of somewhat questionable realism).

  3. I picked a particularly Marxist passage, didn't I? You're right, I think, that the sexual and class conflicts are really expressions of Strindberg's internal psychological conflicts or perhaps I should call them ideas.

    "Melodrama of questionable realism" is good. It describes a fair amount of Zola, too.

  4. You--or, I suppose, Strindberg--disappoint me: I had hoped this post would have more to do with lascivious filth rather than mere actual excremental filth! However, it was very educational to see "Naturalism" and mimes come together in the context of a play. "Melodrama of somewhat questionable realism" notwithstanding, who woulda thunk it? Not me anyway.

  5. To Strindberg, lascivious and excremental are one and the same. But he does keep the sexual stuff offstage.