A Midsummer Night in 1874. The large kitchen of a Scandinavian manor house.
MISS JULIE: A Countess
JEAN: A valet
KRISTIN: A cook
Miss Julie is a modern character which does not mean that the man-hating half -woman has not existed in every age, just that she has now been discovered, has come out into the open and made herself heard. Victim of a superstition (one that has seized even stronger minds) that woman, this stunted form of human being who stands between man, the lord of creation, the creator of culture, [and the child], is meant to be the equal of man or could ever be, she involves herself in an absurd struggle in which she falls. Absurd because a stunted form, governed by the laws of propagation, will always be born stunted and can never catch up with the one in the lead, according to the formula: A (the man) and B (the woman) start from the same point C; A (the man) with a speed of, let us say 100 and B (the woman) with a speed of 60. Now , the question is, when will B catch up with A? — Answer: Never! Neither with the help of equal education, equal voting rights, disarmament or temperance— no more than two parallel lines can ever meet and cross.
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. It is not a sound species for it does not last, but unfortunately it can propagate itself and its misery in the following generation; and degenerate men seem unconsciously to select their mates among them so that they increase in number and produce creatures of uncertain sex for whom life is a torment. Fortunately, however, they succumb , either because they are out of harmony with reality or because their repressed instincts erupt uncontrollably or because their hopes of attaining equality with men are crushed. The type is tragic, offering the spectacle of a desperate struggle against nature…
So… OK… wow. Strindberg thinks women are mentally deficient.
I’d been searching the script for the cause of Julie’s mental collapse— the thing that made her fall to pieces despite her sharp mind and her iron will. But for Strindberg, Julie falls apart because of those things, not despite them. Strindberg believes that women are fundamentally incapable of being psychological equals with men, and that when they attempt to spar with men (either mentally or sexually), they inevitably overwhelm their feeble capacities and collapse under the weight of the psychic strain.
Fuck. Off. Strindberg. You dead misogynist asshole.
But let’s put aside my feminist fuming. Let’s talk about the problems that Strindberg’s perspective presents for me, as the playwright, adapting the script. Here’s the thing: I don’t believe that women are inherently feeble minded. And, I don’t think that a 21st century audience believes that women are inherently feeble minded. And, if we don’t believe this, how are we to make sense of Julie’s trajectory through the play? What meaning can we draw from it? We only feel for characters when we feel the undeniable truth of them. If Julie is not credible, then she will not engage an audience’s empathy. And if an audience is not empathetic with Julie, then the entire experience of the play becomes a sort of very literary snuff film. It is not tragic, it is-- instead-- voyeurism. It may be thrilling, but it is, ultimately, empty.
Strindberg is, in many ways, a great writer. But I believe, with Miss Julie, he has constructed his play on foundations that have worn away over time. The characters may be fascinating, their chemistry may be undeniable, the dialogue may be sharp, and some of Strindberg’s ideas may still be relevant. But ultimately these things stand on shaky ground. Contemporary successful productions of Miss Julie are like a shoddily constructed McMansion. They only work if you decorate them with with fancy, impressive casting, only if you have a director who can spackle over holes, and only if you don’t look too closely at what’s underneath.
So, for me, the challenge of adapting this script was the challenge of shoring up the foundations of the play. I sought to preserve as much of the original story as possible, while, at the same time, digging out the archaic underpinnings and replacing them with something more contemporary. The major events of the play are basically the same, but the psychology which drives those events has been rewritten.