Miss Julie is probably the most famous of the plays of August Strindberg, considered one of the founders of the modern theatre movement. It’s a nineteenth century story set on a holiday Midsummer night in Sweden, dealing with the issues of class, lust, the battle of the sexes and being a woman in a totally male-dominated world. Penny Penniston has written an astonishing adaptation of Strindberg’s text largely as a reaction to Strindberg’s stated intention for his play to show that any woman who refused male supremacy was either insane or criminal and doomed from the start. Penniston has brought a fuller humanity to all of the characters in her adaptation – and a much stronger and more justifiable dramatic action. It has been a thrill to work with her text. And it will be very exciting for our audiences to experience it. Performances are scheduled for the Sette LaVerghetta Performing Arts Center on Friday, February 8, and Saturday, February 9, at 7:30 PM as well as Sunday, February 10, at 2 PM. General Admission (no reserved seats) is free.
As a director, I rarely write these program notes. I figure that if the play doesn’t speak to you on its own terms, nothing I say as the director in a program makes any difference. But many of you may be coming to see this play having read or seen any one of dozens of translations of this most famous and most produced of August Strindberg’s plays. And you are most definitely NOT getting Strindberg’s play in this production. For many of the reasons, Penniston notes below, I struggled through over a dozen translations/ adaptations of Miss Julie totally unsatisfied. When I read the introduction to Penniston’s adaptation on Kindle, I realized that she at least understood the basic problems of the script. So I immediately ordered her adaptation and, reading it, I knew that I had found the script for Marywood’s production. I share her introduction below, because she makes the case beautifully. Enjoy it – and our production.
- Barb Blackledge
It had been years since I last read Miss Julie. So, when I got the commission to do this adaptation, I sat down with Strindberg’s script to look at it with a fresh eye. I read the script. And then I read it again. And then I read it a third time. And each time, I was left with the same question: “Why does Julie fall apart? Why does this competent savvy woman collapse under the pressure of these particular events?” In the opening scenes of the play, there is nothing to suggest that Julie is inherently fragile. In fact, in these scenes, Julie comes across as exuberant, strong-willed and cunning. Yes, the events of the play are stressful for her. But Julie is no Blanche Dubois and Jean is no Stanley. I found it incredible that Julie should so thoroughly abdicate her will power and then so desperately hand that power over to Jean. Searching for insight, I turned to Strindberg’s introduction of the play. Explaining the story, Stindberg writes:
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…
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.
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 fell 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 Juie, 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 shoddy constructed McMansion. They only work if you decorate them 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.
- Penny Penniston