The Dilemma of Naturalistic Tragedy: Strindberg's Miss Julie

Article excerpt

Until the time of Strindberg in the latter part of the nineteenth century, the dilemma of tragedy had been shaped by the divided heritage of the neoclassical view of Greek tragedy, on the one hand, and on the other, by its Elizabethan past in the open Shakespearean form of tragedy. The question whether it was possible for a modern dramatist to write tragedy had been debated at length, especially by Lessing and the Romantics who advocated new forms freed from the tyranny of the past.

When Strindberg had finished Miss Julie in the first week of August 1888, he promptly mailed it to his publisher, to whom he presented the contents of his play as a modern psychological drama and defined its form as a tragedy that fulfilled the ideals of the classical tradition: "By this I take the liberty to offer the first Naturalistic Tragedy in Swedish Drama, and I ask you not to refuse it rashly so that you may regret it later, for ... this play will be recorded in the annals." (1) The play was refused, but his prophecy proved to be true.

Its plot, a count's daughter who goes to bed with her servant and then commits suicide, is a banal story of the woman from nobility and the man from the people. The kitchen below, the place for Jean and Julie's meeting, is connected to the servants' sleeping quarters but with no access to the rooms above where the count and his daughter, Lady Julie, live in the stately manor house. The dialectic of class conflict is built into the set, a kitchen with its only exit opening onto the feudal park with its Cupid fountain and Lombardy poplars. The only connecting link between the classes is through a big old-fashioned bell and speaking tube by which the orders of the master are communicated to their servants.

Even the giving of the French name, Jean (originally Johan), originates from above, and at one heated point Julie even asks: "What is your name? I've never heard how you are addressed." (2) Her taunting but revealing remarks lay bare the subtext of class in their power struggle. The intoxication of the Midsummer night, the music, and dance are the treacherous means that unite the two worlds during the fleeting hours from evening to morning, but this only underscores the tragic impossibility of the two doomed lovers.

In the play's preface, an important document in theater history that defines the aesthetic precepts of naturalism from the perspective of the theatrical staging, Strindberg attempts to position Miss Julie in the avant-garde of Emile Zola's movement and to counter his earlier criticism of The Father as a naturalistic tragedy. (3) The drawing of modern characters and their representation on the stage are set within the context of contemporary science, which is seen as the key to replacing the study of abstract, metaphysical man by the study of natural man, subject to physiochemical laws and determined by the effects of his milieu. La bete humaine as the helpless victim of heredity, social and animal instinct, locked in a battle of life and death, is discussed from the perspective of scientific causality as the only means to grasp the multiplicity of physical and psychic events that determine his psychological characterization: "As modern characters, living in a time of transition, more hectic and hysterical than the preceding period at any rate, I have drawn my characters vacillating, disintegrated, a blend of old and new.... My souls (characters) are conglomerations of past and present stages of civilization, bits from books and newspapers, pieces of human beings, rags and tatters of fine clothing, patched together like the human soul." By absorbing this plural viewpoint of the human consciousness as splintered in a multiplicity of complexes, Strindberg also rejects classical humanism's view of man as a unity of self in its health and validity. This is a radically modern conception of character in conflict with that of classical tragedy, in which the dramatist had affirmed his belief in human dignity and worth, giving the hero the opportunity to exert his free will, make a moral choice, and thus gain redemption. …