In the previous post in conversation with Jake Murray, we asked the director of Miss Julie – playing across the North East this March – about his personal experience of the play and what makes it challenging to produce and perform. In this second post, Jake explores the themes of the play itself, and explains why a work that was ahead of its time in Strindberg’s day finds new resonance in ours.
The premise of Miss Julie is incredibly simple: an aristocratic girl finds herself in the kitchen, talking with two servants, falls in love with one of them and…well we won’t give away what happens next. But still, what themes attach themselves to such bare bones?
You’re right. The genius of the play is that its set-up is so simple, and yet what Strindberg manages to do with these three people in a servants’ kitchen somehow manages to speak of something universal that reaches way beyond the immediate context.
We don’t realise how radical it was for Strindberg to set a play in a servants’ kitchen. One of the earliest reviews of the original production devotes a whole paragraph to it, to how disorientating and shocking it was.
Why was this so? The simple answer is: no one had done it before. Ibsen had been the first to set a tragedy of Greek proportions in a bourgeois living room, but Strindberg was the first to take things ‘downstairs’ as it were. Before then all drama was epic, classical, to do with monarchs or the ruling classes, the great dramas of Shakespeare, the Greeks, Schiller and Goethe. Where servants and working-class characters appeared they tended to be comic characters, albeit not without pathos and humanity, especially with Shakespeare. Molière had plenty of servant roles, but they were always comic relief, or cunning schemers who outwitted their masters. Strindberg was the first to create working-class characters with the same tragic, or at least serious dimensions of a Hamlet, Iago or Lady Macbeth. The education Jean (or John, in our production) gives Miss Julie about how it is living among the poor, always disadvantaged by the class system, was new to the stage. No major stage figure had ever told truth to power from that level of society before.
This sounds very timely, given the rise of populist leaders who claim to be telling similar truths to the powerful elite – to ‘drain the swamp’ as Trump has it. Was that a surprise?
The class politics of the play were a revelation, and still bite today. For all our best intentions after World War Two, we are a country that is still wounded by class. Presenting the play today, when class politics seem to have returned with a vengeance, especially in the wake of Brexit,
Miss Julie seems to resonate extraordinarily powerfully once again. In rehearsals we have been calling it ‘Downton Abbey with the gloves off’. Strindberg does an extraordinary job of tearing his way through the issue of Class in the play.
Where it goes even further is in its exploration of sexuality and the confusion and carnage that can ensue between men and women when things go wrong. What happens to John and Miss Julie undoes them, but we see both of them battling with what is happening to the very end. What shocked Strindberg’s contemporaries was his ability to write about relationships between the sexes in an unidealised way. Ripped apart by the collapse of his own marriage, he knew only too well how brutal men and women could be to each other under extreme circumstances, but within all that – and this is what people get wrong with Strindberg – he never lost sight of the possibility that it could be otherwise.
If Miss Julie and John were hateful figures there would be no tragedy. Instead you see two human beings who, under other circumstances, could have made it work. They have energy, pride, resourcefulness and a depth of feeling that, in one sense at least, makes them a perfect match, but the divisions of class, social mores and gender drive them apart. Right to the end of his life Strindberg was battling against his own negative demons, seeking peace, hope, love, redemption, and reconciliation with women. This interior battle is on every page in the play. That is what makes it so universal. It’s a tragedy, there is bitterness in it, but it is not pessimistic or nihilistic. We see two human beings struggling to the end with their fate with an extraordinary passion.
Your mention of gender is especially pertinent given that we’re chatting on International Women’s Day 2019. Strindberg was writing during the period of the fight for women’s suffrage and first-wave feminism, while different forces such as #MeToo are more resonant today. How have you dealt with this?
It’s interesting you should bring up the Suffragettes. Only last night I was talking to my mother about the play. She was always a huge Strindberg fan and used to argue with my father about him, who was very critical. We were talking about how the play is often described as misogynist and I was saying how, having worked on it, I didn’t think it was. She used the exact words ‘Miss Julie is a suffragette in a way’.
Strindberg would have probably been horrified, but his feelings about this were very complex. When he was a young man he was an idealist. He championed free thought on issues of religion, socialism and women’s rights. He wrote passionate pamphlets urging a breaking down of social conventions that limited women, arguing that they should have the right to have their own bedroom separate from their husbands, and even that she should be allowed to have pre-marital sex in order to find out if they were compatible with them. He was very happily married to his first wife, Siri Von Essen, on whom Miss Julie is based and for whom it was written. But when their marriage broke down and became rancorous his benign view of women changed to an intense hatred of feminism and anything that he felt had inspired his wife to turn against him.
All of this poured itself into the play. Miss Julie talks about how she was brought up by a freethinking set of parents. Her mother is described as committed to freedom for women and of bringing her up with the promise never to be the slave of men. We appear to be invited by Strindberg to see this radical feminist upbringing as something that helps destroy Miss Julie, and in his famous introduction to the play he writes with real viciousness about Miss Julie and ‘half-woman’ he thought feminism had produced.
But the writer was better than the man. What Strindberg actually created was a completely rounded portrait of an extraordinary woman, full of passion, intelligence, deep feeling, vibrancy and joie de vivre who is destroyed, not by herself, but the society and world around her which gives her no options. We talked a lot in rehearsals about how Miss Julie is a modern woman born a hundred years before she would have been free to fully realise herself. All the barriers that stand in her way have been eradicated now. Women are freer to choose their sexual partners, careers, whether they want to marry or not, to vote, to lead, to not be judged harshly by for actions that are approved of in men, to not be barred from having money and so on. If Miss Julie were alive today she would be a leading figure in our society. But she is not. Without intending to do so, Strindberg has written a tragedy about the waste of female potential by a society that isn’t open to it. In that sense Miss Julie is a suffragette. She is one of the many women in history who paved the way for where we are now, who suffered under a society that we have done all we can to break down. A central image in the play is a birdcage with a greenfinch in it. If Strindberg had not understood how women were trapped in nineteenth-century society, he would never have put that in. In the end she is a tragic heroine, whatever Strindberg thought he was doing. In many ways she has a greater tragic grandeur than John in the last moments of the play. She has at least freed herself from her grief, while he is, if anything more trapped than she ever was.
In a way we have been able to draw upon all the advances in women’s rights that and the greater freedom women have now that have happened since the play was written and been able to bring them to bear on what Strindberg has written. He may have thought he was critiquing it, but in fact he saw what was to come and understood it better than most. There is cruelty in the writing towards Miss Julie, but there is also tremendous compassion for her. He understood the suffering women carry, or carried within them, in a way men rarely do, and in the play he allows that reality is place.
With Elysium’s previous production of Jez Butterworth’s The River you transposed the action to the North East, while as a company you work with Northern actors. Have you localised Miss Julie in a similar way?
Yes, we’ve set the action in the North East again, just as we did with The River, and for the same reasons. We want Elysium TC to be a truly North Eastern company, so we want them to speak directly to audiences up here.
This production was inspired by a visit to the Durham Miners Association building in Redhills. Nick Malyan and Carlo Viglianisi of Empty Shop, who are spearheading the new vision for the building, were showing me around and telling me about how the DMA played a massive role in the development of the Labour Party before and after universal suffrage in 1918. We were shown the conference room, and the idea came to me to stage Miss Julie in there, relocating it to the North East in order to tackle the Class issues in the play. Sadly, that wasn’t possible, but the idea for the production had been born, so when Queen’s Hall, Hexham, asked if we wanted to do something, that was what we suggested.
Since Strindberg was writing in Swedish, that must require some amendments to the translation?
The original is set in Sweden, of course. To rework the script for the North East we have received the special permission of the estate of Michael Meyer, whose translation we’re using. Michael was the translator who made Strindberg and Ibsen a major part of British theatre and the wider English-speaking world after the war. Before him, Ibsen was admired by an intellectual and artistic few, and Strindberg was regarded as a madman. Thanks to Michael both are now recognised as giants of the stage over here. This translation was originally performed in a legendary production in the 1960s starring Albert Finney and Maggie Smith.
Michael was a great friend of mine, and a mentor in my 20s and 30s as I set out as a director. He came to all of my productions, donated money to them, and often hosted me for wonderful dinners where we would talk about Ibsen and Strindberg, to whom he had dedicated his life’s work. He died just before I directed my first Strindberg, Creditors and Pariah. I have never forgotten him, and whenever I have done a play by either of them I have always used his translations. To me they remain the best, not just because he was fluent in Swedish and Norwegian so knew them in the originals, but because he was a true man of letters, knew both playwrights inside out (his biographies of both are still definitive), and worked with some of the best directors on them. I have remained great friends with his daughter, Nora, who very kindly gave us permission to adapt the play for the North East. This means that the version you are about to see has been especially tailored for here.
You’re putting this on across the North East – in Hexham, Durham, North Shields and Darlington. As your company’s aim is ‘to bring the best of world theatre to the North of England’, how do you see the state of theatre in the region generally today? Where do you want Elysium to be in a few years’ time?
Well firstly, there is lots of great theatre work going on in Newcastle. Northern Stage and Live Theatre are both powerhouses, national treasures if you will. Fringe venues like Alphabetti and the Exchange are also doing great work. Outside Newcastle, however, there is much less serious theatre. This is not through a lack of desire in theatres, or lack of theatres – the North East is studded with a host of amazing theatres run by people of real passion – but lack of resources. This is true all across the country outside London. Beyond the major metropolises, serious theatre struggles.
What has been incredible about starting up Elysium is the response we have had from venues. The North East theatre scene wants to open its doors to great drama. We were thrilled when Geof Keyes and Katy Taylor from Queen’s Hall came to us after Jesus Hopped The A Train and offered to get behind our work. Out of that came The River and Miss Julie. The Assembly Rooms in Durham, run by Kate Barton, has also put its support behind us. We are thrilled to be performing at the stunning Gala Durham theatre for the first time, and also at the Exchange in North Shields and the newly-reopened Majestic in Darlington. The commitment of Karen Knox and Hayley Thompson who run those last two theatres is amazing. To be in there helping these last two venues build their profile is a real privilege.
We want to become a real presence in North East theatre. We are building links with Darlington College, Newcastle Uni and College and Gateshead College, as well as local schools and, of course, Durham University, in order to really embed ourselves up here as a resource, offer training opportunities and help create a new generation of North East theatre practitioners who will want to stay here and create a scene as vibrant as anywhere else in the country.
We want to be doing good work each year that tours around the North East, inspiring people and exciting them about theatre. At the moment we are only able to do small cast shows, but we would love to get to the point where we can be doing Shakespeare, for instance. We’d also love to press on into new plays.
Miss Julie is a big step forward for that, and we hope it will open the door to even more exciting projects to come.
In the previous post in this conversation, Jake reflected on his own previous experience with August Strindberg, a playwright beyond his time. Miss Julie runs from March 13 at various venues across the region.