Strindberg likens the theater to a children’s bible, explaining that it has become a “middle class” art form for audiences who want to be entertained and not challenged. Therefore, popular drama has become mundane and flat, and truly innovative theater is unsuccessful because it fails to illicit the support of the majority. This trend, Strindberg believes, may cause the theater as an art form to go extinct.
This introduction establishes Strindberg’s perspective on his own writing. Dedicated to perfecting the naturalist style of playwriting that French writers like Emile Zola had yet been unable to crack, Strindberg sets his own work in opposition to the popular theater of his day.
Strindberg explains that, though he has not done “anything new” in Miss Julie, he has tried to create a modern drama about social class and financial stability because people are consistently fascinated with tragedies about upper class people. Strindberg notes that audiences find it tragic when highly-placed people lose everything, and therefore it is a good subject for drama.
What Strindberg fails to mention is that most of his plays and essays throughout his career concerned class in some way. Having grown up in extreme poverty, Strindberg consistently strove to highlight the plight of Europe’s working and servant classes.
However, Strindberg says that he hopes there will come a day when rationality, objectivity, and philosophical thinking will make people indifferent to people’s struggles and instead, merely reflective about the harsh and heartless nature of life.
This comment highlights Strindberg’s philosophical side. Throughout his writing, Strindberg urged his readers and audiences to think in more objective terms about the social constructs that organize daily life.
Strindberg explains that people find Miss Julie sad solely because they fear that her fate might also befall them one day. Strindberg claims that there is no “absolute evil,” and that the fact that some families fall from favor and others rise is merely the ebb and flow of society, and should not be viewed through an emotional lens.
Strindberg points out that people’s fortunes rise and fall on a daily basis, and suggests that people would not be so emotional about wealth and poverty if they could see society and the economy more like a machine rather than something with moral significance.
Strindberg chastises audiences for finding his work “sad.” He mentions his play The Father (which proceeded Miss Julie by only a year) which was panned by critics for being too upsetting. Strindberg insists that there is nothing upsetting in the failure of upper class families who stand in the way of the social and mental ascendancy of those that they employ and subjugate. He compares the rich to rotting trees who must be chopped down to ensure the health of the forest. Again, Strindberg insists that any audience member who has a sad reaction to the action in Miss Julie feels this way because they are projecting their own fears onto the action.
The Father, like Miss Julie, features a man who is increasingly emasculated by his wife. Strindberg’s stark descriptions baffled and angered theater critics. Strindberg viewed the responses as shortsighted and uncultured, and doubled down, in Miss Julie, on the themes of wealth and poverty that so displeased his audiences in The Father. In Strindberg’s mind, his audiences were willfully ignoring the unpleasant reality of the poverty all around them.
Strindberg suggests that Miss Julie’s fate results from a combination of factors, including her “mistaken upbringing,” her fiancé’s influence on her “weak and degenerate brain,” and the atmosphere of Midsummer’s Eve. Therefore, Strindberg believes he has not been “one-sided” in writing the play, as the wealth of contributing factors implicate many people and elements of society in Miss Julie’s fate.
Strindberg’s insistence that he has not been overly biased in presenting Miss Julie’s fate reveals not only his deeply-held misogynistic beliefs about autonomous women being “degenerates,” but highlights the way he treats Miss Julie like a scientific specimen, whose interactions and influences he is merely recording and observing.
Strindberg also claims that he attempted to make his characters “characterless,” to fight against writers like Moliere who created stagnant stock characters that have no depth or proximity to reality. Instead, Strindberg aims to present “modern” characters that are caught in a period of transition and are, therefore, “vacillating and out of joint.” In other words, Strindberg explains that his characters are more allegorical than individual, standing in for different kinds of people and historical attitudes through time.
Strindberg makes it clear that he views all his characters—not just Miss Julie—in a clinical, philosophical light rather than through an emotional lens. In doing so, Strindberg re-asserts that the purpose of Miss Julie is primarily to educate his audience about patterns of social behavior that persist throughout history and lead to the same cycles of wealth and poverty.
Strindberg explains that Miss Julie is a “modern character” because the “man-hating half woman” has begun to get more power in society as she becomes more educated and controls her own wealth. Strindberg sees this trend as a threat not only to society at large, but also to the gene pool of humanity, as these women are able to convince “weak” men to have children with them. According to Strindberg, their offspring are members of an “indeterminate sex” who lead tortured lives because their misguided upbringings counteract their fundamental natures. Ultimately, Strindberg explains, the indeterminate sexes die, like Miss Julie, in “fundamental struggles against nature.”
Here, Strindberg couches his overt misogyny in terms of evolution to make it seem more scientific and objective. Instead of merely viewing autonomous, wealthy and educated women as a threat to patriarchal society, Strindberg goes so far as to say that they dilute the gene pool by creating “indeterminate sexes.” This suggests that despite Strindberg’s focus on uncovering social inequity, he views female subjugation to be a biological rather than a social matter.
However, Strindberg believes that Miss Julie is also a tragic character because she comes from military nobility, and is therefore bound by an upper-class sense of duty to preserving the honor of her family. Strindberg likens this “superstition” about familial honor to harakiri, an ancient Japanese process in which noblemen would fall on their own swords when they had been dishonored by an enemy. Strindberg believes that Miss Julie cannot live without her honor and therefore commits suicide.
Strindberg viewed the European aristocracy as an outdated model primarily because it saddled individuals with the burden of their ancestors’ actions and afflictions. Strindberg was a firm believer in the power of individual will, desire, and action, so the concept of a “superstitious” connection to family honor angered him greatly.
Because Jean is not a nobleman, however, he does not have the same superstitious connection to honor, which allows him to survive his tryst with Miss Julie. Strindberg explains that Jean is “of the kind that builds new stock”: a man who adapts to his surroundings and uses refined tastes and a superior intellect to craft a “polished outside” to mask his poor upbringing. Strindberg explains that because Jean is able to run in more upper-class circles, he has become “a stranger” to other members of his own class.
Jean is Strindberg’s idea of an ideal man. He is unburdened by the strain of noble ancestry, and is therefore able to excel based solely on his drive and intelligence. By saying that Jean is a “stranger” to the members of his own class, Strindberg suggests that not every member of the working class possess the tools and adaptability to succeed, but a more meritocratic society would allow men like Jean to work their way out of poverty.
Strindberg explains that Jean has “at once the slave’s brutality and the Master’s lack of squeamishness,” meaning that he will not allow the tryst with Miss Julie to halt his goals for the future, and will likely end his life owning his own hotel. Strindberg even posits that Jean may become a count himself one day (in Romania where you can buy aristocratic titles) and, if not, his son will likely go to college and could even become a lawyer.
Strindberg’s assumption that Jean may even end his life as a Count suggests that Strindberg believed that the aristocracy was already crumbling in most of Europe, where noble titles were increasingly available for purchase. In the face of this commodified nobility, Strindberg sees anyone who clings to the purity and superiority of their noble title as part of the problem.
Strindberg claims that Jean’s lower class is an advantage as it allows him to “look at the world from below,” examining and learning from the upper classes. Therefore, even though Jean agrees when Julie asks if poverty is a terrible misfortune, he also uses his low station to his advantage, as it sets him apart.
Here, Strindberg reverses the paradigm of dominance and submission, asserting that Jean is superior to his masters in that he is able to look at them “from below,” seeing their weaknesses and that which they hide from view.
Strindberg adds that Jean, stands above Miss Julie because he is a man. “Sexually he is an aristocrat,” explains Strindberg, “because of his male strength, his more finely developed senses and his capacity for taking the initiative.” Therefore, Strindberg posits, the only thing holding Jean back in life is his class, which he will ultimately be able to transcend.
The theme of “sexual aristocracy” again shows Strindberg couching blatant misogyny in terms of social science. Strindberg again calls for a world in which social class is replaced with a hierarchy solely based on evolutionary supremacy. Strindberg crowns men kings of this evolutionary aristocracy simply by virtue of their gender, which he sees as superior.
However, Strindberg notes that Jean’s “slave” mind does show up in his fear and reverence for the Count, as well as in his belief in God. Jean primarily views the Count as an example of the kind of success and wealth that he hopes to achieve for himself.
Strindberg laments that, despite Jean’s sexual aristocracy, he still has been socialized as a servant and so maintains some of the hallmarks of his “slave” upbringing, one of which (to Strindberg’s analytical and areligious mind) is a belief in God.
In terms of the relationship between Julie and Jean, Strindberg explains that he does not believe that “two souls of such different quality” can be in love, but he does claim that Jean believes that if the social conditions were different, he could imagine himself feeling something close to real love for Miss Julie. Strindberg notes that love is like a hyacinth, which spreads roots in darkness before the bud can grow towards the light. In this case, the darkness of the circumstances that lead Julie and Jean to sleep together could have led to love if they had been of the same class.
By admitting that Julie and Jean could have been in love if their social classes had been compatible, Strindberg proves that he is more interested in the allegorical and moral message of his play than in the individual characters he has created. It does not matter whether Julie or Jean see themselves as being able to love one another, it only matters to Strindberg that they act in accordance with their nature and against the constraints of class.
Strindberg abruptly changes his focus to Christine, who he explains is “purposefully sketched as an ordinary character,” meant to stand in for the kind slow, overly-pious servants that Jean is trying to distance himself from. Strindberg particularly distains Christine’s extreme piety, explaining that it is a way that she can remain “guiltless” and overly moralistic while still lying and stealing to suit her own needs.
Here again, Strindberg reiterates that not all lower-class Europeans are “new men” like Jean. Indeed, Strindberg views overt piety as a hypocritical trait in many servants, who cling to religion in order to feel blameless in their circumstances.
In terms of dialogue, Strindberg explains that he purposefully tried to mimic natural speech, allowing his characters to speak in clipped sentences, trail off and interrupt their own trains of thought as people do in life, instead of using the forced and overly-formal style of French dramatic dialogue of the same period. Strindberg explains that his dialogue repeats, rehashes ideas, and grows like a piece of music.
The French drama that Strindberg refers to, written by his contemporaries like Moliere and Racine, largely had characters speaking in verse and structured rhyme. Strindberg believed that this trope was unrealistic and removed the dramatic stakes from the action.
In terms of the characters, Strindberg chose to exclusively focus on Jean and Julie (adding Christine in for reference), but he made sure to keep the “unfortunate spirit of the father hovering above the action.” Strindberg believed that the Count provides important psychological background for both Julie and Jean’s action, and gave his drama a psychological undertone.
The observation about psychology speaks to Strindberg’s later work, in which he focused almost exclusively on psychological impulses as well as the suppressed memories and influences that drove him and his characters. Strindberg’s focus on psychology also made him one of the fathers of modern drama.
Strindberg explains that he purposefully wrote Miss Julie without an intermission because he worried that the hypnotic hold that the action has over the audience would be broken if they were able to take a break from the story. In addition, Strindberg dictates that the play should be 90 minutes long, since a play with so many heavy moral themes would become more like a punishing sermon if it lasted any longer. Strindberg notes that he made that mistake with his 1872 play The Outlaw, which lasted too long and the audience became restless.
Because Strindberg largely directed and staged his own plays, he has a specific vision for every element of the production. The play was naturally performed according to Strindberg’s specifications in 1889, but almost all subsequent directors have followed his instructions in terms of format, never inserting an intermission where one is not indicated.
Strindberg, worried that even 90 minutes may be too long for an audience to sit still, has broken the action in Miss Julie up with dance, songs, and pantomime in order to hold his audience’s attention. Eventually, Strindberg explains, he hopes for “a public educated to the point that they can sit through a whole-evening performance in a single act.”
In wishing for an “educated” theater-going public, Strindberg again jabs at “middle class” theater goers who have no desire to be challenged or instructed by anything they see onstage. The inconsistencies in his own class-based social critique come to bear here.
Strindberg explains that he uses a pantomime instead of a monologue when Christine cleans the kitchen because he believes that monologues are unrealistic, and only truly talented and “creative” actors can improvise enough action and intention to make sense of the fact that they are talking to themselves for a long period of time. Likewise, Strindberg has “permitted” music in his dance sequence, but notes that it should not be any music that would be found in a musical or comedy.
Here again, Strindberg makes sure to distance himself as much as possible from “common” theater. Musicals and comedies were the most popular theatrical forms of the period, favored by those who wanted to go to theater as a form of pure entertainment and escapism. Strindberg wished for a theater that made the audience confront their own humanity, so he disdained the use of theatrical tricks like bawdy music.
Strindberg explains that he borrowed the Impressionist idea of “asymmetry” in his set design. The entirety of the play takes place in the kitchen, primarily to deprive the audience of lavish scenery that could distract them. In addition, Strindberg dictates that the furniture should be arranged so that the audience can see both Julie and Jean’s faces whenever they sit across from each other at the table. Above all else, Strindberg explains, the set should feel realistic, as if the audience is truly sitting in a kitchen with Jean and Julie, and witnessing a moment of ultimate tension and intimacy.
The sparse set of Miss Julie was one of Strindberg’s more revolutionary ideas. By stripping away all set décor, music, and lavish costumes, Strindberg created a theatrical space that was completely concerned with and inhabited by his characters’ humanity and the way they absorbed and dealt with their problems and emotions. The play is engineered to make the audience uncomfortable, a completely novel idea at the time of its writing.
Strindberg also explains that, in terms of the actors, he has eliminated the use of footlights (commonly used to give actors’ faces a full, rosy appearance) and asks the actors to wear little-to-no makeup in order to look “lifelike.” Indeed, Strindberg notes that, in an ideal world, the play would be staged in a small space, so that the actors could be lit primarily with side light and wear virtually no makeup at all. He also asks that the actors make full use of the stage, even turning their backs on the audience if they feel it is appropriate to the action.
Here, Strindberg highlights another modern theatrical concept. Instead of staging important scenes center stage, out to the audience (as was the custom in French drama), Strindberg instructed his actors to turn their backs to the audience when they wanted to, and to never feel like they are playing “for” the audience. This relationship between actor and audience became a hallmark of Naturalist theater.
In his final paragraph, Strindberg makes an uncannily accurate predication for what the future of theatrical spaces should look like. He explains that, in his ideal world, he would place the orchestra in a “pit” so as to not distract the audience, and place the audience on risers or raked seats to that they have a more complete view of the action. In addition, Strindberg would eliminate dining boxes and dim the lights completely during the performance, so that the audience is not able to distract themselves from the action onstage. If these changes are made, Strindberg posits, “a new dramatic art might arise, and the theater might at least become an institution for the entertainment of people with culture.”
Most theater of Strindberg’s time felt more like a variety show. The musicians were fully-visible and the lights usually remained on to allow patrons to eat, drink, and talk at will. Strindberg longs for a time in which theater goers attend plays with the intention of giving the action their full focus.