Yvonne Hopkins Fegan’s Mademoiselle Julie takes August Strindberg’s Miss Julie, the story of a neurotic woman who becomes sexually involved with her father’s valet, and transposes it from Sweden in the 1880s to New Orleans in the 1830s. An intriguing premise, and one you might think would result in a play that both preserves all that’s good in Strindberg’s original and adds a few twists of its own.
In fact there is a lot to like about Fegan’s script, which is less an adaptation than a translation of Strindberg’s play into a Louisianan dialect. Fegan’s dialogue is fresh and believable, especially when compared with the all-too-often stilted “definitive” English translations of Strindberg’s work. In the paperback edition of Strindberg’s plays I’ve owned since high school are lines such as “I would have scratched your eyes out!” and “Well, you tell me–you who know everything.” In Fegan’s play these lines are “I scratch your eyes out!” and “You so smart–you tell me.” The handful of French phrases Fegan has sprinkled throughout–Ah bien! C’est vrai, Pourquoi pas?–adds local color and authenticity without alienating those members of the audience who never took first-year French.
Unfortunately, Fegan’s fine adaptation has not been at all well served by Bailiwick’s flaccid production. All of the visual elements are in place: apt costumes by Margaret Fitzsimmons Morettini, perfectly designed lighting by Tom Fleming, a wonderfully detailed set by Dan Ostling. But at the center of the play are two actors, Jeanne M. Dwan as Julie and David Barr as Jean, who can’t seem to generate enough heat together onstage to melt an ice cube. Yet somehow we’re supposed to believe that these two are so strongly drawn to each other that even taboos against the commingling of races cannot keep them apart.
Even harder to believe: that after the dirty deed is done, Dwan’s Julie is so filled with conflicting feelings of sexual longing, remorse, and self-hatred that she can’t decide whether to run away with her father’s valet or slit her throat. Part of the problem is that Dwan makes a preposterous Mademoiselle Julie. Her half-baked DuBoisian accent and mannerisms (reminiscent more of Woody Allen’s Blanche in Sleeper than of Vivien Leigh’s in Streetcar) never for a moment convince us that she is a southern belle.
Mind you, I don’t envy any actress trying to fashion a believable, compelling character out of Julie. She’s a mass of contradictions: man-hating yet attracted to men; morbidly afraid of sex yet easily aroused; domineering, almost sadistic, yet also submissive and even a little masochistic. Still, it is disappointing to fail to see her come to life even for a few minutes.
Dwan’s flawed performance, however, is only indicative of deeper problems in the show’s direction. The whole production seems off-kilter: almost every actor is subdued and inhibited (with the exception of Patricia Pendleton, who simply shines as the jealous cook Christine), and aspects of the story that you’d think would be important are ignored. The race issue is almost completely repressed: Julie’s relations with her father’s slaves are unrealistically open and evenhanded, so free of even the hint of racial prejudice you’d think her father was an abolitionist instead of a slave owner. But nothing reveals the extent to which this production ignores the dark side of southern race relations more than the moment near the end of the play when Jean mentions that he could be lynched for having been with a white woman. Barr tosses this off so nonchalantly that you’d never guess in a million years that being lynched was something to be avoided.
I’m convinced that director Sydney Daniels has completely misunderstood what makes this story interesting–even though he shares a credit with Fegan for having come up with the play’s “concept.” Otherwise he could never have written in his director’s note: “More than the conflicts of race, class, and gender, Mademoiselle Julie is about the dashing of dreams, and ultimately, of lives.”
Mademoiselle Julie is no more about the “dashing of dreams” than it is about the dangers of dabbling in voodoo. If anything, Mademoiselle Julie, like Miss Julie, is about the tragedy of getting what one wants. Julie secretly dreams of falling from a great height –you don’t have to be Freud to know what this means–while Jean dreams both of climbing a tall tree and of one day possessing Julie. Both Julie and Jean’s dreams are fulfilled, with disastrous results.
By failing to see that “race, class, and gender” conflicts are more important to the play than the Disney-esque issue of whether Julie’s and Jean’s dreams are “dashed,” Daniels effectively cuts himself off from what makes Fegan’s idea of transposing Miss Julie to 1830s New Orleans most intriguing. Anyone who denies the importance of race, class, and gender in a work about a rich, neurotic white woman who sleeps with a poor but ambitious black slave is sure to get the repressed, unreal, desexed production he deserves.