One hundred and twenty-seven years after August Strindberg penned his seminal naturalist tragedy Miss Julie, it’s not difficult to feel the still-resonating percussion of its assault on bourgeois theatrical sensibilities. Beyond Strindberg’s overhaul of performance conventions (no footlights, minimal makeup, placing actors where they might actually stand in a room rather than stranding them before the prompter’s box) is the title character’s ferocious sexuality. Miss Julie, an aristocrat’s daughter, addles, provokes, humiliates, and emasculates her father’s valet until he ravishes her in the servants’ quarters—while his fiancee sleeps in the next room. Hell, the sordid mess is still scandalous today.
It’s difficult to square Strindberg’s progressive artistic ideas with his pathologically Victorian views on women, barely sublimated in Miss Julie and rendered explicit in his extended foreword to the play. Only three types of people “have a primitive capacity for deceiving themselves,” he declares: the young, the “semi-educated,” and women. Miss Julie’s troublesome libido is the product of, among other things, her “weak, degenerate mind” and her “monthly indisposition.” She’s not only a “man hater” but a “half-woman.”
After Miss Julie, British playwright Patrick Marber’s 1995 reworking of Strindberg’s classic, largely adheres to the original’s plot but offers a partial corrective to its misogyny. Marber sets the play in July 1945, in the immediate aftermath of the Labour Party’s trouncing of Churchill, a harbinger of doom for the prerogatives of the idle class. Fittingly, Marber’s Miss Julie seems tormented not by her degenerate man hating but by her lifelong idleness. Without purpose or talent, her social order imperiled, she’s desperate to matter, and the only place she might is in the gaze of her father’s valet, John, who’s adored her since they were both children. It makes for a singularly pathetic case of sexual self-destruction (it’s a shame Marber retained Strindberg’s tortured rationale for Miss Julie’s “unnatural” mannishness: she grew up on an estate run by her “liberated” mother, who insisted her male and female servants switch roles).
In director Elly Green’s largely satisfying Strawdog Theatre Company’s production (marred by several extended, barren silences), Maggie Scrantom combines Miss Julie’s paralyzing idleness with her knee-jerk gentility to produce a compelling, inscrutable, heartbreaking character who dominates the 90-minute show. Anita Deely, as John’s seemingly colorless fiancee, Christine, offers a perfect counterpoint, all hushed servility and enforced patience; as her life implodes, she all but disappears into Mike Mroch’s exactingly exhausted kitchen set. Both actresses keep their cards close to the vest, letting strategic placidity communicate the depths of their deliberately concealed passions. That makes John Henry Roberts as John the odd man out, eschewing his characteristically understated acting style in favor of broad brooding. His John is almost always transparent, despite the character’s patent need to keep his true motivations under wraps.
But even off his game, Roberts is dynamic enough, and Green’s pacing taut enough, to keep the action driving credibly, inexorably toward the tragic ending. And while that ending feels rather perfunctory, getting there is reward enough. v