Friday, November 27, 2009

of....Miss Julie by J. August Strindberg

By the way this is my first blog entry but I am just beginning this blog without a lot of fanfare. You know the way the networks used to do with sitcoms back in da day when they would just start a sitcom series and end it. No pilots, no events, no nada. Besides the fact that I am starting a blog 3 eons after everyone else did is hardly a cause for fanfare...

(0 days, 0 recipes)

First of all. August Strindberg is a misogynist, arrogant prick. If you weren't aware of this, just read some (you don't even have to read all) of the intros to one of his plays. (I myself am reading "Strindberg Plays: One" Translated and Introduced by Michael Mayer [there are several volumes because Strindberg could apparently write a play in the time it takes most people to fry a pancake or visit the restroom- and was not shy about extolling this ability]

My favorite quote:

Strindberg on Nietzche: "My spiritual Uterus has found a tremendous fertilizer in Friedrich Nietzsche, so that I feel like a dog about to litter! He is the man for me!"

Mayer goes on to explain that apparently Strindberg took comfort in Nietzche’s theory of the Superman (if you want to find out more about Nietzche, I’m too lasy and uninformed to go into it)

Anyway, Mayer explains that Strindberg took comfort in Nietzche’s Superman theory because it “seemed to him to offer some consolation against the impending domination of the world by women; here at last was a fellow spirit to support him against Ibsen, whose championship of the female sex Strindberg abominated.”

I could also include quotes from his outrageous letter to his publisher about why he should publish Miss Julie or other outrageous excerpts from his correspondence, but why make yourself read the direct thoughts of a misogynist when you already know they are one.

Now onto Miss Julie (I have to read now, so please hold for an hour like you are on the phone with the state of California EDD)

Just so you know, by the way, I am only reading Miss Julie because I am waiting for my rental of Paul Schrader’s remake of _Cat People_ to download on iTunes and it is taking forever.

Okay, so here’s the deal on Miss Julie.

This is what distinguishes a talented writer like Strindberg from a no-talent writer like Ayn Rand. (No, I have not personally read any Ayn Rand but having friends in High School who thought she was brilliant I heard enough quotes to know to stay away) Anyway Strindberg takes his woman-hating self and creates a character who crackles with sexuality and dark self-destructive urges.

Strindberg also hated the upper-classes and part of the reason he did, just FYI, is because his wife (at the time Siri) was from a wealthy family which made him resentful. So her thanks for choosing to marry Johan August Strindberg and not some better-looking Sven of her own class was him hating the rich and hating women. Also forget it if he’s on one of his “write a play in two days” binges and you need him to run to Revco to pick up some cat litter and a half-gallon of milk.

But quick runs to Mary Lou Retton-endorsed drug stores are not the domain of the brilliant playwrites, so back to matter at the hand. Class-conflict is what, selon moi, gives this play its punch. Julie is an out-of-control force that immediately causes the sort of trouble that one in 18th Century Sweden can’t get out of it. Basically, she comes to the servant’s midsummers dance and makes a super ho of herself and no one can really say no because she is the Mistress of the house. While Jean, the Valet and Christine, the cook and Jean’s fiancée, are talking about what a ho-dogg she is and how she’s ruining the night, she comes in the kitchen and immeadiately starts exhibiting the previously discussed ho-dogg behavior. However, Miss Julie is also attractive and Jean has no qualms about discussing how attractive he finds her with his fiancée.

But here is what is interesting, for a confirmed woman-hater, the most balanced character is Christine. However, on further glance, Christine has no ambition and knows her place. And thus by accepting her place (and even who she is above) she has obviously not been created as a favorable character by Strindberg. Christine’s petit petit petit bourgeois stance is clearly stated in this passage:

Christine: I’ve always had sufficient respect for myself-

Jean: To be able to turn up your nose at others.

Christine: To stop me from demeaning myself. You tell me when you’ve seen his lordship’s cook mucking around with the groom or the pigman! Just you tell me!

But really, considering how much Strindberg hates women, Christine may be as good as a woman can be, for while she is too ignorant to challenge the class structure, she also doesn’t seem to challenge women’s place. For the gentle bigot, any minority (Gay, colored, woman) who knows their place and lives at peace with their natural subordinate position is always A-OK.

Julie, however, is trouble. And not just because she is an aristocrat. You see, Julie’s father’s estate is plagued by a problematic history- and here it is. A woman, Julie’s mother, came in and nearly ruined everything. How could a woman manage to accomplish this sort of Alexis takes over Colby Co. in the 18th Century? Well Julie, in between her psychotic fits and erotic demands that Jean kiss her shoe, explains a story of her mother was a commoner who was “brought up with ideas about equality, freedom for women and all that.” Well, let’s just say that these kind of values led to a stormy relationship between Julie’s mother and father that put the whole Estate into jeopardy.

What is interesting is that Miss Julie’s account of her mother reminds me in some ways of _Craig’s Wife_ a Pulitzer-prize winning American play from the 1920s (and also two times a movie, once starring Joan Crawford) in which the anti-heroine Mrs. Craig is a heartless woman obsessed with the house and property that marriage brought her. Like Miss Julie’s mother (whom we do not meet in the play), she is in a position of anger because of her preoccupation with ownership and control. Mrs. Craig never shows any real love or compassion towards anyone. However, _Craig’s Wife_ is written presumably to illustrate what powerlessness creates in women. When your only chance at any security at all is marriage, where is there room for compassion or love? To be Mrs. Craig was a necessary business arrangement pivotal to her survival. Men can conquer in the world and leave their emotional lives for just that (not that it is ever that simple, but still). Mrs. Craig cannot truly live a full existence in a male-dominated world so she turns marriage into survival and that’s no good, but according to Strindberg the other alternative of courageously working to combat sexist conventions is an even worse option, for what you get is Julie. But, of course, Miss Julie’s mother was not only unfortunately exposed to “freedom for women” but she was also manipulative. Just a thought, by creating a marriage between a noble man and a common woman, Strindberg wanted to show how disasterous it would be if the table were turned- as if he were rich and his wife poor, how devilish she would be in trying to broadcast exercizes in social change (Strindberg must have a peach of a husband, he was married three times.) Strindberg’s female characters in Miss Julie are simply unable to digest and utilize the information at hand, like an ogre attempting to paint a fine line, they simply cannot master the subtle technique. Thus Miss Julie, like a severely mentally-disabled person unable to properly understand and articulate their emotions, Julie (like her mother before her) can only manipulate and act out in order to make her way through the world.

Since I began writing this on a lark, it was pure chance that John Lahr’s review of Patrick Marber’s _After Miss Julie_ an adaptation of the play that changes the setting from 18th Century Sweden to England in 1945 was in The New Yorker (playing on Broadway with Sienna Miller in the title role). In this review, John Lahr describes how the move forward in time renders the play’s believable situation of necessity (Miss Julie and Jean hiding in his bedroom so the rowdy servants returning from their dance will not see the two of them alone) is not believable in 1945 England. He is probably correct. However, I am prone to ask, why is it believable that Miss Julie’s mother would accomplish the manipulations necessary to damage the estate almost beyond repair and Miss Julie clearly beyond repair? Strindberg was a genius in pioneering the naturalistic style that makes this play endure so powerfully, so good that, unlike Ms. Rand, he makes his absurdity compelling.

By the way, totally see Paul Schrader’s _Cat People_. A masterpiece of trash from one of America’s most oversexed directors and Ms. Kinski, mostly naked, is fantastic.