Fernand Khnopff, Rote Lippen, 1897
I. INTRODUCTORY NOTE BY RICHARD JONATHAN
This post is the first in a series of four on Strindberg’s Miss Julie. In it you will find Declan Kiberd’s trenchant analysis of the play from the perspective of Strindberg and the ‘new woman’. Post 2 consists in a major essay by Jessica Benjamin, ‘Sympathy for the Devil: Notes on Sexuality and Aggression, with Special Reference to Pornography’, preceded by a brief essay by Richard Jonathan and a short excerpt from Sylviane Agacinski’s book, Drame des sexes: Ibsen, Strindberg, Bergman. The remaining posts in the series are by Richard Jonathan. The first of these, Post 3, presents a critical comparison of Mike Figgis’ film version of the play with that of Liv Ullmann. Finally, Post 4 offers an analysis of Philippe Boesman and Luc Bondy’s opera of Miss Julie. (Note that Posts 3 and 4 will be online by 30 April 2023.)
II. STRINDBERG’S VILLAINS: THE NEW WOMAN AS PREDATOR
DECLAN KIBERD ON ‘MISS JULIE’
Strindberg’s mastery of the art of inversion is triumphantly demonstrated in Miss Julie, a play whose plot hinges not only on the discrepancies between the sexes, but also on the differences between the classes. This bleak drama tells of how an aristocratic young lady seeks to seduce a manservant of her father in a short, sharp, pointless relationship which culminates in her suicide. Here, unlike in The Father, it is the woman and not the man who will die rather than lose honour. The manservant, being of the lower orders, can survive and prosper untrammelled by the self-destructive aristocratic notions of ‘face’ and ‘reputation’. It is Strindberg’s implication that he is the truer aristocrat, who uses brain and muscle to survive, and that Julie, like Hedda Gabler, is the last of a decadent aristocratic line, which somehow or other finds the saving grace to abolish itself. The shrewd and the resourceful will inherit the earth from those whom they supplant, and in his preface to the play the author claims to uphold this Darwinian belief.
Yet his drama is a great deal more subtle, in its insistence on how much both classes have in common, if only their pretensions to other ways of living. While Jean the servant affects a taste for wine, Miss Julie prefers the workingman’s beer. While Jean insists fastidiously on heated plates for dinner, Miss Julie dances with gamekeepers and doubtless follows her mother’s example in wearing dirty cuffs. Moreover, the play has not progressed far before each character is caught in some glaring contradiction on the question of the classes. At one stage, Jean can plead the cause of the lower orders and, at another moment, dissociate himself from the riffraff at the dance. Miss Julie can disown her aristocratic background, while at the same time issuing peremptory orders. The ultimate effect of all this is to throw into question the notions of rank and degree. If humans are at once so pretentious and so interchangeable, then a class-based society is a farce. The differences between the classes may be erased in due time, if we are to judge by the relations between Miss Julie and Jean; but the sexual differences between men and women are shown by Strindberg to be tragically irreconcilable.
At all events, one moment Miss Julie is teasing the reluctant Jean into a mild flirtation, and the next she is cravenly begging this servant, who has violated her honour, to take her away from her father’s house. She tries to clothe her erotic adventure in the idiom of romantic love, but Jean cruelly reminds her that she has only done what many others have done before her. At heart, she knows that his power over her was the spell which the strong will always cast over the weak, the man on the rise over the woman on the wane. Yet inconsistencies remain. She professes to have divested herself of aristocratic pretensions, yet cannot bear the prospect of public outrage at her loss of honour to an underling. He professes to be a democrat, yet anticipates with relish the prospect of Swiss citizens prostrating themselves before his porter’s uniform. He protests that men are all the same at root, yet finds it hurtful to learn that the aristocratic glamour of Miss Julie is so insubstantial. He talks as if he already felt himself above her, yet he will quake before the return of her father at the end. In the meantime, he dreams of escape with Miss Julie in an alliance based not on a self-deluding love, but on a shrewd sense of mutual material self-interest. While she toys with this proposal, Miss Julie recounts the details of a life that has turned her at once into a ruined aristocrat and a New Woman.
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