21 June 2009

smiles of a summer night

Strindberg’s Miss Julie is one of those odd gaps in not only my play-going, but my play-reading, so off I went to the Aurora Theatre’s recent production, which was directed by Mark Jackson, who had also done Salome there. Even though this was billed as a “version” by Helen Cooper, I’m assuming that the story and psychology basically match the original and only the language was updated or arranged for our twenty-first century ears. I found it an extremely well-done production of a surprisingly flat play.

The three actors – Beth Deitchman as the maid Christine, Mark Anderson Phillips (an outstanding Jokanaan in Salome) as her fiancé and Miss Julie’s lover, the servant Jean, and Lauren Grace as Miss Julie – all gave convincing and thorough presentations of characters who could seem arbitrary or limited. I suspect we are meant to see Christine as narrow-minded and conventional, but by the end of the ninety-minute show she was the only one I was really interested in listening to – at least she was talking sense; however limited her view of the world, she was aware of how it worked and what she needed to do in it for her comfort (qualities which admittedly I probably like because I lack them).

Miss Julie is a country aristocrat who varies between ordering Jean to polish her boots (with her in them, of course) to throwing herself at his feet. Though these switches make her seem dramatic, she really only has the drama of a seesaw: she’s up, then she’s down, then she’s back up again. She’s one of those women who despises men who don’t dominate her and resents men who do. (An arrangement of more-or-less equals is out of the question here, not because of society but because of individual psychology.) Once you figure this out about her, she’s of limited interest because Strindberg doesn’t vary her circumstances enough for her character to show deeper or different aspects. (Compare Miss Julie’s limited range of interactions with the variety of people and situations that confront Hedda Gabler, and you can see why I find one character fascinating and the other not.) I remember when I first met a woman of this type and I was pretty pleased when I finally figured out what the deal was; of course I was just out of adolescence and since then my patience with figuring out that type has dropped considerably. I think the censored theater of Strindberg’s day could be compared to a boy just out of adolescence, and I can understand why Miss Julie caused great shock and interest, but presumably the theater has matured some in the intervening years and the novelty has worn off.

Though she’s definitely an actual type, it’s difficult not to feel that it’s a type summoned up by Strindberg’s anxieties. I don’t even consider her an example of his famous misogyny (a word I don’t really trust, and I don’t think the several other Strindberg plays I’ve seen allow me to make a judgment on that). To me she’s not about men fearing the strength of women, she’s about men fearing their own weakness.

Jean is a poor boy who has risen to a respectable position, albeit as a servant; he plans to rise farther and one reason for his entanglement with his mistress is to persuade her to take the money he thinks she has (or has access to) and to run off with him, so that they can run a swank hotel in Switzerland, a scheme which under the circumstances and considering the personalities involved seems utterly nutty (though I didn’t get the feeling we were meant to see its comic side). The secret subject of the whole drama is not sexual anxiety but social anxiety and status maintenance and status climbing, which makes watching the play oddly similar to reading The New York Times.

The set (nicely designed by Giulio Cesare Perrone) is dominated by an upside-down tree hanging over the table in the kitchen; this is both a realistic decoration for the Midsummer’s Eve feast and an almost surrealist symbol of nature turned upside down. I couldn’t help feeling that a little more surrealism would have helped –the situation is claustrophobic (that is, repetitive) in a way that made me long for another perspective, even that presented by the conventional maid. As with the Albee plays I’ve seen, the drama is hampered by having its absurd essence trapped in an overly realistic hold – I can see why Miss Julie and Jean are tangled together, but I kept thinking that in reality (and even given the more limited possibilities of the time for both of them) either one could have stepped aside in a variety of ways, ways which would have made for, to my mind, a more interesting play.


Libby Fife said...

That review darn near makes me want to pick up the book. I see on Amazon that there are several of his works in a collected format (with explanatory notes). Might be a nice diversion from what I normally read.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Wow. Thanks. I guess I should try to post these things while the plays are still running. ;-)

Thanks for the nice write-up on my quilt! I'll link when I'm home.

Civic Center said...

Try the old Swedish movie version some time. The woman playing Miss Julie is great and her bad boy servant is genuinely sexy.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Thanks for the reminder -- Criterion released that film a few months ago, and I meant to add it to the Netflix queue but I didn't until just now. Since it's #497 in the queue, I'll move it up so that I get to watch it before 2013.