August Strindberg's Miss Julie is one of the most-produced plays in contemporary history. Like the works of Shakespeare, it has stepped onto multiple stages at various locations across the globe every single year since its inception in the early twentieth century. It has been staged as Strindberg intended it when he wrote of a wealthy Swedish estate in 1888, but it has also been set in an English country-house in 1945, Manhattan in the roaring twenties, and even Putin's Russia in 2015.
Most theatre historians much more qualified than us here at Grey Noise would likely give one or two explanations for the play's astounding success:
1) The script Miss Julie is in the public domain. It is desirable because it can be produced without royalties and adapted to fit any theatre company's needs.
2) It is a damn good play. The characters are complex and their relationships are compelling. The dialogue is colorful. The emotional build effortlessly brings audiences along for the ride.
In our hubris however, we would like to offer a possible alternate explanation for the way in which this work has swept theaters the world over.
Miss Julie is a story about a power struggle between two people. More symbolically, it is a story about the first stirrings of the shift of power between the upper and lower classes in Strindberg's lifetime. When the play's first production went onstage in 1906, it addressed the relationship between the aristocracy and their servants-- think of the forces at play between the classes in Downton Abbey. But perhaps the reason why the script has had such a long and vibrant shelf life is because it is the story of a relationship that has had analogs all throughout human history.
Prior to Strindberg's time, there was the notable struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeois in revolutionary France. There was the infamous Protestant persecution of the Roman Catholics in Northern Ireland, which provided the backdrop for a 2006 translation of the work produced by the Theatre Royal of Bath, England. In the years after Strindberg's career was the oppression of countless people groups, most heinously the Jews, in Europe during World War II. Later still was the American Civil Rights Movement. This was the period during which Toronto's CanStage decided to set their adaptation entitled Maid Julie: Freedom Summer. This production installs Julie as the daughter of a wealthy plantation owner and the servant as her father's chauffeur--a black man. A similarly poignant production was staged in Cape Town, South Africa by the Baxter Theatre Center. Mies Julie was reworked to fit the narrative of the nation's troubling apartheid history.
As one can see, Miss Julie has been adjusted again and again to give a voice to the oppressed whom history would like to forget, but who have continued to rise all the same just as they did in Strindberg's original text.
The historical examples where Strindberg's dynamics apply are endless, and many are fiercely politically or even racially driven-- feudal Japan, the persecution of early Christians in ancient Rome, the Islamic Moors in medieval Spain, the British occupation of India... The tale is ongoing and cyclical, and therein lies its appeal. Humanity will always continue to see new powers rise only to be overtaken by those they trampled upon on their way.
There will always be stories to tell, and Strindberg has provided one darkly beautiful format in which to tell them.
For more information about why we specifically chose medieval Scotland as our setting, stay tuned for the following post.