At Grey Noise, we always find glimmers of our own stories within the classics. This is without a doubt the best way to insure that our interpretations are living, breathing representations of the human experience instead of rehashed works that were revelatory when first written but now have outdated elements. We set out early on in our production of Strindberg to find where our team's truth could be uncovered in a story based in class struggle and misogyny that look very different (though perhaps still a bit too familiar) today.
In this process we realized that there a good deal of British and Scottish ancestry in our little troupe. It was quickly decided that Maid Julie would place the events of the play in a politically tense era during which many of our own ancestors may have lived--medieval Scotland. This setting has made the time-tested story even more relatable for much of our cast and crew, and the added personal element is both interesting and compelling.
Scottish History Sets the Stage
At the time that King Alexander III of Scotland passed away in 1286, the claim to the Scottish throne was highly contested. Leaders of every clan felt themselves or their sons to be the best candidate to succeed as king. In an effort to stave off civil war, these Scottish magnates asked King Edward I of nearby England to arbitrate the proceedings. They made numerous concessions to allow Edward's involvement in their politics, and during the following years many British nobles made themselves at home in neighboring Scotland.
When John Balliol finally took the Scottish throne as the magnate with the strongest claim in 1292, Edward I was less than thrilled about the prospect of returning control of Scotland to the Scots. In 1296 he invaded, deposed King John, and named himself Scotland's rightful ruler. The following year, an army led by one Andrew de Moray (and a fellow named William Wallace whom you may have heard of) took on and defeated the British forces at the Battle of Sterling Bridge--thus setting off the Scottish wars for independence. Maid Julie takes place in this window of time defined by the British occupation.
Of Lords and Peasants
The medieval social structure presents a perfect example of the "haves" versus the "have-nots." It is an era in which the strict social hierarchy was palpable and class-based oppression was a very real factor. One common model of society in this period of the middle ages was feudalism.
Under a feudal structure, there was, of course, a single king who presided over a kingdom. Beneath this king were the nobility, also called lords and ladies. These were people who were born into "good families" that owned land--a rare and valuable commodity in the close quarters of Western Europe. Next in the hierarchy were knights. You've heard of these guys. They were essentially charged with protecting the lord's property from outside threats, and in exchange the lord would given them plots of land called "fiefs" on which they could live and raise families. On these fiefs would often live many peasants or "serfs" who would farm and maintain the land in exchange for the knight's protection and permission to live on his property.
This was a system that made a great deal of sense to those making up two-thirds of the pyramid, but obviously it wasn't as ideal for the peasants. As far as their lords could see, they had everything they could ever want in terms of land to farm and freedom from worry, but freedom is exactly what these people lacked. In one sense, Maid Julie is the story of an ambitious serf willing to do whatever it takes to take back that freedom.