Naturalism in Strindberg

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Previously, I have gone through great lengths to show how Strindberg was a sexist asshole. That being said, he knew how to write a play. I feel it is only fair that I wrap him up with a third and final installment and discuss Miss Julie one final time.

In his preface to Miss Julie, August Strindberg states that, “Like almost all other art, that of the stage has long seemed to me a sort of Biblia Pauperum, or a Bible in pictures for those who cannot read what is written or printed” (Preface 96). Although Strindberg took two weeks (Meyer 194) and not seven days to write Miss Julie, he still created a world that is meticulous and evolved. As a converted naturalist, Strindberg believed that one’s environment directly influenced one’s character. If one were to re-create Miss Julie’s universe as a director, the use of Strindberg’s concepts on naturalism and how it affects staging techniques and acting styles should be implemented in order to create a slice of life.

At the time Strindberg was writing Miss Julie, he was trying to create the perfect naturalistic play. In his article “Strindberg and the Greater Naturalism,” Evert Sprinchorn states that, “The two people Strindberg most wanted to please with his play were [Emile] Zola and [Andre] Antoine […] the theoretician and the practitioner of the new movement” (121). After Strindberg had written the play, he, “mailed a copy to Zola with a cover letter in which he asserted that the play had been ‘composed according to the experimental formula’” (Sprinchorn 120). In his book Strindberg’s Naturalistic Theatre, Børge Gedsø Madsen states that Zola felt it was job of theatre creators to, “portray characters using a scientific approach, [they] need to show how character is determined by […] environment” (13). Since Strindberg was so intent on pleasing the leaders of the naturalistic movement, it is essential to evaluate their stances on staging needs and acting criteria in order to direct they play to their satisfaction.

When it comes to the staging of Miss Julie, Strindberg wanted to cut a section of the real world out and place it on a stage. Madsen states that Zola felt that the, “Décor does for the naturalistic dramas does what description does for the novel” and that Zola, “urged naturalistic playwrights to avail themselves of the advantages of realistic, true to life settings in order to create the illusion of reality” (19). In addition to his agreement on realistic sets, Antoine utilized an Intimate Theatre setting, which calls for a smaller set space and a smaller separation between actor and audience (Sprinchorn 122). With this closeness and realistic style comes the need for a completely authentic set. In this stance, Strindberg was right beside both leaders. In his Preface to Miss Julie, Strindberg states how he is sick of the painted scenery and props. He asserts that he is sick of, “stage doors [that] are made of canvas and rock at the slightest touch” (Preface 109). He goes on to say that as long as there is only one set, he doesn’t see why it cant be, “as realistic as possible” (Preface 109). Therefore, for my show, the set will be completely built as a real room, void of any flimsy see-through canvas walls. There shall be secure walls that don’t shake when doors are slammed and the only thing that shall be painted is the wallpaper and the backdrop of the garden; seen through the genuine windows of the kitchen. As for the authenticity of the props, like Strindberg, I feel that it is about time, “we stopped painting shelves and pots and pans on the canvas” (Preface 109). In his own productions, Antoine insisted on the use of, “decors of the stage [that] were true to life, with real food for the actors to eat, real typical furniture and real kitchen utensils” (Madsen 27). Therefore, in my production, there shall be real shelving, tables, chairs and kitchen utensils. It would be absurd to hope the audience would stay connected to an emotional moment if their realistic thought process is interrupted by the examination of a poorly constructed prop. In addition, the actors would find it difficult to stay in the moment, if they were forced to pretend to take a bite out of a plastic bit of food. With the naturalistic idea that character is formed by the surrounding environment, a realistic performance can only result with a realistic atmosphere.

With the use of the Intimate Theatre, other aspects of the visual performance need to be altered to conform to the space. In his preface to Miss Julie, Strindberg goes into depth on the issues of lighting and makeup. He is firm on the removal of footlights from the set because the lights, “wipe out many of the finer features in the lower part of the face [and the lights] distort the shape of the nose and throw false shadows above the eyes” (Preface 110). Strindberg wants the actor to look as realistic and life-like as possible, for if the lights in any way distorted the face, then the audience would be reminded that they were witnessing theatre and not real life. Therefore he calls for use of strong side lights for they would, “provide the actor with a new asset: an increased range of expression made possible by the play of the eyes, the most expressive part of the face” (Preface 111). The lighting in my show will follow these instructions in order to preserve a realistic appearance of the actor’s face. Keeping this in mind, Strindberg also aims for realism in the application of makeup. He states that, “In a modern psychological drama, in which every tremor of the soul should be reflected more by facial expressions than by gestures and grunts, it would probably be most sensible to experiment with […] actors without any make-up or a minimum of it” (Preface 111). He goes onto ask how an actor with painted lines that indicate anger can possible work in a moment of love or laughter (Preface 111). In a small space where the audience would most certainly recognize false painted features opposed to actual emotion, it is best to refrain from heavy make-up application.

With the design of the set and props, there is more to the selection than what is aesthetically pleasing. Zola feels that the set plays a major part in the description of the character and, “serves as one of [the playwright’s] media for the portrayal of character” (Madsen 20). Playing with his theory on the importance of environment in the development of character, Zola asserts that the furniture in someone’s home, “indicates the family’s economic and general cultural situation” (Madsen 37). Therefore, Strindberg’s description of his set corresponds to this theory and will be re-created for my production of Miss Julie. Strindberg describes his set as a:

Large kitchen, situated along with the servents’ quarters in the basement of

a manor house. [There are] pots and pans of copper, iron, and pewter. The

shelves are decorated with goffered paper. [There is] a deep arched entry

with two glass doors, and through them can be seen a fountain with a statue

of a cupid, lilac bushes in bloom, and the tops of some Lombardy poplars

(Miss Julie 581).

For a production about a rich woman who wanted to lower herself in society and a servant who wanted to elevate his position, a set placed in the servants’ quarters of a manor is perfect. This situation can be seen in Julie’s retelling of her dream to Jean. In the dream she is on a high pillar and claims that she, “won’t have any peace until I get down.” (Miss Julie 584). After Jean hears that Julie wishes to lower herself, his reply is an earnest, “Don’t climb down, Miss Julie!” (584). The imagery produced when viewing a lavish garden separated from pots and pans creates a perfect metaphor when examined alongside the theme of class distinction in society. This is a perfect example of the naturalistic notion that environment shapes the nature of a character. Such a realistic set would call for actors trained not to perform, but to live on stage.

The acting style that will be implemented will be highly realistic, in accordance to the set of the production. According to Wayne Turney, in his piece entitled “Andre Antoine,” the director, “trained his actors at the Théâtre Libre in his naturalistic style and sought to rid them of what he saw as the phoniness of those trained at the Conservatoire and the excesses of elocution” (1). According to Charles Poole, the graduate instructor of our theatre history course, Antoine only hired amateur actors for their lack of classical training which enabled them to portray real life on stage (Poole). In agreement, Madsen states that Antoine’s use of amateur actors was utilized to ensure the performance of an ensemble and not to the advantage of one performer (Madsen 27). In accord, Zola was known to, “accuse French actors of sacrificing ensemble effects to personal vanities” (Madsen 21). For the sake of realism and ensemble work, my production of Miss Julie will utilize amateur actors.

The actor’s style was highly affected by their environment, as is true to the naturalistic style. Antoine was credited with breaking the Fourth Wall, which is to say that he destroyed the major presentation method that has been implemented since the beginning of performance (Poole). According to an article entitled, “The ‘Father of Modern Theatre’…Andre Antoine,” Antoine would design a room in rehearsal with four walls. After numerous rehearsals, where the actors had no notion of an audience, Antoine would decide which wall to take away (1). Even with the introduction of an audience, the actors were free to move around the space and respond to their counter-part without the hindrance of staying open (Poole). The actors were encouraged to, “turn their backs on the audience, put their hands in their pockets, [and speak] in natural conversational voices” (Madsen 33). Once again the directorial choices were influenced by naturalistic methods. With the use of an Intimate theatre, the actors would not need to shout their lines to be heard or over-act their gestures. They are free to live their character’s life as realistically as possible, which is what Strindberg, Antoine and Zola were trying to achieve.

When creating Miss Julie, Strindberg pulled from the ideas and innovative techniques of Zola and Antoine. He sought to create a slice of life and utilized naturalistic ideals to achieve his end. Through the use of a highly realistic environment, the actors were free to portray real life through their acting methods. My production of Miss Julie would follow these naturalistic guidelines to create the little world that Strindberg sought to establish. Through the use of naturalistic concepts, staging techniques and acting methods, Miss Julie could certainly live up to the standards established by Zola, Antoine and Strindberg.

-Miranda Rawson

SOURCES:

  1. Madsen, Børge Gedsø. Strindberg’s Naturalistic Theatre; It’s Relations to French Naturalism. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1962.
  2. Micheal Meyer. Strindberg. London: Secker and Warburg, 1985. 423. Poole, Charles. “Andre Antoine and Theatre Libre.” Course Notes. World Theatre History II. Dept. of Theatre. Florida State University. 15 Jan. 2009.
  3. Sprinchorn, Everett. “Strindberg and the Greater Naturalism.” The Drama Review: TDR 13.2 (1968): 121-122.
  4. Strindberg, August. “Miss Julie.” The Wadsworth Anthology of Drama. Ed. W.B.Worthen. Boston: Cengage Learning, 2006. 581-583.
  5. Strindberg, August. “Preface: Miss Julie.” Plays by August Strindberg. Ed. Edwin Bjorkman. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1926. 96.
  6. “The ‘Father of Modern Theatre’…Andre Antoine.” UCFV Theatre 101 Weblog. 4 April 2009 <http://ucfvthea101.wordpress.com/2007/10/31/the-father-of-modern-theatreandre-antoine/>.
  7. Turney, Wayne. “Andre Antoine.” A Glimpse of Theatre History. 3 April 2009 <http://www.wayneturney.20m.com/antoineandre.htm>

FEATURE IMAGE: The author died in 1912, so this work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.