Miss Julie - The Odd Dance of Strindberg and Harris

Writer Zinnie Harris
Writer Zinnie Harris talks about the strange dance of adapting a classic work like August Strindberg's Miss Julie:

“People of today are most interested in the psychological process. Our inquisitive souls are not satisfied to see something happen: we want to know how it happened. We want to see the strings, the machinery, examine the double-bottomed box, feel for the seam in the magic ring, look at the cards to see how they are marked."
- August Strindberg 1888

In his Preface to Miss Julie, Strindberg announces a new kind of theatre, a theatre that moves away from the traditional well-made play with its archetypal characters to a theatre where the actions of characters are understood in terms of the influences and experiences that have altered them. In his words: ‘My souls (characters) are conglomerates of past and present cultural phases, bits from books and newspapers, scraps of humanity, pieces torn from fine clothes and become rags, patched together as is the human soul.’ It seems obvious to us now, but at the time this was a radical thought and set the stage not just for the new naturalism but all the great theatre experiments of the 20th century, absurdism, expressionism and everything that came after it.

In choosing a story about a Lords daughter and a servant having a brief affair, he was being radical in a different way. The play is about sex, shown here as a separate entity to love for perhaps the first time – scandalous in itself - and the consequences of that sex between two people trapped by circumstance. He suggests that by meeting in this way Miss Julie and John have a degree of parity; she as an aristocrat has all the social status but as a woman none of the gender power, and he as a man has the upper hand in terms of gender but as a servant is bottom of the pecking order. As soon as the night of passion is over, the balmy intoxicating, liberating effect wears off and they are left to contemplate the scandal and consequence of their breaking of the social order. It won’t surprise many to hear that theplay was immediately banned in Sweden and was only seen there 18 years later.

When I set out to adapt this play for a contemporary audience I knew a few things, firstly that I wanted to relocate the action to Scotland and set the play in a big country estate in the Highlands to bring it closer to home. Secondly I wanted to find a moment in ourhistory when the social context would add the most pressure to the characters - that the strife within the house would be set against a larger political backdrop outside the walls. And thirdly, I wanted to approach the characters and story as I would a play of my own.The last sounds the most simple, but actually was the hardest. Strindberg in his preface talks about Julie’s ‘hysteria’, that she is a woman with‘a weak and degenerate brain’. I found that a difficult conclusion to come to and wanted to understand Julie in a more modern light, and to try to see her as a victim of her upbringing so that we have sympathy for her, whilst understanding her complexity and her - at times - infuriating behavior. Ultimately, the play is her tragedy and it was important to me that she can be seen as a true heroine.

Adapting a great classical play like this is an odd dance of Strindberg and Harris, Harris and Strindberg. Firstly one has to fall in love with and admire the original text so that one wouldn’t dream of changing a word, and then – realizing that after all there is a job to be done - you have to take liberties and be unfaithful and mistreat it a little like a badly behaving lover, but always returning home before straying too far. The last sentence of Strindberg’s famous Preface was the most helpful and encouraging of all, so I’ll finish with his words. ‘Here is an attempt! If it fails, there is surely time for another!’

Zinnie Harris, February 2014

Miss Julie is at the Citizens Theatre from 6 - 15 February 2014