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Strindberg's Miss Julie and the Legend of Salome BRIAN PARKER Since Strindberg's letterto his publisher claiming Miss Julie (1888) as "the first Naturalistic Tragedy in Swedish Drama'" and the important Foreword which he wrote alter the play was completed, it has been usual to see Miss Julie as an experiment in the kind or drama developed by Zola from Darwin's theories of environmental conditioning and the survival of the fittest. Thus, Martin Lamm calls the play "a strict application of Zolaesque principles" and Eric Bentley a "tragedy ofthe Darwinian ethos.'" Its theme ofwar between the sexes has been traced partly to Strindberg's ambivalence towards his parents, as revealed in the first volume of his autobiognphy, The Son of a Servallt, and partly to his stormy marriage to Siri von Essen, the aristocratic actress who created the role ofMiss Julie, which he had anatomized in The Confession of a Fool just before he wrote the play. It is argued that he interpreted these personal experiences mainly through his reading of Schopenhauer's misogynist philosophy of "will" and Eduard von Hartmann's Philosophie des Unbewussten (Berlin, 1869), complicating them further by his fervent Rousseau-ist socialism at this period of his life and by his fascination with the experiments that Charcot and Bernheim were currently conducting in the treatment of hysteria by hypnosis3 - experiments which also excited the young Sigmund Freud. However, SIrindberg's comparatively slight concern for the social, as distinct from psychological, aspects of environment was noted early (by Zola himself, among others) as distinguishing him from the main stream of Naturalism; and it has long been recognized that Miss Julie possesses an almost hallucinatory intensity of focus that is very unlike Naturalism in its effect4 and that it also exploits oneiric and romantic - even fairytale5 - elements that are literary and theatrical in origin, not social or autobiognphical. Strindberg himself commented that the setting for Miss Julie was "a compromise with romanticism and stage decoration'" and, though he continued occasionally to 470 BRlAN PARKER produce such plays as The Dance ofDeath, he had effectively renounced his identification with Naturalism by 1892. The usual way of accommodating such discrepancies is to adopt Strindberg's own later distinction between what he called the "little art" (ofNaturalists such as Henri Becque) and his own "greater naturalism'" which concentrated exclusively on mental process, "a type of realism which has nothing to do with reality'" whose ruthless subjectivity is recognized as a direct inheritance from Romanticism and a forerunner of the surrealism and expressionism of Strindberg's subsequent Dream Plays. All this is certainly to the point: Miss Julie is a masterwork which synthesizes many influences, anticipates much subsequent drama, and is richly various in its implications. But what has still to be explored more thoroughly is the debt of Miss Julie to the obsessions of the French Decadence and the techniques of contemporary Symbolism. Specifically, there has been no consideration of the play's ironic exploration of the legend of Salome and John the Baptist, that period's central myth, which Strindberg could not help but have encountered during his stays in Paris in 1876, 1883-84, and 1885. Once the parallels between them are recognized, Miss Julie turns out to be far more a reaction to its time than is usually acknowledged" Before turning to the play itself, then, it will be well to sketch in this fin-de-siecle background, beginning with the intellectual and emotional attitudes which found so rich an emblem in Salome and then considering some of the major treatments of that story around the time when Strindberg wrote his play. II The essence of the Decadent sensibility of the late nineteenth century, to be seen at its clearest in Baudelaire at the beginning of the period and Oscar Wilde towards the end, was the "dandy's" revolt against nature in favour of the creatively artificial. This was partly a reaction against the overwhelmingly materialist and rationalist emphasis at mid-century, which tended to marginalize both artists and an aristocracy that was losing its power and sense of purpose, creating a temporary and rather strained alliance between them. It expressed itself emotionally by a revolt...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5286
Print ISSN
0026-7694
Pages
pp. 469-484
Launched on MUSE
2013-07-03
Open Access
N

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