- Mies Julie by August Strindberg, and: Easter by August Strindberg, and: The Dance of Death by August Strindberg
Recent interest in Strindberg’s work, including the formation of the August Strindberg Repertory Theatre and its inaugural production in 2012, could be at least partly attributed to the centenary of Strindberg’s death in 2012. But the centenary does not explain the viral popularity of Eun-Ha Paek, [End Page 565] Erin Perkins, and James Bewley’s “Strindberg and Helium” cartoons since 2001 (the last of which, “Strindberg and Helium at the Beach,” was nominated by the YouTube Play jury and presented at the Guggenheim Museum in 2010), nor the continuing frequency with which Strindberg’s work is staged and adapted. Recent productions by Baxter Theatre Center, August Strindberg Repertory Theatre, and Red Bull Theater suggest that Strindberg’s relevance in the present moment has to do with his depiction of human lives determined by political, socioeconomic, and biological forces and expressed in the ethereal forms of human (and nonhuman) communication: haunting, telepathy, and vampirism.
Three recent New York City productions of Strindberg’s plays featured striking convergences of naturalism and the occult. To Strindberg’s incompatible social and hereditary determinisms, Yael Farber’s South African Mies Julie added a Xhosa ghost who haunts the farm kitchen built over the grave of Christine’s ancestor. Set in present-day (2012) Eastern Cape Karoo, Farber’s adaptation casts Julie (Hilda Cronje) and John (Bongile Mantsai), respectively, as the Afrikaans daughter of a farmer and his Xhosa servant. This addition of racial tensions to the class and gender dynamics of Strindberg’s original was accompanied by a change in the character relationships: in Farber’s version, the cook Christine (played by Thoko Ntshinga) is John’s mother rather than his fiancée. Consequently, Farber’s John is constrained by ancestry as much as class, and Christine, who appeared as a mother figure to Julie as well as to John, drew attention to the history of the land and farm that produced them. This connection between the characters and the land was borne out further by the staging, which featured a tree stump growing out of the downstage kitchen floor. In a scene without precedent in Strindberg’s play, Christine tried to attack the floor with a pitchfork to free her ancestor, Ukhokho, who is buried under the tree and whose ghost haunts the production. Through this focus on Christine’s ties to both the stump and the kitchen—her rights and obligations to the land where her ancestors were buried and her disenfranchised domestic servitude—Farber’s production emphasized the characters’ status as products of political and cultural histories that could neither coexist nor dissever.
Amid these connected histories, the production’s mix of contemporary and traditional dance and music both posited and withdrew the possibility of generational progress. In Strindberg’s play, the peasant ballet during Jean and Julie’s offstage intercourse is both a return to pre-naturalist nineteenth-century theatre and a scene of modernist rupture. Farber adapted Strindberg’s peasant ballet into a hip-hop number between John and Julie, who danced against the upstage wall, behind the open perimeter of the kitchen. As both a thriving transcultural dance form and a precursor to John and Julie’s sex on the kitchen table, the hip-hop number presented the play’s violent transcultural histories as artistically generative. But the dance, like the sexual charge between John and Julie, did not translate to personal or political viability. After Julie kills herself by thrusting a sickle into her womb, John stands motionless, wearing her father’s boots. More compelling than Julie’s fatal preemptive abortion or John’s realization that he could only...