The Meaningful Manners of Miss Julie

Strindberg's erotic drama probes the link between beliefs and behaviors, and cracks into the rift between rich and poor

One must never leave the theater mid-scene. And certainly not just to go pee. It’s simply not done. Perpetrators must be chastised or shunned.

At Shaking The Tree last weekend, my seatmate violated that firm principle of etiquette at the very climax of August Strindberg’s* drama of manners, Miss Julie. Before the show, she’d chatted with me affably, managing to mention that she’s a homeowner in a pricey neighborhood. But after her faux pas (which included a hoarse whisper, a departure and a return midplay) I could barely look at her. In my eyes, she was fallen.

This real-life scenario actually handily illustrates the playwright’s key thesis: that our notions of social propriety often run too deep for our shared humanity to overcome. Certain social mores are at least baked and sometimes beaten into our psyches from childhood, and whenever someone breaks an ironclad convention—even if no further harm would seem to be done—they can cause intense distress, shame, and pain.

Of course, our rules of etiquette, or “what’s to be done,” spring from our assumptions of circumstance, or “how things are.” (For instance, my belief that theater forbids any audience disruption, and that most grownups can hold it, informs my perception of theater etiquette.) In the world that Strindberg’s play crystallizes—a nineteenth-century nobleman’s estate wherein a servant, Jean, is seduced by his master’s daughter, a countess named Julie, against the strenuous objection of his fellow servant and fiancee Christine—such assumptions include:

Ladies don’t sleep around.

Men take charge.

Servants don’t backtalk, or back-bite.

The so-called nobility have the best manners.

The so-called underclass have the purest, most naïve motives.

Poverty is poetic.

Faith and repentance ensure salvation.

The upper class always has money.

The lower class lives to serve.

Spoiler alert: Nope! As Strindberg’s characters defy these reductive tropes, they simultaneously experience exhilaration from stretching beyond their stations, and flinch in pain from breaking their conditioning. The peak of that rupture forms the climax of the play, and it doesn’t end happily.

Shoes, blues, class-status dues: Beth Thompson and Matthew Kerrigan. Photo: Meg Nanna

Those who follow Portland theater critique have probably heard great things (many of them from me) about actor Matthew Kerrigan, the Shaking The Tree mainstay who in this show plays Jean. In an unsurprisingly brilliant performance, Kerrigan shows more than two faces, including deferent servant, commanding man, and conniving social striver. Counterpart Beth Thompson as Julie also upholds her demanding dramatic role, first preening and seducing, then crumbling under the pressure of her own regret. Kelly Godell as Christine brings merciful comic relief, her body language changing abruptly between alert customer-service mode and floppy, exhausted break-time behavior. She’s so over it! And she has every right to be.

In Craig Lucas’s new adaptation of Miss Julie, the characters’ original European setting is replaced by an American one. The underclass (Jean and Christine) speak with a broad country drawl and wear the standard black and white of catering staff. The upper crust (Miss Julie) has a generic Midwest accent and wears vaguely dated Dallas-meets-Dynasty business-to-evening garb. Director Samantha Van der Merwe was inspired to update Strindberg’s characters as modern figures from opposing sides of the economic struggle: an Ivanka Trump type, and West Virginia coal miner sorts.

Of course, the literary allusions Strindberg’s characters make in passing suggest he too was reviving older (and far simpler) narratives for his own “modern times.” Jean tells Julie that he visited her family’s estate as a child to pick onions alongside his mother—a setup that echoes the fairy tale Rapunzel. If you’ll remember, a witch punishes the poor mother who steals from her garden by locking her child away in a tower for life (seems fair, right?)—and like Rapunzel, Jean has inherited a life of subservience to his parents’ master (Julie’s father). The beheading of a finch has a similar folkloric echo; Alouette, a popular children’s folk song contemporary with Strindberg, flatters a little bird as “lovely,” then proceeds to detail its dismemberment for cooking—a task that might be done by kitchen servants, but not their masters. The suggestion? Only the poor have to slaughter their sentimentality and rip the wings off of lovely things, but the rich get to eat the resultant feast. As Jean puts it, “Love? We don’t use that word.” Christine, who excuses herself from the sordid scene playing out between Jean and Julie by going to church, quotes the beatitudes (“the last shall be first,” etc.) and Christ’s admonition that the rich can’t get into heaven, voicing the populist dream of a flipped power dynamic in the afterlife. She also mentions the beheading of John the Baptist, a story wherein a woman (like Julie) uses her feminine wiles to provoke a king (like the count) to execute a good man (like Jean).

Suffice to say, there’s a lot here to philosophically and socioeconomically and erotically unpack—all giving rise to more questions with no simple or satisfying answers. Van Der Merwe admits this play has haunted her since high school, its implications only growing more unsettling over time. What are our manners? Our hierarchies? Our turn-ons? This play ends abruptly, with a teakettle screaming.

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Miss Julie continues through June 10 at Shaking The Tree Theatre.

* For comic relief from Strindberg’s bleaker takes on life, I suggest viral video series Strindberg and Helium.

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