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Modern Drama 101: Realism and Naturalism in "Miss Julie"


As a philosophical and art form, modernism arose as a result of upheavals in Western society during the late 19th and 20th centuries. In the face of a rapidly changing, urbanised culture, artists strove to self-consciously break away from traditional forms of art and to express themselves freely. From a theatrical perspective, modernism oversaw a dramatic shift that challenged the established representations of Romanticism, melodrama, and well-structured plays. Influenced by the findings of prominent psychologists, artists began to prioritise the inner workings of their characters and how to best represent them on the stage. This struggle for realism came to dominate British and American theatre in the 20th century and would foreground dramaturgy’s fidelity to real life. By mid-century, the violent disruption of society brought about by the world wars, propelled a counter art movement that rejected realism and focused primarily on symbolism and existentialism. Although opposing in many ways, these two art movements both fall under the category of modernism and would simultaneously search for innovative artistic forms to exteriorise a changed world view.

Modern Drama 101 will be divided into seven chapters:

1. Modern Drama 101: From Classicism to Modernity

2. Modern Drama 101: Modernism and Theatre

3. Modern Drama 101: Realism and Naturalism in Miss Julie

4. Modern Drama 101: Bernard Shaw and Satire

5. Modern Drama 101: Existentialism and the Absurd

6. Modern Drama 101: Mid-Century British Theatre

7. Modern Drama 101: American Theatre and Tennessee Williams

Modern Drama 101: Realism and Naturalism in "Miss Julie"

According to drama theorist Martin Esslin, the advent of the Naturalist revolution was “inevitable” (Esslin, 1968, p.76). The movement was a culmination of the rapid industrialisation of Europe and North America and the advancement of science — particularly the impact of Darwinism and positivism. By the mid-19th century, the achievements of the classical and romantic movements in European countries such as France and Germany had lost their novelty. Theatre became discredited as a serious art form and witnessed a period of “dismal stagnation” (Esslin, 1968, p.68). The Naturalist movement would call for a liberation of theatrical conventions: introducing new fields of subject matter, removing traditional taboos, and rewriting conventions regarding dialogue and plot structuring.

Émile Zola was one of the key early proponents of naturalism, as he showcased in his 1867 novel and eponymous play Thérèse Raquin. Zola studied the positivist philosophy concept set forward by Auguste Comte’s Systeme de philosophie positive (1824) through works by physiologist Claude Bernard and literary and social historian Hippolye Taine. From Bernard, Zola accrued the scientific method of observation and experiment, whilst from Taine, Zola inherited specific determinism (Esslin, 1968). Taine theorised that human nature and style are influenced by three things: race, milieu, and moment.

Influenced by Comte, Bernard, and Taine, Zola believed that naturalism in the theatre entailed a scientific or objective representation based on the assumption that man was a product of environment and heredity (Shideler, 2009). In 1881, Zola would publish a definitive manifesto that advocated for Naturalism in the theatre. Aligning with Zola’s ideas, Naturalists re-introduced the classical, tragic convention of preordained inescapable fate, under a new “highly respectable ‘scientific’ guise” (Esslin, 1968, p.76). Naturalists sought to exhibit that man’s fate was preordained through a combination of heredity, environment, and history.

Figure 1: August Strindberg by Edvard Munch

In the preface to his play Miss Julie, it is clear that Strindberg aligns himself with the theory set forward by Zola. He claims that the play serves to illustrate a law of nature in his desire to demonstrate that his play is completely attuned to the prevailing mode of naturalism (Steene, 2007). In the preface, he alludes to a plethora of intellectual sources — including Darwin’s science on biological determinism and Nietzsche’s philosophies regarding the superiority of the intellectual aristocracy – in the hopes of ensuring “the modernity and contemporary relevance of the play” (Szalczer, 2010, p.76). With this preface, he hoped to position Miss Julie as a “model for the naturalist playwright” (Szalczer, 2010, p.76).

Strindberg’s Miss Julie is a one-act play taking place in the Swedish countryside over the course of the Midsummer Eve. Set in the kitchen of a Count’s Manor House, only three characters appear on stage: the Count ’s daughter Julie, his valet Jean, and his cook and Jean ’s fiancée, Christine. The Count has left to visit relatives, leaving Julie to celebrate Midsummer at her father’s estate. Julie is drawn to Jean and after an isolated sexual encounter, Jean seems to have gained power over Julie. Their conversation and emotions range from affectionate to bitter hostility and even despair. Jean tries to manipulate this exploit to help him ascend the social ladder by suggesting the two flee to Switzerland to open a small hotel with the Count’s money. However, as the Count returns, Jean regresses back into servility whilst Julie leaves the kitchen with Jean’s razor in her hand.

Figure 2: Jessica Chastain and Colin Farrell in "Miss Julie" (2014).

The preface of the play aids to contextualise the characters’ relationship in terms of the “struggle for the survival of the fittest” (Szalczer, 2010, p.79). The one more adaptable to the changing circumstances — Jean — will survive. Miss Julie, on the other hand offers “the spectacle of a desperate struggle against nature”: she is a member of a declining social class and a “’half woman’ doomed to extinction” (Szalczer, 2010, p.79).

Strindberg advocated for theatre that turned away from Romantic nostalgia and fantasy in order to treat the issues of the day and serve as a locus to debate social change (Rugg, 2009). Echoing Zola, he averred that the theatre had reached a crisis, that “conventional intrigue drama was dead”, and that only psychological drama could hold the interest of a modern audience (Sprinchorn, 1968, p.120). In an effort to demonstrate the principles of naturalism, Strindberg replaces “theatrical characters” with “modern” ones, depicted as “split and vacillating, a mixture of the old and new” (Strindberg, 2009, p.xci). In the preface, he offers thirteen different reasons for Julie’s succumbing to Jean during the plot’s action, reasons that can be grouped to conform with Taine’s famous triad of heredity, environment, and moment. He states the multiplicity of motives that shape his characters behaviour:

“I have suggested many possible motivations for Miss Julie’s unhappy fate. The passionate character of her mother; the upbringing misguidedly inflicted on her by her father; her own character; and the suggestive effect of her fiancé upon her weak and degenerate brain. Also, more immediately, the festive atmosphere of Midsummer’s Night; her father’s absence; her menstruation; her association with animals; the intoxicating effect of the dance; the midsummer twilight; the powerfully aphrodisiac influence of the flowers; and, finally, the change that drove these two people together into a private room”

(Strindberg, 2009, p.lxxxix).

Figure 3: Ingmar Bergman in a 1987 production of "Miss Julie".

The play is a long single act, and the dialogue is consciously broken and fragmented: “I have avoided the symmetrical, mathematically constructed dialogue of the type favoured in France, and have allowed their minds to work irregularly, as people’s do in real life” (Strindberg, 2009, p.xciv). The format of the single act allows Strindberg to fulfil the naturalistic principles stating that staged events should mirror reality by adhering to the classical unities of time and place. He clarifies by affirming that the one-act form is linked with the idea of emotional involvement in what is enacted. His choice of an asymmetrical setting would enable the actors to be seen in semi-profile, allowing contact with both their fellow actors (“a naturalistic demand”) and the audience (“a theatrical demand”) (Steene, 2007, p.15). Strindberg’s goal was, therefore, to revolutionise drama in terms of the technical details of presentation, such as acting style and set, as well as in terms of subject matter. (Shideler, 2009).

The sexual subject matter of the play is thrust upon the audience in the opening scene. Miss Julie’s implied ‘craziness’ insinuates “a state of sexual aggressiveness attributed to her ‘period’” (Shideler, 2009). The theme of animalistic sexuality is further developed through the forced miscarriage of the dog Diana, impregnated by a gatekeeper’s mutt. The ambivalent interactions between Jean and Julie establish the themes of class conflict and the struggle for dominance between sexes.

Figure 4: Edinburgh Fringe Production of "Miss Julie".

Both Julie and Jean are split characters lacking a “coherent identity” (Szalczer, 2010, p.78). Miss Julie stands above Jean socially; however, she refuses to marry within her social class and strives to fall from this higher status. She transgresses the “socially acceptable codes of conduct” by rejecting her aristocratic fiancé and allowing her father’s servant to seduce her and, in doing so, she revolts against the sexual and social norms of her time (Szalczer, 2010, p.78). The play reveals both gender and class as social constructs enforced by role expectations. Christine is the only character comfortable with her status and rather than participating in the action, she is a witness passing moral judgement. For some time, she remains onstage asleep wholly unaware of the action going on around her, “providing a naturalistic ‘environmental’ element for the action” (Szalczer, 2010, p.78).

Strindberg prided himself on his dramatization of the findings of modern psychiatry with regards to the complexity of the personality. To aid his efforts to create modern, fragmented characters, he applied ideas such as mental suggestion, hypnotism, and thought transference, which were vigorously discussed in the psychiatric literature of his day (Szalczer, 2010). Strindberg steadfastly believed that “good naturalism” looked for natural conflicts in the crucial struggles of humanity: “true naturalism meant truth to nature” (Styan, 2002, p.38). So, Strindberg was determined to have his plays deal with fundamental truths — like those of the psychological conflict of wills and the struggle between sexes.

Figure 5: Jessica Chastain and Colin Farrell in "Miss Julie" (2014).

Throughout Strindberg’s career, he sought to determine the relationship between the inner, private life of the individual and the public, collective sphere. (Rokem, 2009). He sought to understand how an individual’s thoughts and feelings, when endowed within a public dimension, could become meaningful in a broader public context. Among his major contributions to the formulation of modern drama was the recognition of a “public consciousness” (Rokem, 2009, p.175).

The legacy left behind by Strindberg is apparent in many aspects of theatre in the twentieth century. Many succeeding expressionists and playwrights of the following generations were acutely conscious of the impact of Strindberg’s work on them. (Rokem, 2009). Strindberg operated at a time when the Naturalist movement had begun to flourish across literary and cultural fronts, whilst the “almost impregnable fortress of tradition and conservatism” — the theatre — had yet to be affected. (Sprinchorn, 1968, p.121). In bridging the gulf between literature and theatre — which had opened up in the middle of the nineteenth-century — Strindberg managed to “restore the dignity” of the theatre not only as an art but as an instrument of “serious thought and enquiry” (Esslin, 1968, p.76). To a very large extent, the contemporary theatre still draws its impetus from the Naturalist’s liberating expression and social-minded ideas.

Bibliographic References

Allain, P. and Harvie, J. (2006). The Routledge Companion to Theatre and Performance, New York: Routledge

Esslin, Martin. (1968). “Naturalism in Context.” The Drama Review, 13(2), 67–76. Retrieved from:

Rokem, F. (2009). "Strindberg and Modern Drama: Some Lines of Influence". The Cambridge Companion to August Strindberg, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 164-175.

Rugg, L.H. (2009). "August Strindberg: The Art and Science of Self-Dramatization". The Cambridge Companion to August Strindberg, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 3-19.

Shideler, R., (2009). "'Miss Julie': Naturalism, 'The Battle of the Brains' and Sexual Desire". The Cambridge Companion to August Strindberg, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 58-69.

Sprinchorn, E. (1968). “Strindberg and the Greater Naturalism.” The Drama Review, 13(2), 119–29. Retrieved from:

Steene, B. and Törnqvist, E. (2007). Strindberg on Drama and Theatre : A Source Book, Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press. Retrieved from:

Strindberg, A. (2009). Miss Julie. London: Methuen Drama

Styan, J.L. (2002). Modern Drama in Theory and Practice: Volume 1, Realism and Naturalism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Szalczer, E. (2010). August Strindberg. Florence: Taylor & Francis Group.

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