Miss Julie: Race and Gender Go Head to Head

My fantastic Modern Theatre professor at Dalhousie University, Jure Gantar, explained Naturalism to us as a sort of playwright’s science experiment. He would laden his characters down with external psychological forces, and these would determine each one’s course of action, and thus the plot would evolve naturally from there. There was a sense of pre-destination in these plays that was firmly rooted in ideas of genetics. August Strindberg, a Swedish playwright who lived from 1849-1912, was one of the most influential naturalist playwrights most famous for writing his 1888 play Miss Julie. There is a fundamental obstacle in staging productions of Miss Julie because modern science doesn’t correspond well with naturalism’s obsession with heredity and a general sense of being trapped within one’s own genetics. Of course, there are other themes in Strindberg’s play, the fierce power struggle in issues of class and gender, which usually get played up in contemporary productions. Therefore, I understand why playwrights are continually searching for the perfect new Miss Julie adaptation.
At the Canadian Stage Company Stephen Sachs offers us a wonderfully well-written adaptation of the play set in 1964 Mississippi. Here the dialogue becomes vibrant and organic to its new surroundings, while the story remains essentially the same. The language is potent and sexually charged in moments, which gave the production an added sense of rawness and urgency that isn’t as palpable in Strindberg. Race certainly plays an important role in Miss Julie: Freedom Summer as the original servant, Jean, seduced by the aristocratic Julie, becomes the black chauffeur, John, seduced by the white Southern belle Julie. However, race is not the only issue at play here. Gender becomes hugely important in this version of the play as it is obvious that America is not only poised on the cusp of the Civil Rights Movement, but also the second-wave feminist movement as well. Indeed, the struggle of race versus gender is one of the most powerful elements of this play.
In Strindberg’s original, he explores the idea of madness being hereditary, and how the female brain is fraught with unexplainable craziness, he even explores the impact a girls’ period has on her psyche. In the hands of Sachs and brilliant actor Caroline Cave, Julie is freed from the Edwardian misconceptions of female lunacy, and rooted in something far more realistic. Julie is still a “crazy bitch,” but her craziness stems not from her mother’s madness, but from trying to reconcile her own sense of self, after having a hippie-like childhood, being overindulged and horribly spoiled, being extremely sheltered and encouraged to be self-centered, and growing up assuming her superiority over other human beings simpley because of the color of her skin. Cave creates a captivating picture of a woman who is pulled toward opposing extremes, who is both terrified and curious about ideas of freedom and equality. A girl who has always gotten what she wanted when she wanted it, but who still feels completely empty. Julie doesn’t want to give up her power, and yet, she comes to see John as a friend, a friend who will usurp that power if he gets too close. She is also hot, horny, and hurt. It’s a dangerous combination, especially in the summer of 1964.
Critics have said that Cave comes on too strong and then has nowhere to go, and so Julie doesn’t build gradually to the breaking point. I see what they mean, but I think for Julie, her downfall shouldn’t be so neatly plotted out. It shouldn’t make so much sense. Cave’s Julie is utterly erratic and that’s why John and Christine don’t know how to deal with her. The audience never knows what’s going to happen next. Who will seize the power and how will they do it? Will they be able to hold onto it? Everything flips on a dime and in a moment the whole world could change. It’s better if the audience doesn’t see that coming.
Kevin Hanchard’s John is a complex, multilayered character filled with faults and endearing grandiose dreams. He looks out for his own self-interest and while he dreams of being white; his pride in being black gets squashed. He imposes his strength and power as a man over Julie, diminishing her to a common whore in the same way as she reduces him to a common slave. He exerts dominance over Christine and balks at the idea of her becoming educated because he knows that education is one of the keys to the emancipation of women, and like Julie, he wants to hold on to every bit of clout he has. Raven Dauda is fantastic as Christine, a woman who knows her place and seeks to better herself, but who isn’t afraid of voicing her opinion and bossing John around.
In all, I found that the play was a fascinating battle between race and gender, and individuality and society. The South spun a tangled web of misogyny and racism that hasn’t been entirely unknotted. However, Miss Julie: Freedom Summer didn’t seem to me to be fresh or electrifyingly relevant to 2009. It’s probably naïve of me to say this, but it felt like an adaptation that would have been amazingly explosive in New York in 1964. It’s frustrating that these works of art (like the justice for Freedom Summer’s victims) comes so late, when a sense history having fixed itself seems to prevail.
The Summer of 1964 was the dawn of a revolution, the world became just as erratic as Julie, changed charged forth faster than it had ever before in human history, and this filled the world’s population with hope, optimism, idealism and a strong dose of fear and violence. It all remains, somewhat shrouded and buried beneath technology and apathy, but it’s all still there. Genetics may not have us quite as ensnared as Strindberg believed, but I think any opportunity to delve artistically into our past and to scrutinize those lessons learned and those overlooked is a worthwhile venture.

Miss Julie: Freedom Summer plays at the Canadian Stage Company’s Bluma Appel Theatre until March 7th, 2009. 27 Front Street East, Toronto, Ontario. For tickets call 416 368-3110 or visit their website.

Leave a Reply