Pacific Rim Review of Books

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Reading Strindberg

review by Rachel Wyatt

Miss Julie. August Strindberg, adapted by David French. Talonbooks, 2006.
The Butcher's Apron. Charles Tidler. Ekstasis Editions, 2006.

When I read David French’s adaptation of Miss Julie although I know the play well, I found myself gripped once more by the tragedy and almost holding my breath as I came to the end. By cutting some of the dialogue and modernising it here and there, French has produced a new tight and telling version of this classic drama.

A man and a woman, mistress and servant, Midsummer Eve, music and revelry in the background. It’s a recipe for romance but not, in Strindberg’s world, one with a happy ending. The setting is a kitchen and the third character, the cook Kristin, is serving stewed kidneys to Jean, the valet. “Miss Julie is crazy* tonight,” he says. The young woman is crazy most nights. The offstage scene described by Jean in which Miss Julie made her fiance, now unsurprisingly ex, jump over her riding crop tells much about her attitude to the male sex.

The woman is about to betray her class. More than that, she will betray herself. Her mother had made her swear she’d never be a slave to any man. And here she is, falling into the arms of a ‘slave’, a servant. She wants him. He tries to persuade her to go home. But in the end, after all, he is “only a man.” French heightens this powerful scene with his careful attention to the choice of words.

Again in their brief escape fantasy, a hotel in Switzerland, the three of them living and working together, the writing gives the reader/audience a moment of hope. But for Miss Julie, alas, there is only one way out.

Strindberg’s views on women are well known. He could see that more and more women were beginning to escape from their confined lives and getting ‘above themselves’. Part of his despair was that there was no way to put them back in the box. But he enjoyed, he said, looking at life’s ‘cruel’ battles. Only those able to adapt to changing circumstances would survive in this new world order. In a final bleak moment, Jean, hearing his master’s bell, reverts to his place in the scheme of things. But he is the survivor who might, maybe, have a chance for a better future.

Strindberg said that theatre is the poor man’s Bible; story in pictures for those who can’t read. The pictures in Miss Julie reveal a power struggle that takes part in the woman herself. David French’s adaptation has captured all of this in a way that absorbs and chills the reader and, surely, the audience.

In Charles Tidler’s play, The Butcher’s Apron, it is Man who holds the riding crop but he is thwarted by Woman who holds a mirror up to his face. And through a labyrinth of confrontations, the play mirrors and distorts Strindbergian attitudes. Making a comedy of the Swedish playwright’s works might seem almost too easy. A life so dark and plays which, like The Father, end in appalling tragedy, are ripe material for the less than reverent writer. But Charles Tidler has not taken the easy route.

The Butcher’s Apron is a dream play like Strindberg’s own Dream Play in which characters change shape and move in and out of scenes and time.

‘For the dreamer there are no inconsistencies,’ Strindberg said. So in The Butcher’s Apron, two Strindbergs, Frida Uhl, his second wife, and Edvard Munch of the well-known Scream come and go and interact with others, with doubles of themselves, and with shadows, to take this beyond parody into an unusual and deeply funny nightmare.

*Picky Note: My old translation of Miss Julie uses the word ‘crazy’ where DF has ‘wild’. I prefer ‘crazy’ in this context.

Writer and playwright, Rachel Wyatt was born in England in 1929 and has lived in Canada since 1957.