Drama teaches lessons in love
“There is something deliciously forbidden about the interactions as well as the circumstances of this play,” Ed Iskandar said. “On a hot summer evening, a count’s daughter descends into the kitchen to quench her erotic fixation on her manservant.” Iskandar was describing the decidedly provocative After Miss Julie, a play opening at the Philip Chosky Theatre this Wednesday. Iskandar, a second-year master of fine arts candidate in the School of Drama, is directing the production.
The play was originally written by August Strindberg in 1888. In the adaptation Iskandar uses, the setting has been modernized to a post-World War II London. After Miss Julie takes place on July 26, 1945, when Britain’s Labour Party has won control of Parliament for the first time. The updated adaptation preserves Strindberg’s self-described vision of “modern characters living in a period of transition more feverishly hysterical than any other.” The rise of the Labour Party and its leader, Prime Minister Clement Atlee, represents “the declining old British aristocratic order and the burgeoning new socialist order,” said Greg Van Horn, production dramaturg for After Miss Julie.
Miss Julie, played by Kara Lindsay, is a member of the aristocracy who has her sights set on John, one of her father’s servants. Complicating matters even more, John (Rich Dreher) is already engaged to Christine (Kristen Bracken), a cook in the same household. After Miss Julie is the graphic struggle that ensues between the three characters for someone to spend their lives with. “It’s a savagely comic game of cat and mouse,” Iskandar said. “The play addresses the most fundamental human fear: loneliness, and what we are willing to do to avoid it.”
After Miss Julie represents Strindberg’s innovation in dramatic history to a new naturalism. Naturalistic theater was Strindberg’s reaction to the theater of excess prevalent in his time period. This theater of excess was a multitude of “multiple scene changes, excessive costuming, overblown characters, and overblown theatricality,” Iskandar explained. The resulting productions were “completely unreal; always at the service of a clever plot which was relied on to bring in the money,” he said. Strindberg’s naturalistic theater attempts to create a more authentic representation of life.
This genre of theater “demands that dramatists adhere to an uncompromising realism in content, staging, and time,” Van Horn explained. After Miss Julie does just that. The play uses only a single set and is for the most part a single scene extending for the entirety of the 90-minute production. “This is the first play in history to employ a single set in an uninterrupted sequence,” said Iskandar. The effect of this naturalism in relation to setting and timing is “an attempt to simulate realistic psychological progression as well as a realistic set of events.”
As a result of the naturalistic approach in After Miss Julie, the characters are very realistic. Van Horn said they are “rich, dynamic people with complex psychologies and souls, not a compilation of simple phrases and motivations.” Miss Julie, John, and Christine all battle both internally and externally with volatile issues of class and gender. “It is sort of a bottled society where there are such rigorous rules and constructions,” Iskandar said. “The three people within these constructions are exploding and I find that a really thrilling exploration of our own sort of attempts to deal with being human.”
The characters’ struggle between their own desires and societal constraints is at once comedic and tragic. “The play, I find, observes moments of alternating incredible hilarity and tragedy, which I think is very real,” Iskandar said. “It finds the balance between unexpected humor and moments of sort of desperate need.” This vacillation between the two opposites finds its place in the extreme nature of some of the play’s action. After Miss Julie depicts “a woman having her period on stage, birds getting killed, and devirginization,” according to Iskandar.
Despite the play’s original 1888 script, it still allows for modern identification with the characters’ strife. Iskandar believes his production of After Miss Juile “is an extremely accessible reading of a pretty demanding text.” He feels the play retains a freshness for current audiences. “I find it contemporary. It is bitchy. It is slightly campy in the right way. It is an explosion of passion that is slightly bigger than what we experience in daily life.”