August Strindberg was born in 1849 to an unhappy family of ten in Stockholm, Sweden. His father was a shipping merchant and his mother a former servant, and Strindberg later attributed much of the family's strife to the social differences between them. Bitter sibling rivalry, the death of Strindberg's mother in 1851, and Mr. Strindberg's immediate remarriage to the housekeeper did little to improve the situation. As a youth, August Strindberg held a variety of odd jobs, briefly attended the University of Uppsala. He worked as an actor, journalist, and librarian at the Royal Library while pursuing his writing career. Though his first literary success, Red Room (1879), was a novel, Strindberg is primarily remembered as a chief founder of the modern prose play.
Miss Julie (1888) remains Strindberg's most famous work. In the history of drama, it is primarily canonized for its stylistic innovations. Its preface serves as a classic manifesto of late-nineteenth century naturalism. In defining the new naturalist theater, Strindberg makes two major demands of contemporary playwrights. First, he demands that they adhere to an unflinching realism, whether in content (for example the explicit references to menstruation, blasphemy, lust, and bodily functions in Miss Julie); staging (the elimination of footlights and makeup); and time (Miss Julie, for example, takes place over a single, compressed, and unbroken ninety-minute episode). Strindberg also demands that the naturalist playwright strive toward a new conception of character. Eschewing the one-dimensional stock figure of the melodrama, the playwright must people his stage with full, lively beings. Characters must not be collections of idiosyncrasies and catch phrases coupled with simple motivations. Instead, the playwright must craft a psychology, a "soul". Strindberg is also venerated as a progenitor of the expressionist theater, though he did explicitly theorize about expressionism as he did about naturalism. Expressionist devices are present throughout Miss Julie and Strindberg's other works. Key examples include continual allusions to mystical forces, the use of symbology and ritualized dance, the backdrop of the pagan festival, and the construction of an absent, shadowy, and yet precipitating center of authority in the figure of the Count.
Censored for its shocking content, Miss Julie revolves around a familiar Strindbergian encounter: a quasi-Darwinian struggle across sex and class lines. Strindberg scholars believe that a short story by Zola, "The Sin of Father Mouret," served as direct inspiration for the play. Zola's tale tells of a priest who abandons his order to take up with a virgin but returns to the cloth upon being "caught in the act" by a fellow clergyman. Grief-stricken, the maiden commits suicide by suffocating herself in a bed of rose petals. There is also some evidence that Strindberg intended the play as a warning to the first of his three unfortunate wives, the Baronness Siri von Essen. When confronted with the suggestion that the play is a warning to his wife, Strindberg reportedly answered that he could hardly be sure enough to deny it.
Strindberg was an infamous misogynist, and he intended to portray Miss Julie as a monster. One can trace the genealogy of his hatred for women in some of his early works, such as Getting Married (1884), which earned him a charge of blasphemy, and The Cloister (1886), a grim portrait of his second marriage. Strindberg's misogyny was central to the many psychotic episodes he suffered throughout the 1890s, episodes that put a stop to his dramatic production altogether. In 1898, however, Strindberg took up his pen anew, writing 36 plays in the following decade. In 1907, he began experimenting with what he called an "intimate theater" based on the structures of chamber music, turning from the conventional figure of the protagonist in favor of a small and more balanced group of characters to direct his plays. The following year, Strindberg retired to his house, the famous "Blue Tower," where he lived until his death in 1912.
The realism and naturalism movements are extremely similar in that both depict everyday characters in real-life situations in which conflicts are psychologically driven. Both realism and naturalism also make use of realistic costumes and indoor stage settings that are believable. Yet, one way in which they differ is that naturalism is based on Darwinian ideas of evolution from a shared ancestry and of survival of the fittest ("Naturalism," Northern Virginia Community College).
In accordance with Darwinism, naturalistic works focus on themes that show human beings are controlled by their environment and genetics. Plus, since human beings are controlled by their environment, people can take no responsibility for their actions because the environment is a force that is beyond control. To capture the Darwinian theory of survival of the fittest, naturalistic works also develop themes concerning the individual's need to fight against the grain of society in order to progress ("Naturalism"). To capture human beings as prisoners of their environment, fighting against the grain of society in order to progress, naturalistic works depict characters in states of deprivation such as poverty, prostitution, or emotional agonies leading to suicide.
August Strindberg's play Miss Julie can be classified as a naturalistic play because it captures these Darwinian beliefs through the characters of Julie, daughter of a count, and Jean, valet to Julie's father.
Jean was born a commoner but longs to be an aristocrat, as depicted in the recurring dream he relays to Julie of climbing a tree to reach the nest of golden eggs atop. To achieve his desire, he is willing to leave his fiancée Kristin to run off with Julie, open up his own hotel, and purchase a title as a count. Yet, when Julie suggests they commit suicide, Jean changes his mind, tells Julie to run off on her own, and returns to his born destiny of servitude. Jean's inability to climb out of his state of servitude shows he is completely controlled by his environment and genetics, a theme found throughout naturalistic literature.
Just like Jean, Julie is actually descended of commoners. The only reason she is considered an aristocrat is because her family's title was earned through sexual favors performed by one of her ancestors. As Jean explains it, "The founder of [Julie's] family... was a miller whose wife found favor with the king during the Danish War." In other words, as recompense for seducing the miller's wife, the king granted the miller the title of count. The fact that Julie actually comes from common, humble beginnings helps explain why, during the course of the play, she prefers to socialize with the servants. When socializing with the servants, Julie is forced by her environment to return to her humble roots. Plus, through seducing Jean and behaving, as Jean puts it, like a "whore," Julie symbolically returns to her natural class status of commoner. Julie's symbolic fall from the status of aristocrat to the status of commoner shows she, too, is nothing more than a product of her environment and her genes. Plus, characteristic of many naturalistic works, Julie ends by committing suicide to escape the fact that she has fallen in status by giving herself to a servant.