The Master/Servant Power Switch as Depicted in August Strindberg’s Miss Julie and Lina Wertmuller’s Swept Away
Posted by Jennine Lanouette on Monday, December 24th, 2012
The least we expect of a dramatic work is that it should entertain us with an engaging plot. If along the way we are enlightened by an insightful exploration of character, we are all the more delighted. But when the plot and/or characters are able to illustrate an overarching theme, then we have a chance of being transported into high art. Without the larger meaning that theme provides, a drama remains hopelessly grounded in everyday story mongering.A useful example of how plot and character are employed to illustrate theme can be found in the comparison of two very different dramatic works–Miss Julie, the play by August Strindberg, and Swept Away by an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August, a film written and directed by Lina Wertmuller. Both works use the same basic situation — the transference of power and reversal of roles between a master and a servant — as a platform from which to put forth a thematic argument, albeit quite different ones.
In his Preface to Miss Julie, Strindberg outlines dual objectives. One is to demonstrate that, despite the claims of feminists, women will never succeed at being equal to men; the other is to dramatize what he sees as the inevitable dying out of the “old warrior nobility.” He also hopes to modernize the form of drama, to which end he says he has chosen “a theme that may be said to lie outside current party strife, for the problem of rising or falling on the social ladder, of higher or lower, better or worse, man or woman is, has been, and always will be of lasting interest.”
Wertmuller, on the other hand, has in mind to challenge the very idea of social hierarchies. Swept Away, she says, is “not a comment on the relation of the sexes but on the power relations between social classes.” Her ideal is a reorganization of fundamental family and social structures. “I believe that only the creation of communities will enable man to survive this blasting of the atom that was the family. Once the atom or the molecule of the family is broken up, society loses a great element of its equilibrium. Especially if you don’t put an end to overpopulation. It’s indispensable to arrive at a concept of group, of commune.”
Of even greater interest than the two works having such different thematic objectives, is the fact that they employ different dramatic principles to communicate their themes. Strindberg focuses primarily on creating individualized characters engaged in a psychological battle, while Wertmuller asserts her argument by putting her characters in extreme external circumstances and focusing on a meticulously crafted plot progression. To some degree these approaches can be related to a fundamental difference in the stage and film mediums. But the stage is certainly capable of carrying more plot than Strindberg uses in this play, just as film is no stranger to complex character psychology. What is noteworthy in this comparison is how far at each end of the spectrum these two dramas reside.
Although Strindberg, in opposition to the dictates of Aristotle, utilizes plot secondarily to character, the play is not completely devoid of action. Miss Julie is a young countess on an estate where Jean works as a valet. It is Midsummer Eve, Julie’s father, the Count, is away and the peasants are celebrating the holiday. Julie, rebounding from a failed engagement, takes part in the festivities with some abandon, asking Jean, who is engaged to the cook, Kristin, to dance with her more than once. Julie then corners Jean in the kitchen, insisting that he change out of his uniform and sit and drink with her against his protests that people will talk. Julie becomes seductive, he confesses his love for her and finally they are trapped by an approaching horde of peasants. Jean offers escape by hiding in his room.
When Julie and Jean guiltily emerge, they discuss what to do next. Jean describes a plan to go to Switzerland and open a hotel. She wants him to say he loves her. He cannot under this roof. She weeps at her dishonor. They exchange insults, alternately seducing and recriminating each other in a slow decline of their relationship until she finally admits she can’t think anymore and asks him to order her. He orders her upstairs to prepare to leave by herself to escape the shame of staying on the estate as a disgraced woman. By the time Julie returns, Kristin has woken up and surmised the situation. She refuses to work for a mistress she can’t respect and leaves for church. Julie asks Jean what she should do. He suggests the only way out is to kill herself. But with the return of the Count from his travels, Jean turns back into a servant. Julie asks him to order her to kill herself. He can’t at first, but finally does so. She exits with his razor.
The main component of Strindberg’s experiment in form is to eliminate all act divisions with the objective that “the spectator has no time to reflect and thereby escape from the suggestive influence of the dramatist-hypnotist.” Nonetheless, the play is clearly divided into two parts, or “acts” in the aesthetic sense, which are before Julie and Jean go into Jean’s room together, and after they come out. This division is delineated not only by inserting a ballet interlude into the action, but also by what happens in Jean’s room, an event that brings about a fundamental shift in the power balance between the two characters. Strindberg’s technique of not allowing the audience an intermission in which to move around and chat forces them to simply sit and watch the peasants cavort in the kitchen knowing that Jean and Julie are enclosed in a bedroom together. The audience becomes caught up in the tension of wondering if the heavily suggested result of such a situation is, in fact, occurring.
Another effect of Strindberg’s use of continuous time and single location is to restrict opportunities for superficial plot-making and instead open up the possibility of delving deeply into the characters through their intensive interaction. Most of the action of the play occurs not in any external or physical circumstance (the retreat into the bedroom being the main exception), but rather in the psychological action/reaction between Julie and Jean as they alternately move closer to each other and then pull apart.
In the flirtation and seduction of the first “act”, the action/reaction is between familiarity and formality. Seeking companionship, Julie asks Jean to sit down, showing familiarity. But Jean maintains formality by saying he wouldn’t take the liberty in her presence. She circumvents his formality by ordering him to sit with her, which is to say, ordering him into a familiar stance in relation to her. But she does this not without first giving him a genuine order to get her something to drink. We therefore see her ambivalence towards giving up her masterly power.
He reaffirms the class difference between them by reporting that there is “just” beer, implying it is below her aristocratic tastes. But she claims she has “simple tastes,” that she prefers beer to wine, implying she is well-equipped to mix with the simple people. When she invites him to join her, he claims not to be a beer drinker, placing himself in company with the aristocracy. But he then says that he will if it’s an order, re-asserting the barrier between them. She, in turn, balks at the suggestion that she would order him, insisting instead that it is his gentleman’s duty to keep a lady company, placing him in the same strata with her. But when he acquiesces, she again reverts to a genuine order that he drink to her health, as if she can’t help herself but to give orders all the time. He parodies her order by getting down on one knee, which according to his station constitutes taking a great liberty. She in turn both parodies and upbraids him by insisting he kiss her shoe. As master, she still has the last word.
In the second act, we see the same line-by-line action/reaction in their discussion about going to Switzerland to run a hotel. Jean carefully works out a plan with train schedules to get them there in three days, which Julie brushes aside while asking him to tell her he loves her, revealing her emotional vulnerability. He claims he can’t accommodate her while they are still in that house, revealing the psychological burden he feels from the social barriers the house implies. She protests his use of the formal “you” with her, insisting all barriers have been removed. He expresses tormented feelings about the burdens of servanthood in a speech that reaches a rhapsodic culmination in his ambition to become a count and make her a countess, clearly trying to please her. But she devalues his ambition, saying she doesn’t care about being a countess, that that’s what she’s trying to get away from, and then asks again that he say he loves her.
Being so rejected, he retreats to emotional distance, insisting they must approach things coolly, talk as if nothing happened. She accuses him of having no feelings, while reverting to the formal form of “you,” doing her own part to create distance between them. He claims he can control his feelings, making him the more in control of the situation than she. She laments that, not long before, he could kiss her shoe, showing that she now regrets her loss of power. In response, he barks at her, something he would never have done in his servant role. These exchanges continue until he appeals to her to provide the money to set them up in business. When she claims she has none, he feels rejected and calls off the whole plan. Then it starts up again with her weeping about her fall from grace.
Thus, the action of the play, in the form of interaction between the characters, progresses forward incrementally, sometimes spiraling upward, then downward, sometimes doubling back to pick up an old theme, sometimes pausing for a psychology-revealing monologue, such as the telling of their dreams or the stories from their childhoods. In the process, we gain a complex portrait of each of the characters.
Jean experienced shame and alienation as a child, which made him determined to rise above his impoverished origins. He has worked at bettering himself but still struggles with feelings of inferiority. He knows his station but can also allow for the possibility of transcending his lot. He is concerned with what Kristin thinks of him but secretly lusts after Julie. He has enough self-regard to be able to imagine that Julie might also be attracted to him. He protests over and over that people will talk, but then he takes advantage of the opportunity to have her. He is not concerned about the actual transgression, only that people will talk about it.
Julie, on the other hand, rejects her vaunted status. For her, life among the aristocracy is emotionally complicated. They have the time and luxury with which to manipulate and torment each other, as her mother did to her father. Julie’s fantasy is that among a lower class of people she can simply be loved. Indeed, she believes that she is loved by the peasants, a notion that Jean tries to disabuse her of. Strindberg carefully applies in Julie the positivist theory of “race plus environment equals moment” by showing her aristocratic bloodlines in her high strung and psychologically fragile nature, while also reflecting her childhood environment in her absorption of her mother’s lessons to hate men.
In fact, the source of their chemistry is in how each satisfies the other’s neurotic needs. For him, she is a conquest, an ideal, a trophy, the unattainable first branch on the tree. But she is only of value as long as she is unattainable. As soon as he has conquered her, he loses interest. For her, he is her opportunity to come down off her aristocratic pillar and find the peace she seeks in her dream. She fantasizes him as a more earthy, and therefore reliable, alternative to the fiancé she just lost. Both Jean and Julie have a past (which they describe), an unconscious, (expressed through their dreams), and are capable of fantasizing about the future.
In stark contrast, Swept Away’s counterparts to Jean and Julie, Gennarino and Rafaella, have no past, no unconscious and little concept of the future. Gennarino is a working class jack-of-all-trades active in his local Communist Party who has signed on as a crewmember for a month long summer cruise in the Mediterranean. While he has definite opinions about political and social realities, he at no point displays any inner conflicts, vulnerabilities or weaknesses. His flaws in the way of dominance and brutality are given near case-study consistency with those of a generic Southern Italian, tradition-bound, working-class male. As a character, he simply acts out his station in life and, given the opportunity, he also acts out his statement on how he thinks the world ought to be.
In similar fashion, Rafaella, as the hostess of the cruise, is a generic, upper-class shrew, wife of a member of the Italian power elite. She is spoiled, demanding, self-centered, fault-finding, is never satisfied, and has no concern about how her actions or words affect others. Like Gennarino, Rafaella also has rock-solid, though opposing, opinions on social and political matters. Needless to say, neither does she display any inner conflicts, vulnerabilities or weaknesses, at least not when we are introduced to her at the beginning of the story.
While Wertmuller claims to be a Socialist who believes in the importance of the individual, she does not succeed at creating psychologically individualized characters. Where Strindberg relies on his characters to reveal the contradictions of their situations, Wertmuller uses externalized plot to highlight the failures of social hierarchies.
From the beginning, the tension in this drama is electric and riveting as Rafaella pontificates to her cruise companions on the superiority of capitalism over socialism while bossing around Gennarino and his co-workers. Gennarino seethes at her treatment of him as well as her political views. But their mutual antagonism barely masks a building fascination, even attraction. Wertmuller uses the daily realities of serving coffee and cooking spaghetti to set them up at polar extremes while drawing a faint thread of connection between them. Rafaella’s verbal brutality, along with Gennarino’s long-suffering servitude, firmly establishes him as the character with whom we should sympathize.
When, one evening near dusk, he is assigned to take her out in the dinghy for a swim on a nearby island and the motor fails, an arbitrary external circumstance thrusts them into a mutual dependency that only intensifies the tension between them. He endures all manner of invective from her as he struggles to fix the motor. Night comes and the following day with no rescue, and she continues to castigate and insult him. On the third day, they manage to land on an uninhabited island and the tables are soon turned. It is soon clear that Gennarino has more of the necessary skills for getting by in this milieu. Finally, he refuses to take her abuse any longer and instead makes her work for the privilege of sharing the food he is able to procure with his fishing and fire-building abilities.
Wertmuller has engineered the plot to serve her objective of isolating these two socially and politically opposed people in a mutual struggle for basic survival. Whereas Jean and Julie have, as far as is possible between a master and servant, a form of preexisting camaraderie, and, therefore, a degree of psychological connection, and we may well expect that their intimate collision was bound to happen at some point, we are given no reason to believe that anything short of the most extreme circumstances would create any meaningful contact between Rafaella and Gennarino. Thus, it takes careful manipulation of plot to carry out the intended premise.
Hunger finally forces Rafaella to succumb to Gennarino’s insistence that she wait on him, as he throws back at her all the insults he had endured from her. But she does not give in easily and again the tension builds to the point where he pursues her as if to rape her, attacking her with physical blows and throwing her down the sand dunes. But at the moment when, poised for rape, he appears to have subdued her into willingness, in a sudden reversal of the action, he lets go, telling her passion is not enough. She must love him. He again leaves her to fend for herself.
Initially, Gennarino’s verbal brutality towards Rafaella is felt as just desserts for the extremity of her previous treatment of him. But when he crosses over into physical abuse, our sympathies begin to transfer to her, just as, when we begin to see Jean psychologically dominating Julie, our sympathies – which previously lay with Jean as the underdog servant – become invested with Julie. Again, the difference being that Wertmuller progresses the interrelationship through Gennarino’s abusive behavior, while Strindberg does it through Jean’s psychological manipulation.
For the first time, Rafaella exhibits vulnerability when she identifies with a rabbit Gennarino has caught and skewered. He in turn shows some sympathy for her genuinely humbled state. She kisses his feet and the film reaches its midpoint culmination with the famous sequence of lovemaking on the beach. As their relationship continues to develop, she experiences an impulse to hide from a passing schooner out of her unwillingness to be discovered, causing her to celebrate the realization that she feels genuine love for him. But loving him on a deserted island isn’t enough for Gennarino. When a second boat approaches he insists on a test of her love in the outside world. Against her desperate pleas to stay as they are, he signals the boat to rescue them.
Having thrown two unlikely characters into survival-focused isolation to force them together, Wertmuller then brings them back to the real world to test it. Needless to say, Rafaella fails the test, taking off in a helicopter with her husband to return to the life she left. But there is no doubt she has been transformed in the process. She is no longer the shrill, aggressive, over-entitled, purely self-focused aristocrat that she was on the yacht. Gennarino, on the other hand, having been abandoned by Rafaella, immediately resumes his class prejudices against rich people. He is left with no choice but to return to his wizened wife in a significantly humbled state.
While in Swept Away the character progression could not occur without the framework of external plot, in Miss Julie the plot framework is far more incidental. A summer celebration and a not-so-accidental encounter in an estate kitchen could have as easily occurred behind the barn on a lazy afternoon, on a drive in the country or any number of other circumstances. What Stringberg makes indispensable for bringing the two character’s together are the individual childhood experiences, life aspirations, emotional vulnerabilities and psychological fragilities which cause Jean and Julie to become hooked into an unconscious dance of power transference.
The one element that the two dramatic works have in common is the choice of pitting the female master against the male slave. Strindberg makes no apologies for this premise, but Wertmuller claims that her point could be made either way. To explore the alternative–the male master and female slave–one consideration is the fact that, as the world has existed and largely continues to exist today, it would be difficult to pose that a female servant would be capable of gaining domination over a male master without being portrayed as truly diabolical. It is a curious point that in exercising their power, neither Jean nor Gennarino come across as one-dimensionally evil. However, Strindberg does account for this reverse possibility in the backstory of Julie’s commoner mother sexually beguiling her aristocrat father to such a degree that she nearly ruins him. Indeed, she is presented as witchlike and unredeemable.
In the master-as-female and servant-as-male story, what we see is one form of dominance (class-based) traded for another (gender-based). The transference of roles simply results in another state of power equilibrium, which is Wertmuller’s comment on the fallacy of social hierarchies. Yet Wertmuller doesn’t take the results of male power to its potential extreme. Even as she submits to Gennarino’s control, Rafaella makes conciliatory responses to his dominance. She humors him, as if to say he is all bark and no bite. She maintains an integrity and superiority by not cowering under his will. This attitude was most likely constructed to mollify a politically engaged 1970s feminist audience that didn’t want to see a woman crumbling under male power.
However, the resolution between Jean and Julie is more true to the realities of human psychology. Julie is psychologically captive to Jean, not unlike the way a traumatized battered wife is to a violent husband, as recent studies of domestic violence have demonstrated. She has been beaten into submission psychologically far more than Rafaella is physically. As a result, her descent is taken to its logical extreme by her compliance with Jean’s suggestion that she kill herself. Strindberg achieves not only a thorough tearing down of the establishment powers, but also an elimination of female neurosis, weakness, fickleness and manipulation.
Both Strindberg and Wertmuller utilize the master/servant role transference to engage in a creative “What if?” Wertmuller does it to explore social and political motivations and Strindberg to represent the emotional and psychological wars that humankind wages upon itself. Despite employing different methods and progressing their stories to distinctly dissimilar resolutions, each dramatist makes highly effective use of the medium to achieve their thematic purposes.
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 Miss Julie and Other Plays, 61.
 Ibid., 57.
 The Parables of Lina Wertmuller, Ernest Ferlita and John R. May (New York: Paulist Press, 1977), 32.
 Miss Julie and Other Plays, 64.