August Strindberg was thirty-nine and living in Denmark when in 1888 he wrote what is probably his best known drama, the naturalistic tragedy Froken Julie (Miss Julie). It was the second in a series of bitter realistic plays, the first being Fadren (The Father 1887), which examined the basic corruption of human nature, in contrast to the theme of the evils of society prevalent in Ibsen's work. There were many similarities between Miss Julie and The Father; for example, both took only two weeks to write and were gripping psychological dramas that explored the characters' perverse and dependent relationships, socially, sexually and emotionally, which ultimately led to their destruction.
Partly based on his own relationship with his first wife Siri, who left her baron husband to marry Strindberg, the son of a servant, Miss Julie was originally written in Swedish. The play is set in a manor house on Midsummer's Eve during the 1880s. Jean and Julie are both protagonist and antagonist in this story of a young aristocratic man-hating girl who is nevertheless driven to satisfy her uncontrollable sensuality abandoning herself to her father's valet. As the social and sexual struggle develops between them, Julie must face the fact that Jean, a servant, is the stronger person. Trapped and unable to arrive at any reasonable plan, she orders Jean to hypnotise her into committing suicide. Initially banned in Sweden, time has allowed Strindberg's play to mellow from a bewildering attempt to look at the social issues of women's place in the changing social order, into a modern tragedy.
Miss Julie probably began as a two or three hour three act play, but in order to capture the required intensity of emotion and in opposition to conventional methods, Strindberg reduced Miss Julie to a single ninety-minute act. The build up to the climax, Jean and Julie having sex, and the resulting catastrophe are only broken by a dance and pantomimes, which allow the spectator to rest but not escape from the influence of the author-hypnotist. Forty percent of Miss Julie is rising action leading to the climax and peripety (role reversal) creating a two part structure to the play. Once Jean and Julie have seduced each other, their lives are irretrievably changed; the aristocrat in the social sphere becomes the slave of the valet and the valet becomes the aristocrat in the sexual sphere as Julie lowers herself beyond redemption.
The stress on multiple motivation of action, random illogical dialogue and a departure from the conventional depictions of character makes Miss Julie an excellent example of the naturalistic movement, that is, the characters are seen as helpless products of heredity and environment who interact with their minds and bodies as they would in real life. Strindberg's naturalistic techniques also extended to aspects of stage décor, lighting, and make-up and were to have strong repercussions in modern theatre. He used a realistic setting for the action believing that it was the only way the audience could be completely involved in the play, but in order to capture the spirit of the finale Strindberg needed the reality to fade. He called for the lights to replicate the slanting sun and fall on Jean alone so that the audience would be aware of nothing but a black undefined figure and Julie's voice leading the audience to be as hypnotised as Julie. Miss Julie demonstrates both the effectiveness and the limitations of stage realism for while it allows the audience to participate fully it inhibits expression of the spirit. Miss Julie with its realistic basis lifts to a very symbolic conclusion of great power when Strindberg's stage directions are followed. The play seemed to foreshadow the turn Strindberg's writing style would take.