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Simple Rules for Playing Strindberg

Amy Caldwell as Julie, and Rob Roy as Jean, in the Michigan Classical Repertory Theatre production of August Strindberg¹s Miss Julie. ³I could drink from your skill, I could rip you open and wash my feet in your blood. I could eat your broiled heart.²

ART TIMES September 2003

In the course of directing a production of a double bill of Strindberg—Miss Julie and The Stronger—our company followed the KISS principle—Keep It Simple, Stupid! We developed some KISS rules for playing Strindberg.

August Strindberg is probably the world’s foremost playwright when it comes to inner conflict. All good playwrights write conflict, of course, but Strindberg deals more than most with the soul that tortures itself. When playing his characters, you are constantly forced to ask, "Do I love or do I hate?" You are constantly forced to answer, "Yes!"

So how do you proceed? At a very basic level, it’s quite straightforward. That’s where our rules come in.

First of all, if your partner in the scene is happy, make them unhappy. Second, if they’re unhappy, make them happy—but only just long enough for them to realize it before you make them unhappy again. If you realize that your scene partner needs something, take it away from them—unless you can give them more than they want, in which case give it to them in spades, more than they can handle.

Last but hardly least, when you want something from them, make sure they have no way of giving it to you without hurting themselves very badly in the process. In Strindberg, if a character says, "Would you give me a hand?" they mean you to cut it off at the elbow.

Ensure that your voice and words on one hand, and your body language on the other, are in perfect contradiction. When you tell your partner how much they revolt you, how sickened you are by the prospect of spending your life with them, touch their face gently and speak softly into their eyes. When you are screaming at them how much you would like to rip them open and bathe in their blood, go to them, hold yourself against them and make them wrap you up in their arms.

Ambivalence is the key. What is ambivalence, after all? Is it anything other than being caught between two opposing feelings for the same object? Are we not all constantly more or less in that state? You love her more than gold or chocolate, but she does have that wart on her cheek, and goddammit if she doesn’t stop snoring I’ll kill her, I swear I will. He’s scum, he’s a lousy lying sneak, but every time I see those damn blue eyes crinkle when he smiles I want him all over again. The difference is that most of us resolve our ambivalences; we don’t try to build them up; we try to make them go away. In Strindberg, you don’t do that. You find the ambivalence, you hang on to it with both hands, you feed it whatever kind of meat it eats until it’s as big and strong and terrible as it can possibly be, and then you hug it to yourself, live with it forever and never let it go.

There are two ways to do this: the way people do it in real life and the way artists do it. If you do it the way people sometimes do it in real life, the way Strindberg himself did, you live yourself a terrible, neurotic life and you probably wind up killing yourself, though Strindberg didn’t quite take it that far. If you do it the way a real artist does it, you only go nuts in your work; your regular life as a happily married, calm and stable actor or actress goes on without a ripple. The key point is, am I doing this to myself, or am I communicating this to others, a communication which must of necessity be something of a cautionary tale?

Fortunately for our sanity, the second option is a realistic approach. We don’t all have to go out to the barn and cut our throats. We can play Strindberg for our partners, the audience, and perhaps even change their lives for the better. For centuries, the mission of drama was to entertain and instruct; it really is quite instructive to see characters like Jean and Julie, people who could be us, and there but for the grace of God go we—people struggling with love and hate, trapped in a vicious cycle of hurting and being hurt, loving and being loved, trying to live it out just as we try to live it out.

Which brings us to the last rule for playing Strindberg. Despite all the hate, and also despite all the love—of which there must be too much—never stop needing your partner. The fundamental drive in Strindberg, as in life, is the human need to love and be loved. It is that need that compels Jean and Julie to look for love in all the wrong places, to struggle with all their might to find it, gain it, and keep it. It also is the root of what makes them, once they have found it, push it away with all their strength, flee from it with all their might, only to turn a corner and find themselves face to face with it again—the darkness in their souls that is also light, the devil in their hearts who is also an angel.

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