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Understanding Naturalism in "Miss Julie" and "Six Characters in Search of an Author"

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In not more than 300 words, make an analytical description of naturalism and one kind of anti-naturalism. In not more than 1200 words, demonstrate what each description might contribute to an understanding of one scene from ‘Miss Julie’, (pages 78 to 88) and one scene from ‘Six Characters in Search of an Author,’ (pages 39 to 48.)

The term ‘naturalism’ takes in two concepts: that of a philosophical theory, and an artistic, or more specifically, theatrical movement. The philosophy behind naturalism is a product of post-Darwinism, and proposed that man belongs to the natural order, with no higher spiritual or religious aspirations. His character and fate is simply defined by heredity and environment. As Abrams puts it:

“Man inherits his personal traits and his compulsive instincts, especially hunger and sex, and he is subject to the social and economic forces in the family, the class, and the milieu into which he was born.” (Abrams, 1993, p.175)

Naturalism as a theatrical movement was an attempt to create, as Ibsen proposed, a ‘perfect illusion of reality.’ The theatre was to be made less artificial and more realistic – snubbing the stage conventions of the outmoded romantic tradition.

In the preface to ‘Miss Julie,’ Strindberg laid out possibly the best manifesto of naturalistic theatre ever written. He set down proposals concerning the way in which theatrical concepts such as: dialogue, acting style, character depth, structure, scenery, setting, subject, and genre, could be adapted in order to be accommodated into the naturalist movement.

Anti-naturalism is not a movement in its own right and as such cannot be defined specifically ­ it developed as a reaction against the naturalists, and takes various forms. Pirandello practises a different form to Brecht, whose Marxist theories claim that man shapes his own destiny, (a significant opposition to the naturalist philosophy,) while admitting that he does not do so in circumstances of his own choosing. Pirandello’s form of anti-naturalism uses naturalist conventions such as natural dialogue, and the removal of acts, while showing up its flaws and contradictions. An example of this is on page 39, when the Stepdaughter and Madame Pace converse in low, natural tones, and the Actors complain loudly that they cannot hear, showing an impracticality in Strindberg’s proposals. In this way, then, both playwrights use a degree of compromise in their stance against naturalism, but go about their arguments in different ways.

The technical aims of naturalism within a theatrical movement were best set out by Strindberg in his Preface to ‘Miss Julie.’ He proposed that dialogue should be non-exaggerated – meandering, and imitating natural conversation, as opposed to “symmetrical, mathematically constructed,” dialogue. However, the dream speeches on page 87 appear to contradict this. Ward points out that the speeches are:

“Too neatly juxtaposed to be real, much to full of pastoral imagery to be more than a lyrical expression of Jean’s and Julie’s experiences, and much too tightly constructed to be part of natural dialogue.” (Ward, 1980, p.68)

However, it could be argued that the stylistic rhythm of the speeches are designed to hold the audience’s suspension of disbelief, carrying them along with the action, which is a naturalistic aim.

Similarly, acting style should be natural, and question traditional theatrical conventions ­ Strindberg was detailed in stressing the importance in the stage directions on page 82 of ‘Miss Julie’ that:

“When it is natural for her {Christine} to turn her back on the audience she must do so; she must not look out into the auditorium, nor should she hurry as if she were afraid the public might grow impatient.” (Strindberg, 1958, p.82)

In plays of the romantic tradition, it was unheard of that an actor should turn their back on the audience. Other flouts of tradition included the omission of spoken asides, and the practice of actors directly addressing the audience. The same could be said of Strindberg’s removal of play divisions, such as acts. He argued firstly that life does not divide itself, and also used this structure to intensify the play’s action.

Naturalist drama was keen on exploring the psychology of its characters, as a protest against the tradition of stock, stereotypical characters, and an emphasis was placed upon a character’s multiple motivations for action. Strindberg suggests, amongst others, the following genetic, psychological and physiological motivations leading to Miss Julie’s tragic fall.

“…the passionate character of her mother, the upbringing… by her father… the festive atmosphere of Midsummer Night… her menstruation… the powerfully aphrodisiac influence of the flowers…” (Strindberg’s Preface, Strindberg, 1978, p.93 – 94)

These motivations tie in with the naturalistic belief that hereditary, environment, and the pressure of the moment dictate human behaviour. Miss Julie exclaims on page 117:

“Who’s to blame for all this ­ my father, or my mother, or myself? Myself? I haven’t a self; I haven’t a thought that I don’t get from my father, nor an emotion that I don’t get from my mother… How can I be to blame?” (Strindberg, 1958, p.117)

Less crucial proposals include the need for a play to be genre defying, in order to escape the expectations of the audience. For example, the first part of ‘Miss Julie’ could be mistaken for romance, with a successful elopement, but the sentimental elements are later destroyed and undercut. A play was to deal with modern themes within a contemporary setting.

The scenery was to be as real as possible, and there was to be a minimal use of make-up, which hid the character’s expressions. There was also a call for modification of the theatre itself ­ to raise the audience’s seats, and remove the orchestra pit and side boxes, since Strindberg was strongly opposed to the use of the theatrical medium for light entertainment.

Naturalism was an attempt to apply to literature the discoveries of Nineteenth Century science. The naturalist play was thought of in terms of a scientific experiment ­ adapted to humanity instead of the natural world. The realists, along with the naturalists, believed that art is a mimetic, objective representation of an outer reality, and both were opposed to romanticism. However, whereas realism simply observes humans with unbiased objectivity, naturalism goes further, to ‘test’ certain traits, against perceived patterns of human behaviour.

Was Strindberg successful in applying naturalist philosophy to ‘Miss Julie’? Within the movement, there is an overwhelming emphasis on the need for facts. Strindberg’s ‘facts’ are questioned from the outset in the preface. For example, is Miss Julie a ‘man-hater’? Without facts there can be no theory, and without theory there can be no practice, so is his play immediately discredited in this respect?

According to Ward, Strindberg’s intention was to represent Miss Julie as:

“…an aristocrat whose role and function is being superseded by the evolutionary process. She is a member of a virtually extinct class who is destroyed by the representative of a lower, more dynamic class.” (Ward, 1980, p.57)

However, Strindberg’s simple intentions and analysis, put forward in his Preface, make ‘Miss Julie’ a considerably poorer play than it is. Jean and Julie are trapped within their classes, and their relationship is stunted by social prejudice, but Julie is too complex to represent a class, or be “a pawn in a Darwinian strategy.” (Ward, 1980, p.58) Jean, also, is a powerful individual rather than a stock social type. Neither Jean nor Julie turns out to be typical of their class, as Jean is class conscious as a result of his higher ambitions, and Julie is desperate to break out of social conventions. Ward finds Strindberg’s representation of class evolution unconvincing, stating:

“It seems strange that so sensually vital a woman was ever intended to represent the last of an etiolated aristocratic line, or that such an insensitive, swaggering lackey as Jean should be regarded as the successful representative of the newly emerging dominant class.” (Ward, 1980, p. 58)

In ‘Six Characters in Search of an Author,’ Pirandello sets out to prove that the subjective is inescapable – a solipsist principal. He proposed that human beings are isolated from one another, and can never communicate the full truth of their identity to each other. The play portrays various power struggles, between the Characters and Actors, and amongst the Characters themselves. The Characters battle for the stage, in order to impose their view of reality and experience on the others. On page 19, the Stepdaughter wants to possess the stage to allow the full communication of her experience, but the Father argues one of the key points of the play:

“…How can we understand one another, sir, if in the words I speak I put the meaning and the value of things as I myself see them, while the one who listens inevitably takes them according to the meaning and the value which he has in himself of the world he has inside of himself.” (Pirandello, 1995, p.19)

In other words, the receiver of the communication will project his or her own values onto what is being said. The play’s purpose is to depict the irresolvable nature of this dilemma. Pirandello’s solipsist beliefs made him wary of what he called the ‘producer’s play,’ where the director would misinterpret and distort the play against the author’s intentions. He satirises this scenario at several points in the play, firstly on page 48 when the Director complains, “it’s always been my curse to rehearse with the author present. They’re never satisfied,” expressing the conflicts involved while making the transition from writing to performance. At the same time though, he accepts that the theatre cannot accommodate the full complex truth of a situation, on page 46 when the Stepdaughter argues over the precise wording of her lines, and on page 32 when the scenery is being prepared for the brothel scene:

Director: {to the Property Man} Go and see if there isn’t a divan in wardrobe.

Property Man: Yes sir, there’s the green one.

Stepdaughter: No, no. Not green. It was yellow with a floral design made of ‘peluche’ ­ very big and very comfortable.

Property Man: Ah, we don’t have one like that.

Director: It makes no difference. Use what we’ve got.

Stepdaughter: What do you mean it makes no difference?

Director: We’re just trying it out for now! Please don’t interfere. (Pirandello, 1995, p.32)

Pirandello found the fact that perception is constantly changing, both over time and amongst different people alarming, and set out to depict this instability and state of flux on the stage. At no point can the audience relax, as Pirandello systematically disrupts the action, contrary to the aim of naturalism, which is to create and sustain the illusion of reality. On page 65, as the Son solemnly relates the events of the past, with the full attention of the audience and Actors, there is a sudden revolver shot, and the theatre is thrown into pandemonium. There is no intense involvement ­ the audience is repeatedly drawn in, then pulled away from the action.

The play uses aspects of naturalism, such as the realistic stage setting, behaviour, and dialogue, ‘vivacious in its naturalness,’ (p.6). The Father is led by ‘wretched needs,’ (p.24) implying he was a slave to his instincts, driven by the animalistic motives suggested in naturalist philosophy. However, the play also presents a satire on ‘natural acting,’ on page 40, when no-one can hear the hushed conversation of the Stepdaughter with Madame Pace ­ the Director argues that ‘the requirements of the theatre must be respected.’ On page 45, the Leading Lady announces cattily that she will be dressed “far more appropriately” that the character herself!

Pirandello’s brand of anti-naturalism takes some aspects of naturalism, then presents it with its shortcomings ­ in other words, he uses naturalistic means, but not ends. The play undercuts the romantic conventions of exclamation, cataclysm, and exaggerations of character. It is also technically anti-naturalistic: the curtain is up at the start of the performance, the workings of the theatre are fore-grounded, the scenery is changed during the play, and masks are used to distinguish between the Actors and Characters. Although it could be argued that satire creates exaggeration, no attempt towards naturalistic illusion is made.


Abrams, M. H. (1993) A Glossary of Literary Terms (1941) Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Publishers

Paolucci, A. (1974) Pirandello’s Theatre: The Recovery of the Modern Stage for Dramatic Art London: Feffer & Simons, Inc

Pirandello, L. (1995) Six Characters in Search of an Author (1921). In Six Characters in Search of an Author and Other Plays. M. Musa (Trans.) London: Penguin

Robinson, M. (1996) Strindberg: Selected Essays M. Robinson (Trans.) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Strindberg, A. (1958) Miss Julie (1888). In Three Plays. P. Watts (Trans.) London: Penguin

Strindberg, A. (1978) Strindberg’s Preface to Miss Julie (1888). In The Father, Miss Julie, and The Ghost Sonata M. Meyer (Trans.) London: Methuen

Styan, J. L. (1981) Modern Drama in Theory and Practice: Volume 1. Realism and Naturalism Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Ward, J. (1980) The Social and Religious Plays of Strindberg London: The Athlone Press

Williams, R. (1987) Drama from Ibsen to Brecht London: Hogarth Press

Zola, E. (1881) Naturalism from Le Naturalisme au theatre G. Brandt (Trans.) Paris: G. Charpentier. In Brandt, G. (Ed.) (1998) Modern Theories of Drama: A Selection of Writings on Drama and Theatre, 1840 ­1990 Oxford: Oxford University Press

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