Every Theatre Arts major is given the opportunity to undertake a
senior thesis project in acting, directing, playwriting, design, or
dramaturgy/criticism in their senior year, which serves as the creative
and intellectual capstone to their years of study in the major. If the
student's area of concentration involves performance, the senior thesis
project will focus on the creation of a significant piece of artistic
work; the work of art (i.e. the theatrical performance) is not the thesis
itself, but constitutes one small but important component of a body of
research culminating in a major piece of writing. Each year an
experienced faculty director selects a play that provides a thesis role
for the senior majors concentrating in acting. Senior acting thesis
projects in past years have included productions of Arthur Schnitzler's
Strindberg used the "Author's Preface" to the published edition of the play as a manifesto for a new type of psychologized drama, calling for two sets of innovations. In the Preface, he talks about making the scenery for the play as palpably "realistic" as possible. And he calls for a new view of dramatic character. Indeed, he dismisses the idea of "character" altogether as an outmoded literary system whereby fictional personages are constructed around quirks and catch-phrases, and are believed to act according to an exact correspondence between simplistic biographical causes and predetermined behavioral effects. Strindberg calls for something more complex: "My `souls,'" he writes, choosing to use a different word for character, "are conglomerates of past and present cultural phases, bits from books and newspapers, scraps of humanity, pieces torn from fine clothes and become rags, patched together as is the human soul."
After reading the play countless times and teaching the play over a dozen times during my 16 years at Penn, I never completely saw the connection between Strindberg's twin concerns for realistic stage conventions and for new definitions of dramatic character. And I thought I understood what Strindberg was saying about "souls": that behavior is caused not by single but by multiple determinants. As Strindberg writes in his Preface, "I have motivated Miss Julie's tragic fate by a great number of circumstances: her mother's primary instincts, her father raising her incorrectly, her own nature, and the influence of her fianc on her weak and degenerate brain. Also, more particularly: the festive atmosphere of midsummer night, her father's absence, her monthly indisposition, her preoccupation with animals, the provocative effect of the dancing, the magical midsummer twilight, the powerfully aphrodisiac influence of flowers, and, finally, the chance that drives the couple together into a room alone--plus the boldness of the aroused man."
Now that I have worked on the play in performance, though, I
understand Strindberg's concept of character in a different way than I
did for all these years; and I now do see a connection between
Strindberg's assertions about dramatic character and the stage
environment. For our purposes, Strindberg is not merely saying that
character and behavior are complexly, rather than monolithically,
determined; rather, he's saying that character and behavior are not
The rehearsals for this production of
As you will see in the performance, we have devised a method of performance that replicates the rules of our rehearsal explorations. The physical world of the stage and the physical tasks assigned to the actors are not within the control of the actors playing Miss Julie, Jean, or Kristine; the other performers on stage are free to shape the stage and to assign the actors physical tasks as they please, in ways that differ from one performance to the next. And the principal actors are free to move about their world, to interact with one another, and to take action, according to what they feel in that particular moment, without regard to what they have previously rehearsed or even what they did at last night's performance.
Through this approach, we have discovered that
Which Miss Julie and which Jean you will see performed tonight--of all the Miss Julies and Jeans I have seen Joanna and Riaz create in rehearsal--is impossible to predict; perhaps they will be ones that I, too, have never seen before. But I can guarantee that these characters will be as complex, as contradictory, as inconsistent, as intelligent, and as emotionally vulnerable--in short, as human--as the actors who play them.