Some of my current research has led me to acknowledge a comparison between what is realistic/unrealistic and realist/non-realist drama. According to Egil Törnqvist and Birgitta Steene (translators and editors of Strindberg on Drama and Theatre) Strindberg’s preface to Miss Julie is ‘often hailed as the manifesto of modern drama’. I personally find it interesting because it highlights a turning point in theatre practice that has led to the developments of realist and naturalist drama.
In his preface to Miss Julie, Strindberg talks about his “modernization” of plot, character, dialogue, monologue, improvisation, action, technical aspects, scenery, lights, and make-up. Before I summarise the salient points, I must emphasise that the preface to Miss Julie was written before the modern realist dramas we know today were established (Miss Julie was written in 1888!).
Strindberg starts by explaining his motives for modernizing drama: according to him (at the time when this was written), theatre has become too unbelievable, only suitable for those susceptible to such illusions. He writes ‘[l]ike art in general, the theatre has long seemed to me […] a bible in pictures for those who cannot read what is written or printed.’ According to Strindberg, ‘the middle classes, which form the bulk of the audience, without too much mental effort can understand what it is about.’ (p. 62) Strindberg argues for a more naturalist theatre, something he explains is a modernisation of theatre’s initial form. He writes that he is not trying ‘to accomplish anything new, for that is impossible, but merely to modernize the form according to what [he] believe[s] are the demands a contemporary audience would make.’ (p. 63)
Strindberg claims that too much in the theatre of his time utilises scenery and lighting stage layouts that prevent the play from being believable. He longs for the when theatre will mature enough for his imagined ideal, intended, works. Amongst his other suggestions, he writes, ‘if we had a small stage and a small auditorium, then perhaps a new drama might arise […]. While waiting for such a theatre, we shall have to go on writing for our desk drawers, preparing for the repertoire to come.’ (p. 72)
In terms of plot, Strindberg explains that there’s a ‘multiplicity’ of motives surrounding any one outcome; events are multifaceted and not two-dimensional, and it is this notion that fueled his writing of Miss Julie’s character in Miss Julie. Claiming this is an almost revolutionary discovery (for his time), he writes that ‘[e]very event in life – and this is a fairly new discovery! – is the result of a whole series of more or less deep-seated motives […]. I have motivated Miss Julie’s tragic fate with an abundance of circumstances…’ (p. 64)
It’s weird that a preface has had such an impact but there we go: don’t underestimate a preface.