by Paul Steffens, Apprentice Class 2013
August Strindberg’s interests were as many as they were varied. A playwright, author, and poet, his absorbing nature lead him to explore other fields with particular passion regardless of his actual expertise. Strindberg painted in times of emotional fervor. He had a brief but detrimental obsession with alchemy. Among his attempts at science, Strindberg’s writings on botany are the closest to approaching any sort of rigor. He would have been intimately aware of his country’s own passion for plants.
Flowers are an important part of Swedish Midsummer traditions and decorations. They are picked in the morning and worn in the hair or formed into wreathes to be placed on the maypole. On the way home from the festivities, girls will silently pick seven different kinds of flowers to place under their pillows in order to dream of their future husband. These flowers can also be hung in a wreath from the ceiling to bring health and happiness to a household. For all their festive and magical uses, they are also used to suggest thoughts and emotions without speaking a word.
The language of flowers is the use of flowers and floral arrangements to send messages. The origin of this communication is attributed to The Tulip Period of early 18th century Ottoman Turkey. This trendy upper class fascination with flowers later spread to Sweden and England, and gained popularity worldwide throughout the Victorian Era. The practice continues today with the use of what is known as a nosegay or tussie-mussie, a small flower bouquet arranged and carried with regard to the language. Though there is some variation on the meaning attributed to specific flowers through the years, the general sentiment on each remains firm.
Strindberg injects floral imagery into Miss Julie, often in direct relation to the plot. During an early scene, Jean the butler, comments on Miss Julie’s choice of violet perfume. Violets themselves, depending on the color, can mean modesty and innocence, or that one is daydreaming. Later, Jean describes seeing Miss Julie hiding in a rose bush when he was younger and seeing her white stockings and pink dress. Roses are the iconic flower of love, but a pink rose can specifically mean desire and passion, and a white one can allude to wistfulness and reverence. Lilacs are also mentioned several times in the text. White lilacs represent innocence and memory and purple lilacs are associated with the first emotion of love. Julie wishes to pick lilacs with Jean, an action of a certain flirtatious nature. Jean also plays with a sprig of the purple flowers while reminiscing about his first glimpses of Julie.
Strindberg, being the master storyteller that he is, plays on the audience’s knowledge and allows for his characters to be cunning in their use of language, both verbal and floral. Not every action, word, or image can be taken at face value. Miss Julie is a play steeped in subtlety and innuendo, evidenced by the nuanced repartee of the dialogue. Working with the language of flowers further grounds the setting of the story and allows for deeper interpretations and connections to be formed. Amidst the spiraling back and forth of the struggle for dominance, Jean wonders between the two of them, “Who’s doing the dreaming?” We invite you to join us in the unfolding of a night of Midsummer revelry and discover the truth for yourself.
The 2013 Apprentice Company production of Miss Julie opens March 21 and runs through March 30 at the Commonweal. A special encore performance will play on April 14 during the 16th Annual Ibsen Festival.