August Strindberg subtitled Miss Julie “A Naturalistic Tragedy,” and set down, in his preface to the play, one of history’s most strident definitions of naturalist theatre as also one of the finest pieces of writing I have read.
From the Preface
In the course of the ages the word character has assumed many meanings. Originally it signified probably the dominant ground-note in the complex mass of the self, and as such it was confused with temperament. Afterward it became the middle-class term for an automaton, so that an individual whose nature had come to a stand still, or who had adapted himself to a certain part in life--who had ceased to grow, in a word--was named a character; while one remaining in a state of development--a skillful navigator on life's river, who did not sail with close-tied sheets, but knew when to fall off before the wind and when to luff again--was called lacking in character. And he was called so in a depreciatory sense, of course, because he was so hard to catch, to classify, and to keep track of. This middle-class notion about the immobility of the soul was transplanted to the stage, where the middle-class element has always held sway. There a character became synonymous with a gentleman fixed and finished once for all--one who invariably appeared drunk, jolly, sad. And for the purpose of characterization nothing more was needed than some physical deformity like a clubfoot, a wooden leg, a red nose; or the person concerned was made to repeat some phrase like "That's capital!" or "Barkis is willin'," or something of that kind. This manner of regarding human beings as homogeneous is preserved even by the great Moliere. Harpagon is nothing but miserly, although _Harpagon_ might as well have been at once miserly and a financial genius, a fine father, and a public-spirited citizen. What is worse yet, his "defect" is of distinct advantage to his son-in-law and daughter, who are his heirs, and for that reason should not find fault with him, even if they have to wait a little for their wedding. I do not believe, therefore, in simple characters on the stage. And the summary judgments of the author upon men--this one stupid, and that one brutal, this one jealous, and that one stingy--should be challenged by the naturalists, who know the fertility of the soul-complex, and who realize that "vice" has a reverse very much resembling virtue."
From the Play
You're mighty queer, do you know!
Perhaps. But so are you. And for that matter, everything is queer. Life, men, everything--just a mush that floats on top of the water until it sinks, sinks down! I have a dream that comes back to me ever so often. And just now I am reminded of it. I have climbed to the top of a column and sit there without being able to tell how to get down again. I get dizzy when I look down, and I must get down, but I haven't the courage to jump off. I cannot hold on, and I am longing to fall, and yet I don't fall. But there will be no rest for me until I get down, no rest until I get down, down on the ground. And if I did reach the ground, I should want to get still further down, into the ground itself--Have you ever felt like that?
No, my dream is that I am lying under a tall tree in a dark wood. I want to get up, up to the top, so that I can look out over the smiling landscape, where the sun is shining, and so that I can rob the nest in which lie the golden eggs. And I climb and climb, but the trunk is so thick and smooth, and it is so far to the first branch. But I know that if I could only reach that first branch, then I should go right on to the top as on a ladder. I have not reached it yet, but I am going to, if it only be in my dreams."
No! Forgive me instead what I have been saying. I don't want to strike one who is disarmed, and least of all a lady. On one hand I cannot deny that it has given me pleasure to discover that what has dazzled us below is nothing but cat-gold; that the hawk is simply grey on the back also; that there is powder on the tender cheek; that there may be black borders on the polished nails; and that the handkerchief may be dirty, although it smells of perfume. But on the other hand it hurts me to have discovered that what I was striving to reach is neither better nor more genuine. It hurts me to see you sinking so low that you are far beneath your own cook--it hurts me as it hurts to see the Fall flowers beaten down by the rain and turned into mud."
Have you not loved your father, Miss Julia?
Yes, immensely, but I must have hated him, too. I think I must have been doing so without being aware of it. But he was the one who reared me in contempt for my own sex--half woman and half man! Whose fault is it, this that has happened? My father's--my mother's--my own? My own? Why, I have nothing that is my own. I haven't a thought that didn't come from my father; not a passion that didn't come from my mother; and now this last--this about all human creatures being equal--I got that from him, my fiance--whom I call a scoundrel for that reason! How can it be my own fault? To put the blame on Jesus, as Christine does--no, I am too proud for that, and know too much--thanks to my father's teachings--And that about a rich person not getting into heaven, it's just a lie, and Christine, who has money in the savings-bank, wouldn't get in anyhow. Whose is the fault?--What does it matter whose it is? For just the same I am the one who must bear the guilt and the results--"
Read the complete Preface and Miss.Julie here