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Check It Out

Courier Article by David Locker
Sunday, February 15, 2004

Symphony Inspires Foray into Scandinavian Literature

The Evansville Philharmonic Orchestra's rendition of Sibelius's Fifth Symphony inspired me to read Scandinavian authors. The performance touched me so deeply that I attempted to recapture the feeling by studying some of the great composer's literary compatriots.

Miss Julie (1999 film-Britain-United States).

I hit the jackpot right away with this adaptation of Swedish playwright August Strindberg's realistic play (1888), directed by Mike Figgis ("Leaving Las Vegas").

It is a midsummer night in the kitchen of a 19th-century estate. The count is away from home, and his daughter, Miss Julie, is behaving wildly -- dancing with the servants and flirting with Jean, the head servant.

The conflicts of the film are between men and women and the lower and upper classes. Miss Julie has been brought up by her mother to hate and compete with men. This was a time when women could not vote and could choose only between raising a family and teaching school. They yearned to be free, yet social constraints held them back.

Once Miss Julie compromises herself with Jean, the suave, social-climbing peasant, she is lost. They can never be accepted in society, and her reputation will be forever tarnished.

Peter Mullan as Jean lacks a certain animal magnetism the part requires, though he captures Jean's sophistication and ambition. Saffron Burrows is terrific as the tightly wound, neurotic Miss Julie. S he is considerably taller than Mullan, and her character is of a higher class and does try (unsuccessfully) to dominate him.

Strindberg's plays are intense and uncompromising in their pessimism.

Cruel Banquet: The Life and Loves of Frida Strindberg by Monica Strauss (Harcourt, 2000).

For Strindberg, woman was the enemy, and this attitude didn't help his three unsuccessful marriages. His second marriage was to Frida Uhl, the daughter of a Viennese drama critic with high connections. She married the 43-year-old, troubled Swede when she was 21 and fresh out of convent school.

Frida admired her father, but he had distanced himself from his family to live a life of his own away from his wife. Frida spent the whole of her own life trying to assist artistic geniuses and gain their love, but she always failed because they inevitably resented her controlling interference .

Frida's marriage to Strindberg lasted only two years. After that, she tried her best to live a life of freedom and be a lady at the same time. It was impossible. She had a daughter by Strindberg, who refused to have anything to do with the child.

Stella Adler on Ibsen, Strindberg and Chekhov by Stella Adler (Knopf, 1999).

Stella Adler was one of the great acting teachers of the 20th century, and she did more than anybody to bring the ideas of the Russian actor and director Constantin Stanislavsky (The Actor Prepares) to the United States.

For Adler, the actor must think himself into a part. He must do more than deal with the words or himself. He must study the historical background of the play and figure out how people thought during the time in which it is set. He must try to understand what the playwright is trying to say by a close textual analysis of the work.

Adler is very blunt and cocky, but her insights into these three playwrights are illuminating. Best of all, her teaching is an example of the way the actor should actually work.

Eleonora Duse: A Biography by Helen Sheehy (Knopf, 2003).

It is possible that La Duse, as she was called, was the greatest actress who ever lived.

She was the successor to Sarah Bernhardt and replaced Bernhard's histrionic acting with naturalistic performances that are the norm today.

Duse admired Strindberg but adored Ibsen. She approached her acting just as Adler taught, which is not surprising, since Stanislavsky derived most of his ideas from watching Duse perform.

Sheehy is an excellent biographer and has written an entertaining biography of an Italian woman who sacrificed all for art.

David Locker is a librarian with the Evansville-Vanderburgh Public Library. The opinions expressed in this column are personal and do not reflect policies or official recommendations of EVPL.