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After Clement Attlee. Strindberg, updated to Seventy Two Years ago today.

July 26, 2016


Seventy two years ago today, The British Labour Party won an election properly for the first time.  The election result was a long drawn out affair, because the votes of the armed services in rather far flung parts of the world had to be processed.  But seventy two years ago today, the result was announced.

In 1995, fifty years after the Attlee victory, Patrick Marber re-wrote August Strindberg’s Miss Julie (though not very much) as After Miss Julie – locating it on that summer night in England when self-identifying socialists achieved a parliamentary majority.  Even back in 1888, Strindberg was convinced that Sweden (along with the rest of the Europe) stood at the cusp of profound social change.  The Jeans of this world were moving up and the Julies were sliding.  In his (very very dodgy) preface to the play, Strindberg makes it clear however, that the Jeans will not succeed in supplanting the landed aristocracy within a single generation.  The Jean of Strindberg’s play will move up a few notches, will certainly not die for love, but has internalised far too much subordination to become a mover and a shaker in his own right.  The same preface teased the original audience by suggesting that a politically mature and psychologically healthy society would delight at the fall of the Count’s family just as you’d pull down a dead tree to allow healthy saplings to grow.

Marber’s play is given a far more specific setting, a summer night when dramatic social change seemed very possible.  The “Count” of Strindberg’s play has become a lefty aristo who may not be fully aware of the scale of the social and economic revolution he is helping to unleash.  The years between 1945 and 1980 were genuinely redistributive in Britain – resulting in the poor becoming rather richer and the rich actually becoming poorer.  Marber’s John, unlike Strindberg’s Jean, may have a real chance in life.  Or may not.  In this play which follows Strindberg too closely to be called an original play, John is still a prisoner of the bell, still acts with Pavlovian automatism to the definitive prompts of his master.  He is still too old to benefit from the changes implemented by the incoming government (most significantly too old to be a beneficiary of the 1948 legislation guaranteeing funded access to higher education).  John’s kids, however, will indeed go to university and will have a great time in the late sixties and early seventies.

The 1995 televised version of the play starred Geraldine Somerville as the doomed Julie and the quintessential jumped up pantry boy who doesn’t know his place Phil Daniels as “John”.  Oh, and rather wonderfully, the working-class conservative Christine was played by Kathy Burke.

The election of the Labour government in 1945 did not cause any toffs to cut their own throats or shoot themselves – at least as far as I know.  They just grumbled a lot.  The Miss Julies still managed to land on their feet to some extent.  Essentially, they bided their time.

Sadly, Marber’s restaging of the Miss Julie story in 1945 now looks more dated than Strindberg’s original 1888 play.  Despite majority Labour governments between 1997 and 2010, Britain is now more economically divided than it has been in many decades.  There is nothing very doomed looking about ancestral privilege in the second decade of the twenty-first century.  Mere governments do not dare touch the largely offshored wealth of those who have wisely exited the correct birth canal.  The egalitarian project initiated 72 years ago today seems more distant than the world of the nineteenth-century Swedish aristocracy.

Indeed, if Marber’s play is ever revived in future decades, one major problem will be finding credible actors to play Jean, given that the posh kids have won, and dominate drama schools.  Hereditary wealth is more secure than ever.  It’s the Phil Daniels that are in short supply.





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