In August Strindberg's Miss Julie, the use of setting helps advance the theme and conveys meaning to the audience not only through the visible setting but also in terms of off-stage space. For the current production of the play, the basic description in the text will be followed, though the set need not be as naturalistic as originally intended. What is important is that the set suggest a large kitchen in an aristocratic home at the end of the nineteenth century. The script says that the roof and side walls of the kitchen are hidden by drapes and borders, so they need be little more than suggestions of walls and ceiling. To the rear, on the right, is an arched exit porch, and through this can be seen a fountain and trees, which can also be suggested rather than naturalistic in design. The important kitchen props are a large stove, a kitchen table, some chairs, an ice-box, a sink, and some shelves. Prominent in the side wall is a large speaking tube, which becomes an important symbol of the master of the house and so which should be given special emphasis through size and position.
As noted, then, the visible set is the kitchen of Miss Julie's father's house, where the three characters of the play are seen, along with a large complement of local people during one scene as they pass through the kitchen. For most of the play, though, we only hear these other people off-stage where they are attending a party, and the fact that the hostess, Miss Julie, spends so much time in the kitchen contributes to the understanding of the audience as to what is happening between her and Jean as well as always holding out the possibility that the two will be discovered at some point by this throng of people in the other room. Such a discovery is an important thematic component in the work and also refers to the fourth character who is never seen, Miss Julie's father, a powerful presence even though he is not seen. Strindberg arranges the setting in the kitchen to create an impact and to remind the audience constantly of the possibilities and of the bending of the social rules that takes place here.
The fact that the play takes place in the kitchen adds to this sense of shifting social positions -- Miss Julie does not belong in the kitchen talking to the servants all evening, but that is where she is found. Class distinctions never disappear in the play, but they are deliberately blurred by Jean and Miss Julie. Jean shows a dual attitude toward Miss Julie. He wants her and he wants to humiliate her at the same time. He looks up to her as something unattainable, and yet he lords it over her this night and shows a certain contempt for her position. In part, this attitude stems from a dual view of her entire class. On the one hand, he envies her social position, but he sees that position as beneath him and the other servants in reality. He sees the upper class as living by romantic notions while the people of his class live with reality. It is this fact which gives them superiority.
Again, the fact that Miss Julie comes to the kitchen emphasizes that she is pursuing Jean, as she did when she kept asking him to dance. He shows more concern for the social proprieties than does she because she wants to pretend that they do not exist, but when the revelers come into the kitchen, she hides immediately, showing that she does fear what others might think and say. Jean asks her: "Do you know how the world looks from down below? -- Of course you don't. Neither do hawks and falcons, whose backs we can't see because they're usually soaring up there above us" (Strindberg 73). Tonight, though, Miss Julie is not soaring above but is invading the areas of the house usually belonging to the working class, including the barn where the dance is held and the kitchen where she pursues Jean.
The kitchen setting for the play makes the action seem out of place. The function of the kitchen is to prepare food for the rest of the household. It is where the servants gather. It is where the orders from the master of the house come to find those servants and send them on their errands. By escaping to this part of the house, Miss Julie shows her dissatisfaction with the social world in which she lives, with her position as a woman in that world, and with the front she must keep up before others, such as the dancers she has left in the barn. For all their fear that the Count might come home early, there is little chance that he would come into the kitchen, since that is a part of the house outside his realm as well. His voice on the speaking tube is all that is required to terrify the help and his daughter as well.
Jean belongs in this world and rules here, and as he and Miss Julie talk, he becomes more and more the master of the situation as he could never be elsewhere in the house. That is, he could never be the master openly, though as a servant he has more power over the upper-class inhabitants of the house than they understand. He has his own views on which class is the better and which is more valuable to society, and always he protects himself and his own ambition. His story to Miss Julie about fleeing and opening a hotel would depend on her paying for the hotel, but he must also see that he is endangering the position he has for one he may never get. In the end, he chooses to play the part of servant he has selected for himself and sends Miss Julie back to play her part. She enters the kitchen on her own, but she leaves it when Jean orders her to go. If their positions have shifted, it is because each now has a knowledge of the other they lacked before rather than because of any substantive shift in their respective places. As a woman, Miss Julie's range of possible conduct is much less than what could be achieved even by a servant.
The kitchen brings together the two elements living in the house, the masters represented largely by Miss Julie, and the servants. The respective positions of these characters is not indicated just by their presence but by their clothing, and mode of dress thus becomes an important way of making social distinctions. The spaciousness of the kitchen suggests how large the rest of the house must be, and the audience never sees the rest of the house but only hears the sounds coming from these other rooms.
Speaking of clothing, an important symbolic prop is the pair of boots. The play begins when Jean places this symbol of the Count in clear view of the audience -- the Count's boots which he has just cleaned. These are high riding boots with spurs, symbols of power, money, and social class. The play ends when the Count calls for his boots, the only time he communicates with anyone in the play, and throughout the boots remind the audience of the Count and of his power over everyone in his household. They have to be visible and prominent, shining in the lights and so showing both their importance as valuable objects and the way the servants work to keep them shining.
The fourth major character in the play is the Count, Julie's father, and his existence is vital to the course of the play and to the evocation of the themes of the play even though he is never seen. Indeed, the fact that he is never seen makes him a more menacing presence, someone who is feared and talked about even though he is not present, just as the fact that the rest of the house is never seen allows the audience to develop an idea of how large and grand it must be. The Count is also the one character whose personality and strength crosses all boundaries so that he is respected by both the upper class in the form of his daughter and the lower class in the form of the servants. The interaction of these two social classes takes place at this time in part because the Count is absent, and there must be a resolution at the end because the Count has returned.
The Count communicates through a speaking tube, another symbol of his power and of the fact that all he has to do is call and everyone does his bidding. The fact that the Count is not present this night is why the action of the play can occur at all -- Miss Julie and Jean would never…