Power, Desire, and Dominance: Hilary Bettis' Queen of Basel

It’s Art Basel—party time in Miami. But Julie, Miami socialite and daughter of a hotel mogul, is dumped, drunk, and raging. Christine, a cocktail waitress seeking asylum from the violence in Venezuela, has been drafted by Julie’s father to do damage control. In exchange for getting Julie home, Julie’s father has promised Christine enough money to get her mother and daughter to the States. Christine’s fiancé John is a first-generation Afro-Cuban Uber driver, whom Christine calls to get Julie away from the party, the press, the publicity. Julie wants to stay. John wants to be back driving, making Art Basel bank. Christine has to return to the party or be fired. As the evening progresses, all three struggle for dominance—over the drink of choice, the language spoken, the freedom to make their next move, their way out of the kitchen and on whose terms…

Hilary Bettis was already thinking about finding a classic play to adapt when she got a call from Michel Hausmann, Artistic Director of Miami New Drama: Would Bettis be interested in adapting a bilingual Miss Julie? She said yes before she reread the play. “I had read Miss Julie when I was 19 and homeless in LA,” she says. “I don’t think I understood the play, the depth of its anger at women, its misogyny. So when I read it again, well. I hated the play. Hated it with a passion. And of course, since I had such a visceral reaction, I knew I needed to do it.” Bettis would develop Queen of Basel with Miami New Drama, who produced a developmental production of the piece in spring 2018.

Strindberg’s 1888 Miss Julie follows a similarly intense and fatal flirtation between Julie and John—originally the daughter and valet of a count. It’s Midsummer’s Eve, a servants’ party night, one that Julie has crashed, still smarting from a broken engagement. John is engaged to the cook, Christine, but has an education and ambitions above his current station. After Julie and John's flirtation turns physical, their dual attraction and disgust set up their tragic confrontation. With its fractured language and its characters’ complex and shifting motivations, Miss Julie was a significant play to a rapidly developing naturalism on the stage—a significance that Strindberg himself was eager to emphasize in a 5,500-word preface to the play.

The preface makes the case that Miss Julie demonstrates both the technical requirements of naturalism (no footlights, asymmetrical furniture layout, the occasional actor’s back to the audience) and a subject of social import: righting the power imbalance between women and men. “Julie is a modern character, not because the man-hating half-woman may not have existed in all ages,” writes Strindberg, “but because now, after her discovery, she has stepped to the front and begun to make a noise…. The type is tragical, offering us the spectacle of a desperate struggling against nature.” Strindberg contrasts the sources of Julie’s temporary grasp of the upper hand—her misguided sense of dominance, an upbringing of masculine freedom, her father’s absence, an impulsiveness linked to the fact that she’s menstruating during the play—with the stability of John, who’s “of the kind that builds new stock…he stands above Miss Julie not only because his fate is in the ascendancy, but because he is a man.” Strindberg wrote the preface some four years after he wrote the play (and Julie on stage is significantly more dimensional than the figure he describes in the prologue). Miss Julie seems drawn from his interest in social Darwinism, his desire to be taken seriously as an innovator, his frustration with late-nineteenth century social structures, his own shame around his sexual desire, and his personal rage over the dissolution of his marriage with an actress he was in the process of divorcing.

While Bettis recoiled from Strindberg’s anger at the central female character and his valorization of masculine dominance, she responded to the form of the play—the play’s urgent and authentic stakes, its compressed timeframe of a single inebriated night, what she calls its “unapologetic and messy naturalism.” In remaking the play, she says, “I knew two things right away: I wasn’t interested in meeting Strindberg’s vitriol with my own. And John wasn’t going to be the only three-dimensional character in my play.” Instead of focusing solely on individual autonomy—a single man trapped in a dying aristocratic system—Bettis expanded these questions to all three characters: What, ultimately, holds smart and ambitious people from their freedom? Why do people struggle for dominance instead of autonomy? How do class and gender complicate a power dynamic? Citizenship status? Bilingualism? What taboos does desire unlock now?

To explore these questions—and to dismantle the perceptions and assumptions that Latinx identity is a unified monolith across Latin America—Bettis goes granular into the relationship between language, power, and individual agency. Queen of Basel’s three characters have roots in different Latin American countries, as well as differing relationships to class, to whiteness, and to the Spanish language. Spanish in particular becomes a tool for both communication and alienation: Julie, the most materially comfortable, is also the most alienated in Spanish; Christine’s is an educated Spanish and John’s is colloquial (he’s also not entirely fluent, tweaking the dynamics of dominance and dependence in their relationship). “So much of our humanity gets lost in translation,” observes Bettis, who has tuned the experience of access and alienation for bilingual and monolingual audiences in ways that align them with the perspectives of different characters.

“If you look at these ideas of brute force and toxic masculinity, you see that Strindberg’s ideas haven’t served humanity well,” says Bettis. “I wanted a version of this story where all three characters have a complex past: They all have demons, and they’re all fighting systems that hold them back. Because ultimately, they can’t be free until they understand the systems they’re a part of—the systems they perpetuate. It’s taking Strindberg’s ‘survival of the fittest’ to the next logical conclusion: Evolve or die. How do we evolve now?”

Adrien-Alice Hansel