Thursday, 11 March 2010

Jerusalem and myth in English history

This week I finally got around to seeing Jerusalem, Jez Butterworth’s acclaimed ‘state of the nation’ play now transferred to the West End. All the praise lavished on Mark Rylance for his portrayal of Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron, the ‘hero’ of the drama is thoroughly deserved. Barely off stage in three hours, Rylance is astonishing. But the play itself, though marked by brilliance, is problematic.

Byron is a former motorbike stuntman who inhabits a dilapidated caravan parked within a Wiltshire wood and opposite a new-build estate full of respectable folk who loathe his proximate presence. At the beginning of the play he is served with an eviction notice by Kennett and Avon council. He hasn’t worked in years, though we later learn that regular donations of his rare ‘gypsy’ blood group earn him £1000 a month from the NHS. He offers copious amounts of booze and drugs and music and fantasy (the currency of modern England) to the local kids, like a deranged Pied Piper. He also attracts the attention of an elderly academic (a fine performance from Alan David) who, distanced by class and status from Byron’s retinue, indulges them and their neo-paganism. The action takes place, significantly, on St George’s day, as the local Flintock village carnival is about to get under way.

One of the children attracted to Byron is 15-year-old Phaedra, who opens the play with a moving account of the Blake poem which gives the play its name. The current carnival queen, she is dressed in homage to Shakespeare’s Titania (Byron being Falstaff?). But she goes missing and it is when her father Troy seeks answers from Byron, that the latter is revealed as something more than a lovable rogue: menacing, predatory, weirdly unsympathetic to a distraught father. Darker secrets are revealed after Troy, symbol of conventional society, takes revenge. A bloodied Byron calls on his odd panoply of pagan gods in a closing, rather silly Gottedammerung.

The play is seen by many as a meditation on English history. In the programme, Paul Kingsnorth, author of Real England: The Battle Against the Bland (Portobello, 2009), contrasts the supposed antipathy to myth among the English. ‘The English have nothing to rival the Mabinogion,’ he writes. ‘They have no WB Yeats or Dylan Thomas, diverting old myths through new channels.’ That is nonsense. The English have Shakespeare, Chaucer, Milton, Tennyson, er, Blake (!) all of whom embrace myth but do so from the position not just of the marginal but also of the mainstream or, as we might say now, the respectable. It is an established literary heritage second to none and open always to the myths of the past. Take for example, the Green Man, whose strange mystery Kingsnorth alleges the English have forgotten. But, as Richard Hayman points out in the April issue of History Today, published next week, England’s churches are full of Green Men; the established church was happy even eager to incorporate them, another example of the marginal and the mainstream merging in a hugely rich and productive historical dialectic, a constant theme of English history: Norman-Saxon, Catholic-Protestant, Cavalier-Roundhead, Whig-Tory, Atlee-Churchill. It’s what inspired TS Eliot to write this passage from ‘Little Gidding’, the last of his Four Quartets, composed during the darks days of the Second World War, source of yet another English myth:

If I think, again, of this place,

And of people, not wholly commendable,

Of not immediate kin or kindness,

But of some peculiar genius,

All touched by a common genius,

United in the strife which divided them;

Such a dialectic lends itself to drama (think of Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost, and the author’s own swings between the mainstream and the margins). But it’s a rich seam barely touched by Butterworth and, for all its verbal fireworks, it is why Jerusalem is ultimately unsatisfying. It’s embarrassed to confront the central issues. More worryingly, there is also the sense that Byron is such a strong characterisation that Butterworth indulges him too much. More than one punter last night was overheard saying that Byron deserved what he got; a good kicking. That’s not a common response to Falstaff. But to be fair to Butterworth, writing on such a grand theme is remarkably difficult and he deserves great praise for even attempting it. I can only name one contemporary artist who does successfully address the history of England. That is the poet Geoffrey Hill. I shall leave you with an excerpt from his Mercian Hymns (1971):

King of the perennial holly-groves, the riven sandstone: overlord of the M5:
architect of the historic rampart and ditch, the citadel at Tamworth, the summer
hermitage in Holy Cross: guardian of the Welsh Bridge and the Iron Bridge;
contractor to the desirable new estates: saltmaster: money changer: commissioner
for oaths: martyrologist: the friend of Charlemagne.

‘I liked that,’ said Offa, ‘sing it again.’

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