Romantic Reimaginings is a BARS blog series which seeks to explore the ways in which texts of the Romantic era continue to resonate. The blog is curated by Eleanor Bryan. If you would like to publish an article in the series, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Today on the blog, David Sigler explores the reimagining of Romanticism in Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem.
Jez Butterworth’s play Jerusalem does not hide its debts to British Romantic poetry. It takes its title from William Blake’s Milton: A Poem (by way of Hubert Parry), and attempts to update for modern England the fantasy of England that Blake conjures. The play opens with a prologue that recites Blake’s prologue, and ends, as if in a revelation of a divine truth, with the character Ginger acknowledging Blake’s authorship. The protagonist, a distinctly Byronic figure and local cock-of-the-walk, is, in a subtle stroke, called Johnny “Rooster” Byron. The play premiered in 2009 at Royal Court Theatre in London and has since been frequently staged across the UK, the US, and Canada, most recently, through June 2019, in Vancouver.
As a play about nostalgia for bygone times and national myths, and as a play committed to bringing plain speech, and even crass speech, into the realm of literary high art, Jerusalem is a thoroughly Romantic play: it is both romantic, if ugly and unsentimental, and Romantic, in its eagerness to confer the dignity of literary classics upon a gang of self-described “educationally subnormal outcasts” (p.53). Rooster, a forcibly retired daredevil encamped illegally for decades on public land, spends his days drinking, getting banned from pubs, causing public disturbances, selling drugs to teenagers, and luring them into exploitative non-consensual sex. His squatter’s rights are being challenged by his wealthier, more respectable neighbours, and Rooster, dreaming of a “Flintock rebellion” (p.53), maintains staunch opposition to Kennet and Avon Council and its enforcement officers. As the drama unfolds, Butterworth effectively reactivates the ethos of Lyrical Ballads: Rooster, like Wordsworth’s Simon Lee, is a man once central to his local community who is forced to confront his own uselessness in the modern world, but whose act of living on as the last of his kind can be seen as a meaningful form of political resistance to the neoliberal powers that have dismantled the community. His capacity for tall tales (reminiscent of “The Thorn”) exposes the modern world to the realm of the mythological and supernatural (as in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”) and highlights his allegiances with literature. It is as if Lord Byron were inserted into the world of Lyrical Ballads and tasked with enacting Blake’s vision of divine political renovation. To see or read Jerusalem as a Romanticist, then, is to encounter something deeply familiar.
The play’s populist politics have not aged well in the decade since its debut. It is clear, though, that Butterworth saw the urgency with which white, poor, and sometimes xenophobic people, feeling abandoned by the official national eye and encroached upon by outsiders, and enamoured especially of ludicrous bullshit, were set to become the focal point of national politics in Britain and worldwide. There is a nativist strand in the play, according to which supposedly real Britons, through “lines of ancient energy” (p.72), can claim an ancestral connection to Stonehenge, May Day, and the woods. Hence Rooster delights in his fantasy of having urinated on the car of the traffic wardens in Marlborough town, whom he supposes to be “big Nigerians,” and of having escaped their clutches by refusing their “Nigerian delicacies” (p.68). Rooster deems himself authentically British by virtue of his bloodlines—what Rooster boasts of as Romany “Byron blood”—even when those bloodlines mark him as a perpetual outsider and subject him to racialized violence. His marginalization, legally and socially, are all the more a sign that he belongs in “Rooster’s Wood,” whatever the Rules of County Court would say. Jerusalem uses Romantic poetry as a signifier for these nativist bona fides, and to justify the squatters’ battle against the respectable New Estate. This all seems problematic and over-familiar in 2019. Yet, as Rooster and Ginger become more desperate in Act 3, their Romantic myths begin to turn against them with the brutality of a gang and with the administrative violence of the law. The myths are nevertheless all they’ve got, and so the play begins to undercut its characters’ propensity to valorize their own social and economic marginalization. The irony that results is, I think, part of the play’s Byronic and Blakean ethos.
Jerusalem is a complex and challenging contemporary response to British Romanticism. It re-activates the Romantic era’s debates over enclosure and the commons, its revolutionary impulses, its class warfare over respectability, its commitment to the “real language of men,” its affection for the supernatural, its consolidation of nationalist and racial ideologies, and its valorizations of drug addiction and sexual exploitation; it persuasively implies that these Romantic inheritances have laid the groundwork for contemporary British politics. It then suggests—with recourse to a magical golden drum—that Romanticism might offer a solution to Britain’s current political impasses, such as Brexit, which the play very much anticipates. Yet it does so by refusing to wish away the fault lines that have come to a crisis since 2009, especially during the Brexit referendum but also in the U.S. and around the world. Jerusalem, like a CNN pundit from 2016, demands that we learn to respect the values and prejudices of the rural poor—lest these forgotten people vow to exact their cosmic revenge. It invites us to think of “England” as a “green and pleasant land” belonging to the people, and redeemed by its miniature oases of authenticity, in which, ironically, self-aggrandizing lies are the coin of the realm. And it stresses the living presence of activist poetry as part of a national counterpublic that, even when it is ignored or forcibly suppressed, still simmers, by many undetected, in British politics. In that sense it is prescient and quite thoughtful—even revolutionary.
In doing so, however, Jerusalem takes a narrow and stereotyped view of British Romanticism and its legacy. Its vision of Romanticism is nearly a cult of masculinity that worships solitary men of extraordinary vision, who, through the force of their irrepressible personalities, are clearly better than the regular folks around them. These men, Butterworth suggests, won’t be constrained by society’s rules. This is the most conservative possible vision of British Romanticism, and one that the field of Romantic studies has been working to undo for several decades now.
Work cited: Butterworth, Jez. Jerusalem. Nick Hern Books, 2009.
David Sigler is Associate Professor of English at the University of Calgary (Canada). He is the author of Sexual Enjoyment in British Romanticism (McGill-Queen’s UP, 2015) and co-editor of Lacan and Romanticism (SUNY Press, 2019).