Romantic Reimaginings: Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem

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By Eleanor Bryan

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Jerusalem, NHB Modern Plays book cover (2009).

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 …read more