British culture has a lot to reckon with. That’s not to say every culture doesn’t have its baggage, the monsters that step out of folklore and leave real, physical bodies in their wake. The term ‘skeletons in your closet’ applies especially to a culture like England’s’, where you can trace millions of literal skeletons to burial sites everywhere from Boston to the Indian subcontinent.
Imperialist bloodletting aside, the history of England as a nation has crafted a story that no other country compares to. The people from this small rock hanging off Europe’s coast built an empire that straddled the world. Other people, Romans, Mongols, Russians, Americans, have built similar empires. Those however, all either collapsed against their will or are well on their way to doing so. England represents the only example in human history of a land that spent centuries building a world superpower, used up countless lives and treasure to maintain it, and then voluntarily gave it up.
The sun set on the British Empire more than half a century ago and those living in the epilogue of its story have to reckon with its past and its future. The England that now exists as a result of its greed, and the England that was sacrificed for the Empire to be born.
Maybe the most well-known example of this reckoning comes in the form of William Blake’s brief and perfect poem And Did Those Feet in Ancient Time. It tells of an England that once was: green and pastoral that has been perverted into some Isengard-ian horror by the Industrial Revolution. The poem’s famous reference to “dark, satanic mills” conjures to mind the belching smoke and horrid conditions of the factories that forged imperial ambitions. It made England great, but the gears of those factory machines ground up a lot of people. The poem ends on a hopeful note, that the England of the past can be reclaimed. That a new “Jerusalem” can be built on rejuvenated English soil. Check the full text out below!
And did those feet in ancient time,
Walk upon England’s mountains green?
And was the holy lamb of god
On England’s pleasant pastures seen?
And did the countenance divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark satanic mills?
Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear, oh clouds unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!
I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Til we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land
That message is probably why this poem has been set to music in English churches and is now known as the immensely popular hymn Jerusalem. A professor I had in college once told my Modern British History class that this thing almost became the national anthem of the whole country, if not for that whole “dark, satanic mills” line, of course. No need for much deserved criticism to get in the way of good old-fashioned jingoism.
This poem, written by one of England’s archetypal brilliant nutcases exemplifies for many within and without the U.K. what being British means. Of spending one’s life immersed in a culture that reveres its pastoral past while that cultures’ modern way of life seems actively hell-bent on destroying it. It is within this modern, industrialized England, laden with hypocrisies and contrasts that is set the best play I’ve read in years. Fittingly, the play Jerusalem by Jez Butterworth begins with a reading of the hymn Jerusalem by William Blake and is conveniently stopped before it gets to the good bit.
The eminent Victorian man of letters (read: independently wealthy British man) Lord Macaulay once described a peculiar literary sensation of his time as “a man proud, moody, cynical, with defiance on his brow, and misery in his heart, a scorner of his kind, implacable in revenge, yet capable of deep and strong affection.” This special type of moody prick, known as the ‘Byronic hero,’ has been moping around all our favorite works of fiction ever since Lord Byron invented him by literally being its prime example. Frank Gallagher from Shameless? Byronic hero. Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights? Byronic hero. That drunk uncle everyone has that gets in arguments with his sisters about Trump at Thanksgiving? Byronic hero!
When they’re safely in a book and not terrorizing family functions, the Byronic hero has an appeal for readers bordering on schadenfreude. Jerk though he may be, the Bryonic hero has charisma. He’s usually the funniest character in every situation and no matter how caddish he can be, we as the audience almost never lose our desire to root for him. His innate charisma is such that we always want him to win, even when the story demands he never really will.
Jersualem’s protagonist embodies this ideal of the charismatic ass (or Byronic hero) so hard that it’s literally in his name. Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron lives in a trailer in the woods somewhere in the southern boondocks of England and his life is an absolute bummer. He’s sober for roughly two minutes of the play, wherein he cracks a raw egg into a mug of beer and chugs it like an absolute champion, granting him the magical powers of being a jackass to everyone he subsequently encounters in the story. His living situation reflects not just his lifestyle, but the idea that Johnny is a relic of another time. A former stuntman, he’s long lost the physical stamina needed to ply his trade, no doubt accelerated by his near constant drug use. He drinks beer for breakfast and hits the marching powder by lunch. His main service to his community is serving as a drug dealer/party thrower for local teenagers. Spoiler alert: this turns out to be just as upsetting as you think it is. As he lives life in a stupor, the world has left artifacts of English history scattered around his trailer as it passes him by. Army helmets, WW2 air raid siren, flags of Saxon kingdoms longed ago laid waste by Norman knights. Even a roughly made sign with the word ‘Waterloo’ written on it harkens back to both England’s most famous military triumph, and what Johnny’s trailer will become when two representatives of a local development company come to serve him an eviction notice.
This event begins the worst weekend of Johnny Byron’s life. Set against the backdrop of a local harvest festival complete with drunken locals and morris dancers (google that one), Byron’s life slowly unravels as his home is threatened by developers, tenuous friendships are destroyed, and his relationship with his young son is forever ruined. He’s even threatened with jail time to the surprise of absolutely zero readers. This culminates in Johnny banging feverishly on a drum supposedly given to him by a giant, screaming to his ancestors and every fairy and demon of English mythology for help as literal bulldozers descend on his crappy home.
How did it come to this? The answer lies entirely in Johnny Byron as a character. He at once is both the engine of his own destruction and one of the most compelling characters I’ve encountered in any work of fiction I’ve ever read. On the surface, Johnny Byron is a disgusting human being. He’s a drug addict, he’s dirty, his house sucks, he’s a deadbeat dad. He’s the special kind of pathetic reserved for divorced dads at spring break or frat guys who are staying in the house for a fifth year, partying among children who generally find him gross and pretty transparently use him for drugs.
Johnny Byron represents the ultimate societal misfit. Too damaged to hold down steady work and unwilling to compromise an inch towards living a life those around him deem respectable. The squalor he lives in brings what virtues he has into stark light. What’s likely decades of pub trivia has given him an almost encyclopedic knowledge of English history and culture. He has a deep respect for his family lineage, going back farther than most modern people can fathom. His wood-side trailer serves as a haven for kids escaping difficult lives in a community with very few options. Is it creepy? Definitely, but characters straight up say they generally view Johnny’s parties as safe places for local teens to experiment before abandoning him to live normal suburban lives. He has a flair for story telling that captivates everyone that hears it, quite the achievement considering no one actually likes him.
In another period of England’s history, he’d live a better life. He’d be a troubadour, a hermit, a medicine man, or some other position where his archaic knowledge could be put to use. Instead, he’s relegated to the life of a town outcast, used by almost everyone in the community for drugs and cheap thrills while pretending to ignore him otherwise.
Johnny is by no means a good person. Even the good things he does are marred by the fact that he’s a bred-in-the-bone scumbag. Even one of his most noble acts in the play, where he shelters a 15 year old girl from her abusive step-dad (landing himself a facial brand by way of a blowtorch) is marred by an extremely creepy moment where he charms her with his stories and they almost make-out.
Byron’s personality is made up mostly of faults, but it’s a testament his charisma as a character that he pulls the classic Byronic hero move of making you root for him. He’s by no means a good man, but he tries his best when it matters. He’s the kind of man who uses his last few minutes of freedom to impart whatever crumbs of fatherly wisdom he can to the son he’ll not see again until his need for a father is past. He’s the kind of man who takes a blowtorch to the face rather than back down an inch in front of the local bully. He’s the kind of man who when faced with the destruction of his entire life, with no friends aside from an old drum and a regiment of garden gnomes, chooses to go down loudly. He’s no role model, but I’d read about his antics forever.
Quote of the Story:
“School is a lie. Prison’s a waste of time. Girls are wondrous. Grab your fill. No man was ever laid in his barrow wishing he’d loved one less woman. Don’t listen to no one and nothing but what your own heart bids. Lie. Cheat. Steal. Fight to the death. Don’t give up. Show me your teeth.” –Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron
Keep or Donate?
The issue with reading plays in general is that the reader is encountering the work in the way it wasn’t really meant to be consumed. Plays are meant to be performed. The stage directions that allow the actors bring the piece to life only serve to bring the reader out of sync with the dialogue of the story when read on a page. Ask any high school kid that had to read Shakespeare with their entire English class. The ramblings monologues of Johnny Byron in particular drew me into the story in a way no play I can remember reading ever has. They have a rhythm to them not unlike old English ballads or Viking sagas. They demand your attention and hold it through the literary equivalent of grabbing you by the throat and making you witness one sad man’s downfall. That alone makes this play worthy of a permanent spot on anyone’s bookshelf. Keep it.