Antiheroes and Their Identities: Comparing Jerusalem and The Wasp Factory.
The concept of the antihero is central to both Jerusalem and The Wasp Factory. By exploring their identities, the writers expose issues related to the society their protagonists are surrounded by. In his modern, realist play, Butterworth creates Johnny Byron – a Romany traveller who, whilst being perceived as a gypsy drug dealer by outsiders is a much more complex character with a strong sense of identity and morality. By juxtaposing these two sides of his protagonist, Butterworth asks important questions about British culture, from how fatherhood and masculinity are viewed, to whether we have a social system that predetermines the roles people play. Banks presents us with Frank, ‘a teenage sadist’, the victim of complex psychological manipulation, in his ‘gothic horror story’ to challenge social norms by asking what exactly it is that constitutes sanity and whether it is relative to the person, and exploring the relationships between gender, sex and identity.
The isolation of a character is a powerful influence in the development of the antihero – Both settings that surround the characters are cut off from the rest of conventional society. Butterworth immerses Johnny in a green world; a ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ type haven which, whilst providing him with a place that he feels a sense of ownership over, plays its part in isolating him from society. Banks takes the idea of physical isolation even further, as Frank is literally cut off from mainland Scotland. This island setting also provides him with a sense of ownership, as Frank asserts his dominance over it in a gruesome and disturbing way. With the allusions to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein giving The Wasp Factory consistent undertones of transgression and monstrous behaviour, as Frank roams his home island in “The Sacrifice Poles”, we begin to see how meticulously controlled childhood conditions have shaped him into a real-life monster, acting only on his innate desires. Frank’s mental disconnection means that he sees the island as his own kingdom and in turn, has developed a God complex with regards to the life that inhabits it. This is demonstrated not only by his killings, but by the playful way in which they are executed; Frank names places on the island, “the skull grounds” and the “bomb circle” after the lives he has taken there, which creates a parallel reality, like that of a horrific a child’s imaginary game.
Whereas Frank actively responds to his surroundings, manipulating the nature around him for his own trivial pleasures, Byron crafts his own world according to stereotype he lets himself fall into. Johnny is physically cordoned off from society, he argues that “This is Rooster’s Wood. I’m Rooster Byron”, with this possessive, reiterative language making it clear that he feels a strong sense of ownership over the wood he has chosen to make his home. However, perhaps ironically, whilst Johnny may believe it is this separation that distinguishes him in a positive way from the rest of society and even contributes to his heroic image, it ultimately leads to his downfall. Not only does it result in him being viewed by society as a ‘drunken drug dealer who befriends underage girls and wrecks any pub that hasn’t barred him’ , his eviction results in the end of Johnny’s reign as a local legend. Unlike Frank, who manipulates his surroundings, Johnny creates an environment that defines him as a person. The stage directions at the start of act one describe the clearing of the wood in a state of disrepair with ‘an old mouldy couch stand[ing] on the porch deck. Lots of junk. An old hand-cranked air-raid siren’ the props themselves and the way they are described suggest neglect, furthermore, the way the stage directions are written, in broken up and incomplete sentences reflect the fact that although Johnny’s outward attitude appears uncaring, his situation is deeply unstable.
Both writers disconnect their protagonists from the social norms of a conventional world by creating conceptual frameworks, alternative mental states through which their characters perceive the world and people that surround them. Frank’s mental state is quite different to Johnny’s state of self-deception. In a sense, by infantilising parts of Frank’s personality, giving him a certain naivety in the way he excitedly narrates his ‘adventures’, Banks encourages an uncomfortable empathy from his readers; further complicating the concept of the antihero. Although we wouldn’t go so far as to say that this excuses his horrific disregard for the life, it could be argued that Frank’s knowledge of the repercussions of his actions is limited due to an upbringing that was out of his control – much like Frankenstein’s monster. This results in a narcissistic lack of empathy, shown by Frank’s creation of his ‘Wasp Factory’. In a review of the operatic adaptation of the novel, Howe argues that ‘To Frank, [the wasp factory is] a divination device; to us, it’s a searing illustration of a worldview in which time and life are machines that manufacture doom.’ showing that Frank’s creation is a symbol of his attitudes towards time and life; attitudes which are damaging both internally and to the life that surrounds him.
Frank perceives his own actions through the heavily deluded eyes of someone plagued by a mental illness that has stemmed from an early childhood identity crisis. The notion that there is no official record of Frank’s birth, hints, early on, at an unstable sense of self. He narrates, in an excited tone how “I was never registered. I have no birth certificate, no National Insurance number, nothing to say I’m alive or have ever existed.” Banks lays the foundations of a life destined for transgression; if Frank’s very existence represents a law broken, we cannot expect him to abide by social norms – laws enacted by governments with a very clear sense of morality and purpose.
Butterworth creates a mental illness where his protagonist is unable to distinguish between truth and fantasy. Johnny’s elaborate lies are directed not only at those around him, but at his own conscious reason. Although this self-deception may perhaps have started merely as a coping mechanism – an evasion of reality – through the creation of this world, ‘Johnny is self-fashioning a legend and the myth of his own origins’3, justifying actions that are transgressive of social norms by appointing himself the hero of the tales he tells. These blurred lines between truth and imagination mean that his sense of identity is greatly dependent upon his own anecdotes.
This self inflicted mental state, is exposed around matters of paternal care. Johnny tells us of his own conception through an almost blasphemous and anecdote in which he claims to have been conceived when his father, in the act of adultery is shot ‘slap bang in the love-bells’ which, through some fantastical scene, results in the impregnation of his mother. Again, the antihero’s very existence is transgressive; even dependent on the violation of social laws. Perhaps Johnny sees this as his excuse for his own behaviour; making it unsurprising that his responsibilities as a father have been ‘evaded and denied’3. However, Phillips argues that ‘this anecdote seems to bestow a stature upon both father and son that transcends a sordid and unheroic reality, rendering both as fanatic as the story which creates them.’3 ; Johnny adapts his own sense of identity and purpose to fit his heritage. Butterworth’s exploration of his protagonist shows how, though it may appear as though Johnny is breaking social rules, he is very much staying within the boundaries set out for him by a classist society. It is almost as if, in adapting his actions according to legal system, he would be abandoning his identity, crossing a line which the legal system itself creates.
Marky is an embodiment of Johnny’s greatest fears and internal struggles whose appearance constantly brings up issues surrounding the Byron identity. Phillips views Marky as the ‘modern-day continuation of the Byron dynasty’3, who is plagued by hostile attitudes as a result of his father’s reputation. When Dawn describes how “Marky comes home every day in floods. Scratches. Bruises. His bag handle torn. ‘Your dad don’t pay no tax. Your dad’s a gyppo.’ ”, momentarily, Johnny’s view of his situation become less distorted; although the outward denial remains in the remark “That boy’s gonna be just fine”, Butterworth abandons the characteristic humour that Johnny meets awkward situations with, suggesting that there is an element of parenthood that sobers him; perhaps it is pride in the Byron bloodline that means he is afraid of corrupting his son, or the fact that he is for the first time confronted with the negative effects of the identity he is outwardly proud of.
Banks also explores the paternal role in the development of one’s identity and how a single, masculine role model, and lack of maternal care has had an immense impact on his protagonist. Frank’s ‘strangely ritualistic killing of animals and grandiose pleasure of seeking prophecies from his wasp factory’ 2 shows an amplified reflection his father’s obsessive nature. Although Frank claims to be able to “see [his] father’s obsession for what it is”, it is obvious that being forced to learn the “height… area and volume of just about every part of the house” has had a profound impact on his own behaviour. However, not only does Frank’s father shape Frank’s psychological state, he also takes control of his child’s gender by feeding him/her hormones. This is perhaps one of the main issues that Bank’s addresses that sparked outrage from his early readers and critics; In 1984, the issue of transsexuality had very little exposure and was still regarded by many as a transgression of social norms. However, while most modern-day readers would accept Frank as a transgender man, the fact that it was not a conscious choice for him remains transgressive, not only of social norms, but of human rights boundaries. However, In the final chapter, when pondering whether the realisation of his true gender has, in a sense, killed off his former self, Frank, concludes that ‘I am still me; I am still the same person with the same memories and the same deeds done, the same (small) achievements, the same (appalling) crimes to my name’, concluding that gender is not an intrinsic part of identity.
The notion that a character is defined by their prejudices; sexism in particular, is explored in contrasting ways by both writers. While in Jerusalem, the source of sexism is objectification of women and examples of toxic masculinity, leading to the empowerment of the male characters, Banks shows Frank and his father as extreme misogynists, openly expressing their contempt for femininity and all that it stands for. Frank explains that his father’s ‘little experiment, [was] a way of lessening – perhaps removing entirely – the influence of the female around him as [he] grew up’ which, in turn, resulted in Frank’s own ironic misogyny. ‘Frank bathes in male chauvinism, seeing women as the stereotypically “weaker sex”.’ 2 claiming that ‘women… are weak and stupid and live in the shadows of men and are nothing compared to them’ due to his naivety; his only experience of women from ‘watching hundreds… of film and television programmes.’ This could be interpreted as Bank’s criticism of the way women were presented as the ‘trembling victim’ in media as Frank’s experience of them seems to be just that; from his viewpoint, “they get raped, or their loved ones die ,and they go to pieces, go crazy and commit suicide or just pine away until they die”.
In Jerusalem, Johnny uses sexual objectification as a way of asserting his dominance within his social group. Despite sometimes adding to the more satirical aspect of the play, Johnny’s jokes often sexualise women and his heroism, at least in the eyes of his followers, depends upon this ‘dominance’. Use of colloquial terms and taboo language in his description of his experiences with women, such as “I swear to Christ I was shagging her only last June” adds to the derogatory nature of them. However, although Johnny presents an overt masculinity, his fierce protection of Phaedra from her sexually abusive stepfather shows that he is aware and against of the notion of sex being used as both as a physical and psychological weapon. This makes his sexual identity ambiguous; on the one hand, he sees no harm in objectification to the extent that some audiences may argue he verges on predatory, yet he appears to strongly disagree with this trait in others, namely Troy, to the point where he fights for this belief in the final act. Perhaps there is a progression of his views as the play intensifies, or perhaps this conflicting mindset simply epitomises the state of society’s attitudes towards the objectification of women.
Just as Johnny’s overtly masculine approach to his sexuality appears integral to his admirability, at least to his friends, Frank’s sexual repression is portrayed core part of his identity to the point where it becomes the motivation for his actions. It is this focus on their sexuality as an intrinsic part of their identity that distinguishes the antiheroes from their supporting characters. As a result of his father’s experiment, Frank views himself as sexually deficient. Bank’s protagonist holds the view that sexual ability defines masculinity and that dominance is central to that ability – reflected in his ritualistic manipulation of nature. Without the organs necessarily to play the male part in the procreative act, Frank claims to have developed the Freudian phenomenon of ‘penis envy’, viewing himself as inferior to those with male genitalia. Furthermore, he believes he is incapable of procreation, which leads to a further sense of deficiency, prompting him to aim to destroy all evidence of this concept in the world that surrounds him, killing three of his young relatives and ‘sacrificing’ innocent animals. However, Frank comes to this self-realisation only once the jealousy has dispersed; explaining how “my victims would be those most recently produced by the one act I was incapable of; my equals in that, while they possessed the potential for generation, they were at that point no more able to perform the required act than I was”. Rather than leaving his personality lacking something, Frank’s apparent lack of a sexuality adds a complex element to his identity that becomes his motive for murder. In his own confused thought process, Frank uncovers that “The murders were my own conception; my sex.” The way this statement is worded without any emotive language gives the reader a final sense of self-acceptance which seems to resolve the inner conflict Bank’s protagonist has experienced throughout his life.
The fact that Banks presents the ability to reproduce as desirable, almost as an intrinsic aspect of a ‘complete’ human, in the eyes of his antihero, leaves his readers uncertain of his own views on the purpose of the sexual act. Perhaps in a sense he was reacting to the controversial changes to contraception laws, the most recent of which passed in 1974 which allowed family planning clinics to prescribe single women the contraceptive pill. Banks’s own religious identity as a self-proclaimed “evangelical atheist’4 would suggest that he would agree with the concept that sex was not just for procreation, and therefore be in favour of the new laws.. Perhaps the way in which he presents Frank as single-minded when it comes to the purpose of sex, voices his concerns for the attitude that sex is solely for procreation and the damage that this ‘tunnel-vision’ may cause.
In contrasting yet equally fascinating explorations of what constitutes the identity of the antihero, Butterworth and Banks present two complex views of the world through the eyes of their deeply troubled protagonists. It is these views that the writers use to expose and inspire their audiences. Jez Butterworth’s satirical, realist play has inescapable undertones of subversion running through it, addressing deep-rooted issues within British culture, making it a truly versatile play; appealing to directors and inspiring to audiences. Iain Banks’s contemporary gothic novel simultaneously repulses and entices his readers, making the insanity, sexuality and brutality he writes about all the more progressive.
Fisher, Phillip. “Jerusalem, Royal Court Theatre Downstairs.” British Theatre Guide. 2009.Anon. “The Wasp Factory” – Ritualism, Gender and Deception Through The Eyes Of A Teenage Sadist”. Maaretta WordPress. Nov 29, 2010.Phillips, Nicholas. “Byron Blood and Byron Boys” emagazine. April, 2016.Banks, Iain. “I’m an evangelical atheist” BBC 5 Live YouTube. Oct 19, 2010.Howe, Brian. “The Wasp Factory By Brian Howe” Pitchfork. Dec 27th, 2016.Banks, Iain. “The Wasp Factory”. London: ABACUS, 1984.Butterworth, Jez. “Jerusalem”. London: Nick Hern Books, 2009.
Butterworth’s Use of Dramatic Method in Scene 1:
Butterworth, through his use of dramatic method, makes Scene One significant, particularly the extract where Ginger recounts Johnny’s antics at the fair ‘twenty years’ ago, by his characterisation of Johnny and his implicit comment on society. Butterworth uses comedy throughout the duration of Ginger’s tale of when ‘Johnny Byron was the Flintock fair’, yet adds a layer of complexity to the scene by subtly highlighting the blandness of society today now that the ‘Council stepped in [and] Made daredevilling illegal.’ The lack of stage directions in the extract places the focus solely on the dialogue between characters, emphasizing the idea of myths surrounding Johnny Byron and enabling the audience to gain insight into other characters’ views on him. The past and present, a key theme throughout the play, is also evident in the passage as Gingers’s story of Johnny ‘twenty years back’ is reminiscent of an English folk tale or legend, reiterated through the recurring allusions to King Arthur and stone both in this passage and throughout the play as a whole. Through the development of these themes and ideas, Butterworth makes this passage a significant scene in the context of the play as a whole.
The characterization of Johnny Byron is central to this passage of the play, making it a significant scene by establishing Johnny as a character shrouded in myth and legend, aided by allusions to King Arthur and stone, therefore developing the audience’s understanding of him. The character of Johnny is off stage throughout the duration of this passage, placing the focus on the passage on the onstage characters, (Ginger, Lee, Pea, Tanya and Davey), and their opinions of him; a clever use of dramatic effect by Butterworth as it furthers the idea of Johnny being a myth as he, the truth, is absent. The lack of stage directions also reiterates this concept as the focus is solely on the dialogue. Butterworth writes Ginger’s lines in an almost list format citing one action of Johnny Byron after another, perhaps embedding an implicit stage direct that the dialogue should be delivered as if this is a well known story that has been told before which is once again drawing on the idea of Johnny Byron’s connection to myth. Ginger’s tale of Johnny is ridiculous, creating comic effect through the sheer impossibility of anyone ‘jumping all [the] eighteen-wheelers’ and walking off after being pronounced ‘stone dead.’Yet Butterworth contorts the implausible nature of Ginger’s tale by peppering it very specific details that seem to add authenticity to the tale; the exact use of place names, bouncing ‘twenty-five times’, the ‘lorry doing a hundred miles an hour’. This blurring of the truth and lies is explored again through the characters’ reactions to Ginger’s story about Johnny, as although they know it’s ‘bollocks’ no one tells Ginger to stop and characters such as Davey and Tanya are explicitly in awe of him, with Tanya stating ‘they should put him in the town square.’ Lee, Pea and Tanya all reference ‘King Arthur’ when describing Johnny and his antics, likening him to an old English hero and one of the most famous myths in English history. Butterworth presents the audience with a strange juxtaposition of Johnny Byron, ‘some ogre living in a wood’, beside King Arthur, a noble and great Old English King. The paradox of Johnny Byron and the question of whether he is good or evil is a debate Butterworth encourages the audience to wrestle with throughout the duration of the play, therefore inducing audience engagement. The significance of the scene is primarily due to the characterization of Johnny through his likening to a myth, which accentuates the key theme of storytelling and truth which is prevalent throughout the play as a whole.
Butterworth makes this scene significant through his merging of the past and present, achieved through his use of dramatic effect, once again through the characterization of Johnny Byron. Stone is repeatedly associated with Johnny throughout the passage, he ‘lies stone still’, he is ‘stone dead’ and the onstage characters feel he is deserving of a ‘statue’, as well as being a recurrent symbol throughout the play, with Johnny later declaring himself a ‘heavy stone’ and a ‘lump of granite.’ The theme of past and present is explored through this image as stone is considered timeless; it existed when the earth was created and will exist until the earth is destroyed. Johnny’s association with stone links in with the idea of him being a myth and that he himself exists in a kind of time-warp within the play, as he held parties for the Flintock locals when they were 15 and 16 and is now continuing to do so but only with their children, a clear example being Troy and Phaedra. The image of King Arthur also helps to merge the past and present as although King Arthur represents the past and Old England, legend claims he and his knights are waiting under the ground ready to ride forth and save the country again. Johnny, like King Arthur and stone, is representative of both the past and the present. The passage is significant to the play as a whole as Butterworth cleverly builds up these incredible, crazy stories about Johnny being a hero so that it is all the more shocking for the audience when Dawn, his wife, strips away all the myth surrounding the past Johnny and reveals his present state; a failed father and a drug addicted ‘gyppo’. Butterworth’s exploration of the past and present, especially in this passage, enables the plot of the play to further and heighten the tension between Dawn and Johnny when they meet in Act Two.
Butterworth, despite masking it with comedy, uses the onstage characters to comment on society and how lifeless it has become since the ‘Council stepped in,’ making this a significant scene due to its deeper meaning. Johnny Byron represents excitement and eccentricity of life in what has become a bland, anemic society since the ‘Council made daredevilling illegal.’ However, Butterworth presents the audience with a paradox as although Johnny is representative of what the Council has withdrawn from society, he is equally representative of why the Council has ‘made daredevilling illegal’; to prevent ‘broken leg[s]… broken arm[s]…broken jaw[s], no teeth, compressed spine[s]’ and people ending up ‘stone dead’. Johnny Byron is a likable character, and characters such as Lee and Davey reminisce the ‘simple…pure’ days of the old Flintock fair where you could ‘hoof [farmers] in the bollocks’ which is a humorous memory, yet the question of what society would be like without these regulations leads the audience to question whether or not they are perhaps the lesser of two evils. The dramatic effect initiates audience engagement and the scene is of utmost significance due to the societal questions it implicitly raises to the audience, giving the play itself a deeper meaning through its comment on modern day society.
Butterworth’s characterization of Johnny, implicit comment on society and development of the theme of past and present through his use of dramatic method make this such a significant scene. The audience engagement is necessary for them to begin to tackle the bigger societal questions asked by the characters in Jerusalem while also enjoying Butterworth’s slick and effective use of comedy.
An Investigation into the Power Dynamic between Troy and Johnny
Butterworth, through his use of dramatic methods, creates an intense, revealing scene in which the audience is introduced to the character of Troy Whitworth and made aware of the sexual abuse Troy subjects Phaedra to when he is feeling ‘a little bit randy’. Through Butterworth’s characterisation of Troy and Johnny, the lack of stage directions and exploration of time and memory, he creates a tense power struggle in which dominance constantly fluctuates between Johnny and Troy. The heated exchange between the two characters over the whereabouts of Phaedra creates an electrifying atmosphere onstage, furthered by the lack of movement due to the absence of stage directions. This extract is arguably one of the most important scenes in the play as it explains why Phaedra is ‘lost’ and foreshadows the horrific ending of the play in Troy’s direct threat to Johnny, ‘I’ll mark you good, gyppo.’ The extract marks a shift in the play from light hearted comedy to a much darker atmosphere upon the arrival of Troy, demonstrating the eloquence and versatility of Butterworth’s writing.
Butterworth’s characterisation of Troy as vile and malicious derives repulsion from the audience, especially juxtaposed the likeable character of Johnny, immediately creating a scene of tension on stage. Butterworth explicitly states Troy is ‘[a big man]’ which suggests he is meant to be physically as well as verbally intimidating. The importance of casting is prevalent in this scene as part of Troy’s characterisation is his masculine, intimidating appearance to increase the severity of his threats; Butterworth engages the audience both visually and verbally. Troy’s aggression is clear from the beginning of the scene. A significant number of his lines are imperatives such as ‘don’t’, ‘get’, ‘tell’ and ‘shut’, contrasted next to Johnny’s more conversational tone, emphasising his impatience with Johnny’s ‘Bucolic Alcoholic Frolic’ and general abruptness which feeds into the overall presentation of him as repulsive. It is interesting how Butterworth’s use of swearing in Troy’s lines is different to the swearwords that the other characters use. Unlike the other characters in the rest of the play, Troy’s swearing is not used for comic effect or to express close friendship but rather to enhance the brutality of his threats through vulgar language. Troy’s use of swearing is somewhat uncomfortable for the audience, demonstrating how Butterworth’s clever use of dramatic method can derive two conflicting reactions from the same words. Troy’s insults are particularly disgusting due to their cutting nature; ‘pikey’, ‘gyppo’, Worzel Maggot’ and ‘Stig of the Dump’ dismantle the ‘myth’ of Johnny and expose him as something other than the untouchable legend he paints himself as. Troy’s use of swearing can be likened to that of Dawn’s during her confrontation with Johnny in Act Two, used to portray her frustration and anger with Johnny as opposed to comic effect. She brands Johnny a ‘Supertramp,’ which parallels Troy’s comments about Johnny’s economic situation. Butterworth seems to use these characters as physical reminders to the audience that in reality Johnny is, as Fawcett states, ‘a drug dealer’. They are vital to the play as Butterworth’s distortion of reality requires characters like these to shatter the illusion surrounding Johnny as it is easy for the audience to become enraptured in his fantastical stories of ‘giants’, ‘Nigerians in Marlborough’ and ‘Byron boys’ that he tells throughout the play. Johnny’s revelation of Troy’s sexual abuse is shocking and degrades Troy to a completely irredeemable character; he is the villain. The way in which he is characterised in this extract forces the audience to imagine the horrific way he must treat Phaedra. Butterworth uses this dramatic method to harness the power of subtext to highlight a concept that is far more appalling in the minds of the audience than could be demonstrated onstage.
\The characterisation of Johnny is of central importance in making this such a significant scene. Butterworth uses a different tone of aggression with Johnny, masking his hostility with comedy as opposed to Troy’s clear, direct threats. Johnny initially seems welcoming to Troy, asking him to ‘pull up a chair’ and join the ‘Bucolic Alcoholic Frolic’, however it soon becomes clear that Johnny’s friendliness is actually a form of mockery with the intention of provoking Troy. Referring to Troy as ‘Mr Whitworth’ implies a sense of respect yet Johnny subverts it usage to make a clear distinction to the audience that Troy is no ‘mate’. Johnny proceeds to taunt Troy over the whereabouts of Phaedra, asking ‘which one’s she?’ and ‘what’s she look like?’. In comparison to Troy’s use of imperatives to assert his dominance, Johnny withholds answers from Troy and skirts around his questions to purposely exasperate him to maintain control of the situation. Butterworth’s use of questioning is a particularly effective method used in this extract to create tension as Johnny returns almost all of Troy’s questions with questions of his own. In the opening line of Johnny’s first speech, he refers to the children in his wood as ‘rats’, explicitly linking him to the Pied Piper, an image that Troy vocalises – ‘Thinks he’s the Pied Piper.’ This image is subtly alluded to throughout the play, in Act One Johnny states ‘fuckin’ kids is like rats’ and ‘Bloody kids. [are] Like rats’ and this scene marking the epitome of the extended metaphor. Johnny represents the character which attracts the lost children, but also implore the audience to question his motives; do the lost children come to him or does he lure them away? Throughout Johnny’s first speech he focuses on Phaedra’s physical characteristics; ‘Small. Brown hair. Freckles. Big eyes.’ Butterworth’s use of asyndetic listing puts emphasis on each of Phaedra’s individual features, something which Johnny is aware will anger Troy and fills the subtext with sexual connotations, which feeds into the build up to the final revelation. Johnny’s patronising use of ‘boy’ towards Troy emphasis his control of the scene. Butterworth eloquently uses Johnny’s lines to build tension onstage as each word he says has a subverted meaning. Troy knows Phaedra is ‘young’, ‘fifteen’ and ‘not safe’ as Johnny points out, reinforcing the appalling nature of her situation; sexual abuse from her stepfather whose got ‘the Queen of Flintock under [his] roof.’ Butterworth doesn’t explicitly say what Troy does to Phaedra, implying it is too unspeakable, leaving the truth in the minds of the audience who only know how that Troy finds it ‘hard to sleep with her right next door.’
The lack of stage directions makes this scene particularly intense, as all the tension derives from Troy and Johnny’s dialogue. Unlike Butterworth’s usually long, specifically detailed stage directions, only ‘pause’ and ‘beat’ are used in this extract. The pauses create a period of silence onstage, producing an electric atmosphere and audience anticipation of who is going to speak next. The lack of stage directions places the focus of the scene on the language delivery and stillness of actors, in contrast to the previous long, elaborate comic sequences in the play as seen when we first meet Johnny in a ‘war helmet and goggles’ barking at Fawcett and Parsons. Butterworth’s use of interruption also displays the dynamic power struggle taking place between Johnny and Troy, with Johnny’s long unbroken speeches implying that he is the one who has won control at the end.
The theme of time and memory is explored in this scene, giving the audience insight into the characters of Troy and Johnny while also adding to the overall mystic surrounding Johnny that is built up throughout the play. Johnny claims in Act One ‘there’s not one mum or dad round here could come here and say they weren’t drinking, smoking, pilling and the rest when they was that and younger.’ This extract shows this claim to be true as Troy’s brothers ‘last summer’ were ‘always up here’ and Troy himself spent time in Rooster’s Wood when he ‘fifteen, sixteen years old.’ Spending time at Rooster’s Wood seems to have become a right of passage in Flintock and gives Johnny a sense of timelessness. New younger people swarm to his wood ‘like rats’, marking the progression of time, yet Johnny himself remains ‘stuck’ in a sort of time warp in his stationary caravan; it seems Rooster’s Wood is untouched by time. Johnny’s final speech of the extract is peppered with Satanic imagery such Tarot cards with ‘devils on the back’ and ‘blood-red’ wine, adding to the overall illusion of Johnny being associated with pagan magic and giving him a sense of immortality. Troy’s insults also centre heavily on Johnny’s Romani heritage, calling him a ‘gyppo’, ‘did’ and ‘diddicoy’, further linking Johnny to having ‘not just any blood’ but magical ‘Byron blood’, making him even more complex as a character.
Butterworth’s use of dramatic effect throughout this extract is characteristic of the play as a whole, while also really demonstrating to the audience the vile nature of Troy and creating pathos and understanding towards Phaedra. Butterworth’s contrasting characterisation of Johnny and Troy paints Johnny as George and Troy as the dragon, a fitting image considering this extract takes place on St. George’s day, and feeds into the overall magical connotations surrounding Johnny.
Jerusalem and Albion: An Ecological Perspective on Contemporary British Theatre
“As the ninth, tenth, and eleventh strokes struck, a huge blackness sprawled over the whole of London. With the twelfth stroke of midnight, the darkness was complete. A turbulent welter of cloud covered the city. All was darkness; all was doubt; all was confusion. The Eighteenth century was over; the Nineteenth century had begun” (Virgina Woolf, Orlando)
In Orlando Virginia Woolf describes the shift between centuries as the shifting of “turbulent” clouds; meteorological movement is linked with the movement of society from one state into another. If the twelfth stroke of midnight represents the moment of this epochal transition, then Mike Bartlett’s Albion and Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem and The Ferryman tell stories of the eleventh hour, set on the brink of the final stroke. Each play concerns itself with the perceived threat towards a particular way of life; in Jerusalem the modern “Green Man” protagonist faces eviction from his mobile home; the IRA intrudes upon the domestic life of a Northern Irish family during the Troubles in The Ferryman; Albion depicts a woman’s futile attempts to salvage a decaying aristocratic garden in the wake of her son’s death. The attempt to find purpose in the face loss – more broadly an apparent cultural loss – affects the lives of each character. The struggle manifests itself in the return of myth, and both writers – but Butterworth in particular – toy with collective identity and cultural heritage through use of the mystical. Ghosts, giants, banshees seep their way into a landscape that is both surreal and familiar: a contemporary battle between logos and mythos, logic and dreams and imagination and reality. Perhaps it is already cliché to state that the characters are haunted by their pasts1, but rather the dramatic tension seems to come from the attempt to hold on to, or reclaim this past, in the face of the “twelfth stroke”. Crucially, these efforts to revive old values or retreat into the mythical must reconcile itself, or otherwise fail to reconcile, with oncoming change – a change that is closely interwoven with the landscape, natural world and climate.
The struggle to find purpose is explored throughout Albion, and the word itself repeatedly crops up throughout the play: Zara claims that “I’m after a dream. A sense of purpose, I suppose”, while her mother insists that her son (James Walters) died “for a purpose”. In the case of the latter “purpose” is tied with a perceived set cultural values, the defense of England – Albion – for a just cause. Yet if the exact nature of these values is difficult to pinpoint within the text it is because they are intentionally obscured – for Audrey the ideal England is a paradoxical mix of romanticism for the aristocracy and a business orientated, “Thatcherite”2 ethos of “hard work”. Regardless of whether these values can be precisely defined, they are nevertheless perceived by Audrey to be in decline. The death of her own child progresses into an attempt to return things to the way she was as a child, the catalyst of what forms the premise of the play:
“As a child there were a number of big houses in this area (…) I thought when I grew up that would be the world I’d inherit … it was all… destroyed. It’s easy to mock but there was culture there. Most other countries preserve their past. The embarrassed and insecure English discard it.”
This childhood desire – now the remnant of a discarded culture – remerges in Audrey’s purchase of Albion and the Red Garden (once belonging to her uncle), previously a memorial to those who had lost their lives in the First World War and founded by a famous aristocrat. In revivifying and tending to it, Audrey claims that she is “sticking to a set of values. I’m holding the line. Or we’d have chaos.” Her garden becomes a symbol of a class structure on the precipice of extinction, a system deeply rooted within her conception of English cultural identity. In her recent examination of gardens in literature Annette Giesecke argues that “A garden is always a utopian construct, for its creation is predicated on hope – hope that what one has planted will grow, that one’s plantings will provide nourishment for the body and for the soul.”3 In Albion, Audrey’s project is in a sense a utopian one: as the first garden in history to explore the “chaos of nature in a formal setting”, Albion is a vestige of an idealized social order. And yet by nature of their very existence, gardens must constantly be maintained and ordered to avoid decay; likewise, the cultural order Albion represents exists continually on the precipice of collapse – “the eleventh strike”.
Multiple reviewers have pointed to the similarities between The Cherry Orchard and Albion4. Both texts describe the loss of an old social order: in Chekov’s work the Russian aristocracy is challenged by the emergence of the middle class, while in Bartlett’s the residue of this former system and its principles are in the process of evaporation. In the Russian play we also have the regression to the child-mind: “Oh, my childhood, my innocent childhood! This is the nursery where I slept, and I used to look out at the orchard from here! Look, Mother’s walking in the orchard.” And yet, in Albion when the garden does return to its former flourishing in late September, it is one that is “full bloom, green grown, but perhaps slightly too much. Perhaps a little overgrown”. As Freud argues in his essay on the uncanny, the “source of uncanny feelings would not, therefore be an infantile fear … but rather an infantile wish or even infantile belief”5. Here the attempt to recover the “infantile desire”, the flourishing garden and all its cultural associations, produces results that are simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar. The garden is both homely (once again in “full bloom”) and unhomely (“slightly too much”) – a literal instance of the “unheimlich”. In fact, much like the collapse of heimlich into the unheimlich, the utopian vision of the garden can only be understood with reference to the threat of dystopia: “Crisis, not contentment, breeds utopias. It follows that utopia and dystopia are versions of the same mental operation. The utopian dream of a better world can be assessed and appreciated only against the backdrop of the less-perfect world we inhabit”. In Albion this backdrop is literalized – the final scene is one of a collapse, the garden and along with the cultural order it represents are returned to oblivion: “the last pieces of the garden rot even more. The ground is returned to soil. The house is destroyed. Darkness. Soil.” (talk about ending here)
In an interview concerning Jerusalem, Jez Butterworth states that the play seeks to illustrate how “there is no Logos without Mythos”6: the anxiety towards a perceived rise in a logical, scientific way of understanding of the world and a resultant mourning of the loss of a religious order. Indeed, the battle between the mythical and the real permeates the play, extending to the set pieces themselves. Like Albion, Butterworth’s Flintock is distinctly English and Anglo-iconography is littered around the set. Johnny Byron’s mobile home consists of a surreal mix of the natural and the manmade: “A clearing in a moonlit wood (…) the old Wessex flag (…) lots of junk (…) Stuck to the porch post is a submarine klaxon”. Crucially Johnny himself embodies this dichotomy – or rather a fusion between – man and nature, as he moves “with the balance of a dancer or animal”; one is a trained, a practitioner, and the other is instinctual – a thing of nature. Raymond Williams once referred to ‘nature’ as “perhaps the most complex word in the English language”7, and in Jerusalem we are presented with these complications. Here is a protagonist who is an elemental force in his own right: a part of nature just as much as an inhabitant of it. Byron is inseparable from the “green world” he inhabits, and much of the criticism that does exist on Jerusalem fixates on his status as a contemporary Lord of Misrule; a Shakespearean archetype trapped in a modern setting. Johnny’s gypsy identity – addressed mainly through use of the pejorative “gyppo” – aligns with the stereotypes of a community that has been described as “remarkably successful at preserving their way of life, adapting to their changed conditions to remain the same”8. It is this stasis that is threatened by the Kennet and Avon Council. Much of the mythologizing in the play revolves around the idea of ancestry, that the mystical is inherent within the blood of Johnny himself (“magic blood”, “See that. That’s blood. And not just any blood. That’s Byron blood.”). As a character inseparable from the natural world around him, this magic embedded into – or at least projected onto – the landscape.
In contrast to Audrey, Johnny’s world is devoid of order, but similarly it embodies a set of values – or rather anti-values – that are also at risk of being lost. When contrasted with Albion we are reminded that cultural identity is not homogenous; while for Audrey social order is at risk of collapse, Johnny laments the loss of disorder, advocating for the subversion of principles entirely: “Lie. Cheat. Steal. Fight to the death. Don’t give up.” Crucially, both plays principally concern themselves not necessarily with the “spirit of nationalism or isolationism”9 but with the movement from what Butterworth terms “one state of being into another”. In Jerusalem this liminality manifests itself in the mystical, and the play is punctuated by a series of magical realist stories told by Johnny:
“Johnny: There’s some men’ll tell you anything to get you to believe it. I never jumped Stongehenge. But I once met a giant that built Stonehenge.
Ginger: Oh, really. And where was it?
Johnny: Just off the A14 outside Upavon.”
The use of English mythology and its assimilation into the modern world (“just off the A14”) is an effort to excavate the mythos into a world of logos: the latter quality finds its home in the scepticism of Ginger. Crucially the fight between these two forces reaches its pinnacle in the ending whereby Johnny beats his drum “relentlessly” as he summons the spectral, ancestral giants as the bulldozers arrive. The “purpose” that the characters of Albion search for so desperately, takes on the form of myth in Butterworth’s Jerusalem. As Katherine alludes to in the former play, purpose and belief are inseparable: “what do you believe in? You can’t have purpose without belief”.
Unlike the previous two plays discussed, The Ferryman is not set in England but instead takes the backdrop of 1980s Northern Ireland in the midst of the Troubles. Furthermore, in contrast with the outdoor stage design of the other works – while still using a pastoral setting – Butterworth opts for the interior of a house: the audience is made (after the prologue) to invade upon the domestic space of the Carney family. Only gradually does the natural world filters its way through the initially – literally – enclosed room (“The shutters are closed. The curtains drawn. The room is full of smoke”). Yet while over the course of the play the public world begins to encroach upon the private, the interiority of the stage design renders the arrival of each outside element as almost alien. For example, the presence of a live goose on stage is striking on both the level that having live animals onstage is a risky business (incorporating them into the plot itself is another feat entirely), but also because it is a real creature from the natural world into the home – a world that has only described and not seen (“harvest time”). On a larger scale, the presence of Muldoon – despite being a recognized figure from the past – is also one that is distinctly alien and threatens the domestic harmony of the household. The inevitable rupture in harmony is graphically visualized in the death of Magennis: “his blood spurts all over the wall of family pictures” – the family tainted with the blood of the outsider. Like Johnny Byron, the Carneys have existed on the brink of change, remaining static. This is epitomized in the description of the peat bog by Magennis – echoing Heaney’s ‘The Tollund Man’ – at the beginning of the play:
“The bog water turns a body black, but it preserves it. You see, Father, there’s no oxygen down there. The peat is acidic. It pickles you. The years roll by and nothing changes. Did you know, Father, that when they found the Tollund Man, that his hands and feet were bound too”
Akin to the preserved body, the Carney’s have operated in a kind of generational stasis; Caitlin cannot move on from her husband’s disappearance; Quinn and Caitlin do not act on their attraction to one another; in response Mary suffers from emotional and physical immobility; even Aunt Maggie has not loved another man since the age of 15. As a result of an unearthing of the past this frozen state finally thaws – and the characters must deal with their present relationships. This reaches its climax in the face off between Quinn and Mary, as she laments “nothing was healing. Nothing was moving on (…) now it’s over. Now there’s a body. Now she can grieve.” The natural world has thrown up an artifact that necessitates change, and yet the characters struggle against this force. Like Albion and Jerusalem, The Ferryman ends in defiance towards the oncoming storm, and much like the latter it is suffused with mythos: “Aunt Maggie: They’re here…! Outside the Banshees scream. It rises”. The outside world surrounds the interior setting and its past and history rail against the present order: but much like the endings of Jerusalem and Albion we are left in an inconclusive state.
Each play depicts a shift from one state of being into another, closely tied with a perceived loss of cultural or individual values and the desire to reclaim the past. This shift – particularly in Butterworth’s works – manifests itself in the conflict between mythos and logos. Most importantly, the natural world is intrinsically tied to this liminality, perhaps a reflection of anxieties towards an environment undergoing rapid changes. As discussed In The Ferryman, nature’s power to preserve and dispel the human body – itself a product of nature – is what provokes the action of the play. Likewise, in Albion the deceased James is said to become a part of the garden: “I suppose he’s in everything here now. The trees, the grass, the plants, whatever they are”. Furthermore, changes in climate dominates the play – the structure hinges around the movement of weather: Act 1 ends as “A cloud passes over”, Act 2 culminates in a rain-fertility dance of sorts (she slowly moves to the music … it starts to rain) and Act 3 and 4 the decay of the garden. It is the change in the earth itself that precludes other forces; overshadowing the pressure of neighbors; the Kennet and Avon council; the IRA. The climate is something inevitable and unstoppable. Audrey notices this, stating “there’s some things you can’t restore. The earth itself.” Indeed, global warming and climate change silently pervades the play and reveals itself through subtle cues, such as Katherine’s advice in Act 1: “You may have to adjust your plans for the climate … The climate will be quite different now. Sun like this in early February”. The major hurdle in Audrey’s attempts to reclaim the past is not simply that society or culture has changed, but that the physical makeup of the earth itself has changed. The last scene leaves the audience on this potent image – “Darkness. Soil”. Alexandra Harris argues in her recent book Weatherland that “we have arrived in the twenty-century, at a critical juncture in the story of weather”10. The character of Johnny Byron is the embodiment of the natural world at this critical juncture, a modern Green Man inevitably left on his own in the face of destruction.
Ultimately then, like the beating of Johnny’s drum, we are, meteorologically speaking, at the “eleventh stroke” of Woolf’s clock. In Albion the collapse of the garden represents the fall of a romanticized social order – the past. In Jerusalem and The Ferryman we left at the crossroads between myth and reality – a fusion that underpins a supposed struggle between mythos and logos. Anxiety towards a decaying environment, reflecting contemporary anxieties towards climate change, inhabit all three plays – the force of nature becomes the force that pushes the works into momentum. Both playwrights end on the “twelfth stroke” – we are shut off at the very moment of the resolution and left in a state of darkness and confusion, and yet the principles of the characters – their acts of (often self-destructive) defiance – remain with the audience in the midst of this apparent oblivion.Endnotes and Bibliography1 “Entangled in Ireland’s bloodstained past” S. Hemming ‘Jez Butterworth’s Magnificent New Play The Ferryman Opens at the Royal Court.’ Ft.com Available at: https://www.ft.com/content/91ad5998-30b5-11e7-9555-23ef563ecf9a [Accessed 3 Mar. 2018]. 2 Cavendish, Dominic “The Play that Britain needs right now – Albion, Almeida review” The Telegraph. Available at: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/theatre/what-to-see/play-britain-needs-right-now-albion-almeida-review/ [Accessed 3 Mar. 2018].3 Giesecke, Annette L. Earth perfect?: Nature, Utopia and the Garden. Edited by Naomi Jacobs. Artifice Books on Architecture, 2012. 4 Billington, Michael “Albion review – Mike Bartlett captures nation’s neurotic divisions” The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2017/oct/18/albion-review-mike-bartlett-almeida-london [Accessed 3rd March 2018] 5 Freud, Sigmund. The Uncanny. Penguin, 20036 “Theater Talk: “Jerusalem” Playwright Jez Butterworth and Tony-winning Best Actor, Mark Rylance”. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ENEoRHLuZ1I [10:23] [Accessed 3rd March 2018] 7 Williams, Raymond. Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. Oxford University Press, 2014.8 Acton, Thomas Alan, and Gary Mundy, eds. Romani Culture and Gypsy Identity. Univ of Hertfordshire Press, 1997. 9 Harpin, Anna. “Land of hope and glory: Jez Butterworth’s tragic landscapes.” Studies in Theatre and Performance 31, no. 1 (2011): 61-73.10 Harris, Alexandra. Weatherland: Writers & Artists Under English Skies. Thames & Hudson, 2015.