The Forest: Butterworth’s setting for Jerusalem or “What the fuck do you think an English forest is for?”
To Shakespeare, the forest is a place of opposites and a location for clandestine activities. In his plays Midsummer Night’s Dream and As You Like it, the forest can be seen as an antidote to the “new world” of a harsher time. The fairies operate beyond the human sphere and are linked to mischief and to nature, without any of the restrictions – moral or temporal – placed upon Theseus or the lovers. Puck can defy time and space and the fairy world will survive its invasion after playing with the interlopers, who might leave a little wiser than before. In As You Like It, the forest of Arden hearks back to a “time before” – a better time in which a wiser ruler has returned to nature with his court as an echo of the brash modernism of his brother’s urban court.
Butterworth’s play seems to be a natural descendant of these forests. We have a forest clearing, which is threatened by the forces of urbanization and modernism. However, the water is muddied because of the spectacularly ambivalent reaction of an audience to Johnny, whose domain this is – the Oberon of North Wiltshire. However much one wishes to sympathise with Johnny, one is equally appalled and can understand the wish of the council to move on a drug dealer/potential paedophile. That said, ultimately Johnny wins over the audience – his personality is simply too huge and his ultimate fate at the hands of Troy is too grotesque for us to harbour hatred for the character.
The play opens with a fairy in a forest as Phaedra sings Blake’s poem, which gives the play its name (and Johnny his only weak moment when playing Trivial Pursuits). Blake’s poem is a poem of questions and a poem, which clearly locates the play in England (where the poem has become an unofficial National Anthem) and in a world which is reflecting on the past. As the word “Satanic” is sung, the hymn is replaced with thumping music and the curtain opens to reveal “Waterloo” – an old caravan in a clearing. There is some form of rave taking place, which continues until peace settles on the scene and nature establishes itself in the form of birdsong. Into this world come two outsiders who are on a mission to purify the forest and rid it of the demon who lives there. Fawcett and Parsons are apt names for these moral cleansers. The illusion of timelessness in this opening which moves seamlessly through the passage of one night is shattered by the first words uttered: “Time” (Fawcett) which establishes the opposites at work. In the forest time is not important, but to the outside world it is the measure of all things.
Which came first, Rooster or the wood?
Johnny is a figure of power in this wood, he pulls the youth of Flintock to his call and also has enthralled Ginger – old enough to know better as a lieutenant – though one who seems perpetually to be let down and who will eventually have to be pushed away before Johnny’s final destructive clash with the world. In his Wood, outside power does not exist, but throughout the play the reminders of the council and the waiting forces of the police are a threat which never lifts despite his braggadocio.
The play is set on 23rd April, St George’s Day and Shakespeare’s Birth/Death day and both readings are clearly relevant in an England which can turn a “rural display” into slaughter in the car park or couple floats representing the myth of St George with others reflecting the invented fantasy world of Lord of the Rings or the rush for meaningless celebrity embodied in the X factor.
In the wood, none of this exists. It is all discussed and shown for the tawdry money making operation that it is: Wesley, when discussing his role of the “Barley Sword Bearer” is embarrassed by Johnny (“something is deeply wrong”) and hides behind the excuse that this is a “Swindon level decision”, thus evoking a larger urban authority than the parish council. In the face of such power, it is suggested, we are helpless.
But Johnny belongs to a different world. He has taken over this corner of Wiltshire and squatted in the wood for 27 years. Even his piss seems to be a marking of territory like that of some great feral beast and some form of libation to the Gods of the past (it is greeted by a choir singing off stage). His world is inhabited by losers and dropouts and by those for whom the urban world does not offer enough. He works as a force of nature and has clearly worked his way through many of the bedrooms of the town and is clearly selling drugs and alcohol to the underage children who sit on his doorstep. In a curious way he is also protecting them: the mysterious Phaedra is evidently safer with him (whatever that means) than with her predatory step-father and the others are given a chance to experiment and taste life in a relatively controlled environment. It is not Johnny who has caused Tanya Cawley to drink, but he has provided the means. He and Wesley reminisce in Act 1 saying “Of course they’re bloody drinking” when reminded of the age of the children and recalling the days when a less puritanical attitude ruled the country and the Flintock fair of 1969 was a scene of sexual license and debauchery. The suggestion is that the Puritanical outlook of the modern world has resulted in kids “sit[ting] in bus shelters, freezing their bollocks off” or being barred form Wesley’s pub or visiting Johnny as a place of safety. Nature, says Johnny, will always have its way even when outsiders try to impose a new order upon it.
Rooster’s Wood is to be bulldozed to make way for homes. Many have been built recently and the incomers are complaining about Johnny (despite or because of his effectiveness as a handy man). In the 21st century so many villages within 100 miles of London have become dormitory villages for commuters the soul of the rural life is being destroyed. The reality is that village shops close, pubs lack regulars, petrol prices make it hard for the villagers to travel around and employment is almost non-existent in many cases. In the wood, time has not moved on and Johnny is still ruler of misrule over a group of outsiders whose village is being taken over by puritanical forces who wish there to be nothing to represent nature to the natural in their new environment. The “green and pleasant land” is both less green and considerably lass pleasant in this new version.
“What the fuck do you think an English Forest is for?”
In Act 3 Johnny poses this question to Fawcett and Parsons. His time is running out and he has heard the litany of names who have signed the petition to be rid of him. He has had to stop Fawcett from reading the list. His only defense is the one cited earlier that the forest is a place of refuge and that many are safer here than at home. He cries “Bang your gavels. Bring your warrants. You can’t make the wind blow”. The suggestion is both that the law is transitory in the face of nature and also that perhaps he can do this. Indeed the end of the play with its majestic chant and curse over the giant’s drum certainly suggests forces of a higher level than Kennet and Avon Council being summoned into battle. Johnny might be delusional, but there is a clear suggestion that we should not meddle with forces we do not understand. The forest allows Johnny to be such a force. He is the product of a spectacularly mythological insemination and carries hugely rare blood (or so he says). Throughout the play the forest has been a place where fantastical stories can told as though they are truths and where a man can live who has already died twice as a result of his Dare Devil riding. Might it not survive this latest setback?
However, we should not overlook the Forest as a place of potential evil. Though Shakespeare uses his forest as a critique of an overly Puritanical world, the 19th Century German forest is a place of nightmares and terrors as explored in much Gothic literature and true fairy tales. Nothing good ever comes from a visit to the hut in the woods! If Johnny is the Wolf, is he also a dragon? At the end of Act 2 the professor is left alone on stage to recount the tale of St George. The dragon lives in a “swamp” on the edge of a city and St George is serving all by clearing the city of this nuisance. Again, should we see Johnny as a dragon polluting the charm of the rural idyll? Certainly his drug taking and drinking have little to do with a pure nature which might refer back to the nymphs and shepherds of Virgil’s Eclogues. However isn’t it the case that the Forest and nature is always sanitized for the comfort of the urban elite? Real rural poverty offends – look at Tess of the D”Urbervilles – and the idea that rural dwellers are all somehow pure and fairy-like is an utter nonsense.
The forest tells us that Nature was here long before the modern obsession with the urbanization of the country seen in building projects and a need to reflect a “time before” in all celebrations of Englishness. Does anyone take Morris Dancing seriously as a link to heritage? Does anyone pause to consider what life was like in the 1940s when a Spitfire sweeps above our heads? The message I take from this play is that we have lost touch with our heritage and that the Forest setting represents an exploration of the difference between us and them – they might be uncomfortable to recognize as a rawer version of ourselves, but we need to be aware of the existence of a less sanitized and potentially less safe world that has existed and will exist again.