The opening of Jerusalem (Butterworth): a stimulus for discussion.

This is not a model essay, it is a stimulus piece, designed to provoke debate and get my Yr 12s thinking…  Feel free to comment.

Just what is going on in the short prologue to Jerusalem?  Students need to analyse the language used as well imagine the thought processes of the audience awaiting the performance.  It is vital, therefore, that students pay particular weight to the stage directions and the manner in which Butterworth has expressed his wishes.

We know that Blake’s original poem is much more of a criticism of England at the dawn of the industrial revolution than a paean in praise of Englishness – the way that the Last Night of the Proms and the ubiquitous use of Parry’s setting at sporting events would have us believe.  How is this portrayed prior to the beginning of the play?

Looking at the opening direction we are faced by the “faded” St George’s cross.  The symbolism is obvious – that England has seen better days.  The adornments to the prosc are, therefore interesting:  on the one hand, the emblems of a Pastoral idyll and on the other creatures of Myth and pre-history.  This seeming dichotomy is possibly resolved by the recognition that the foundation myths of the country require references to Giants – Gog and Magog for example and that such myths are always going to be filled with creatures designed to scare and keep people in a degree of awe.  Next to these, the Pastoral tradition of sanctuary and a return to a “time before” suggest a space in which the two worlds – the “time before” and the “time now” or “time future” are going to be in opposition.

Music is used to develop this idea and the audience are at first lulled into a simple, pastoral reverie by the folksy accordion and pipes -possibly a modern interpretation of a past that never really existed, in the same way as Morris Dancing is rolled out at all  suitably “historic” festivals, before the innocent solo voice of a young girl takes up Blake’s “hymn”.  Alone on stage and wearing the costume of a fairy, Phaedra embodies an innocence which is in danger of destruction.  She might be said to embody the purity of England before the “fall”, however, her innocence is rudely shattered by the “Thumping Music” which interrupts her song.  The modern world has intruded and she “flees”.  Butterworth is careful here to suggest her terror in this verb – she is not simply leaving but flees – a sense that her innocence is endangered unless she manages to escape.

Butterworth has not specified music here (he will elsewhere) and we are free to imagine the sound for ourselves and need to focus on the idea of “thumping” music, with all the violence implied in the verb.  Our thoroughly disoriented audience are faced with a scene of a Bacchic frenzy as the curtain rises.  The music can no w be identified as a violent rave taking place in a moonlit clearing, dominated by a vast mobile home.  The scene is one of violence, frenzy and squalor.  In short, everything that Blake was opposing in his poem.  Phaedra broke off on the words “dark Satanic – ” and the audience sees exactly that in front of their eyes, not mills, but a nocturnal rite redolent of Hellish frenzy.

As soon as it is seen, the scene changes and the other side of England 2009 is revealed:  the music is replaced by birdsong and peace descends.  Nature reasserts itself, though the carnage around the caravan suggests the negative impact that humans have on such a potentially fragile space.  It is into this space that the two authority figures appear, armed with clipboard and camera to challenge the power of the central figure of the play – his entry delayed by his spectacular challenge to their authority – Johnny “Rooster” Byron.  In his figure we will see the “time before” (part devil, part charismatic leader, part force of nature) face to face with “time now” (nanny state and scripted rules and regulations).

Butterworth challenges his audience from the outset.  His stage dressing presents the past as potentially violent and evil, but surely nature has its dark side and no one can legislate that away.  He is also clear that Phaedra is a very knowing innocent.  She acknowledges the boxes and clearly is seen to manipulate her wings between verses.  There is no attempt at illusiojn as there would be were we watching Tinkerbelle appear – no magic here.  The world is real, fairies do not exist, they simply appear in costume as young innocents.  Remember that the audience have no idea who the fairy is – she may represent the pastoral world of plays liker A Midsummer Night’s Dream or the Fairy Queen.  Only as the play progresses do we hear that a young girl is missing.  It is not until act 3 that we are certain who this is.  By then the spectre of parental abuse and paedophilia will hang over the character and the audience may be wanting to reassess their opinions of the “innocence” seen at the start of the play.