This article looks at the question of the nature of the abuse suffered by Phaedra Cox in Butterworth’s play Jerusalem. Certain facts are incontrovertible: She has run away and she is living in Johnny’s back room, but beyond this, it is well-nigh impossible to come to a definite answer about who she is fleeing from and who might be trying to protect her. In a play which revolves around the idea of St George and the Dragon, and therefore around the protection of an innocent young girl from a predator, students need to look carefully at what is evident and derive their own conclusions – though I would suggest that there is no clear answer here.
In act one, the audience meets Phaedra during the Prologue, without realising who she might be. The fact of her disappearance is only introduced later in the act, around pages 27/28 when she is the subject of discussion among the “onlookers” at the court of Johnny Byron. At this point the audience cannot fail to be concerned that she is obviously hiding in the caravan, yet it is clear that no one present knows this – Johnny is currently “off”, swinging his axe in a display of repressed violence which does little to lighten the moment. we learn amongst other things, her age (15) and the fact that the pubs in Flintock regularly serve under-age drinkers. We also hear that she is “always going off” suggesting that flight might be a regular part of her life in relation to her home. When she next appears at the top of Act 2 she sings Dransfield’s Werewolf – a dark song about the feelings of lust felt by a predatory figure as he approaches his victims – victims to whom he is drawn by love. Butterworth is unclear here as to the rationale for this song. It may simply be to maintain the discussion about abusers, but I feel that the fact that Phaedra seems ot be singing words used to justify the abuse of a young girl by one who “loves” her, we should be looking for an altogether closer relationship with regards to this concern.
Later in the act we meed Troy, her “father”. When he appears on P78, there need be no reading other than one of extreme concern as he and Johnny begin a rapid dialogue: Johnny is unusually solicitous here and there is a sense that he is on the back foot as he addresses Troy and focuses on the past – “mate”, “these days”. We wonder if he is consciously defusing a situation which might get out of hand. Whilst this works whichever male is seen as the predator, society will usually see the outsider as the wrongdoer in a snap judgement, though studies show most abuse to derive from the family home.
After the pair spar about the audience of onlookers, things take a turn for the aggressive. Troy turns on Pea with an aggression and a use of invective unusual in the play. we are used to extremes of language being used consistently as part of the vernacular of the group. Here Troy deploys sexual invective as a weapon. The “cockhole/cakehole” juxtaposition suggests a man used to using sexual terms aggressively to young girls and only to young girls. True, Ginger is a “lanky cunt”, but this seems much more in line with the routine use of this word throughout the play. Pea seems to be singled out for special attention, presumably because of her gender.
Possibly the catalyst for this behavior is Johnny’s surprising line of attack. He has successfully managed to keep an audience and now he picks at Troy, making allegations of abuse that are all too clear. Perhaps he assumes Troy will back off and leave.
On pages 79 and 81 he is quite explicit: he pours sensual detail upon detail describing Phaedra’s “brown hair. Freckles. Big eyes… lovely big eyes”. This repetition seems to make a link between Phaedra and the heroine of a manga comic, viewed as a sexual prize for the predator. His purpose is not wholly clear, but it seems unlikely that the would have so lost control here as to display his own fantasies in this way. On 81 he is more direct asking “you miss her, boy?” and establishing Phaedra as a figure of Troy’s nocturnal sexual fantasies before inquiring “she in your dreams?”. His statement that it may be not just that Troy “feels a little bit randy today” could not be clearer: he is accusing Troy of abuse of his own daughter, an accusation which lies unanswered.
This is because Johnny has overstepped the mark and Troy, realising that he can humiliate him, responds. He does so in a speech notable for the lack of vile language and coarseness, suggestive once more that his violence is turned generally towards teenage girls. Butterworth thus leaves this question unanswered for the moment. The audience’s attention is swiftly taken to Troy’s description of the abject humiliation of Johnny and the implication of the whole group in this action. The scene ends in embarrassment and threat.
The final scene to consider is that in Act 3 between Phaedra and Johnny. The close of Act two prepares the audience for the final manifestation of the St George story. In this scene we see it. On page 100, Phaedra emerges from the caravan for her first interaction with another character. Her first question: “have they gone, who are they, Johnny?” suggests both a nervousness possibly derived from the fact that any officials may well be looking for her and a lack of confidence in her surroundings. In the swift interchange which follows (stichomythia) there is little evident emotion, let alone affection shown between the pair. The dialogue suggests, by the metaphor of the goldfish, that Johnny is a poor father and hearks back to his treatment of Marky in Act 2. There is no evidence here for anything other than a recent relationship based on practicality, rather than affection. Butterworth avoids any muddying of this moral crisis by focusing more on societal reactions in the face of suspected abuse, than on any question about whether a 15 year old is old enough to make up her own mind about sexual congress. As the conversation develops, Phaedra informs Johnny about the state of the back room – “stuffy”, “there’s mildew all over it” and continues to be presented as a recent visitor to the caravan. When Johnny answers her query about his home, she does not believe what is the most plausible of all Johnny’s tales and then seems utterly uninterested when he responds to her childish query about fairies with a speech rich in imagery about the forest. This is the point which begins to answer the query from act 1 “What the fuck is an English forest for?” The two seem so far apart emotionally that she can respond to this magical tale not with wonder, but with the prosaic “It’s five to six”. This suggests that she is not yet ready to be listed among those who are naturally attracted to the wood.
Her response instigates a discussion of the fair and her role which culminates in her expression of sorrow. She orders Johnny to dance with her and is so demanding that he warns her about her behaviour – he seems genuinely worried for her. “I seen you looking at me, you like me just fine. You should watch yourself. You should get yourself away, lass”. This last sentence suggesting again that the caravan is a temporary place of refuge rather than anything more sinister. When they do dance, the final element of the mystery is shown to the audience: “They stop. Looking into each others eyes. Close. Suddenly she turns and flees” She has made Johnny dance and they do. The issue here is in the eyes and her response. Something at this moment terrifies her and the stage direction picks up the same language – “flees” as the opening of the play. What might she have seen?
In act 2, Johnny scares Dawn by making her look deep into his eyes and we must assume that Phaedra may well see something similar here. Possibly her future in thrall to her abuser or some form of awareness of power which terrifies her. The stage directions suggest, though, a simpler meaning. She “turns and flees”. This may suggest that she turns away from whatever scared her. When Johnny turns, he too sees what this is: Troy and his branding irons. At this point in the Royal Court Production, Rylance threw his arms wide like a crucified Christ. What could be clearer? He takes the punishment so that she can escape. A punishment delivered by a hypocrite who is the very cause of her upset.
Of course, this may not be “right” and every reader/viewer will have their own opinion, but to me it is too easy for Johnny to be seen as the abuser in this triangle. Society is quick to point the finger and the press can be trawled for any number of parental abusers only too happy to point the finger at someone other than themselves. Just as the “green and pleasant land” of Jerusalem is subsumed into the “dark, satanic mills”, I see St George in this tale being bested by the fire wielding dragon of society and hypocrisy.