Why do the audience find Johnny Byron attractive?

This is an essay written as a first homework task for the Lower 6th by a young man called Asher. I think it is mature beyond his years. Please offer comment which I can feed back to him.

It is disappointing not to be teaching this for the exam anymore. We will still engage with the text as deeply, but the whole thing is now to produce coursework and all the juicy contextual stuff will never see the light of day!

‘Since there is little to admire in Johnny Byron, it is strange that we find him so attractive.’ How does Butterworth present the character of Byron so that the audience are firmly on his side?

(Written with knowledge of Acts 1 and 2)

In Butterworth’s Jerusalem, Rooster Johnny Byron is a man who strays constantly and unashamedly outside society’s moral boundaries. As a character who takes drugs regularly, has no regular employment, gives refuge to adolescents so that they can indulge in drinking and drug-taking, and who seduces women when their husbands are away at war, he seems to have no moral code, and no concern for anybody else’s. Moreover, against the backdrop of Phaedra Cox’s disappearance, his vices, which we could ignore more easily under normal circumstances, take on a darker tone. Despite this, Butterworth portrays a man we as an audience instinctively find attractive, and with whom we want to side. This is the product of a complex combination of factors. Byron’s underdog status, as a fiercely individualistic man fighting against a caricature of a bureaucratic, unfeeling nanny state in the council, means we are on his side because we find his cause a justified one. We also side with him because of what he represents: through the various stories he tells about himself, and in the way he lives, he embodies a wealth of different ideas of the pastoral and of England, two concepts with which an audience can easily find common cause, and the ambiguity surrounding him allows for an amoral heroism which draws us to him as a bulwark against the new. Butterworth presents Byron’s mobile home as a refuge for the adolescents and misfits of Flintock, and in doing so, he makes it easy for us to firmly side with Byron, because his permissive attitudes, and the way he treats these teenagers, is far more honest than the hypocrisy with which the likes of Wesley perform the same role for profit. Through these factors, Butterworth presents Byron as a man with whom we instinctively side.

Butterworth presents Byron in a way by which we are firmly on his side at the very beginning of Act 1, when the arrival of Fawcett and Parsons allows him to create a dichotomy between Byron’s individualism, and his status as an underdog, and the cold, removed authority of the council’s representatives, Fawcett in particular. This is a comparison that immediately makes an audience -which knows nothing about him- see him in a favourable light. Prior to the arrival of the council workers, the audience is made aware, in a subtle use of setting to create and contextualise atmosphere, of ‘an old rusted metal railway sign screwed to the mobile home’ which reads ‘Waterloo’. The obvious and blatant allusion to a battle where a British army beat a powerful foreign aggressor, halting the threat of invasion, alerts the audience to the protagonist as an outrider in trouble, defending himself and his land against a great power. It is with that theme established – a theme from which the audience naturally sides with the embattled Byron- that the confrontation begins. The contrast created between Fawcett, described as ‘with a clipboard’, the hallmark of the unwelcome ‘nanny state’, and Byron, who appears ‘wearing a Second World War helmet and goggles, with loudhailer, like out of the top of a tank’, further creates a marked distinction between the kind of local government many love to hate and the dogged resistance the audience might naturally associate with the English collective psyche, continuing the allusion which Butterworth began with the Waterloo reference. These details work to construct a battle between ideas, represented by Byron and Kennet and Avon Council, an ideological stand-off between the lawless, anarchic individual, steeped in English anti-authoritarianism, and the regulated, emotionless state, a stand-off in which the audience sees Byron favourably. In Act 2, Byron’s resistance to the council’s attempts to evict him from a wood which, as ‘Rooster’s Wood’, he sees as his own, is developed into a fully fledged revolt by Butterworth in a comic and irreverent way that consolidates the audience’s support for our protagonist. The banners reading ‘FUCK OFF KENNET AND AVON’ and the fortifications of ‘a wheelbarrow full of gnomes’  present us with a humorous image of amateurish and homespun civilian dissent which only increases our support for Byron. In comparison with the pompous religiosity of the council, as seen through Fawcett’s prim, turgid legalese in Act 1, with her references to ‘the Pollution Control and Local Government Order 1974’, Byron’s rebellion is seen by the audience as an amusing riposte to the absurdity of authority, and thus does Butterworth make us firmly on his side.

Furthermore, we as an audience are firmly on Byron’s side because he is the embodiment of the pastoral and a forgotten England, the England that precedes the crude nationalism of ‘THE ENGLISH STAGE COMPANY’, and because the mystery of his life and the nature of his existence creates a legendary mystique that is attractive and gives the impression of timelessness. In a play about English identity, Byron’s position as a totem of age-old Englishness amid commercial patriotism and sham ideals makes it easy for the audience to be firmly on his side, representing, as he does, an idea that perhaps never existed, but which we want to have existed. Butterworth achieves this through the various mythic tales Byron tells, and through details of his general character and speech. The name ‘Byron’ could allude to Lord Byron, and a reference to the most prominent Romantic poet makes us consider that, as nature and its primal forces drives Byron’s poetry, that same nature drives the actions of our protagonist. This is in keeping with the way Butterworth’s stage direction has Byron ‘let[ing] out a long, feral bellow, from the heart of the earth’: such a clearly animalistic sound causes the reader to question whether Byron is fully human, or whether he is truly part of nature in a way those around him are not, shaped by it like his namesake’s poetry. Soon afterwards, Byron muses to himself that he dreamt of a ‘glimpse of God’s tail’; such a random yet divinely poetic statement that at this early stage in the play the audience sees the intangible nature of Byron’s identity. We are never sure of what or who he truly is, and that mystery, despite being the root of much of the play’s uncertainty and darkness, is also alluring and magnetic. Living in a wood that shares his name, it is easy to link him to the Green Men of the Medieval rural vision: as part of his surroundings, a supposedly immoveable presence whose home is threatened by local government, we side with him as the personification of nature itself. Beyond that, it is Byron’s vision of himself which attracts us to him and further makes us firmly on his side, because of the heroic image he creates. In particular, Byron’s conception myth, reminiscent of the Virgin Birth, makes us view him as he perhaps wants to be viewed- a hero or god. The idea that he was conceived without intercourse, and born with ‘a bullet clenched between his teeth’, serves to add to his mystique, not because it is in any way believable (and indeed it is strikingly similar to a Tom Waits monologue, humorously suggesting he is mocking his young companions’ naïveté) but because its theme, the heroic, is something we can easily and approvingly associate with Byron, even though it is not a moral heroism. Byron is presented as more than a man, but a being beyond full comprehension, something that gives Butterworth the narrative space to build a heroic, mythic character, who can marshal his troops like a comic Henry V, with a cry of ‘Cohorts! Beloved spongers!’ and organise a popular revolt without the slightest hint of fantasy: however dubious his tales, we as an audience side with him firmly not just as Byron the individual, but as Byron the symbol.

Butterworth presents Byron’s clearing as a refuge for the teenagers of Flintock, and the hypocrisy with which he is questioned by Wesley over his relaxed dispensation of alcohol and drugs makes the audience side with him even more. The Bacchic scene at the beginning of Act 1 of ‘people dancing wildly, with abandon’ naturally raises questions about the place of vulnerable adolescents in such a setting, but as the play progresses, we see a relationship between Byron and his young hangers-on which is often paternal, and which plays a role society would rather ignore, but still needs. When Pea and Tanya leave in Act 1, we are told that Pea ‘kisses JOHNNY on the cheek’, the kind of affection one would expect between family members, and this shows that, regardless of whatever trouble may lay in store, Byron’s mobile home is a place where Pea, Tanya, Davey and Lee feel safe. When Wesley confronts Byron, following news of  Phaedra’s disappearance, he replies: ‘course they’re bloody drinking. It’s not like you don’t serve kids’, an allegation to which Wesley can only feebly protest ‘that’s different’. This blatant hypocrisy demonstrates that, in respectable Flintock, these natural teenage rites are fine, as long as they are discreetly hidden. The way Byron proudly allows the activity the rest of the community merely turns a blind eye to for profit makes us firmly on his side because we realise that the refuge he gives is necessary; he provides an environment in which Flintock’s youth can be young without the judgement of those who do not practise what they preach. Byron’s assertion that ‘they either sit in the bus stop, shivering their bollocks off, or they go to yours, or they come here’ makes clear that -especially in a place as boring as Flintock, where even the hotly anticipated fair is ‘shit’ according to Ginger- drinking is the only form of recreation for the young, and in providing a warm, fairly safe place in which to indulge in it, we see that Byron performs a necessary evil, yet is hounded for it by those who find his presence distasteful. This unfairness means we question the premises on which Byron is attacked by those who see themselves as better than him, and firmly support him.

Butterworth presents a morally confused character in Byron, whose actions are often wrong and whose role in the lives of the teenagers who look to him is at times worrying. Against an ever-darkening series of events, we still see this complex character in a broadly favourable light, and are firmly on his side as an audience. In being pitted against an unwelcome and unappealing council and a hypocritical village, and because he is the encapsulation of imagery and ideas an audience can easily and happily identify with, Byron is, despite the problems and questions Phaedra’s disappearance raises, a man with whom we want to stand, as much as a symbol and archetype as we like him as a person. At the heart of the play lies this unresolved contradiction: our concerns about Byron never leave us, but still we support him, and it is on this contradiction that much of the exploration of Byron’s character hinges.

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