Friday, December 9, 2011

Saint George and the dragon: Jez Butterworth's Jerusalem

Saint George and the Dragon. In case we don’t remember the story: there’s a city, outside of which lives a horrific dragon. To stop him from terrorizing the city, the citizens periodically deliver their younger members as sacrifice. One day, George, knight in shining armor, arrives to save them from their oppression. He is baptized, takes the sign of the cross as his protection, and rides out to slay the dragon. He does, of course, peace is restored, and the people go on to healthy, normal, well-adjusted lives.

But let’s consider this story from another vantage. What if we discard the knights and dragons? What if this is a story about Christian modernity imposing itself upon—wiping out really—a native pre-modern system of beliefs? The dragon as the embodiment of all the druids and witches and wild, uncontrolled, earthly paganism that grew up out of the land. Saint George riding in on the productive rationality of a new era. For those of the modern persuasion, this a winning tale. Rationality, productivity, order: not bad things for your patron saint to represent. However, to the adherents of the pre-modern this is the end of a way of life - collateral loss in the inexorable onward march of Civilization.

Such is the moment at which we encounter “Rooster” Johnny Byron at the start of of Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem. He lives alone in his trailer, inhabiting—squatting, really—a patch of woods at the edge of what has during that time become a nice, prosperous subdevelopment. One imagines rows of freshly-painted McMansions. A fixture in the village for decades, he’s known by all for better or worse, barred from every pub and the go-to for drugs and drink. As the dawn breaks, two policepersons are serving him yet another notice of complaint after yet another raging party the night before. When he finally emerges from the trailer, he runs through what appears to be a hangover-curing routine–cold water, raw eggs–while trying to piece together the blackout part of his night. He’s amazed to discover that he’s led the assembled in a cheering assault upon his flat-screen television, the pieces of which now lie scattered about the stage. This is our hero, this wild, reckless, drunken fool of a mess.

The Times and other reviewers of last season’s Broadway production made much of Rooster’s self-mythologizing. He is a man of stories. He tells of being born to a virgin, fully-developed--hair and all--with a bullet clenched in his teeth. He tells of meeting one of the giants while wandering the countryside at dawn and being given a drum to call for their help in crisis. Others tell stories, too. Of his brilliance as a stunt jumper. Of the time he died and, after the paramedics gave up, simply came back to life. But these stories aren’t merely indications of his Falstaffian larger-than-life persona, Mr. Brantly; Rooster is myth itself. Whether the stories are true or not matters little. He believes them. Somehow he gets you to, as well. And belief is the key to their life. His stories are legends and he is the dragon - the last holdout of that uncontrolled, expansive, and, yes, dangerous ancient magic. The destroyed television is a marker for what proceeds: his drunken antics are unconsciously purposeful, the sleek functionality of the flatscreen destroyed in the ecstacy of the bacchanal, wild antagonism against the encroaching Modern.

The play, in its oh so Aristotlean way, spans a single Saint George’s Day, the festivals and parades commemorating the knight’s victory a ticking clock on the last of Rooster and his wood - tomorrow the bulldozers come to evict him before the land gives way to more cookie cutter-clean housing estates. Modernity will come to plow under its opposition.

It may not seem like such a bad idea to get rid of this nuisance with the loud music and drugs, the tax evasion and squatting. Raise some property values and improve the view while they’re at it. Why not; even the gang that hangs ‘round Rooster can’t respect him. They’ll take his drugs and liquor, but they’ll piss on him while he’s passed out. And yet, they keep coming back. They can’t articulate it, but Rooster offers them something more than just escape; he provides connection and understanding for people who find themselves at odds with the world. A doddering, old professor, mind half gone, who finds his stories and mistaken identities indulged. The young man hoping to fill an interior emptiness on an Australian walkabout, given ceremonial blessing as he departs, though it’s clear he’ll never make it to Australia. Rooster extends the same expansive acceptance he gives his stories onto their dreams and needs, creating a refuge for the parts of them that don’t quite fit into a rational world on the march, the parts to which this world has lost the ability to respond. These people all have within them a deep, unspoken sense of what’s been lost in the flattening, the standardization that comes with modernity. Rooster is the remaining possibility of what might have been.

Naturally, the possibility of alternatives is a threat to the dominant order and the dragon must be slain. While the official machinery of the city prepares to move its bulldozers into place, Rooster receives a savage beating from individual enforces of the order whom he has dared offend. The bulldozers will still come, but the ultimate defeat arrives in the beating, the violence not of systemic action, but of individuals so thoroughly enveloped in the system that they have taken its mission of conquest upon themselves. The people have abandoned and forgotten the old order. Even the ones who come to its moments of escape will kick it to the ground as soon as their needs are sated. Rooster was defeated from the start. The beating culminates in a branding, a large X burned into Rooster’s skin. But this X can also be read as the Saint George’s cross, the red intersecting lines on a background of white skin. Broken, bloody, and marked, Rooster frantically but steadily beats the giant’s drum, a mystical dying plea into the darkness. The dragon, awful and necessary, howls as it falls to the onward march of the knight’s crusade.

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