Jerusalem: the Play by Jez Butterworth

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A Guide to Jerusalem's Cultural Allusions and Iconic References

By Robert Simonson

16 May 2011 

Jez Butterworth

Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN
Jerusalem playwright Jez Butterworth rejects the idea that he purposely embedded his acclaimed, Tony Award-nominated Broadway and London play with cultural references that inform A Big Allegory.


When Jez Butterworth's new three-act, three-hour play Jerusalem opened on Broadway to largely rave reviews in April, New York dramatic critics put their otherwise moth-eaten bachelors degrees in English Literature to work, pumping their reviews with a Norton Anthology's worth of the literary, historical and mythological references that they spied in the English playwright's rich, ambitious tale. One felt that an annotated edition of the play might soon appear at the book store.

There's only one problem with all the citations, allusions, allegories, literary echoes and parables that critics claimed were in Jerusalem — Butterworth says he didn't knowingly intend any of them.

"There was never an attempt in any kind of codified way to make it adhere with any existing allegory," said Butterworth, who talked to Playbill from the small, isolated farm in Somerset where he lives with his family, and breeds and butchers his own pigs. "Nobody wants to be in a situation where you feel you need a kind of crib sheet in a play. There's so much about T.S. Eliot's poem I hate, but I remember being at school and getting to the end of 'The Wasteland' and there being notes, and thinking, 'Oh, God!'"

Butterworth will admit to only a single overarching mythological theme in the play, which is set on St. George's Day, April 23. "I think there's something in there very identifiable about St. George and the Dragon. The Dragon keeps a maiden hidden and someone has to come and free her." Even then, he admitted to being a bit "shaky on the myth."

So does that that make Johnny "Rooster" Byron (played by Mark Rylance in a towering performance) the dragon? Byron is the play's central antihero, an iconoclastic, drug-dealing squatter who functions as a sort of larger-than-life woodland father figure to the town's teenagers, and resists the surrounding Wiltshire villagers' attempts to remove him to make way for new housing. He does, after all, hide the town's teenage May queen, of the annual Flintock Fair, in his trailer during the play. And an avenger of a sort does come to rescue her and "slay" him. "I probably never sat down to imagine it as such," was the playwright's reply.

Mark Rylance as Johnny "Rooster" Byron

photo by Joan Marcus

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