Theater Review: Jerusalem

At different moments in Jez Butterworth's play Jerusalem, the noted Shakespearean Mark Rylance sports a pickelhaube (the spiked emblem of Great War-era German militarism), a knit cap with satanic-looking triangular points, and a searing cross burned into his back by vengeful hooligans. It's a meaty role, metaphorically and literally: in his program bio, Rylance thanks his chiropractor and his trainer.

Jerusalem centers on Johnny "Rooster" Byron, a hypertrophied, unemployed Lord of Misrule, currently squatting in a trailer on some forestland in southwest England. Surrounded by a group of misled youths, Rooster uses drugs and the mesmeric power of his personality to stay supplied with attention while avoiding any meaningful relationships. But after years of illegal activity, the authorities are closing in. The trailer's name is Waterloo, and the time is St. George's Day, 2011: it's obvious that something heavily symbolic is going to be staged. But while Jerusalem's engagement with large questions of historical change can be highly stimulating, the play's greatest strength is its ability to maintain a through-line of galvanizing interpersonal drama, even as it works on deeper, more allegorical levels of meaning.

In a preview of Jerusalem, the New York Times called Rooster "tragically Falstaffian," and while the first term is undoubtedly apt, the second needs to be modified. The tragedy of Falstaff is his banishment by his friend and protégé, Prince Hal, in Henry IV Part 2; Falstaff's death from a broken heart is announced at the start of Henry V. No similar fate could befall Rooster, since he has no commensurate counterpart to betray him. Early on, it seems this role might be filled by his best mate Ginger (Mackenzie Crook), who, like Hal, is a spindly eel of a man compared to the fleshy mountain of his mentor. But it soon becomes clear that Ginger lacks the strength of character, while a second candidate, the handsome Lee (John Gallagher, Jr.), is revealed to be a listless flâneur headed for Australia. No other member of Rooster's latter-day band of merry persons seems able to challenge him -- not to his face.

So while Jerusalem's Shakespearean affinities are undeniable, Rooster is closest not to Falstaff but to Prospero, hero of The Tempest, who commands the spirits of his island and manipulates the people who land there -- before becoming truly heroic by renouncing revenge and abandoning magic. Jerusalem, then, is essentially a late romance, despite its dalliances with comedy, history, and the tragic: it sets up a perfectly adequate Arthur Miller-style ending but refuses to rest there, instead continuing to pile up epiphanies and reversals over nearly three hours. The result is a rare demonstration of the theater's power to convoke and communicate; I left the play feeling that no amount of material encroachment could stifle humanity. This sort of experience can be ruined by paraphrase, so an injunction to see the show will have to suffice.

Having triumphed in London, those behind Jerusalem have expressed anxiety over the play's prospects of connecting with an American audience. They shouldn't worry. Jerusalem presents the crisis of a people weaned on notions of their own superiority -- to the Welsh, to the Germans, to their own colonial offspring. And American exceptionalism is not merely analogous to its English counterpart: the former in fact began with the latter, and the two have coevolved.

One of the most famous exponents of English exceptionalism is Shakespeare's John of Gaunt, who in Richard II extols "this scepter'd isle... This other Eden, demi-paradise, / This fortress built by Nature for herself / Against infection and the hand of war, / This happy breed of men, this little world..." Change "little" to "massive" and this becomes a fairly accurate model for the visions of various U.S. nationalists, over centuries of expansion. Shortly after Shakespeare's death, radical English Calvinists began to flee their insufficiently reformed homeland to sail for the New World, carrying this religiously-inflected exceptionalism and determined to make it grow. This was the source of John Winthrop's 1630 declaration, "we must consider that we shall be as a City upon a Hill, the eyes of all people are upon us," which was revived in the speeches of Ronald Reagan.

One result of this grand, narcissistic vision was the eradication of the first Americans; another was the eventual shifting of the North Atlantic imperial metropole from London to the Boston-Washington corridor. But first Britain had to defeat her continental rivals, which she did in part during the French and Indian War, with American assistance. Hence the British Empire was, in a sense, an Anglo-American project: Benjamin Franklin even suggested that the elites of both lands work together in a new, westward-looking imperial venture. Rebellion won out, of course, and cooperation ceased; but the exigencies of trade and finance sufficed to draw the two empires back together in time to fight the Axis challenge, which rose like an evil travesty of existing imperialisms. (This, I think, is the meaning of Rooster's pickelhaube.)

Chauvinism, then, was part of the British bequest to America, and it continued to grow in both countries throughout the 1800s. Jerusalem reminds us of this by invoking William Blake, whose poem "And did those feet in ancient time" alludes to the apocryphal story that Jesus once traveled to England and enjoins the country to "buil[d] Jerusalem / In England's green & pleasant Land." (A U.S. analogue is provided by the Book of Mormon, which claims that Jesus appeared in America after his resurrection and promises the mandate of heaven to a just society inhabiting the continent.)

The question is, what was lost during that process of consolidation and construction? The answer seems to be, much of what makes for a nourishing existence: wide networks of kinship, respectful relations with nature, and a functional sense of the extramundane. Such, at any rate, are the traits we Americans tend to associate with the tribal peoples who were wiped out to make way for us. In Jerusalem these extinct values are embodied by the absent Druids, to whom Rooster retains some mysterious connection. This link provides the play with its concluding triumph -- the conversion of a Broadway theater, so often the site of enervated entertainments, into a space for genuinely affecting ritual.