Saint or Dragon? Johnny Byron’s presentation in ‘Jerusalem’

The protagonist in Butterworth’s 2009 play ‘Jerusalem’ comes in the form of Johnny Byron, a character that has been classed as ‘one of the most compelling, complex and iconic characters in modern British theatre’ by critic Paul Mason. He was portrayed by Mark Rylance. It is no doubt that the audience find the character comical, but it takes a deeper reading of the text to decipher whether Johnny is the hero or the villain of the play. To ascertain an answer, one must look at Johnny’s characteristics, individual moments in the play and his interaction with Phaedra, in comparison to Troy.

Initially, the audience could quite easily jump to the conclusion that Johnny is the dragon, as he may be holding Phaedra against her will. While Pea asks the others about the disappearance of ‘Phaedra Cox,’ Johnny, in the royal court production, is off stage chopping logs. Only a sharp sound can be heard as ‘Johnny splits a log,’ albeit more suspiciously as the scene continues. Although the audience may not have realised yet, Phaedra has already been seen in a ‘fairy’ costume, emphasising her innocence and vulnerability. If one compares this to Johnny’s control over the wood he is chopping, and by extension nature, then he would be perfectly capable of controlling and dominating her. We are then informed that Phaedra is the ‘May Queen,’ which in the context of the play is a highly sexualised pubescent, crowned at the modern ‘Flintock Fair.’ Phaedra is increasingly depicted as a vulnerable young girl, who could easily be controlled or taken advantage of, and currently, Johnny appears suspicious enough to be that person controlling her, making him seem like the dragon who has abducted the fair maiden. Davey’s poor humour about the situation, resulting in the ‘werewolf’ story can also be used to make links with Johnny, as we already understand that the ‘wood’ is his, and that he likes a ‘shag.’ The idea is referenced again at the beginning of act two, with the use of the Barry Dransfield song. Johnny is liberal, and does not fully abide by the laws, as he is a ‘drug dealer.’ At such an early stage in act one; it is plausible to think that, when discussing Phaedra, Johnny is the dragon who is abusing her.

As with most passages in literature, it can also be read differently. This reading presents Johnny as a saintly figure, who is shielding and protecting a vulnerable young girl from her abusive ‘stepfather,’ Troy. Majority of abusers are well known to their victims, and Phaedra does know Troy better than Johnny. Statistics suggest that most abuse cases occur between family members within the home, which could explain why Phaedra has run away from home, multiple times, as Pea explains. When speaking to Troy, Johnny belittles him and taunts him over Phaedra, who he deems a ‘treasure,’ and proceeds to note her ‘big eyes.’ Previously Phaedra had been presented as an innocent, vulnerable girl, but here she is discussed as a sexual plaything in the presence of Troy. Similarly, young girls in manga comics emphasise this idea, as they are designed to be sexually attractive to the reader, and Johnny makes it clear that Phaedra is sexually attractive to Troy, making him the dragon, and Johnny the protective Saint George. Perhaps this sexualising of Phaedra makes her seem like a femme fatale in their eyes, as it is she who draws both men together, subsequently hinting to some kind of conflict, as a reference to the story in which Saint George slays the dragon. In the passage Johnny is not explicitly made out to be a saint, but it is Troy that is implied to be the dragon, thus automatically making Johnny the saint protecting Phaedra. One can link this, as well as the werewolf references, to the tale of Red Riding Hood. This would make Troy the wolf who drools and fauns over the huge, tempting eyes of Red. Phaedra does show willingness to be with Johnny, making him seem even more of a saint. When she finally emerges at the end of act two, in the royal court production, Phaedra calls out for Johnny, as if for protection. Phaedra appears to be safe with Johnny, and stays there by choice to get away from Troy. She also has the ability to ‘command’ Johnny, as seen with the ‘fish in the bag,’ which makes her seem even more comfortable with Johnny, and more at ease than she is with Troy, making him seem like the dragon, and Johnny the saint.

 Johnny can also be seen to have saintly qualities and characteristics. It is clear that his ‘onlookers’ idolise him, and wish to be him, most notably Ginger. Ginger is constantly desperate to gain the approval of Johnny, as can be seen when he pushes Johnny to ‘say’ that he is a ‘DJ.’ Ginger also tries to tell stories in the vivid fluid fashion that Johnny does, but continually fails, much to the disappointment of the audience. Most of the time Ginger is put down by Johnny, as well as the audience, which alternatively could present Johnny as a dragon, who has named the loyal and unassuming Ginger as one of his victims.

Whether this be true or not, it is clear that those at the caravan believe that after the events of ‘1981,’ Johnny does indeed deserve a ‘statute,’ and to be immortalised in stone. They even compare him to King Arthur, a figure of folklore who is believed to return in England’s hour of need. By saying this, the group believe that Johnny deserves to enter into English heritage, culture and folklore, and become immortalised like a saint. Johnny can also be seen as saintly as he cares for children. Although it is his fault that children are seen ‘wandering around at night pissed,’ he still cares for them, and ensures they are safe by allowing them to sleep in his ‘caravan.’ Much like Saint George who protected the people from the dragon, Johnny can be seen to protect teenagers from themselves, as arguably, they are safer at the caravan than they would be if they are wandering about, and this could result in them getting hurt.

As well as saintly qualities, Johnny is also represented as a dragon, or more generally as an animalistic monster, which could have, and perhaps already has, ‘envenomed’ Flintock. Beginning with his ‘feral bellow from the heart of the earth,’ it is made clear that Johnny is an animalistic creature, and is fully at home within the forest. This idea is then elaborated on, as Davey calls him an ‘ogre.’ This particular monster is incomparable to that of a dragon, but a vampire is not. As the play progresses, the apparent ‘danger’ Johnny presents to the to the others does also, as he mentions that ‘all Byron boys are born with teeth.’ This presents Johnny as a mythical, vampiric figure, who is harmful to those around him, like a dragon would be. Byron boys must also be tended to like a ‘wound,’ as there is the danger that he could infect others, and the land, much like the dragon that ‘envenomed all the country.’ Johnny also has the ability to draw people in, and ensnare them, as can be seen when he seduces Dawn. All these qualities do present Johnny as a monster, like a dragon as he has animalistic qualities that are comparable to such a creature.

The ending of the play is also useful when considering the presentation of Johnny, beginning with his branding by Troy. Troy is the dragon, and Johnny is the saint in this instance, for obvious reasons. It is Troy who orders his men to wield the ‘blowtorch,’ which is symbolic of a fire-breathing dragon. In the royal court production of the play, Johnny also makes the sign of the crucifix, portraying him as a saintly figure, which is suffering to protect others. He visibly gives himself up to Troy and his henchmen, further likening him to a saint-like figure, or even Jesus, who surrendered himself in the garden of Gethsemane in order to save mankind. This idea is further explored in his last conversation with Ginger.

Ginger is Johnny’s most loyal supporter throughout the play, and always seems to jump to his aid. Although Ginger did run away upon seeing Troy, one must ask themselves what use he would have been against him, as in the royal court production, Troy appeared significantly stronger than the ‘lanky’ Ginger. However, he does return, and vows to protect Johnny from the council, which has less chance of success than the previous situation with Troy. Johnny denies that he and Ginger are ‘friends’ and decides to send him away, in a forceful and aggressive manner. This could make Johnny seem like a dragon, purely because he is acting in a hostile manner, much like a dragon does. This reading, that Johnny is here being a dragon, is more metaphorical than literal, as it is based on his personality, and his volatile behaviour in this context. Alternatively, Johnny can be seen to protect Ginger, and shield him from harm and hurt in sending him away. This could be Johnny thanking Ginger, albeit in a horrid fashion, for his years of service and loyalty. This would make Johnny a saint, as he is protecting the weak, as he knows that Ginger will not survive this confrontation. Johnny also knows that the only way to get rid of Ginger is to be vile to him, as Ginger is used to being made fun of. Johnny now abandons Ginger in a more severe fashion, to ensure that Ginger hates him enough to leave him behind for the council to find. Johnny sacrifices his friendship with Ginger, for Ginger’s own sake, and perhaps himself, as Johnny will not survive such a confrontation, making him appear as a saint-like martyr.

Johnny’s ever changing representation in the play makes for dramatic and interesting viewing, particularly when considering whether Johnny is the saint or the dragon. At the beginning of the play, it is insinuated that he is the dragon, but this is due to the fact that the audience do not know the character of Johnny well enough, or the character of Troy. As Troy is implied to be the abuser, Johnny instead appears as the saint, as it is he who is shielding and protecting Phaedra, and later Ginger, from harm and suffering.[1]

Thanks for reading!


[1] Quotes from:

Jez Butterworth, Jerusalem, (London: Nick Hern Books, 2009).

Published by harpalkhambay

I'm a third year English Literature and History student, and wanted a space to explore topics within those fields that interest me.

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