A Single Man
A Comparison of Jez Butterworth and Christopher Isherwood’s Resistance to Social Norms in ‘Jerusalem’ and ‘A Single Man’
Social norms are the expected rules that determine what is acceptable or appropriate behaviour in particular social contexts, the resistance of which puts an individual at risk of prejudice. Jez Butterworth and Christopher Isherwood explore the toxic effects norms have on individuals, and crucially, how they are resisted to varying degrees. Jerusalem depicts a ‘green world’ free of societal expectations, ruled by a contemporary Lord of Misrule. This allows Butterworth to explore the loss of Old England, and along with it the individuality that is missing in modern times. Isherwood’s A Single Man follows a gay protagonist, living in pre-Stonewall California – an age of ‘nuclear families’ – who’s minority status means he is marginalised by a heteronormative society. While the texts differ in their approaches, both instil a message of non-conformity against the status quo, in their presentation of social norms and how they are subverted through the presentation of identity, setting and the theme of transcendence. Both writers use settings as a mechanism to explore social norms, however while Butterworth restricts his play to one location, Isherwood explores multiple settings. The only stage set the audience physically experiences in Jerusalem is that of Johnny’s caravan, which acts as a bubble environment. The caravan – and the area surrounding it – is a hyperbolic extension of Johnny’s non-conformist psyche, shown through its assortment of strange objects such as a “submarine klaxon” and “smashed up TV.” These set pieces have an almost magical realist effect, reflecting the absurdist stories of the protagonist. Moreover, it exists in stark contrast – and is isolated from – the rest of the community, suggesting this is a ‘green world’ that acts as an escape from the increasingly conformist town. Indeed, the play’s title cannot be ignored, as it references the Blake poem And Did Those Feet in Ancient Times which laments the loss of Old England due to the industrial revolution, by evoking the setting of an utopian “Jerusalem”: Johnny’s caravan is the modern equivalent. Comparisons to Blake’s epic poem Jerusalem The Emanation of the Giant Albion can also be made, as Susanne M Sklar points out that in the poem “characters and places can overlap with and contain one another”[i]. Likewise, Johnny’s caravan is an externalisation of his own character, and therefore Johnny and his ‘green world’ become inseparable from one another – which is arguably why the scene never changes. This view is supported by Diane Crimp who claims “what would normally be considered the main action (the Flintock Fair, attended by the populace and the local worthies) takes place off-stage,”[ii] which suggests that the structure of the play is invariably linked to the setting, as the exposition to denouement all takes place in the environment. This subversion of structure in turn reflects the subversion of social norms, as the “local worthies” – societal conformists – are denied exposure. From Act 1 the audience learns the existence of this world faces threat from the Kennet and Avon council who wish to bulldoze it and build a ‘New Estate’. So above all, Butterworth uses the idea of changing modern environments as a way of commenting on the loss of ‘Old England’, emphasised by the choice to set the play on Saint George’s day. Perhaps the caravan is the last frontier or ‘Jerusalem’ that exists in defiance to the conformity of modern architecture and society. Unlike Jerusalem, A Single Man explores multiple settings all of which express the toxicity of social norms. The first that the reader is introduced to is George’s house, which is isolated from the rest of the suburban street as “the surrounding trees and the steep bushy cliff behind shut it in like a house in a forest clearing.” This simile emphasises the divide between George and the conformist world – much like the caravan in Jerusalem, George’s house is set away from the rest of normative society. Suburban living, despite originally being seen as the “American dream”, was later described by critics in the 1960s as “a breeding ground for the most troubling social trends of the era: conformity, materialism, [and] a blind embrace of consumer culture”[iii]. By separating George’s house Isherwood’s suggests that he is not a part of this conformist culture. However, unlike Johnny’s caravan, the presentation of house isn’t so much the subversion of social roles, rather it is a way of simply a way escaping them. Another setting explored in A Single Man is the city of Los Angeles itself, and akin to the building of the New Estate in Jerusalem, Isherwood frets about increasing urban sprawl taking over the Californian countryside. He explores this idea in George’s car ride to the university campus, where he observes the perpetual construction of modern architecture, stating “so then everything will be torn down again and built up twice as tall”. The 1960s was a decade of mass urbanisation as skyscrapers were being built bigger, and residents were crammed into concrete apartment blocks. Walter Gropius, a famous American architect at the time, commented on how such architecture “tends to stifle individual diversity and independence of thought and action – two factors which used to be strong components of the American image.”[iv] Isherwood refers to the university as a “factory” that “processes” its students, these words make it appear dehumanising, reflecting Gropius’s judgement of modern architecture as stifling independence in favour of conformity. In both texts individualism – and thus the rejection of social norms – is at odds with the conformist architecture that is taking over. Settings can force us to conform to social roles, and both Jerusalem and A Single Man challenge this, however Butterworth’s “green world” and Isherwood’s Californian paradise are inevitably destroyed by the conformity of modern architecture. Both writers explore identity in relation to social norms. Jerusalem revolves mainly around its central character Johnny, a gypsy whose personality flies in the face of modern values, shown through the use of taboo language such as the repeated mantra “fuck the new estate”. Butterworth characterises him as a contemporary Lord of Misrule – a trope typically used in medieval drama – reigning over a group of delinquent teenagers in the woods. Theatre critic Ted Loveday claimed one of the biggest failures of a 2013 production of Jerusalem was its failure to bring out Johnny’s Lord of Misrule identity, causing “his eloquent phrases—‘bucolic alcoholic frolic’—[to]somehow lose their poetry and become sleazy euphemisms”[v]. As Loveday highlights, the presentation of a powerful, non-conformist identity is integral to the play’s message, and without this Butterworth’s dialogue loses some of its impact. Moreover, Butterworth depicts through Johnny the struggle of a marginalised group – gypsies – that have been “remarkably successful at preserving their way of life, adapting to their changed conditions to remain the same”[vi]. Historically gypsies refuse to conform to contemporary social norms, and as a result are demonised by society. The use of pejorative language such as “gyppo” throughout the play illustrates this prejudice, and arguably Butterworth truly reflects the contemporary situation as a 2008 study of the Gypsy and Traveller community in the West of England found that “70% of those asked had experienced harassment and abuse”[vii]. Furthermore, gypsy values are shown in Johnny’s dialogue, as he claims “See that. That’s blood. And not just any blood. That’s Byron blood.” Here, identity is presented as inherent with ‘Bryon’ being used as a possessive. In addition, the symbolism of ancient blood creates a protagonist that is defined not by social norms, but by his ancestry. Arguably while Johnny may not conform to the social norms of the majority, he does adhere to gypsy norms. However, perhaps this is almost self-contradictory as individualism is a gypsy value, and therefore while Johnny may seem to conform to a stereotype in fact he is embracing his innate individualism. This concept of inherent identity is evidenced not only in the dialogue, but also in the stage directions, which for example state “he moves with the balance of a dancer or animal” to describe Johnny’s unorthodox morning routine. This unity between body and mind, suggests that non-conformity is enshrined within Johnny’s identity as he straddles between the dualities of grace and animalism. Isherwood also explores how minority identity resists social norms, however he rejects the concept of an inherent identity, causing his protagonist to seem somewhat conformist. Written and set in 1962, A Single Man takes place during a time where views on family life and sexuality remained puritanical but ideas were beginning to be questioned. This is shown through the presentation of the ‘nuclear families’ on George’s street, who live their lives in ritualistic patterns, with each member allocated a specific time in the day: first it is “Mrs Strunks hour” and then later the “men will come home.” Isherwood’s division of time and repetition of “hour” induces a clockwork pattern, with each member of the nuclear family separated from one another due to the roles and identities they are forced to inhabit. This cynicism is supplemented with the presentation of gay identity. George’s status as a homosexual means he lives outside of this family institution and is thus in a position to be sceptical towards it. While California was more liberal than other states, sodomy laws were not repealed until 1975[viii] and prejudice remained widespread. The faux-liberalism of suburban Los Angeles is shown through neighbour Mr Strunk, who the narrator supposes doesn’t “give a damn what he [George] does, as long as he stays away from me”, while using the pejorative “queer” to describe George. Isherwood himself a gay man, wrote during this hostile and heteronormative period, therefore the presentation of a protagonist who self identifies as homosexual, and was previously in a loving relationship, rejects the social norms of a time where 44.2% of families consisted of a married couple with children under 18 (compared to 27% in 1988)[ix]. Therefore, Isherwood’s deconstruction towards the institution of the nuclear family, in favour of the presentation of homosexual identity, is particularly subversive as it rejects the norms of the era. On the other hand, critic David Garnes argues that early critical reviews of A Single Man suffered from the very homophobia that Isherwood was trying to disparage. He points out that the most successful reviews were the ones that overlooked the novel’s ‘queer’ status, and saw the protagonist (George) as a kind of “everyman”[x]. Indeed, it is undeniable that Isherwood does alter George’s identity to conform to societal roles, suggesting he has no inherent identity at all. For example, he plays the role of the professor, the lover and the friend, with the deftness of an actor in a play. Indeed, the circadian structure of the novel reflects the “everyman” hypothesis, as all these events take place on a normal, working day. Garnes’s ideas also mirrored in the narrative voice of the novel, as the omniscient narrator introduces George not by name, but through describing his body, stating “fear tweaks the vagus nerve”, eventually causing “the arms” “lower back” and “fingers” to get “UP”. This fragmented imagery and personification of body parts strips George of an inherent identity. Unlike the character of Johnny Byron who is defined by his name, referring to the literary trope of Byronic anti-heroes, George is at first denied one. Furthermore, George is presented as having a Cartesian disconnect between mind and body and lacking the sense of unity that makes Butterworth’s protagonist so subversive. The use of indirect speech emphasises this, as although George articulates his consciousness, it is always through the medium of a narrator. Thus the resistance towards social norms in A Single Man is an internal one, as opposed the external defiance of Jerusalem; while George does conform to some social roles, his awareness of their toxicity and acceptance of his own homosexuality is a form of resistance in its own right. While both Jerusalem and A Single Man differ in their depictions of resistance to social norms, both instil a message of non-conformity despite having endings that initially appear tragic. A Single Man ends with the sudden death of George, seemingly punishing its protagonist for his non conformity, as his body parts “die without warning at their posts.” The personification of the body again reasserts the idea that the body it is a separate entity to the mind. However, the idea that Isherwood, a gay man himself, is punishing his protagonist for his homosexuality seems absurd. In fact, arguably he is being rewarded, as it is suggested that George’s mind and soul are now free from the constraints of the body and Isherwood even claims if it tried to re-enter “the non-entity we called George” that “it will return to find itself homeless”. It could be argued that this is symbolic of George entering a state of being that transcends social norms and the material world. Likewise, Jerusalem initially seems to end on a tragic note – in complete contrast to its original comedic tone – as after being betrayed by his friends and beaten up, Johnny faces the destruction of his green world. However, he remains defiant, and by listing the names of his ancestors as if it were an incantation while “relentlessly he beats the drum”. Critic George Norton explains that although this may seem tragic upon initial viewing, this actually “takes the play into the mystical realm (…) to a mythical England which the dull conformities of the new estate (…) have done so much to erode”[xi]. While ironically following a circular structure, the final message of Jerusalem, like that of A Single Man, can be seen not just as the resistance of social norms, but what Jez Butterworth calls the movement of “one state of being into another”[xii]: the transcendence of social norms altogether.
Jerusalem and A Single Man similarly explore the resistance to social norms to varying degrees. In A Single Man, settings are used as a mechanism to explore the toxic effects of social norms, and George’s house is used as symbolic escape from society. In Jerusalem, the caravan acts as a “green world” which rather than escaping from the norms, subverts them. Likewise, the concept of inherent identity is used by Jez Butterworth to promote a message of individuality against conformity, in contrast to A Single Man where the protagonist conforms to many social roles and his defiance is internalised rather than externalised. Both Butterworth and Isherwood also show the prejudice faced by minorities who fail to fit in with the status quo. However, ultimately both texts end on a note of transcendence, as the authors express the transition of the characters from note only resisting the confines of social norms, but entering a state of existence where conformity is rejected entirely. Bibliography[i] Susanne M Skylar, Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’ As Visionary Theatre: Entering the Divine Body (Oxford Theological Monographs, 2011) [ii] Diane Crimp, E-Magazine (“Carnival and comedy – subversion in Jerusalem”), (2013) [iii] Becky Nicolaides, Andrew Wiese, The Suburb Reader 2nd Edition (Routledge, 2016) [iv] https://www.saturdayeveningpost.com/2010/08/high-price-organization-conformity-1960s/ [v] [vi] T.A. Acton, Garry Mundy, Romani Culture and Gypsy Identity Paperback (Hertfordshire, 1998) [vii]https://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/ukgwa/20100418065544/http:/www.homeoffice.gov.uk/documents/hate-crime-action-plan/hate-crime-action-plan-eia2835.pdf?view=Binary [viii] https://www.aclu.org/other/getting-rid-sodomy-laws-history-and-strategy-led-lawrence-decision?redirect=getting-rid-sodomy-laws-history-and-strategy-led-lawrence-decision [ix] https://www.bls.gov/mlr/1990/03/art1full.pdf [x]James J. Berg, The Isherwood Century: Essays on the Life and Work of Christopher Isherwood Paperback (Wisconsin, 2001) [xi] George Norton, E-Magazine (“Unused to happy endings – closure in contemporary drama”), (2013) [xii] (10:05)