Toxic Pastoral: Comic Failure and Ironic Nostalgia in Contemporary British Environmental Theatre

David Farrier


This article examines the enduring relevance of the pastoral mode and its potential to offer constructive critique of contemporary modes of thinking, writing about, and occupying those spaces marked off as pastoral. In an era characterised by potentially insoluble environmental crises, there is doubt over the relevance of a literary form which promises harmony and prioritises the status quo. However, I argue that two recent versions of the pastoral—Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem (2009) and Thomas Eccleshare’s Pastoral (2013)—provide examples of the vitality which literary comic modes can offer to thinking about ecological dilemmas. Both invert and frustrate the conventional pastoral movement, wherein the equalising effects of release, reconciliation, and return are not realised; and subjects the pastoral mode to actual or threatened displacement—in Eccleshare’s play the forest invades the city, whereas Butterworth dramatizes the efforts of civic authority to evict the green man from his wood—making this failure the basis of its exploration of the possibilities available in an eco-comic mode; finally, in contrast to Terry Gifford’s concept of post-pastoral which makes awe its main affective mode, Eccleshare and Butterworth present what I call toxic pastoral: versions of pastoral in which former certainties are degraded, permitting an engagement with and celebration of the ambivalence in human interactions with the more-than-human world. Each play represents a version of pastoral that is alert and able to give form to the ironies, anxieties, and absurdities that inhere in contemporary environmental discourse.


pastoral; nostalgia; toxicity; eco-theatre; Jerusalem

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@Journal of Ecocriticism. ISSN 1916-1549