Robert Cedric Sherriff was born on June 6, 1896, at Kingston-on-Thames, near London. His father, Herbert Hankin Sherriff, worked for the Sun Insurance Company; his mother was Constance Winder Sherriff. Robert grew up in Kingston-on-Thames, where he attended the local grammar school. He was graduated at seventeen, after which he followed his father into the insurance business, but his career was interrupted after nine months by the outbreak of World War I. Sherriff volunteered, became a second lieutenant in the Ninth East Surrey Regiment, was wounded so severely at Ypres (where four-fifths of the original British Expeditionary Force died) that he was hospitalized for six months, returned to active duty, and was mustered out at the war’s end as a captain.
Back in civilian life, Sherriff returned to the Sun Insurance Company, where he worked for the next ten years as a claims adjuster. For recreation, he joined the Kingston rowing club, and to raise funds for the organization, he and some fellow members wrote and produced plays. Sherriff took to playwriting with zeal and studied William Archer’s Play-Making (1912) so thoroughly that he claimed to have memorized it. In addition, he began to read modern plays systematically and commuted to London to see the latest productions. Returning home on the train, he sometimes developed dialogue for a play he had in mind for the rowing club.
After writing plays for six years for amateur productions, Sherriff turned to a more serious project—a drama based on his firsthand knowledge of trench warfare. His parents had saved the letters he had written to them from the trenches, and these helped him revive the immediacy of the experience, its realistic details, and his friendships and feelings at the time. Throughout 1928, he worked alone on the play. Gradually, the play, at first called “Suspense” and then “Waiting,” took final shape as Journey’s End.
Realizing that this drama was not the stuff of amateur theatricals, Sherriff sent it to the Curtis Brown theatrical agency. Impressed but unable to see the play’s commercial possibilities, Brown sent it on to Geoffrey Dearmer at the Incorporated Stage Society. Dearmer advised Sherriff to send a copy to George Bernard Shaw, who sent it back with the comment that it was “a document, not a drama,” and that as a slice of “horribly abnormal life” it should be “performed by all means, even at the disadvantage of being the newspaper of the day before yesterday.” Even so, all the London theatrical managements rejected Journey’s End; they were strongly opposed to war plays, and this one lacked all the standard ingredients for a popular success. It had no leading lady, no romance, and no conventional heroics, and all the action took place offstage. Though this was the author’s seventh play, the first six were all amateur productions, and the insurance agent earning six pounds a week was utterly obscure.
Nevertheless, Dearmer arranged for a production by the noncommercial Incorporated Stage Society. To direct, he picked a minor actor named James Whale. Whale, in turn, looked for a leading actor to play Captain Stanhope. All the eminent London actors had declined the role, but twenty-one-year-old Laurence Olivier, who was hoping to win the lead in a stage version of Beau Geste (pr. 1929?) that director Basil Dean was then casting, saw the role of Stanhope as a chance to prove that he could play a soldier and thus handle the lead in the Foreign Legion drama. Ronald Colman had had a smash hit in the film version of Beau Geste (1926), and Olivier, an admirer of Colman, hoped to repeat the success. As for Journey’s End, Olivier recalled in his Confessions of an Actor (1982) that “Although I could recognize the possibilities of the part of Stanhope, I told James Whale, the director, I didn’t think all that highly of the play. ‘There’s nothing but meals in it,’ I complained. He replied: ‘That’s about all there was to think about in Flanders during the War.’” Though he was performing in a romantic comedy each evening at the Royalty Theatre, with two weekly matinees, and though Journey’s End was to have only two performances at the Apollo Theatre, Olivier undertook the role as an audition for Beau Geste. There were only two weeks for rehearsal, but Olivier dug into the character of the burned-out Stanhope and later called the part his “favorite stage role,” though later the actor reserved this designation for Archie Rice in The Entertainer.
Cast as young Raleigh was Maurice Evans, then an unknown, who was also hoping to get the lead in Beau Geste. George Zucco, later a memorable villain in Hollywood films, was cast as “Uncle” Osborne, the gentle, middle-aged schoolmaster who quotes from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in...
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