R. C. Sherriff’s major achievement as a playwright, and his only enduring play, is Journey’s End, the first grimly realistic drama about modern war. Of Sherriff’s novels and plays, only Journey’s End is a masterpiece; the rest are well-crafted, entertaining, but justly forgotten works. Aside from Journey’s End, it may well be that Sherriff’s best work was in films; his screenwriting was always craftsmanlike, and Journey’s End, The Invisible Man, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, The Four Feathers, That Hamilton Woman, Odd Man Out, Quartet, and Trio are film classics. Trench warfare was quite different from anything in previous wars; instead of dashing cavalry charges and “the pomp and circumstance of glorious war,” the men were holed up interminably, suffering from boredom, trench foot, vermin, perpetual bombardment, and shell shock.
The entire action of Journey’s End takes place in a dugout in the British trenches before St. Quentin between Monday evening, March 18, 1918, and the following Thursday, toward dawn. As the play opens, Captain Hardy is handing over the command to Captain Stanhope; before Stanhope arrives, Hardy explains the setup to Stanhope’s second-in-command, Lieutenant Osborne (and thus to the audience as well). The audience learns that, after a tremendous bombardment, the Germans are planning a major attack. The audience also learns about conditions in the dugout—the rats, vermin, cockroach races, and supplies. Finally, the audience learns that Stanhope, the best company commander in the area, has been drinking so heavily that he is considered a freak. Defending him, Osborne explains that Stanhope, who is only twenty-one years old, has been at the front for three years and has not had a furlough for twelve months. He drinks because his nerves are shattered.
A replacement officer arrives, Second Lieutenant Raleigh, eighteen years old and just out of school. For years, Raleigh has worshiped Stanhope (who was ahead of him in school and who is engaged to his sister) as a hero. Unaware of the change in Stanhope, Raleigh has used the influence of his uncle, General Raleigh, to get a posting under his idol. He tells Osborne about Stanhope in their school days together, and Osborne instructs him about the trenches. The Germans are only a hundred yards away, the length of a football field, and between them is no-man’s-land. In the English dugout. the remaining staff include only Second Lieutenant Trotter, short and fat, whose chief concern seems to be food, and Second Lieutenant Hibbert. The minimal plot develops tensions among these men and between the men and the stresses of trench warfare and the impending attack. Hibbert is a coward, and in one dramatic moment, Stanhope threatens to shoot him and then rallies the man’s courage temporarily. Raleigh tries to conceal his dismay at Stanhope’s nervous drinking. When Raleigh writes a letter to his sister, Stanhope shocks them all by demanding to censor it; he fears that Raleigh will have revealed his deterioration but finds that the younger man has written only praise of him. The colonel assigns Raleigh and Osborne to make a raid to capture a German prisoner; though the Germans are ready and waiting, Raleigh succeeds, but Osborne is killed. Before going over the top, Osborne lays his pipe down with the line, “I do hate leaving a pipe when it’s got a nice glow on the top like that”—a finely understated exit. When the attack comes, Raleigh is shot through the spine and dies with only Stanhope present. Stanhope then goes up to join in the fighting as shelling hits the dugout and caves it in. The play ends in darkness with the rattle of machine-gun fire.
In this war, there is no magnificence—only mud, monotony, and mortality. Unlike Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms (1929), an adaptation of which was staged the same year, Journey’s End offers no romance, except for references to the never-seen sister of Raleigh. The cast is exclusively masculine; women are available only on furlough, which the men seem never to get. Interestingly, the stage version of A Farewell to Arms, like Beau Geste, died a quick death; apparently it was impossible to mount a believable staging of an Arab attack on Fort Zinderneuf or the retreat from Caporetto, the escape into a raging torrent, the escape across an Alpine lake, or the rest of Hemingway’s broad panorama. By confining Journey’s End to the dugout, Sherriff not only avoided the necessity of trying to stage battle scenes but also conveyed beautifully the claustrophobia of trench warfare, which imprisons the soldiers within their own defenses.
Journey’s End is sometimes thought of as an antiwar play, but this is not necessarily the case. Certainly it portrays war as horrible, but it never investigates the causes of war or questions the war’s justification. The closest it comes to doing so is a brief scene in which Raleigh says, “The Germans are really quite decent, aren’t they? I mean, outside the newspapers?” and Osborne tells how the Germans refrained from shooting a patrol that came out to drag a wounded soldier to safety, and how, instead, a German officer shouted “Carry him!” and fired some flares to help the rescue mission. “The next day,” Osborne comments dryly, “we blew each other’s trenches to blazes.” He and Raleigh agree that “it all seems rather—silly. . . .” Otherwise, the play takes warfare for granted. Like Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage (1895), which never even mentions the Civil War or the battle at hand, Journey’s End is concerned with the conduct of men under the stress of warfare. Certainly, it is not an antimilitary play in the way that such films as All Quiet...
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