R. C. Sherriff Analysis

Other Literary Forms

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

In addition to his nine professionally produced stage plays, R. C. Sherriff wrote five novels. He is, however, remembered chiefly for his first stage play, Journey’s End, as well as for a number of screenplays that have come to be regarded as classics.


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Journey’s End, a drama about World War I, is a legend and landmark in the modern British theater. It is notable as the first grimly realistic war play. In it, there is none of the romanticism about war that led the naïve young poet Rupert Brooke to write in his poem “1914,” “Now God be thanked who has matched us with His hour” and to sentimentalize the dead soldiers as dreaming happy dreams of “laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,/ In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.” Both Brooke and the young Thomas Mann saw war as a cleansing, liberating, and purifying process, and Mann called peace “an element of civil corruption.” Such views were soon annihilated by the horrors of trench warfare. R. C. Sherriff, a wounded veteran of that war, knew better, and his play shows the stress, boredom, suffering, and slaughter that war produces. When the play was first staged, critic Hannen Swaffer called it “the greatest of all war plays,” and in 1962, G. Wilson Knight still judged it “the greatest war play of the century.”

Sherriff’s other plays—an ecological drama, a play about Napoleon in exile, several comedy-mysteries, a ghost story, and a drama about Romans in Britain—are literate, civilized, thoughtful, and forgettable, as are his novels. The success of Journey’s End, however, led its director to hire Sherriff to write screenplays, and as a screenwriter, Sherriff did some of his most notable work, including the production of such classics as The Invisible Man (1933), Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939), The Four Feathers (1939), That Hamilton Woman (1941), Odd Man Out (1947), Quartet (1949), and Trio (1950).


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Bracco, Rosa Maria. Merchants of Hope: British Middlebrow Writers and the First World War, 1919-1939. Providence, R.I.: Berg, 1993. Bracco examines British literature written about World War I, focusing on Sherriff’s Journey’s End. Includes bibliography and index.

Cottrell, John. Laurence Olivier. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1975. Laurence Olivier, in 1928, was the star of the first production of Journey’s End, which was staged by the Incorporated Stage Society before it reopened in London. Cottrell gives a detailed account of the play’s first two stagings.

Darlington, William A. “‘Keying Down’: The Secret of Journey’s End.” Review of Journey’s End, by R. C. Sherriff. Theatre Arts Monthly 13 (July, 1929): 493-497. A critic who had seen all the performances of Journey’s End compares the play’s first two productions to the New York production.

Hill, Eldon C. “R. C. Sherriff.” In Modern British Dramatists, 1900-1945, edited by Stanley Weintraub. Vol. 10 in Dictionary of Literary Biography. Detroit: Gale Research, 1982. Hill goes into detail in his discussion of Journey’s End, quoting G. Wilson Knight’s 1962 statement that it is “the greatest war play of the century.” He gives a briefer account of the other plays and novels and says little about the screenplays. Includes two photographs of the author, a reproduction of the program, and a photograph of the 1929 production of Journey’s End.