Posts Tagged ‘1918 German Spring Offensive’

R C Sherriff: Journey’s End

March 17, 2018

 

41vyJGXwb4L._AC_US218_It struck me that it’s a century since the start of the final German offensive of spring 1918, and consequently of the events R C Sherriff dramatised in his play Journey’s End, which I taught to more GCSE English Literature groups than I can remember…

It’s a very simple play, in many ways; a small troop of officers and soldiers holds a small section of the front line somewhere near St Quentin. We get to know them; they have to make a raid on the German lines to gain information, lose an officer and some men; the German offensive begins, and they are wiped out.

Sherriff was on the Western Front, and his experiences make the play ring true. The play was a sell-out in 1929 when it was first performed, and the novelisation of the play was a best-seller, although it’s now long been out-of-print. So how did Sherriff succeed?

At a time when most people in Britain would have a family member who had served, been injured or killed in the war, there was clearly an enormous amount of knowledge about and experience of the war, some of which had been shared with family members and some which had been deeply buried as ex-combatants sought to forget. The grotty conditions of trench-life, and little attempts to make it bearable, are there; humour is injected in small doses by Mason, the officers’ cook. The cameraderie of shared discomfort, when men who don’t know each other but are forced into intimacy by conditions, convinces. And the meaninglessness of the conflict is underlined – not through Sherriff’s desire to spread any kind of pacifist message, though after four years of war this might be understandable – by the isolation of the small group. They are somewhere on the front line; there are other companies alongside them; battalion HQ is somewhere, but they are disconnected from all that, somehow, anonymous and annihilated, and the audience is forced to ask ‘why?’…

Sherriff’s greatest success comes from his careful creation of a small group of officers, and the interplay between them; he clearly had a good eye to what would make effective theatre. Commanding the company is Stanhope, a young officer who has been in France for four years, is clearly very effective in his role but who has turned increasingly to heavy drinking to be able to cope with the horrors of what he’s involved in; his second is a schoolmaster in his forties, Osborne, who is nicknamed ‘Uncle’ by his fellows, and who seems to survive by talking with everyone, being friendly and offering fatherly advice. He has a wife and small son back home, is chosen to lead the raid on the German lines and knows it means almost certain death, but does his duty – and is blown to bits by a German grenade. Trotter is the only officer who is working class, and has clearly risen up through the ranks unlike the others; his interests and attitudes provide a contrast, and he clearly enjoys eating and drinking; after Osborne’s death he becomes second-in-command and focuses on doing his duty. Hibbert is a coward or malingerer or suffering from shell-shock depending on your point of view, and Stanhope’s efforts are concentrated on preventing him going sick just before the German offensive. Everything is complicated by the arrival of a young replacement officer fresh out of training – Raleigh – who went to the same public school as Stanhope, who was his hero. Will Stanhope stand up to the image he formerly had? And, of course, through Raleigh, Sherriff teaches the audience about the routines of life in the trenches…

An enormous amount is crammed into the ‘two-hours traffic of our stage’; much quiet, calm and waiting; shared conversation, reminiscence and genuine friendship; swift and sudden action; the crassness of the higher ranks comes across through the figure of the Colonel who arranges the raid, and the raid itself, which cannot, of course, be re-created onstage, is instead brought to life through sound and light effects. We are fully involved in the life and death of these few men from start to finish, and the closing moments are truly powerful.

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