Posts Tagged ‘Western Front’

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.

Advertisements

La Grande Guerre des Ecrivains

December 15, 2017

5156FKt5BOL._AC_US218_I have spent a lot of time reading literature of the Great War, in French as well as English; sometimes it has felt almost like an obsession. I’m searching for something – understanding? To make sense of it all? And I’ve visited quite a few of the key sites on the Western Front. I have come to realise how differently the French inevitably viewed that war, a war which invaded and destroyed their territory. This anthology has been very interesting in a number of ways.

There’s an excellent introductory survey by Antoine Compagnon – an academic essay, really – from a French perspective, naturally, and which remind me of Paul Fussell’s writings on the war. He presents a full survey of literature on and about the war from then up to the present day, taking in poetry, prose and drama, including writing from a wide range of different countries, too. In French, novels and short stories were the primary literature of the war, whereas in English literature we have stunning and powerful poetry and a wide array of memoirs. After reaching the end of the collection, my feeling was that the range of writing in English is richer than in French.

Although I have used various – shorter – school examination anthologies, I’ve not come across a similar, wide-ranging (over 800 pages) anthology in English, and I think that’s a pity.

The editor is a translator too, and I was astonished to read some of his excellent translations of the most well-known English poems of the war; his translation of Rupert Brooke’s The Soldier outshines the original in one respect, with a fortuitous but wonderfully effective internal rhyme in the final line, which isn’t there in the original… there are stunning translations of Owen and Sassoon too, faithful to the original metre as well as the meaning and sense.

What does the collection add to what I’ve read before? The unspeakable vileness of conditions in the trenches conveyed even more graphically; the nature of fear and what you do, what it makes you do, and what it teaches you; how rats set about devouring a corpse – Giono is grimmer than any other wirter I’ve ever read; Hemingway on the decomposition of corpses and how bodies are blown to bits; a chilling piece by Barbusse – author of the grim novel Le Feu/ Under Fire (1915); a story by Jules Romains on a day in the life of a general, which draws out what Sassoon succinctly conveys in his poem of that name.

I also became aware of how a number of French war heroes and writers were later drawn into extreme nationalism and anti-semitism in the ugliness of the nineteen-thirties, and sometimes into collaboration with the Nazis during the Second World War; in fact several of the writers anthologised were executed for that offence…

I came to realise too, that whereas now we read memoirs of the Great War or novels set at the time, the war had a much more pervasive effect on literature in the years immediately afterwards, as writers struggled to come to terms with what Europe had done to itself, alongside their fellow-citizens living with its consequences: effects of the war and its victims and survivors crop up as characters in a wide range of novels and stories that would in no way be classified as war novels.

It was a gruelling read and a useful one, although not all the extracts spoke to me.

%d bloggers like this: