R.C. Sheriff’s ‘Journey’s End’ is a play written in 1929 based on Sheriff’s own experiences in World War One. The play is set in 1918 and focuses on the interaction between British soldiers in the dugout while they anticipate a charge.
The play is based around the premise of waiting for something to happen and Sheriff almost called the play “Waiting” or “Suspense”. Raleigh himself is surprised that they are not doing very much and the silence “I thought there would be an awful row here – all the time.” Sheriff creates tension throughout the whole play by mixing dark humour and solemn facts. The joking around between Hardy and Osborne at the beginning of the play illustrates perfectly how the men use humour to cover the fearful and anxious anticipation towards both the raid and the constant bombings, ““A dugout got blown up and came down in the men’s tea. They were frightfully annoyed.” As well as this the suspense and tension is heightened by the unpredictable and explosive nature of Stanhope’s personality that becomes more erratic, paranoid and argumentative as the play continues.
Stanhope’s overall character changes very little over the course of the play; however it is made very clear that his character has changed since Raleigh last saw him and his levels of anger and paranoia vary. When we are first introduced to Stanhope his clothes are “war-stained”, making it obvious that he has been in this trench for a long time. We also find out that none of the men that Stanhope originally came to war with are still alive, “There’s not a man left who was here when I came,” and the horrors that he has seen has driven him to alcoholism. When most of the soldiers fear war, Stanhope’s major fear is that he is not a hero and that he will not be remembered as one. This fear is more apparent when Raleigh joins his company as he gets very paranoid that Raleigh will tell his sister (Stanhope’s sweetheart) in a letter that he has has turned to drink. When Raleigh has written a letter Stanhope demands that he review it for “censorship” purposes and when Raleigh says that he will “just leave it” Stanhope harshly reprimands him “D’you understand an order? Give me that letter!” Despite Stanhope’s problem with drowning his cowardice in whisky many readers would still admire him for attempting to battle his cowardice instead of giving in and allowing himself to have leave and escape the trench.
Some would argue that Sheriff constructed Raleigh as a character to simply introduce the audience to the other soldiers and the situation they are in; however it seems more likely that the character’s true purpose is to show how war changes an individual. Raleigh shows this both through his reaction to Stanhope’s changed personality and through his own change in personality during the course of the play. Raleigh could be seen to represent the many thousands of boys who left school at the first possible opportunity to go to war. Due to Raleigh’s youth he seems very innocent, he is very obviously in awe of the situation he’s in and the “frightful bit of luck” he’s had in getting into the company of his hero Stanhope. This innocence is lost by the end of the play after he captures a German soldier in a raid that killed Osborne, he becomes much less enthusiastic and subdued. When Stanhope challenges this Raleigh stands up to him, stating that he can’t continue after seeing the things he’s seen, “How can I sit down and eat that – when – [his voice is nearly breaking] – when Osborne’s – lying – out there –”. Sheriff shows the difference in Raleigh through the stage directions, when he’s first introduced he gives a “smile”, does things while “laughing” and is obviously nervous, speaking “hastily”. However at the end of the play he is “lowering his head” and looking “horrified”, showing the obvious change in his physicality and well as his psychological self. After Raleigh gets injured Stanhope stays and reassures him, when Raleigh gets concerns and asks what’s on his legs that is “holding them down” Stanhope lies to him and says that it is only the “shock” to calm him down, showing his compassion towards the young dying boy.
Sheriff forces the audience to empathise with the other officers of the company by giving them distinctive characters and strong friendships that means that when they get injured or die the audience feels upset. Trotter is a stereotypical jolly fat Englishman, “His face is red, fat and round”, which is epitomised in the name ‘Trotter’ which gives connotations with pigs. As well as this the name has an association with butchery and thus one could argue that this is a subtle reference to how the men were butchered in battle and were lead like ‘pigs to slaughter’. Despite his jolly exterior Trotter seems to be the most resilient of the group due to his simple nature, not turning to alcohol for support or taking comfort in literature like Stanhope and Osborne.
Osborne seems to be a father figure, especially shown in his affectionate nickname “Uncle” and his advice to Raleigh, telling him to look at the war as “Romantic” and warning him that Stanhope will act differently compared to how he acted in school, “you mustn’t expect to find him – quite the same” “It – it tells on a man – rather badly –”. He is the eldest of the group, yet he finds comfort by reading and reciting Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’, more specifically about a grinning “crocodile” who “welcomes little fishes” into his mouth. Some could argue that through these excerpts Sheriff is foreshadowing Osborne’s death in the charge against the Germans.
Hibbert seems to be a weak character who is very afraid of the charge to come and tries to get sent to hospital because of his “beastly neuralgia” however it could be argued that he is simply against the war effort, his rebellion against Stanhope, “striking a senior officer”, is the only sign of dissent towards authority in the play. At that moment Stanhope threatens to execute him however Hibbert stays strong and Stanhope doesn’t shoot him, stating that they “all feel like [Hibbert does] sometimes” and advises him to turn to alcohol too.
The uniqueness of ‘Journey’s End’ is that it is a war play not based around the action and battles of the war, but simply the interactions between the soldiers when not on duty. This in itself reveals a lot about the plight of the soldiers and the fight that’s occurring however Sheriff focuses more on the psychological effects of war on the soldiers and the friendships that form in the most unlikely place.
Thanks for reading,