To all my fellow Lear studiers in my class, if you’ve got a bit of time to spare amongst all your hard English revision I recommend watching this comedy film about an amateur dramatics club putting on King Lear with a faded Hollywood star. It really is amusing and I kept trying to work out which parts of which scene they were doing by the lines (just so I felt it almost counted as revision!!). It’s only up for a short while on iPlayer so do catch it while you can!:)
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,
When looking online for critic quotes for my essay I found these two resources really helpful as there is so much there!
Hope they are useful!
The novel ‘Birdsong’ by Sebastian Faulks focuses on WW1 and its effect on society through the journey of the protagonist Stephen Wraysford and his family. The novel is structured around three time periods and Faulks uses these time changes and the characters in each to show the differences that the war made. The first section is set in France before the war and introduces Stephen and his affair with Isabelle. This whole section shows how little rights women had, especially shown in Isabelle’s unhappy and abusive marriage to Azaire. The next section contains the war and explores trench warfare, tunnelling and going over the top. The final section is set in 1970s Britain and concerns Stephen’s granddaughter Elizabeth who is researching WW1. This last section truly shows the change in society and women’s rights as Elizabeth is free to have a child despite being single.
The novel opens with a lush and Romantic description of Amiens and the “river Somme”, showing the nature that will soon be destroyed by the war. Faulks describes passages and tunnels multiple times in the opening paragraphs, giving the ideas of the tunnels of WW1 from the very beginning, “the river Somme broke into small canals”, “unregarded passageways”. It could be argued that Faulks does this to show how the actions of the society in “France 1910” caused the war. The natural elements of the description give ideas of the Garden of Eden, and thus you could see the war as symbolising the fall of man.
Houses are often used as outward manifestations of the family that lives within them in literature and the Azaire house in Birdsong is no different. The house is described in a gothic manner as having a “strong, formal front” with “iron railings”, this sturdy exterior shows that the family is respectable however the iron railings could be seen as a metaphor for Azaire trapping Isabelle within and seeing her as a possession. Isabelle is an obviously beautiful trophy wife, her beauty not shown through her husband’s admiration but Stephen’s curious thoughts about her, “her white hands”, “membrane of her lower lip”. Isabelle is a commodity to Azaire, her marriage was “sold” to Azaire by her “father” and he objectifies her, choosing to “display her to his friends”. This shows the patriarchal nature and capitalist views of Victorian society.
Azaire is not only an abusive husband but an exploitative business owner, representing the capitalist businessmen who contributed to causing WW1. We can see a socialist point of view in the character of Meyraux who plainly describes the problem with society in his argument with Azaire, “What the industry needs is… a less mean and timid attitude on the part of the owners.” Faulks links capitalism to war by having Azaire talk about his workforce using the semantic field of war, “we need to retrench”. In both war and industry the men are used merely as pawns to advantage those higher up in society.
The first things we encounter in “France 1916” are the tunnels, mirroring the opening passage of the novel, “forty-five feet underground”. Faulks uses the language of industry in this section “mechanical” “grinding” to show how the soldiers were merely cogs in a mechanism. Faulks introduces the men, giving them names and a back-story, allowing the reader to get to know them so that the reader empathises with Stephen’s pain when they die. He creates images using simplistic language with very little emotion to brutally describe the horrors of their injuries; “his head was cut away in section… ragged edges of skull from which the remains of his brain were dropping.”
Stephen doesn’t see war like the officials do, he almost poses as the voice of reason, “Every one of the men we’ve killed is someone’s son”. Faulks uses him to voice the views of many soldiers, including Wilfred Owen, “No one in England knows what this is like”. That thought is a theme of the whole novel, confirmed through Elizabeth’s naivety about the casualties of the war in the 1970s. The only outcome of war is the questioning of morality, which is exactly what Stephen does when talking to Wraysford, he expresses his newly damaged mindset weaved with both his opinion and societal opinions of war, “This is not a war, this is an exploration of how far men can be degraded”. He even speaks the truth when talking to his hopelessly optimistic superiors who believe that the battle will be “over at dawn”, Stephen thinks logically and questions both the “terrain” and the actions of the “enemy”.
When the soldiers wait for the command Faulks uses short sentences and phrases, “They were almost there. Stephen on his knees, some men taking photographs from their pockets, kissing the faces of their wives and children. Hunt telling foul jokes.” This slows down time and shows the panic of the anticipation. He uses short sentences again in the battle itself, this time to speed the action up, “It had not been cut.” Faulks personifies nature, “soil spat”, suggesting that nature is fighting back and joining the battle, a similar idea to those in “Futility”. The dehumanisation of soldiers is shown very specifically in the battle as the soldiers are described as “primitive dolls” and “humps of khaki”, giving the impression that they are less than human, dispensable. Faulks uses several semantic fields in the battle, this mix of semantic fields adds to the eclectic and crazed nature of the war. He uses the semantic field of machinery, “clog the progress”; horror, “his nose dangled”; and when Stephen survives the Romantic field of nature, “There are trees beyond the noise, and down in the valley is the fish-filled river.” Faulks later mixes the semantic field of butchery, “pink skin” “small joints of meat” with the semantic field of drowning, “wave breaking” “undertow of fear”. The semantic field of butchery makes the reader see that the soldiers were treated like animals, simply dying for a higher purpose. The semantic field of drowning insinuates that either the men were drowning in the noise of the war “sound of shellfire” “explosion”, or even that they were drowning in the bodies, unable to dispose of them all.
The sections set after the war concern Elizabeth, Stephen’s granddaughter who is both coping with being pregnant with a married man and searching for her grandfather’s story. Part 3 unsurprisingly starts in the “tunnel of the underground”. The motif of introducing each timeframe using tunnels links all three, showing how the war affected all. Elizabeth visits France to try and find out what the war is like and is surprised by the scale and horror of it all, the “endless writing as though the surface of the sky had been papered in footnotes”. That image gives the reader an insight into Elizabeth’s head and the unfathomable number of names on the memorial. Because the reader has just got a taste of WW1 through ‘Part 2’ we sympathise with Elizabeth, however the tone of these sections seems ironic because we know we’ll never experience it like the soldiers did, which is why “My God, nobody told me” rings true with the readers.
Elizabeth gets impregnated by a married man, and the fact that she can do so and have the baby shows how the world has changed. Before the war this would be frowned upon by Victorian society but not even her mother minds now. The only one who’s unsure is Robert, her lover, and the novel ends with him finally accepting the thought of another baby and being overwhelmed with “great happiness”. A feminist reader would be glad of this ending as it truly shows that despite the deaths caused by World War 1 it propelled society into the future and promoted freedom. Faulks shows in this final section what the men in WW1 fought for, not for patriotic values or revenge but for the future.
So we’ve been here on WordPress for a whole year and now we’re starting looking at ‘Birdsong’ by Sebastian Faulks!
The opening passage of ‘Birdsong’ describes the open passages of the canals of the river Somme as well as the Boulevard Du Cange in Amiens. The paragraph is really a display of what life was like before the war, a rich and idyllic description of nature “On the damp side were chestnut trees, lilac and willows, cultivated to give shade and quietness to their owners.” The description gives the idea of the Garden of Eden, which suggests that the fall of man must be close, and sure enough WW1 is around the corner. The idea of “small canals” with “water gardens” gives the first images of passages and tunnels, and thus the first idea of trenches and the tunnels below No-Man’s Land.
We are then treated to a description to the “Azaires’ house” which has a “strong formal front” behind “iron railings” . This represents the family itself, which is formal and separated from the workers. Azaire himself is a capitalist and doesn’t respect his workers. We could also look at the house in terms of its facade, the term facade could easily be applied to countries in Europe at that time, where tensions were running high due to the breaking down of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the subsequent power vacuum. However the idea of a front could simply be a term referring to the front line, where the most fighting occured.
The description of the inside of the house also concerns itself with the idea of mystery and passages, “it had unexpected spaces and corridors that disclosed new corners.” This is the second image of passageways, linking to the trenches and underground tunnels. The quotation “the house was always a place of unseen footsteps” gives the house a sense of intrigue. However it also highlights a major issue later on, in the tunnels Jack Firebrace and his men have to stop and listen for noises several times when digging to ensure the enemy isn’t close. These “unseen footsteps” are exactly what the soldiers in the tunnels needed to listen out for.
Later on in the book Azaire discusses his workers with Meyraux, a socialist. Parallel to this section of the book is the rise of socialism, unions and socialist governments, we hear of riots and Isabelle goes to feed the starving children. Meyraux says that industry needs “a less mean and timid attitude on the part of the owners.” Faulks uses the language of war in Azaires speech and Stephen’s thoughts to foreshadow the future and also show how he uses his men as pawns to get his own way, just like soldiers, “we can therefore only retrench”, “Stephen was surprised by the simplicity of Azaire’s asault”.
We can see the wealth and success of Azaire in his family, his children are “plump”, an outward display off his extravagance and his wife is beautiful, a typical trophy wife. All the descriptions of Isabelle make her seem attractive, formal and fragile, “Her clothes were more fashionable than those of other women in the town yet revealed less.” The idea of her being like a porcelain doll is reinforced by the description of “polished china” in the room.
Thanks for reading – be sure to comment your own ideas below!
Sorry for the lack of posts over the last week! I have been writing blogs however my internet connection on holiday down south wasn’t letting me upload things *shakes fist* – so unfortunately you’ll probably now get quite a few blogs over this weekend!! Lets begin with discussing whether WW1 poetry is it’s own genre!
To discuss whether WW1 poetry is a genre in itself is very difficult, and would mean that we’d have to compare the techniques with all genres to check that it doesn’t fit in any other genre. Now I don’t have time to do such a thing amongst reading books for next year and such, and thus the easiest way to determine the likelihood of WW1 poetry being a genre is to compare it with other war poetry. A poetic genre is a category of poems that share stylistic devices and techniques! To save the trouble of you guys reading large blocks of text (and to make this more imaginative and exciting!) I’ve compiled a list below of the themes, attitudes and techniques of WW1 poetry compared to war poetry before WW1. I’ve chosen not to compare WW1 poetry with poems from after WW1 for two reasons:
1) The change in attitudes to war (i.e. soldiers are heroes and war is something to be ashamed of) pretty much stay the same!
2) The range of poetry is so diverse it was hard to find a good example to represent them all!
I’ve chosen to compare Wilfred Owen’s WW1 poetry to Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Barrack-Room Ballads’ from the late 1800s.
As we can see the techniques and attitudes are very different from before and after WW1, however most war poetry after WW1 has the same attitude and similar techniques to the poetry from WW1 (despite changes over the years due to styles of writing changing!) – so I would say that WW1 poetry is a transitional genre of war poetry that has educated and inspired future war poets on what war is like.
Thanks for reading!