Thursday, July 5, 2018
Journey's End (Penguin Modern Classics) Paperback – January 4, 2018 by R. C. Sherriff (Peguin Classics)b
I picked up JOURNEY'S END because it was touted as "a great anti-war classic." It is a three-act play, set in a dugout in the British trenches in March 1918. C Company, commanded by Captain Stanhope, has just moved into the trenches for a six-day rotation. A major German assault is expected shortly, before C Company's six-day front-line tour is over. The entire play occurs in the dugout, although there are reports of various developments outside the dugout, as well as the sounds of artillery and machine-gun fire, eerie and flashing lights, and calls of "stretcher-bearer."
Most of the play consists of exchanges among Stanhope and his four officers - Osborne, older and wiser and nicknamed "Uncle"; Trotter, fat, happy-go-lucky, and somewhat simple; Hibbert, scared to death and feigning neuralgia in an attempt to obtain a medical discharge; and Raleigh, freshly arrived at the front from public school, good-looking, eager, and innocent, and the brother of Stanhope's girlfriend back in England. As for Stanhope, he is both extremely dedicated and thoroughly jaded; he has been on the Western Front for three years and is on the verge of a break-down; the only way he lives through the constant strain is by being doped with whiskey. By the final curtain, the journey through life of two of the five principal characters has come to an end.
The play touches on many of what are now conventional themes of British literature of the Western Front: vainglory; malingering; foolhardy missions; inflexibility and callousness on the part of the upper brass; rats and often execrable food; and boredom punctuated by moments of paralyzing fear. Other works, in my opinion, explore those themes better. Although I haven't read many plays in recent decades, I suppose JOURNEY'S END is a moderately effective play. It certainly has its dramatic moments, though I sense that at times it is a little forced or contrived, and at other times it seems to be somewhat heavy-handed.
The playwright, R.C. Sherriff, served as a captain in the British Army in WWI. JOURNEY'S END was his first work to be performed. At the debut performance in 1928, Captain Stanhope was played by twenty-one-year-old Laurence Olivier. The play became an enormous success, and Sherriff went on to write numerous other stage plays and well as various screenplays, including the original "Goodbye Mr Chips".