Technical limitations often lead to artistic discoveries. Case in point: Journey's End by R. C. Sherriff.
Had this storyline been originally made as a film instead of a stage play, it would have undoubtedly featured intense action on the battlefield, complete with dramatic stunts, terrifying explosions, and gory make up effects. In contrast to epic war movies such as The Longest Day and The Bridge Over the River Kwai in which the action takes place in a wide variety of exotic locations, the setting of Journey's End is static. The entire story unfolds in the British officer's dugout ensconced in trenches during World War I. Whereas war movies may focus on the explosive reality of combat, Sherriff's drama captures a seldom seen side of war: the anxiety of waiting.
The Basic Plot:
The soldiers and officers admire their leader: Captain Stanhope. The men even tolerate his desperate need for whiskey. Alcohol seems to be the only thing that allows Stanhope to deal with the fear and senselessness of warfare. The captain has come to terms with his alcoholism. However, what little peace of mind he has left is shattered by the arrival of Lt. Raleigh.
Raleigh is entering the war for the first time. He is very idealistic, viewing the war as a romantic possibility to become a hero. He also idolizes Stanhope, having looked to him since he was a child.
Stanhope is deeply unnerved by Raleigh's unexpected presence, in part because of the young officer's boyish idolatry. Even worse, Stanhope is in love with Raleigh's sister, though he stopped writing due to the horrors of battle. As the men wait for an attack, Stanhope fears that Raleigh will write home to his sister, revealing that the captain isn't the man he once was.
The Supporting Characters:
All of the secondary characters in Journey's End are remarkably well-developed (with the possible exception of the terribly awful cook archetype!). Because much of the play's storyline focuses on the officers waiting in their dugout, they have a lot of time to kill, and talking about their hopes and fears passes the time.
Some of the more memorable characters include:
- Lt. Osbourne: middle-aged, wise, patient. He understands the suffering of Stanhope, believing the man to be a natural leader. He helps the Captain through some of his lowest (and drunkest) moments. (He's also my favorite character due to his affinity for reciting Lewis Carrol.)
- Lt. Hibbert: In order to be sent home (or at least away from the frontline) this young officer has been feigning illness. However, when Stanhope confronts him, Hibbert admits that he can no longer take the stress of battle. Following in Stanhope's footsteps, he too, turns to liquor as a coping mechanism.
Lt. Trotter: He seems to be the most resilient man in the dugout. He doesn't need or understand the poetry that Osbourne admires. Nor is he addicted to alcohol like Stanhope. He takes solace in memories of his family and his garden. If the actor plays the part well, the audience will realize that there is more beneath he surface of Trotter; his simplicity might be a defense mechanism.
Themes of Journey's End
Perhaps you have heard of the phrase: "Hurry up and wait"? Much of the play is about waiting. The British officers know that the Germans are planning to launch an attack, so they spend much of their time waiting for the unexpected. When Raleigh and Osbourne are selected for a very dangerous mission, they discuss their plans in detail, and then they spend six minutes in their dugout, trying not to clear their mind of the upcoming mission. (It might be the most riveting part of the play, actually -- because all the characters and the audience can think about is the impending doom.) Sherriff captures the agony and anxiety of life in the trenches. It's no surprise that he is so masterful; after all, much of the play is based upon his real life experiences.
About the Playwright:
Born in 1896, Robert Cedric Sherriff fought for England during World War I. Much of Journey's End draws upon the playwright's personal experiences with war. After being seriously injured, Sherriff returned to England and began working for an insurance company. As a fund raising event for his local rowing club, he began putting on plays. In 1928, as part of another fund raising event, he created Journey's End. It became his first and most successful professional production.
Prompted by the play's success, Sherriff wrote over a dozen more plays as well as novels and screenplays (including The Invisible Man and Goodbye Mr. Chips).
Source for Biography Information: Curtis Brown Ltd.