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Journey’s End, R C Sheriff

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  • Pages: 12
  • Word count: 2830
  • Category: Journeys

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The play, Journey’s End, was written by R C Sheriff just ten years after the First World War in 1929. The play is set in a single dark, damp dugout amongst a front line trench, which has probably been chosen to give a very claustrophobic outlook to the entire piece. All of the events occur throughout just four short days, which I think is purposely tight in order to add tension and to show the futility of the war, how a whole company of men could be wiped out within a few short days. The script is based mainly on the relationships, situation and most importantly the conflict which occurs between men in the trenches.

The inner conflict of the characters is also a principal feature of the script and adds physiological weight to the play, perhaps playing on the audiences’ own experiences with inner conflict. There are four primary characters. These are the officers, all of whom have attended public school and are of higher social and military rank to the ‘men’. Sheriff often emphasises the partition and stringent class system amongst the trenches and England at that time by describing the characters as ‘the officers’ or ‘the men’.

I believe that he has kept the number of central characters in the play and places them all within a single setting to create a magnifying glass effect, focussing on the officers as individuals, not soldiers. This takes the audience deeply into the reality of the war. I think people always tend to hold the ability to deal with a terrible situation when a group of victims are labelled as a group, but are only seriously affected emotionally when they are confronted with those individual victims. Sheriff uses this significantly to his advantage.

Another dramatic device which is employed heavily throughout the play is contrast. Contrast between the dugout and the outside world, contrast between home and the trenches. These all add extra impact to the scenes for the audience and engage them through their emotions and reactions. Sheriff uses the weather to this effect. He repeatedly sets the scene with “A pale shaft of sunlight shines down the steps, but candles still burn in the dark corner where Osborne and Raleigh are at breakfast” or similar, emphasising the contrast between the damp dugout the and pleasant weather outside.

In fact the weather is beautiful throughout the entire play. The play itself is also set during the early parts of 1918, just months before a victory was claimed by the Allies. In my opinion R C Sheriff is a very good playwright and includes every line to manipulate the responses of his audience. The time scale and setting are no exception and deliberately, but yet quite subtly provokes emotions from the audience. Why couldn’t these individuals have been saved from the terror of war? The play begins with the relief of the old company and the arrival of our main characters.

This is the way the trench warfare operated. Companies would go up the font line for several weeks and then be granted leave and replaced by another company and so on. It is late evening and “A pale glimmer of moonlight shines down the narrow steps into one corner of the dug-out” is the description given of both the night and the setting where we are to remain for the entirety of the play.

A pivotal character, Osborne, arrives first and speaks to the existing commanding officer. Osborne is a very important character and Sheriff takes good care in describing him. A tall thin man comes slowly down the dug-out steps stooping low to avoid the roof. He takes his helmet off and reveals a fine head, with close-cropped, iron grey hair. He looks about forty-five-physically as hard as nails” is his initial description. Hardy, “red faced, cheerful looking men” greets Osborne and offers him a drink. We soon hear the first mention of Stanhope, the commander of the new company. From the start we can see Osborne’s respect for his friend as he tells how Stanhope is “looking after the men”.

This is the first part of the impression that Sheriff expects the audience to receive about Stanhope and his relationship with Osborne. They also make a joke of the trench being damaged and about how the grit got into the men’s tea. How awful! You will find this whenever the officers participate in conversation, which shows the audience how the soldiers have to deal with their predicament. Next Hardy reminds about the imminence of a significant German bombardment along the British lines, which is expected very soon. Hardy goes on to tell Osborne “I’ve been out listening at night when it’s quiet.

There’s more transport than usual coming up – you can hear it rattling over the pave all night; more trains in the distance – puffing up and going away again, one after another, bringing up loads and loads of men -” which immediately starts to build up a reasonable amount of tension in the audience. Hardy continues and remarks “Then I should think you’ll get it – right in the neck”, almost issuing a death penalty before we even get to know the other characters, highlighting just how futile this war is. This expectance of the bombardment plays a crucial role throughout the remainder of the play and sets the foundations for the story.

Again the class divide is shown by Hardy’s disregard for the ‘men’s’ sleeping quarters. This first scene is very interesting and cover quite a lot of ground where setting the trench situation is concerned. Hardy tells of how his last new officer who “got lumbago the first night and went home. Now he’s got a job lecturing young officers on ‘Life in the Front Line'”. This is both humorous and shown the audience how the conditions would scare the life out of all of its inhabitants. Enough to drive them into faking illness.

Osborne also talks of how “I hope we’re lucky and get a youngster straight from school. They’re the kind that do best”, illuminating the fact that those with no experience of the trenches tend to have a different mind frame from those who do and are more willing to risk injury etc. When they stumble on the subject of Stanhope we see Osborne defensive nature for Stanhope. Hardy jokes about the commander’s drinking problem. Osborne naturally argues in defence for the lad. We learn more about Stanhope’s complex character now and throughout the play, Sheriff never stops developing it.

We learn from Osborne that Stanhope has been on the line for three years, how Stanhope is open to breaking down in tears occasionally and how his nerves have been “battered to bits”. The tall grey man shows his devotion to the man, saying “You don’t know him as I do; I love that fellow. I’d go to hell with him” and introducing another of the strong characteristics of this play. Comradeship is important to develop Sheriff’s characters and to provoke emotion from the audience, to shown them how the individuals survived the Great War.

Another character is introduced, Mason, the officers cook. The presence of a personal cook again highlights the class system. Mason is the hub of most of the humorous dialogue within the dug-out, the ‘Baldric’ of Journey’s End. This is backed up by his mentioning of “smells like liver sir, but it ‘asn’t got the smooth, wet look that livers got. ” The inclusion of humour into the script is designed to stoke up the audience’s interests and to lighten the mood a little at this early stage in the play. Now we see the arrival of the new officer, the young rookie Raleigh.

The stage directions are important for this scene in conveying the reactions of the characters accurately for the audience, increasing their viewing pleasure. We quickly learn that Raleigh is fresh from school, the type that do best. Osborne introduces himself as the ‘uncle’, showing his close relationship and fatherly relationship with the other officers. We also hear of how Raleigh’s uncle, a general, placed him in the company to be with Stanhope, his hero. Osborne and Raleigh continue with their talk of school, rugger, of the young lad’s admiration for Stanhope and of how his sister is in a relationship with Stanhope.

Now Osborne reminds the boy that his hero might no be the man he remembers and of how the trench can change people, adding weight to the situation. More ironic humour is included to amuse the audience when Raleigh reminisces about how Stanhope would never touch alcohol or cigarettes at school. A total contrast from the ‘new’ Stanhope. Now they talk about the eerie silence of the trenches, creating a foreboding atmosphere. The rookie was expecting constant commotion. In the same scene we are familiarised with the central character.

The playwright offers a very detailed description of Stanhope’s appearance as this is obviously very important in achieving the desired affect. He goes on “Despite his stars or rank he is no more than a boy; tall, slimly built, but broad shouldered. His dark hair is carefully brushed; his uniform, though old and war-stained, is well cut and cared for. He is good looking, rather from attractive features then the healthy good looks of Raleigh. Although tanned by months in the open air, there is a pallor under his skin and dark shadows under his eyes”. Sheriff is careful to show how warn down the boy is by the war.

He is depicted to be a good officer with care to his role. Another officer enters simultaneously. Trotter is the complete opposite to his companion. “Middle aged and homely looking. His face is red, fat, and round; apparently he has put on weight during his war service, for his tunic appears to be on the verge of bursting at the waist”. This may be to offer a contrast to Stanhope and the other men or it might just be to offer some variation in the characters. This is when Stanhope really starts to be developed. One of the first things he says is “Damn the soup! Bring some whisky! ” showing his obvious tendency to drink.

Stanhope is shocked at the arrival of Raleigh. He stands, stunned for a moment. Stage directions are carefully employed once more. Stanhope speaks very little to Raleigh; his tone of language immediately informs the audience of his bad mood at the youngster’s arrival. His words are short and sharp, he is obnoxious to Mason. The conversation between all of the officers turns to inconsequential issues such as pepper in the soup and Trotter speaks and slurps greedily, cracking a joke. Right now Stanhope is in what might be called his ‘Efficient mode’, he is carrying out his role, issuing his order, he will not rest at all, even if he is tired.

This is a corner-stone of his character. Soon after the final officer arrives, Hibbert, who doesn’t play a great role in the running of the company, but is used to show the extent of the psychological damage the war can cause. He complains of Neuralgia in his eye. Stanhope ignores his complaints and becomes agitated, saying “Another little worm trying to wriggle home” to Osborne, who attempts to defend the man in his usual manor. Stanhope has asked the Doctor not to allow Hibbert to be relieved. There is also a cruel side to Stanhope. Later he fills in Osborne, his second in command and closest friend, about Raleigh’s sister.

Stanhope declares that “We’ll say fifty divisions. That’s a hundred and fifty brigades – four hundred and fifty battalions. That’s one thousand eight hundred companies” and asks why Raleigh must have been sent to his own, showing the sheer enormity of the war to the audience, showing how there are thousands of salutations similar to this one, all at the same time. Stanhope’s brave front is dropped for his friend. He admits that “if I went up those steps into the front line – without being doped with whisky – I’d go mad with fright”. The commander becomes depressed, saying thinks like “it may not be much longer now.

I’ve had my share of luck”. This shows how many men have been killed, outlines the futility of the battles, and conveys this to the audience through Stanhope. He is also scared that Raleigh would tell his sister about the ‘new’ Stanhope and then goes into a drunken fit, ranting and raving “D’you see? He’s a little prig. Wants to write home and tell Madge all about me. Well he won’t; d’you see, Uncle? He won’t write. Censorship! I censor all his letters – cross out all he says about me. He continues slurring until Osborne tucks him into bed like a baby. Kiss me, uncle” Stanhope asks humorously.

Once again Sheriff is giving his audience a strong impression of comradeship amongst the officers. The next day, the Tuesday morning, starts off with the same old chit-chat. Trotter claims his sighting of “a bloomin’ little bird” that started singing, offering complete contrast the dug-put and the war. The officers start to talk about home, about their gardens and Trotter boasts about his and presents a photograph. Osborne speaks about his rockery and the time he used to enjoy back at home in sunny England.

This then jumps into talk of rifle grenades, more application of contrast, slightly shocking the audience. Raleigh and Osborne are starting to form a relationship away from Stanhope now. They converse in the dug-out, chatting about rugby. Raleigh notices a slip of paper on the table and enquires. Osborne replies “Trotter’s plan to make the time pass quickly. One hundred and forty-four little circles-one for each hour of six days. He’s blacked in six already. He’s six hours behind” and presents another of Sheriffs dramatic devices. He frequently uses the counting down of time in this play.

This shows both the monotony of the trench life and the time, which the audience already knows the company have remaining before the ‘big raid’. It really does add suspense and tension to the scenes. The playwright also uses the ideas of comradeship and the futility of the war as Osborne tells the story of a certain raid to Raleigh. “I remember up at Wipers we had a man shot when he was out on patrol. Just at dawn. We couldn’t get him in the night. He lay out there groaning all day. Next night three of our men crawled out to get him. It was so near the German trenches that they could have shot our fellow one by one.

But, when our men began dragging the wounded man back over the rough ground, a big German officer stood up in their trenches and called out: ‘carry him! ‘ – and our fellows stood up and carries the man back and the German officer fired some lights for them to see by”. He goes on “Next day we blew each other’s trenches to blazes”. This blends the idea of comradeship, even across no-mans-land and the futile war they are fighting, which again provokes anger within those in the audience. Stanhope returns with news of the attack being confirmed for Thursday, just two days time.

This turns up the tension dial. Stanhope jumps back into his ‘efficient soldier mode’ once again and informs Osborne that two wiring parties will wire the company in for the ‘big raid’ because he doesn’t trust the companies either side of them to hold their ground. He goes on to tell him that the Colonel had been arranging each company’s battle positions. Their conversation strolls back over to Hibbert’s hour-keeping paper and Stanhope enquires how many hours are left until the 21st. there are just thirty six hours left until the inevitable attack and now the tension and suspense are roaring.

Sheriff uses contrast again as they speak of the marvellous sunrise which had enveloped and patterned the sky over such a dead, grey land. They continue their conversation, reminiscing about home, they beauty of the evenings, a poke and a read, pretending the war didn’t exist’. For a brief moment they had left the dark, slimy dug-out and were back home in England. There follows a scene of anger and extreme tension between Stanhope and Raleigh. The young lad gives the commanding officer a letter to home. To Raleigh’s surprise he learns from Stanhope that all letters must be censored.

Oh, I-I didn’t realise that. (He stands embarrassed; then gives a short laugh. ) I-I think-I’ll just leave it, then. (He unbuttons his tunic pocket to put the letter away. )” Raleigh responds in embarrassment. Stanhope bawls “Give me that letter! ” several times. The youngster tries to compromise, but Stanhope shouts again. “Don’t ‘Dennis’ me! Stanhope’s my name! You’re not at school! Go and inspect your rifles! ” in a fit of rage. After passing the letter to Osborne the letter turns out to be innocent and clean. This has exited the audience and at the same time created feeling towards Raleigh.

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