By R.C. Sherriff
Journey’s End is the seventh and most famous play by R. C. Sherriff. It is set in the French trenches in 1918 and gives a brief glimpse into the experiences of a British infantry company in World War I. Sherriff considered calling it “Suspense” and “Waiting”, but eventually found a title in the closing line of a chapter of an unmentioned book: “It was late in the evening when we came at last to our Journey’s End.” It was first performed on 9 December 1928, by the Incorporated Stage Society at the Apollo Theatre, directed by James Whale and with the 21 year old Laurence Olivier in the lead role.
The plot centres on Captain Dennis Stanhope, a young company commander straight out of school. After three years in the trenches Stanhope has taken to drinking heavily to control his nerves and to ease the stress of trench warfare. He is respected by his men and comforted by his second-in-command and closest companion, Lieutenant ‘Uncle’ Osborne. The play opens as Second Lieutenant Jimmy Raleigh, an raw and inexperienced eighteen-year-old arrives for duty. He has pulled strings in order to be assigned to Stanhope’s company and has a pre war relationship with him, having been a few years below him at school. Stanhope also used to court Raleigh’s sister before the war, though he has not been home on leave to see her for over a year and Raleigh’s arrival is not welcomed by Stanhope who is already showing signs of cracking under the stress of war.
Apart from the intense psychological impact that trench war had on these young men, the play also explores issues of cowardice and fear through the character of Hibbert, who is faking illness in a desperate attempt to leave the trenches. As the day of the big offensive draws closer, the tension in the trench builds palpably. Nearly eighty years after its premiere, Journey’s End has lost none of its ability to move and shock. Not only has Sheriff’s classic tale of “the war to end all wars” stood the test of time but it’s a tribute to his skill that his microcosm of British society in the 1914-1918 conflict comes across as a believable group of real people rather than a set of Hollywood character stereotypes.
Robert Cedric Sherriff was born on 6 June 1896, possibly in Kingston upon Thames. He was educated at Kingston Grammar School and worked in an insurance office as a clerk (1914) and as an insurance adjuster (1918 to 1928) at Sun Insurance Company, London. Between 1915 and 1918 Sherriff served as a captain in the 9th East Surrey Regiment and was wounded at Paschendaele near Ypres. He then spent six months in hospital before returning to his job in London.
It was an interest in amateur theatricals, which led him to try his hand at writing. He first wrote a play to help Kingston Rowing Club raise money to buy a new boat. His seventh play, Journey’s End, was written in 1928 and published in 1929 and was based on his experiences in the war. After rejection by many theatre managements, Journey’s End was given a single Sunday evening performance by the Incorporated Stage Society in December 1928. Laurence Olivier played Stanhope on that occasion. The play’s subsequent enormous success, in both Europe and America, enabled Sheriff to become a full-time writer.
Among his other plays are Badger’s Green, (1930); Windfall (1933); St Helena (1935), a play about Napoleon, written in collaboration with Jeanne de Casalis; Miss Mabel (1948); Home at Seven (1950); The White Carnation (1953); and The Long Sunset (1955), a vivid picture of the last day of Roman civilisation in Britain. He wrote screen plays for many films including The Invisible Man (1933), Goodbye Mr Chips (1933), The Four Feathers (1937) Lady Hamilton (1941), Odd Man Out (1945), Quartet (1948), No Highway (1950) and The Dam Busters (1955). He also published an autobiography, No Leading Lady (1968). Sherriff was nominated along with Eric Maschwitz and Claudine West for an Academy award for Goodbye, Mr. Chips which was released in 1939. His 1955 screenplays, The Dam Busters and The Night My Number Came Up were nominated for best British screenplay BAFTA awards. R. C. Sherriff died in November 1975.
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