by R.C. Sherriff
"A justifiable sell out...it commanded rapt attention..."
About the play
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.