Journey’s End by R.C Sherriff is a play that explores heroism and comradeship. Writer R.C Sherriff was wounded in 1917 in France during World War 1, therefore his work is accurate in its detail and well respected. ‘Journey’s End’ was considered his greatest achievement. The play is set in France 1918 and life in the trenches is presented throughout.
The play opens with a conversation between Captain Osborne and Captain Hardy. Hardy reveals to the audience that Captain Stanhope has a drinking problem, whereas Osborne stresses that Stanhope has suffered and is not the same man that he used to be. During World War One, many men adopted a drinking problem as a result of being witnesses to the horrifying consequences of war. It was seen as a coping mechanism that often spiralled out of control. Throughout the play, Stanhope has many outbursts of anger and we see a dark side to him. His character is used to present the psychological damage that effected men during the War, as the only thing he really appears to be afraid of, is that his inability to cope without whisky will become apparent when he returns home and shock his parents and girlfriend. Young Raleigh however, looks up to Stanhope, describing him as a “mythical hero figure”. Raleigh’s character is used to present the blossoming, inexperienced men who viewed war as an exciting adventure but quickly learned the difficulties and the dangers that came along with the “frightfully exciting” battle. Raleigh represents innocence and naivety, the audience warm to his character as he describes War as “silly”. Similarly, in Wilfred Owen’s poetry, the idea of War being useless is constantly presented and the audience agree with Owen’s beliefs that ‘War is a waste of youth’. Sherriff has used the character of Raleigh to express his opinion that War steals the life of gullible young men.
Trench life is presented throughout ‘Journey’s End’, as Sherriff shows the boredom of life in the trenches whilst keeping the plot tense, to keep the reader interested. Stanhope deals with boredom with alcohol, whereas Raleigh writes home. The audience feel great sympathy for Raleigh when his letter is taken from him by Stanhope out of anger. The character, Mason, seems to always be busy waiting on the officers, offering tea and bread and jam. Another aspect of trench life that is explored is the food.
“What a lovely smell of bacon!” “Any porridge?” “Cut us a chunk of bread”
Modern day readers may be shocked to learn that things like bacon and porridge were served in the trenches, as in so many War novels, the only food described is the basic rations. Hibbert explains that he is finding it difficult to eat, due to his “beastly neuralgia”. Stanhope believes that Hibbert is exaggerating the pain and is intending on leaving the men just days before the attack. Desertion is an issue with all Wars, even today. In World War 1, 306 British and Commonwealth soldiers were executed for desertion. Hibbert’s character is used to present how focusing on death can affect the mind and health. It is ambiguous whether Hibbert truly is suffering with a real mental illness, or whether he is just a coward. Either way, Stanhope has no respect for him, describing him as a “little worm” and threatening to shoot him.
In contrast to Hibbert, Stanhope’s “best friend” Osborne is like a mentor to Stanhope, and the audience instantly feel respect for him as we are told that he is 45, therefore he would have volunteered himself for the war, instead of being recruited. Osborne acts as a father figure to Stanhope, “tucking” him into bed after he has been drinking all night, which increases the audiences respect for him. Although he acts confident and is described as “physically as hard as nails”, Osborne uses a children’s book to escape form the horrors of war. “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – why, that’s a kid’s book!” The audience feel sympathy for this character, as he is not ashamed to show that he is feeling the same as the rest of the company, yet he just gets on with what he has to do. Osborne is like a voice of reason, he is trustworthy and likeable, making the audience heartsick when he goes over the top with Raleigh and dies.
Another major theme presented throughout ‘Journey’s End’ is social class. War brought men together from various classes. (e.g., working class, public school educated upper class) The message I get from this theme is that being educated or not makes no difference in War. A soldier could be living in poverty back home, yet be the most courageous man on the front line, and a wealthy upper class man may be a coward. Sherriff uses characters such as Trotter and Mason to prove how War brings everyone together. Stanhope dismisses Trotter as having no real feelings and always being the same, but Trotter replies “Always the same, am I? (He sighs) Little you know”. His braveness later on in the play suggests that he is as much a ‘hero’ as any of the officers in the company.
Overall, ‘Journey’s End’ is a play that uses characters to explore themes and ideas. Each character has a certain function and a role, and in my opinion each character performs their role accurately and successfully. Each kind of soldier is presented through different characters, from the young and naive Raleigh, to the gutless Hibbert, Sherriff considers men from all walks of life. The social classes of the characters are almost opposite, as we have Osborne, a school teacher who has played rugby for England, and Mason, a less well educated man whose main purpose is to serve tea and coffee. The issue of desertion is addressed through Hibbert, and the psychological damage of man is presented through Stanhope. Not forgetting that this is a play, the dramatic effect in ‘Journeys End’ is appropriate as it focuses on contrast (between characters) and coincidence (Osborne, Stanhope and Raleigh come from the same town). Watching this play in the theatre would be a thrilling experience as it explores all kinds of war issues.