This revival of R.C. Sherriff’s 1929 play Journey’s End has been enjoying an extended run in London to outstanding reviews.
The play is a slice of the reality of trench warfare, not just the struggle to control the ever-present fear of being shot, gassed or blinded but coping with the sordid daily privations. The unreal acceptance of rats, fleas and inedible food, joked about in the dialogue in between outbursts of anger, grief and humour brings us a little closer to the almost unimaginable horrors of the First World War written by an author who was there.
It is an intimate window into the varied characters who shared trench life and the fact that we sit there watching with the knowledge of what was about to happen while they carry on in their innocence is all the more heart-breaking.
The play ends with a sustained, ear-splitting replication of trench bombing. So dramatic that many of the audience were cowering in their seats with their hands over their ears. Then the curtain comes up upon the “soldiers” frozen in tableau with (a mere fraction of) the names of the war dead behind them.
R.C. Sherriff himself had an interesting literary life beyond this play. He tried (mostly without much success) to replicate the critical regard and commercial success of this play.He also met with mixed success when it came to novel writing, hitting the mark with The Fortnight In September (published by Persephone Press).
In his autobiography No Leading Lady he recalls:
“For my own part it seemed as if I could only hit the bull’s eye if I didn’t try. I hadn’t tried with Journey’s End. I’d worked on it to pass the winter evenings without any thought of getting it produced. I’d tried for all I was worth with the two plays that followed it, and both went down the drain. I gave up trying because it wasn’t worthwhile any longer, wrote a novel (The Fortnight in September) to pass the time, and found myself on top of the world again.”
Sherriff eventually went to Hollywood in the 1930s where he wrote the screenplays for among others; The Invisible Man, Mrs. Miniver, Goodbye Mr. Chips and The Dam Busters! He was nominated for both Oscar and BAFTA awards.
R.C. Sherriff in 1917