R. C. Sheriff’s play Journey’s End is a work that accomplishes a lot of things within its small amount of scenes. It follows a small infantry of men living in the trenches just outside of St Quentin in France during the First World War. There is something brutally honest and human about the characters and dialogue that Sheriff presents, which leads to an incredibly immersive reading experience.
It is a little difficult for someone born at the end of the Twentieth Century to surmise that a work ‘really captures what it would have been like to have been part of the war’, but I shall commit myself to that sentiment nonetheless. When the commanding officer exclaims to his would-be deserter officer Hibbert, ‘We all feel like you do sometimes, if you only knew. I hate and loathe it all. Sometimes I feel I could just lie down on this bed and pretend I was paralysed’, I could not help feeling like my life was put a little more into perspective. This text commands respect, and a retrospective respect for all of the soldiers who have fought in any war in a way that no other war-themed text I have read ever has.
All of the characters themselves are uncommonly three-dimensional; some are loveable and some are quite difficult to like. To say that you invest in these characters as you read would be an understatement; Sheriff has an absorbing writing style that drags you into the action, willingly or not. Despite my distance from the themes of the narrative and the incongruence between their experiences and my own, I was blown away by how evocative the play was and how emotional I felt during my reading.
But by no means is this all a tale of sadness and woe. There are plenty of lighter moments that interrupt the dramatic action and bring a touch of comedy to the proceedings. One example is Hardy’s assertion early on that his sock is ‘guaranteed to keep the feet dry. Trouble is, it gets so wet doing it’, as he dries his sock over a candle. There are even some more tongue in cheek jokes, for example the thirty-four gum boots that Hardy mentions in the inventory. Osborne then remarks ‘that’s seventeen pairs’ to which Hardy replies ‘oh, no; twenty-five right leg and nine left leg’, which only evokes one logical explanation. But for men in their situation, a little dark humour is only to be expected.
Although Journey’s End works well as a play, Sheriff’s use of stage directions seemed, at times, a little misguided. Throughout the majority of the text, there were so many long-winded and overly descriptive stage directions that I began to think I was reading a novel. The number of stage directions could have been significantly reduced to have produced the same effect, and some of them would have benefitted from being more clear and relevant. I think this particularly applies at the very end of the play, the last set of stage directions make for a bit of a disappointing ending to a fantastic play in my opinion.
Regardless of my annoyances with Sheriff’s apparent understanding of generic techniques, I still believe this play to be one that is very important for people to read. It is poignant and touching in a way that a play rarely achieves, and I would certainly like to see it come back into mainstream awareness and culture.