How does R C Sheriff convey his feelings about war in his play ‘Journey’s End’

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‘Journey’s End’ is R. C. Sheriff’s portrayal of life during the First World War. First performed in 1928, the play is based on his own experiences serving in the army during wartime. In the play, he revives the conditions that he and his comrades lived and fought in and the challenges they had to face. Unlike authors of novels or other fictitious texts, playwrights such as Sheriff have to come up with different methods to convey their ideas. To achieve this, a playwright utilizes the resources available to him or her such as stage directions, settings, character appearances, entrances and exits and actors’ skill. Effectively using these dramatic devices will result in the audience being drawn into the ‘world’ created by the playwright on stage.

An array of characters appear in ‘Journey’s End’, each carefully chosen by Sheriff and representing a different background and personality. As the play progresses, the characters each develop different ways to deal with life in the trenches and the hardships of war itself.

Respected and heroic, Stanhope is the company’s commander. Heavy responsibility and prolonged time in the trenches has made him dependent on whisky. Alcohol helps him forget the present and without it, he says he will “go mad with fright”. Whisky is Stanhope’s way of dealing with war. Despite his commanding presence and authoritative manner, one gets the impression that Stanhope is a mere schoolboy subjected to war.

Raleigh is clearly the novice. He is fresh from school, enthusiastic and eager. Raleigh is almost Stanhope’s opposite, a sharp contrast. He reminds Stanhope of how he used to be three years ago. After meeting with Raleigh again, Stanhope’s past is unearthed and Stanhope realizes how much he has changed. Despite his youthful keenness to be amongst the army, Raleigh soon adopts a mature weariness. He soon becomes more withdrawn and spends less time in the dugouts. He learns of how bleak life in the trenches is and realizes that no one is quite the same once they have been in them. His enthusiasm and eagerness makes his death at the end of the play seem inevitable. To the audience watching the play, Raleigh epitomizes the young heroes who died in their thousand in the First World War.

Osborne is often described throughout the play as a “level headed chap”. He isn’t as fiery a character as Stanhope. It is because of his calm, collective and rational manner that he is seen as an uncle figure around the trenches. He has great respect for Stanhope, so much so that he says he “would go to hell with him”.

Hibberd is the antagonist. He gains no pride in fighting for his country and is not very respected around the trenches. Sheriff pictures him as the most reluctant and reprehensive of characters. He makes up excuses like neuralgia so he can avoid duties. Mason and Trotter provide light humour in the play. Mason is the company cook. He tries to make life in the dugouts as bearable as possible for the officers – a seemingly impossible task. Trotter, the rotund officer who likes his food is often the source of entertainment and humour. The characteristics of Mason and Trotter effectively provide a contrast to life in the trenches and help to highlight how tense the situation really was.

What Sheriff tries to express by using diverse characters in his play is that men who fight in wars change, and not for the better. The tension and pressures in the trenches frightens them. The have to be constantly alert from enemy fire and at the same time deal with personal problems such as losing fellow comrades.

Sheriff emphasizes that the ability to cope with war varies from soldier to soldier. For example, Trotter deals with the war better because he is less sensitive or as Stanhope puts it “has no imagination”. His ‘circle chart’ is an example of the things Trotter will do to pass the time away. Stanhope however, is affected so much by the war that he has turned to whisky to drown his fears. Another character, Hibberd cannot take the war any longer and is prepared to abandon his company and friends. Using neuralgia as an excuse, Hibberd shamelessly asks to be sent down the line to be treated. Sheriff expresses that regardless of their background, positions, or characteristics, all men are affected by war.

One reason why ‘Journey’s End’ has been so successful over the years is its accurate description of war and portrayal of the atmosphere within the trenches. Sheriff achieves this b using a playwright’s tools of trade – dramatic devices. By carefully manipulating stage directions, entrances and exits, character appearances and on stage sound effects, Sheriff introduces a detailed and accurate picture of war on stage.

In Act 1, Raleigh exclaims his surprise at the silence in the trenches. He had initially thought that there would have been “an awful row”. Here, Sheriff uses silence and pauses to help create suspense and tension, a major feature in trench warfare. Occasionally, rifle fire and shelling explosions can be heard. This shows that men in the trenches lived in perpetual fear of enemy fire.

Watching the play, the audience would realize that most of it is set in the dugouts. This implies that the officers lived in a closed and separated world, far away from outside life and day-to-day civilization. Osborne and Raleigh’s conversation about life at home helps to provide a contrast to the bleak life in the trenches. They talked of the things they got up to and successes they achieved before the war. They speak as if they wished they were back home. By including this conversation, Sheriff shows that men in trenches often got homesick and longed to be away from the dugouts.

Entrances and exits can be used in a play to build tension. In ‘Journey’s End’, the last part of the play contains many entrances and exits to help create suspense so the play can reach a climax. The entrances and exits of Stanhope and the Sergeant Major create and atmosphere of haste and suspense.

By successfully describing war and creating a “world” on stage, Sheriff shows how grim life in wartime really was. The audience will now know of the harsh reality of warfare.

Language in ‘Journey’s End’ is a mixture of upper clash “posh” English and slightly lower class “common” English. This illustrates the different background from which the officers come from. Mason and Trotter for example, are men from lower classes, as they tend not to pronounce their H’s. However, the officers share a common idea that they are somewhat superior to the ordinary men. This is clearly visible at Stanhope’s outrage when he learns that Raleigh has been spending more time with the men at the front line. The officers feel as if they have a responsibility over the men. Stanhope’s conversation with the Colonel shows this clearly – “the men expect officers to lead the raid”.

Understatements are a common feature in ‘Journey’s End’. For example, at the beginning of the play, Osborne tells Raleigh that Stanhope is “a bit quick tempered” or “if you notice a difference Stanhope, it’s only the strain”. Understatements such as these create a sense of anticipation for the audience. They would want find out more about the character.

Sheriff uses different language techniques to highlight the men of different classes fighting in the war. He shows that there was a feeling of comradeship in the trenches and that all men fight side by side regardless of background or class.

Britons have always been passionate about wars. Reliving time in the trenches stirs up plenty of emotions. This is one of the reasons why ‘Journey’s End’ has captivated audiences across the country for so long. Its accurate description of the war and portrayal of life in the trenches keeps the audience fascinated and makes them feel as if they themselves were fighting in the war. It is difficult to argue about Sheriff’s ideas of war because they are not exaggerated and they come from genuine past experiences. He presents a realistic picture of life in the trenches as he has known it and a fantastic portrayal of the horrors of war. ‘Journey’s End’ has all the elements to make it a successful play: a handful of interesting characters, some humour, a flawed hero, an emotional death scene and a shattering climax.

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