Review: A Journey’s End

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A Journey’s End is a play set in the days before one of the most intensive German offensives of the First World War, which took place on March 21, 1918, at St Quentin in France, as a group of officers contemplate the impending conflict, and what has gone before. The play focuses upon the lives of five company officers in a dug out as they wait for a major German offensive, an offensive they have been expecting for weeks, but which they now believe to be imminent. The director captures the terrible suspense of waiting, never knowing what will happen and learning to live with the ubiquitous presence of death.

Several elements make up a good theatrical performance; these are sets, lighting, props, sounds and characters. Before we dive into the various elements, let us gain an understanding of the performance. As the hours tick-by, we observe the pressures experienced by the men as the cold, dirt, poor food, alternating silence and bombardment continue to do their work. The play not so much delivers a political or historical message as simply portrays the effects of war on men. The play was performed on a proscenium-arch theatre.

A proscenium-arch theatre gives one an intended fourth wall effect which lifts the side of the trench and positions the audience inside, as a sort of emotional barometer to the events happening inside. The trench is the only set used in all scenes to depict the lives of each officer behind the war. Lighting provides a key function to a play: mood. The director lit the trenches very dimly. This decision bears fruit as the audience has to focus more exactly on the stage and so is drawn in emotionally to a much greater degree.

As well as being emotionally in sync with the characters, the low lighting appeared to blur the features of each man on stage as if to make him a symbol of every man drawn into the conflict. Realism was achieved to a very high degree, as it attracted emotion and brought one into a journey at an officer’s trench in World War 1. A variety of props were incorporated to the story for prominent reasons. The letter that Raleigh wrote served to confuse the Captain and for us to notice his insecurities. The captain ordered Osborne to read the letter to confirm that it did not contain any ill words about him.

Whiskey was used in large amounts, to display that one required being intoxicated to be part of the fear and madness of war. Cigar, champagne and good food served as celebratory objects that Raleigh did not want to be part of when Osborne died. The wedding ring also served purpose when Osborne left it with Stanhope, so that it could be sent onto his wife if anything should happen to him on the raid he was to lead into enemy lines. Finally, the Alice in wonderland book served as Osborne’s world that he felt was more real than his surroundings.

One of the most impressive elements at display that night was the soundtrack of military bombardment that sprung from the theatre’s sound system. When sound can be felt reverberating in the chest it commands far more attention than that just heard through the ears. The most sobering experience of the play was feeling this earthquake shiver through the theatre as bombs were dropped over the trenches in the final scene. Audience members could actually feel the trench going under the bombardment of grenades and clouds of smoke, as the curtains fell. The main characters involved in this play are five officers.

Lieutenant Osborne is an ex-school teacher, who does what he can to befriend the younger officers for which he has earned from them the affectionate title of ‘uncle’. Uncle is a very important character as he acts as a father for each officer and captain Stanhope. Uncle is extremely fond of Stanhope; he constantly defends Stanhope when other officers comment about his drinking habits and his age. When Stanhope loses his temper, it is Osborne people turn to for reason, and when advice, or companionship, is needed, it is generally Osborne who provides it.

He is also seen as a father to Stanhope when he takes him to bed after getting drunk. Uncle advises and offers emotional support to both Raleigh and Stanhope in many instances. Upon Raleigh’s arrival into the unit, Stanhope was worried that his drunken image would upset Raleigh. He imagined that Raleigh would tell his family about Stanhope’s new appearance and they would be appalled by the truth. Uncle creates peace in Stanhope’s head by acting as a verbal link between Raleigh and Stanhope. Lieutenant Osborne acts as the head and the mediator of this unit, his presence in A Journey’s End was very effective.

Captain Stanhope is a commanding officer teetering on the edge, presents a facade of control by barking brusque orders at his troops. He drowns his fears in whisky, but his constant mood swings show how close he is to breaking point. He must set an example and perform his duty. One good illustration of Stanhope’s character is his encounter with Hibbert. Hibbert is another officer who struggles with cowardice and would rather face being shot for desertion then re-take his position in the trenches. Stanhope shouted relentlessly at Hibbert for his behavior and cowardice approach to going to the trenches.

Hibbert even tried to run past Stanhope, however, Stanhope refused his exit and almost shot him. Thereafter, he realized Hibbert’s problem and offered guidance and sympathy. Although Stanhope did not seem to be the best commanding officer, he displayed no cowardice and saw it best to die with honor. Raleigh attended the same school and remembers Stanhope as his school hero and mentor in life. Referring to Stanhope’s drunken state, he wishes to be remembered by his family and friends at home as a gallant young man but worries that his scruffy condition will be reported back home by Raleigh.

Raleigh, straight from school and who arrives full of enthusiasm, comes to a unit only to be repulsed by the sickening reality of life in the trenches. Raleigh accepts Stanhope for what he has become and treats him with dignity and respect that the army has taught him. He takes orders well and carries them out without displaying overwhelming fear or anxiety. Our tragic ending lies with Raleigh being unable to recover from a grenade attack and abruptly passes away. Raleigh is also a very admirable character when he refuses to celebrate with the other officers upon Osborne’s death.

Overall, we see life in the trenches through Raleigh’s eyes as a newbie and become very emotionally attached to his character. The other prominent characters not mentioned above are Trotter and the Cook. 2nd Lieutenant Trotter plays the more down to earth individual, with a perpetual sense of duty and optimism. He lacks the imagination of the others and just does what he is told. At the same time, Trotter served as much needed comic relief through the scenes. His relationship with the cook was vital to this comic aspect of the play. Jokes were constantly exchanged between Trotter and the cook about food and Trotter’s appetite.

Another example of humor he adds to this bleak tale, is when, his wife had written to ask if he had fleas and he said he “wishes it was fleas”, implying a far more gruesome parasite had taken up residence. Issues serve as a final assessment of all the elements in a play. The madness of war can be explained in several ways. Captain Stanhope is the leader of the unit; he turns to alcohol as a way to escape the fear of war. If a captain becomes an alcoholic, everyone involved with war must have experienced the madness of the situation. Lieutenant Osborne reads Alice in Wonderland during breaks.

He sees the story depicted in the book as being more real that the scenario he faced in the trenches. The story does not play favor to British or Germans. The scenes speak for themselves, such is their power, yet even the Germans are shown to have a human side. This is a battlefield in which the distinction between good and bad is lost and only confusion remains. And it is best illustrated during a monologue in which the captain recalls a moment when a German captain ceased fire to allow the British to carry a critical soldier to safety – before both sides proceeded to blow the hell out of each other on the following day.

Plays like A Journey’s End, which deal with dark and difficult issues, cannot easily be described as ‘entertaining’ but this did not preclude laughter from an excellent production that skillfully combined a sense of the tension, aggression, deep melancholy and anguish experienced by those who went to war. After my final assessments, I believe the meaning of this play is first and foremost about loss, about sacrifice (both old and young), and about the futility of war.

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