What were Sheriff’s aims in writing ‘Journey’s End’ and how successful was he in achieving those aims?
Drama has been with us since the times of the Greeks. It is very popular among all age groups. The main aims of a drama are to entertain and to provide a message to the audience. ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is one of the most popular dramas to date. It is a romantic tragedy and is greatly appreciated, even today. It was written by one of the greats, Shakespeare, in the year 1595. The drama that we have in discussion is set in the times of the World War 1. During World War 1, R C Sheriff was an officer in the East Surrey Regiment and was wounded in the battle of Passchendale in 1917. R C Sheriff’s play Journey’s End is based upon his real life experiences during the war – reflecting the way he and his comrades lived and fought throughout the war. The play was first performed in 1928, which is 10 years from the First World War. At this time, people were disillusioned and were ready to face the truth about war. In Journey's End, Sheriff presents a realistic picture of life in the trenches as he had known it and a portrayal of the horrors of the War. This is an anti war story and it is trying to convey peace to the audience. As well as entertaining us, he provides a moral message of peace. There is also a personal touch to the play, as this is reality as seen by him. He manages to provide a social and moral message. In order to achieve these aims he uses literary and dramatic features.
Journey's End is set in 1918 when the German army was preparing a massive attack against the allies once again. It is in this backdrop that the play opens. The whole play takes place in the trenches. It is basically the life of the soldiers in the trenches. The dug-out, where they spend their time when off-duty is a dark, enclosed structure. This heightens tension and also involves the audience in the events of the play. The characters are well etched to put forward Sheriff's aims. The focus is on the character of Stanhope, who shows varied emotions as the play proceeds. He is portrayed as a brave company commander out at front but within him, he is falling apart. Professionally, he is trying to control and command the company but personally, he is shattered. Sheriff uses Stanhope as a protagonist to show the long term effects of war on a person. Osborne is shown as a level-headed, mature officer who understands everyone's problem and always stays the same. But he too fears the war. This is emphasized when we see Osborne reading "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" to take his mind off the war. On various other occasions, he changes the topic so as to get it out of their minds. Acts of cowardice are cleverly shown in the character of Hibbert, who is self-centred and fears death. "Go on, then, shoot! You won’t let me go to hospital. I swear I'll never go into those trenches again. Shoot! - and thank God -" This shows just how strained Hibbert really is, how fearful he is of dying in the trenches, and yet he stands there and faces up to death. He is dealt with by Stanhope who offers his own weakness as a parallel. Sheriff portrays comradeship in a very effective manner; the officers share a special kind of bond. Acts of heroism, such as the raid, show that under extreme circumstances, people do courageous acts.
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The main characters, the officers, are all of upper-class. They are emphasized and the 'men' are given no importance. Mason, the cook, is the source of most humour. But it still clear that Mason is of a lower rank and his job is to cook food and to wake the officers. 'Just you and me, isn't it – and ten men?' says Raleigh while discussing the raid with Osborne. This gives us a feeling that the officers thought of themselves as different from the men. Sheriff very cleverly shows the class difference during the time. The whole play takes place in a span of 3 days. It is an irony that Stanhope lives through the trenches for 3 years while Raleigh, the boy with everything to live for, dies within 3 days. Sheriff emphasizes the irony of death – sometimes a man survives luckily for years while others are fated to die immediately, as in the case of Stanhope and Raleigh.
The underlying purpose of the play was to entertain the audience. Sheriff has accomplished this successfully. He keeps the audience entertained by the use of tension. The sound effects are very effective in creating tension. Most of the time, there is silence, then there are loud noises when bombarding. There are extreme sounds and then nothing. Sheriff also uses complex characterization to keep the audience involved. Every character in the play is very different from the other. They all combine together to make one successful play. Trotter and Mason always keep the audience entertained as they are the very source of humour. Black humour is often used in the course of the play. This is used by the characters to forget the horrors of the war. Sheriff shows us that the officers found various means of escaping the reality. The horrors of war are very well explored. The breakdown of man, Hibbert’s neuralgia, the raids, Raleigh’s and Osborne’s death all show the true horrors of war. Trotter tells Osborne of a strange smell he'd experienced recently: "….All of a sudden we smelt that funny, sweet smell and a fellow shouted 'GAS!'-and we put on our masks." Tragically, they had been frightened by what turned out to be the scent of a may tree. This reminds us that the war has taken the goodness out of nature; the men are too traumatized to enjoy Nature’s simple pleasures. Osborne tells Raleigh about his sporting past but tells Raleigh not to tell the others because: "it doesn't make much difference out here!" The war has taken all he achieved away from him and the same has been done to Stanhope. Osborne tells Raleigh about a moment when their men went out to get one of their wounded comrades. He says: "….When our man began dragging the wounded man back over the rough ground, a big German officer stood up in their trenches and called out: 'Carry him! - and our fellows stood up and carried the man back…." The next day, Osborne recalls, "We blew each others trenches to blazes". This points out the terrible futility of war. Sheriff’s main aim is to promote peace through his play.
Language plays an important part in the play. It shows the period of time and class of the people. There is heavy use of formal language as this play is set in 1918, and at that time, the upper-middle class people only spoke in a formal manner. Sheriff also implies highly emotive language in the play. His purpose is to show the extreme stress and pressure the officers are in. “My God! You bloody little swine! You think I don’t care – you think you’re the only soul that cares!” bursts out Stanhope when questioned by Raleigh. The use of literary jargon by Sheriff such as ‘dug-out’, ‘minnies’, ‘topping’, ‘Boche’ etc gives a sense of realism. Sheriff has used realistic terms to produce a military atmosphere. There is also the use of literary allusion, wherein Osborne is reading "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" to get the war out of his mind. The characters, particularly Osborne, keep changing the topic so as to forget the horrors of the war. Sheriff here is trying to show that there is no point to the war. The men are just being used by the senior authority. Sheriff has used lots of short sentences in this play. You will also find tremendous amount of pauses. The language is fragmented. “Who’s going?” “You and Raleigh” Pause “Oh” Pause “Why Raleigh?” By using this format, Sheriff shows the characters coming to terms with the war and the situation. The pauses show that the characters are hesitant. It also highlights stress.
R C Sheriff’s aims were to provide a moral message of peace, to entertain the audience, to show the true horrors of the war as seen by him and to present a structures piece of drama. He has been very successful in fulfilling those aims. “Very faintly there comes the dull rattle of machine guns and the fevered spatter of rifle fire”. These are the last words of the play wherein Sheriff is trying to show that no matter how many people die, the war continued. To the audience watching the play either in 1929 or today, the character of Raleigh epitomises the young men who died in their hundreds of thousands in the Great War. Sheriff wanted to get across the message that war is not about glory, but about horror and suffering. You will gain nothing and lose everything. I think that this play would have made a great impact on the audience, considering the fact that it was made 10 years after the First World War. It is a very effective play for the subsequent generations as it stresses on world peace. The UN at the moment is doing a great job at maintaining peace in the world and hope is that it will continue.