Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Journey's End
Reviewed by Bryan Alexander

Journey's End

by R.C. Sherriff
Penguin Modern Classics, 2018

Journey's End (first published in1928) is a powerful play and an unusual take on the First World War. The conceit is simple. In 1918 a group of British officers wait in an underground shelter for the German Army to begin what was then the largest military offensive in human history. Two men who knew each other as friends before the war find their relationship, and their selves, radically altered. An older man tries to support both of them as they struggle with the war and each other.

1939 Presentation of the Play

At no point do we leave the dugout, not even to enter the war's notorious trenches per se, yet sounds of the war are heard throughout every scene. It's a claustrophobic, intense situation and story. Apparently Sherriff originally wanted to title it Suspense or Waiting, which are actually better titles in some ways.

As a WWI work, Journey's End depicts some key details. Our main character, Stanhope, reveals a man shattered by war in a good portrait of PTSD when it was only called shell shock. We see the British Army caught between moral burnout and hard-won professional expertise. The classic sense of commanders being out of touch and inhumane appears during the penultimate raid sequence. Comedy around squalor and bad food recalls veterans' black humor. And some of the plot involves planning for familiar military details, such as launching a raid across no-man's-land and preparing for a major attack. Act III includes a scene that encapsulates a great deal of class tensions, when Stanhope disciplines Raleigh for violating class expectations (yes, other things are involved, too).

And yet the play differs from many post-1914 works of WWI fiction, in that it is not clearly antiwar. Unlike, say, All Quiet on the Western Front (my reflections) or Wilfred Owen's poems, Journey's End is about men who, despite everything, insist on fighting. They are committed to the war, even if the issues (German aggression, etc.) never really appear. A key plot involves one officer, Hibbert, who seems to be faking an illness in order to get out of serving any longer. Stanhope, massively brutalized by the war, manages to convince Hibbert to stay, even at the point of threatening to kill him. This doesn't appear to be cynical, but heartfelt. It reminds me of Pat Barker's Regeneration (1991), which similarly resists condemning men for deciding to fight and likely die.

It is a minimalist play in some ways. Dialogue is brisk and concrete, lacking lyrical passages, brooding monologues, or detailed recaps of off-stage events. As I mentioned before, the setting is closely confined in space. I can imagine how good staging could heighten this.

The play has been filmed several times, and a new version has just appeared. I look forward to it and hope as well to see Journey's End on stage at some point.

Bryan Alexander


  1. Maybe this was a good stage play, but it was a miserable film. The scenes were too dark, the diction of the actors was mumbled and hard to understand, and it was not clear about the plot and motives of the whole thing.

    1. That sounds terrible. Are you referring to the recent movie?

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  3. I saw a recent production by the Ross Valley Players. It was well-produced and directed with local actors. Final curtain had some audience members crying.

  4. I saw the play in London West End in early 90's. Excellent.

  5. I thought the film from earlier this year was very good. They also did a good job of opening it up so it wasn't as "play like" - as it wasn't 100% just in the bunker.