It isn’t often that I read plays; I think it is because the thought of reading one doesn’t seem natural to me which is bizarre when I think I have to teach Shakespeare and we read that. Anyway, plays aren’t really top of my TBR list. However I wanted to read R. C. Sheriff’s Journey’s End as it is one of the set texts on the exam board. This is another text I have vague recollections of observing prior to my teacher training, so it was quite exciting to pick it up and actually read it.
Journey’s End is set over a few days in the spring of 1918 in a trench dug out. The officers have just arrived in the dugout and they are aware that a German attack is anticipated in the upcoming days. As is clear from the date the war has been raging for nearly four years and therefore it isn’t surprising that not all soldiers are gun ho and pro war. Captain Stanhope, whose war career has been full of triumph, has turned to alcohol to cope with the horrors he experiences whereas another soldier in the dug out has resorted to feigning illness in the hope he will be able to escape his duty. And in to this group of men battered by war comes Raleigh, a fresh faced eighteen year old straight from public school and the play follows his first few days of war action as the realities of war sink in.
Of course I was going to enjoy Journey’s End. It was obvious really; I tend to forget that I specialised in this era of history for my MA for a reason. As I said, I rarely read plays, but I was gripped by Journey’s End from the beginning and completed it in a day. It is so simplistic and yet haunting; as a reader with some knowledge of the First World War you can almost anticipate the tragedy that will occur and yet this only makes the play more enjoyable and poignant. I loved how each member of the dug out represented a different type of soldier; from the cowardly, potential deserter to the captain who couldn’t let his troops down to the family man who played toy soldiers with his sons, all typical images of soldiers are represented. The character that most struck a chord with me was Raleigh, the fresh faced young recruit. Raleigh leaves his public school and enlists straight away, pulling strings to ensure he ends up in the same company as a former celebrated pupil from his school, Stanhope. It is clear that Raleigh hero worships the ‘older’man – I use the term older loosely, as Stanhope is in his early twenties – and that Stanhope’s successful school and army career have led Raleigh to view war as a game, similar to the rugby and cricket he excelled at at school. I find the public school ideals of hero worship and sportsmanship fascinating when discussed in relation to the First World War and the sheer number of ex public school men who enlisted. I read a brilliant book, the title of which escapes me, on this subject and it is so interesting to see the link between the two and reading Journey’s End has made me eager to read more books that explore this style of relationship.
Having read Journey’s End not only am I keen to teach it but I am also desperate to see it performed on stage. I think it is time I start looking for performances.
Journey’s End counts towards my Reading the Twentieth Century challenge. ;