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‘Journey’s End’ by Sherriff depicts life in the trenches as lived by the officers of Company C. It is a fictional play set in the trenches during the lead up to the Battle of the St Quentin. It was written ten years after Sherriff was injured in Passchendaele in 1918.
‘Blackadder’ by Elton and Curtis was written in the 1980s, but is also set during the lead up to a battle. ‘Blackadder’ is a made-for-television comedy which featured actors such as Rowan Atkinson and Stephen Fry.
Sherriff approaches the theme of heroism through dialogue, using the conversations of the men who idolise the hero to communicate this. For example, at the beginning of Act 1, Hardy and Osborne talk about Stanhope, their commanding officer. Both men pay him compliments such as “I’d go to hell with him”, but Sherriff mainly communicates his heroism through their surprise at his stamina. Osborne comments that “He’s never had a rest. Other men come over here and go home again ill, and young Stanhope goes on sticking it, month in, month out”. Sherriff shows that the men think of Stanhope as a hero through their appreciation of his dedication to fighting. In other sections of the script, Stanhope is portrayed further as a hero. Sherriff shows that he is a hero through the way Raleigh hero-worships him. The two men grew up together, and Raleigh admires Stanhope as if he is an older brother, unable to see any faults. This shows the audience that Stanhope has grown up as a hero, and through this Sherriff encourages the audience to consider heroism and hero-worship.
The above are examples of hero-worship in ‘Journey’s End’, but hero-worship and true heroism are seldom the same thing. One example of true heroism from Stanhope comes when he persuades Hibbert to stay and take part in the big push. Sherriff makes Stanhope seem like a hero because he gives Hibbert a chance instead of just shooting or reporting him for deserting, which is how many other officers may have reacted. Sherriff consequently provokes a feeling of empathy for Stanhope, as he admits that “every little noise up there makes me feel- exactly as you [Hibbert] feel”- or that he too suffers from nerves. This makes him seem more like a real three-dimensional person, as opposed to an officer who always does what he’s supposed to, and in that way, Sherriff makes Stanhope seem like an even greater hero. The psychological depth presented here makes his heroism very convincing.
The themes of heroism and cowardice are also looked at in ‘Blackadder’. Blackadder himself is hero-worshipped by the other soldiers, similarly to how Stanhope is approached. They look up to him, and even Melchett, who is in a higher position of authority, calls him the “hero of Mboto Gorge”. Realistically, Blackadder is a coward. He endeavours to escape from war by faking insanity, similarly to the attempted flight of Hibbert in ‘Journey’s End’. Hibbert also feigns an illness, but the depth of his suffering portrayed makes his pain more realistic than Blackadder’s. Hibbert makes excuses such as “this neuralgia of mine” and “I shall die of this pain if I don’t go!” These excuses are realistic, and the way that Sherriff makes Hibbert plead to be set free makes the audience feel empathy for the man, as they are convinced of his unhappiness. Contrasting the reality portrayed here, Blackadder tries to escape by putting pencils up his nose and underwear on his head, which is an effect used by Elton and Curtis to add comedy to the piece. Although this is effective, the eccentricity makes it less realistic to the audience.
Sherriff shows how using distractions can be seen as cowardly when Osborne and Hardy talk at the opening of the play. Stanhope is introduced at the very beginning of the play as being a heavy drinker, and the audience are left to assume why until conversation later on turns to the subject of their lives back home. Stanhope is worried that Raleigh will write home and tell his sister, who is Stanhope’s sweetheart, that he is now a heavy drinker. He says that he is dreading seeing her again because she expects him to be a hero, when really “she doesn’t know that if I went up those steps into the front line without being doped with whisky I’d go mad with fright”. This shows that Stanhope thinks of himself as a coward, and knows that drinking is a cowardly thing to do, even though he just can’t help it.
Sherriff also looks at the theme of heroism in the attitudes the men take when dealing with death. The character Osborne is clearly a man who the others look up to, yet he is never seen as much of a hero until after his death, when Stanhope concludes that Osborne was “the one man I could trust”. In the ‘Great War’, the soldiers who died in battle died for a cause, and this is why they were labelled as heroes back home. Sherriff provokes a question in the minds of the audience. If Osborne had survived the rest of the war, he wouldn’t be considered by the other men as so much of a hero, and Sherriff introduces this concept to the audience so that they may consider what true heroism is. This was a real issue for many people at the time, which makes the situation appear realistic. There is no direct comparison to any character from ‘Blackadder’ here, because Osborne is a genuine man as opposed to the caricatures favoured for comedic effect by Elton and Curtis.
Elton and Curtis chose to convey all the naively positive feelings toward the war through one character; George. He is portrayed as being ridiculously enthusiastic about fighting, his first line being “Oh, dash and blast all this hanging about, sir. I’m as bored as a pacifist’s pistol” This simile shows that he is itching to fight, as well as expressing his distaste for pacifism. In ‘Journey’s End’, a similar enthusiasm is shown by Raleigh, who is new to the war. He uses language akin to George’s, saying “I say, it’s most frightfully exciting!” when talking about the raid. This upper-class language is used for different effects by the writers, as Curtis and Elton use George’s exclamations as a source of comedy, while Sherriff conveys a sense of genuine excitement in Raleigh.
Sherriff’s play is designed to convey the realities of war to the audience, and provoke empathy towards the men’s suffering. In order for the audience to feel empathy, the characters must be relatable, and therefore believable. ‘Journey’s End’ is aimed at an audience who care about the war, as it is a serious look at what men endured. The characters have great psychological depth at times, and some of the more poignant moments of the play, such as the tense duologue between Osborne and Raleigh in the lead up to the raid encourage genuine compassion from those watching or reading the play. In contrast to this, ‘Blackadder’ is a satirical comedy which uses exaggeration to create humour among a younger, more care-free audience. Elton and Curtis tend to use caricatures of real people, and parodies of real thoughts, because this allows the audience to ignore the negativity of the war and focus on the humour in the piece. The characters are all eccentrics; they compliment each other in the piece as they build up the comedy, but realistically none of them are viable. Likewise, the events which take place, such as Blackadder’s attempt to feign insanity using a pair of underpants and two pencils, are comical but not necessarily feasible. The extreme behaviour, while seeming ridiculous and comic, does show how desperate men might have been to escape.
I feel that ‘Journey’s End’ conveys the themes of heroism and cowardice more convincingly, because the dialogue and mannerisms of the characters are realistic, as opposed to the exaggerated style used in ‘Blackadder’.
Word count: 1,375
‘Blackadder Goes Forth- Goodbyeee’ – Ben Elton and Richard Curtis
‘Journey’s End’ – R.C. Sherriff
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