Journey’s End: An Analysis
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Published: Fri, 12 May 2017
The play Journey’s End is set in a dug-out in the British trenches during the last year of the First World War. It covers the events and experiences of the ‘C’ company, just before the beginning of the Ludendorff offensive – a series of German attacks along the Western Front. Written by R.C. Sherriff, it is based on his real-life experiences as a soldier in World War One. Sherriff served as an officer in the East Surrey Regiment but was severely wounded in the battle of Passchendale in 1917. In his play Journey’s End he depicts the true realities of war, not the false ‘glorious’ image that many people thought it was. Throughout his play, Sherriff reveals the appalling trench conditions, the fear of death from the soldiers and the true horror of the conflict. This essay will focus on how Sheriff uses stage directions and special effects to do this.
One of the ways in which Journey’s End conveys the horrors of war is through the actions that Sherriff wants characters to perform. The stage directions tell the actors in the play how to move and act on stage. In Act 3, scene 1, Stanhope is waiting anxiously for the approaching raid: ‘STANHOPE is alone, wandering to and fro across the dug-out.’ Through the stage directions Sherriff demonstrates Stanhope’s concern for the imminent raid. When Stanhope walks back to the table, the stage directions show how he is trying to anticipate where the German attack will occur: ‘glances down at the table’ (Act 3, scene 1). Sherriff wants the audience to feel Stanhope’s apprehension and tension about the forthcoming raid. In Act 3, scene 1 when Stanhope looks at his watch, Sherriff shows the audience how he wants the time to pass quickly: ‘He looks anxiously at his watch.’ This is common throughout Journey’s End, such as the end of Act 1, when the audience sees Osborne wind up his pocket watch: ‘he takes out from his tunic pocket a large, old-fashioned watch, and quietly winds it up.’ It reminds the audience that time is constantly passing by, and the time for the German attack is approaching.
In Act 1, when Hardy is leaving the trenches and handing his position over to Osborne, the stage directions describe Hardy as a ‘a red-faced, cheerful-looking man’. Through his appearance, it is clear that Hardy is relaxed and casual, which tells the audience that he is relieved to be leaving the trenches and that war must have been horrific. When Sherriff later wants Hardy to sing happily to himself, it further demonstrates his relief: ‘HARDY goes up the narrow steps into the trench above, singing softly and happily to himself.’ (Act 1). Sherriff wants stage directions to emphasise the horrors of war and how Hardy is glad that he has escaped the German attack. In Act 1, through the stage directions, Sherriff wants Raleigh to ‘laugh nervously’ and ‘sit gingerly’. Sherriff wants the audience to compare Raleigh’s initial anxiety with Hibbert’s fear of death from the German attack later on in the play.
One of the ways in which Sherriff conveys the horrors of war is through the descriptions of the characters in the stage directions. In Act 1, when Stanhope first appears on stage, the audience understands how young the company commander is: ‘he is no more than a boy; tall, slimly built, but broad – shouldered.’ Stanhope appears to have an aggressive demeanour, as he constantly shouts and loses his temper with the men. Sherriff wants the audience to understand that at such a young age, Stanhope has huge responsibilities and his anger is a result from the strains of war. Through the stage directions, Sherriff gives Stanhope characteristics such as, ‘dark shadows under his eyes’ to make him seem tired and war-weary (Act 1). Sherriff wants to make Stanhope more believable to the audience, and this can further be seen in the way that his uniform is described: ‘old and war-stained’. (Act 1). These stage directions help the director to convey Stanhope’s experience of war, which makes the play more realistic. Sherriff wants to show the audience that soldiers in the war were very young and inexperienced through Raleigh’s description: ‘He is a well- built, healthy- looking boy of about eighteen’ (Act 1). In Act 3, scene 1, when the raid is over, the stage directions describe the captured German as, ‘a bareheaded GERMAN BOY, in field grey, sobering bitterly.’ The audience realise that the war was equally traumatic for the German soldiers. Sherriff wants the audience to sympathise with the boy because, just like Raleigh, he is young and inexperienced.
Stanhope is afraid that Raleigh will write and reveal Stanhope’s drinking problems to his sister, to whom Stanhope is almost engaged. In Act 2, scene 1, this fear leads Stanhope to censor Raleigh’s letter. Sherriff wants the audience to understand that the War has had a psychological impact on Stanhope, when he is seen ‘trembling and breathing heavily’ (Act 2, scene 1). Raleigh’s presence has made Stanhope face his drinking problems. Stanhope struggles with the emotional strains of war and, as a result, he lashes out at Raleigh: ‘STANHOPE clutches RALEIGH’s wrist and tears the letter from his hand.’ (Act 2, scene 1). Through the stage directions, Sherriff brings out Stanhope’s human emotions, and the audience understands the tragedy of war. In Act 2, scene 2 the stage directions clearly show that Hibbert is determined to leave the Front Line before the German attack, when he ‘strikes blindly’ at Stanhope to try and escape. Sherriff wants the audience to see the tremendous stress and fear suffered by the men during the war. Furthermore, when Hibbert is seen, ‘trembling’ and ‘crying without effort to restrain himself’, Sherriff shows the audience that the war was traumatic and Hibbert can’t take the strains of war anymore.
Camaraderie is a common theme throughout Journey’s End and can be seen when Osborne puts Stanhope to bed: ‘He firmly takes Stanhope by the arm and draws him over to the bed.’ (Act 1). Sherriff wants the audience to see how the war has made Osborne and Stanhope good friends. In Act 3, scene 1, Sherriff further shows comradeship between the soldiers in the play, when Osborne gives his valuable items to Stanhope before the raid: ‘he takes a letter and his watch from his pocket and puts it on the table. Then he pulls off his ring’. The audience realise that Osborne may not return but, more importantly, it indicates Osborne’s trust in Stanhope .When Osborne later meets his death, the stage directions clearly convey Stanhope’s tremendous grief: ‘Stanhope is staring dumbly at the table – at Osborne’s watch and ring.’ (Act 3, scene 1). Since the audience has witnessed the friendship between Stanhope and Osborne, they too feel the impact of Osborne’s death, and empathise with Stanhope’s grief. The tragedy of Osborne’s death can further be seen with the actions that Sherriff wants Raleigh to perform: ‘RALEIGH comes slowly down the steps, walking as though he were asleep; his hands are bleeding.'(Act 3, scene 1). The stage directions in this scene help the director to portray Stanhope’s and Raleigh’s grief more intensely.
In the beginning of Act 3, scene 2, the stage directions show that Stanhope, Trotter and Hibbert have just had dinner: ‘The dug-out is lit quite festively by an unusual number of candles. Two champagne bottles stand prominent on the table.’ Throughout this scene Sherriff wants Stanhope to make several jokes to show the audience that he is trying to forget about the loss of Osborne: ‘He has just made a remark which has sent HIBBERT and TROTTER into uproarious laughter’ (Act 3, scene 2). Throughout ‘Journey’s End’ Sherriff wants the audience to see that the men have turned to alcohol, to distract them from the horrors of war: ‘taking another whisky’ (Act 1). In Act 3, scene 2, the audience see the soldiers drinking ‘champagne’ and ‘whisky’ which shows the men are trying to forget about Osborne’s death. In the trenches in World War One, fresh chicken and champagne were very special. When the men are seen eating and drinking these luxuries, it shows the audience that the men want to enjoy one last meal before the imminent German attack, where they know their chances of survival are miniscule. In Act 3, scene 2, Sherriff uses the chiaroscuro effect to contrast light and darkness on stage, similar to the painting ‘The Supper at Emmaus’, by the Italian artist Caravaggio. The light from the candles on stage creates a shadow on the wall above the actors’ heads which, to the audience, produces a halo effect. Sherriff gives the impression that the dinner is like the Last Supper, as the men appear to be eating and drinking their last meal before the German attack.
In Act 3, scene 3, when Raleigh is fatally injured at the end of the play, Stanhope covers Raleigh with a ‘blanket’ and ‘bathes the boy’s face’. Sherriff demonstrates the comradeship of the men in World War One and shows the audience Stanhope’s true feelings for Raleigh. When Raleigh eventually meets his death Sherriff wants Stanhope to stare, ‘listlessly across at the boy on OSBORNE’s bed’ (Act 3, scene 3). This stage direction shows that the horrors of war have become too much for Stanhope. When Raleigh is placed on Osborne’s bed, it reminds the audience that Stanhope has lost two of his closest friends. In Act 3, scene 3, at the end of the play Stanhope, ‘lightly runs his fingers over RALEIGH’s tousled hair’. Sherriff creates an effect of pathos, whereby the audience can see the dreadful cost of war and the pointless waste of young lives.
The stage directions help the audience to understand the terrible conditions that soldiers in the First World War had to endure. In the scene before Act 1 Sherriff, through the stage directions, demonstrates how primitive the trenches were: ‘A wooden frame, covered with wire netting, stands against the left wall and serves the double purpose of a bed and a seat for the table.’ Sherriff ensures that the stage set looks authentic, so the audience can picture the appalling, low budget living conditions of the soldiers. Sherriff uses props on stage such as the boots that Hardy wears, to show how damp the trenches were: ‘He wears a heavy trench-boot on his left leg.’ (Act 1). Sherriff uses lighting directions to contrast between the warmth and relative safety of the dug-out, when he uses candles, with the danger and uncertainty outside of the trenches. In Act 1, the glow from the ‘yellow candles’ suggests warmth and safety in the dug-out, whilst the ‘misty grey parapet’ shows how bleak it is outside in the trenches.
Sherriff uses lighting directions in the opening scene of Act 2, scene 1 to signify the beginning of the day: ‘A pale shaft of sunlight shines down the steps’. Sherriff uses lighting for the morning and afternoon sun, to give the play a sense of time. At the beginning of Act 2, scene 2, the initial morning sunshine has disappeared from the dug-out floor: ‘The sunlight has gone from the dug-out floor, but shines brightly in the trench’. Sherriff makes the play seem more realistic, by using lighting to tell the audience what time of day it is. In Act 3, scene 1, the stage directions open, ‘towards sunset’. Sherriff may have intended the stage directions to be symbolic of the end of the day, but perhaps also to signify the end of the men’s lives. When Raleigh and Osborne lead the raid on the German front line, Sherriff wants the audience to see, ‘the red and green glow of German alarm rockets’ (Act 3, scene 1). Since Osborne later meets his death during the raid, the red light may have been used to indicate blood or death and to show the audience something bad has happened. In Act 3, scene 1, the trench appears darker, which shows the audience that time is passing by and the raid is approaching: ‘a light that slowly fades with the sinking sun.’ Sheriff may have used the red light of the sinking sun to symbolise the blood that will be shed by the men later on in the play. Many of the soldiers in the stage directions appear as anonymous shadows on the stage, which means the audience can’t recognise which character it is: ‘A man comes from the servant’s dug-out; for a moment his head and soldiers stand out black against the glowing sky, then he passes on into the darkness by the table’ (Act 3, scene 3). When the character enters the dug-out he is silhouetted against the red glow of ‘the Very Lights’ in the sky. In this way, the soldier could represent any of the soldiers who died during the War. Through the directions, Sherriff creates a dramatic atmosphere for the play.
When Raleigh and Osborne leave to embark on the raid, there is complete silence on the stage: ‘there is silence in the trenches’ (Act 3, scene 1). Sherriff wants the noise level to gradually intensify and the original silence on stage to be filled with the ‘shriek and crash’ of falling shells (Act 3, scene 1). Through these sound effects, Sherriff makes the Raid seem more realistic (life-like) and helps the audience to understand how intense and horrific the war was. In Act 3, scene 1, noises such as the ‘thin whistle and crash of falling shells’, further convey the horrors of war and make the raid seem more believable. Throughout Journey’s End sound effects are used, just like the raid, to emphasise the intensity of war. Sherriff wants to show that the German attack is slowly getting nearer, by making the guns sound more muffled and distant earlier on in the play: ‘Through the stillness comes the low rumble of distant guns’ (Act 1). The sound effects not only show that the German attack is constantly approaching, but also acts as a countdown to the end of the men’s lives. By the end of Act 3, scene 3, the noises have intensified and the shells are falling louder and more frequently: ‘There comes the louder thud of three more shells’. These sound effects help the audience to understand what it was like to live through a German attack in World War One. Through the stage directions, Sherriff uses onomatopoeic noises such as the “crush” of shells and the “boom” of Minenwerfer, to help the director convey the horrors of war more accurately (Act 3, scene 3).
It therefore can be said that R.C. Sherriff has successfully managed to show the horrors of war through the use of his stage directions in Journey’s End. Through the stage directions, Sherriff uses sound effects, lighting and props to convey the true realities of War. Sherriff shows how the soldiers’ living conditions were appalling and primitive, and he emphasises how horrific the conflict was. The stage directions give the play a sense of atmosphere and help the actors get into the mindset of their characters.
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