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«Journey’s End: An Account of the Changing Responses Towards the First World War’s Representation Amanda Phipps* This article examines newspaper ...»

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Retrospectives | 3 Spring 2014

Journey’s End: An Account of the

Changing Responses Towards the

First World War’s Representation

Amanda Phipps*

This article examines newspaper reviews which highlight

changing responses to R. C. Sherriff’s Journey’s End in

three of the play’s major runs in 1928-1930, 1972 and 2011.

These three productions followed Sherriff’s original script

surprisingly closely, observing an officers’ dugout in the days before a major German attack in 1918. The productions also proved highly successful in attracting large audiences.

Yet success was accompanied by different controversies in each period over its portrayal of war, class and leadership.

Consequently an examination of the social, cultural and political environments in which the productions were performed is essential to understanding the varied receptions. It will be shown that proximity from the First World War and contemporary events and beliefs caused continuous changes in cultural memory of the conflict that significantly affected audiences’ approach to Journey’s End.

British society’s remembrance of and response to the First World War has changed considerably since its conclusion. Dan Todman believes personal distance is essential in explaining how different generations have reacted to the war. He claims in 1918 ‘the British response’ was ‘multi-vocal’.1 However, negative responses that saw the war as futile and misconducted ‘were much more difficult to make when they were seen to strike at the hearts of grieving fathers and mothers’, and thus public criticism of the conflict was largely avoided. It was not until *Amanda Phipps is a PhD candidate at the University of Exeter (AHRC funded).

She can be contacted at adp214@exeter.ac.uk.

1 Dan Todman, The Great War: Myth and Memory (London: Hambledon & London, 2005), p. 221.

59 Retrospectives | 3 Spring 2014 the 1960s and 1970s when these parents began to pass away that the war could be criticised with a guilt-free conscience. A ‘powerful limiting factor’ had been removed, meaning a ‘violently critical assessment’ of the conflict was no longer taboo. 2 By contrast, Brian Bond believes that perceiving the First World War as a ‘pointless waste of young lives’ was ‘largely shaped in the 1960s’ due to events and concerns in that ‘turbulent decade’.3 Rather than proximity being central, conflict in Vietnam and the Cold War made British society re- interpret the past from an anti-war perspective. Bond also argues reappraisal of class and individuals’ rights during the 1960s made the class-based ranking of soldiers during the First World War seem retrospectively unjust.4 Unlike Todman, Bond argues responses to the war were not heavily reliant on the passing of time and people, but had their nucleus in contemporary concerns.

A middle-ground between Todman’s and Bond’s arguments appears most convincing. Definitely, sensitivity weakened as the First World War moved from personal experience to historical memory.

However, distance also increases the ability of current concerns to influence responses. With no first-hand experience, individuals would employ their own society’s beliefs to judge the First World War.

Arguably, even Todman’s and Bond’s historical perspectives of the war are shaped by twenty-first century attitudes. For example, both believe many criticisms levelled against the war during the 1960s are inaccurate. Todman labels them as ‘myths’, whilst Bond claims the war should be viewed as an ‘unprecedented achievement of the British “nation in arms”’.5 As will be shown, these historical evaluations link to recent trends in which the war and the early 1900s are being remembered less harshly then in the 1960s and 1970s. As Jay Winter notes, there has been a ‘consumer boom’ around the period with ‘heritage trades’ presenting it as a bygone era when the nation united in defence of a truly Great Britain. 6 It will be argued that with the forthcoming centenary of the First World War certain elements of the Todman, p. 224.

2 Brian Bond, The Unquiet Western Front: Britain’s Role in Literature and History 3 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), p. 51.

4 Bond, p. 54.

5 Todman, p. 223. Bond, p. 93.

6 Jay Winter, Remembering War: The Great War between Memory and History in the Twentieth Century (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), p. 39.

–  –  –

conflict are being forgotten and the scathingly negative attitudes of the 1960s and 1970s are beginning to soften.

A study of newspaper reviews on R. C. Sherriff’s Journey’s End demonstrates these changing responses to the First World War. The play is set in 1918 and revolves around the occupants of an officers’ dugout who are preparing for an expected German attack on their inadequately occupied trenches. The audience gain an insight into the characters’ fears, hopes and longings for home as well as the damaging effect of trench warfare on their psyches. The play has been produced numerous times, but only three of its major runs in 1928-1930, 1972 and 2011 will be focused upon in this study. 7 All three productions have followed Sherriff’s original script surprisingly closely. They have also proved highly successful in attracting large audiences.8 Yet this success has not been without varying controversies in each period over its portrayal of war, class and leadership which will be explored in detail throughout this article. Reviews of Journey’s End offer a valuable lens through which responses to its subject-matter have changed over time. The ability of these sources to shed light on cultural memory of the conflict demonstrates that theatrical productions and their reviews deserve more scholarly attention than they have previously been afforded by historians. The play’s reviews illustrate the influence contemporary events have had on attitudes towards the conflict and the impact historical distance has had on individuals’ ability, and even desire, to judge the First World War.

Approaches to War Paul Fussell believes ‘the British’ have a ‘tendency towards heroic grandiosity about all their wars’.9 This extreme generalisation ignores Journey’s End, dir. James Whale (Incorporated Stage Society, 1928). The play 7 moved to the Savoy Theatre in 1929 where it was presented by Maurice Browne.

Journey’s End, dir. Eric Thompson (69 Theatre Company, 1972). Journey’s End, dir. David Grindley (Act Productions and Shaftesbury Theatre, 2011). David Grindley first directed the play in 2004, but only the 2011 revival will be focused on in this article.

8 Rosa Maria Bracco, Merchants of Hope: British Middlebrow Writers and the First World War, 1919-1939 (Providence: Berg, 1993), p. 151, p. 186. Journey’s End 2011 Tour Website, (2011) http://journeysendtheplay.com/about/ [accessed 16 December 2012].

9 Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 175.

–  –  –

the complex changes that have taken place in society’s responses to the First World War. In the 1920s personal grievances meant people avoided judging the war, whereas the strong anti-war sentiment of the 1960s and 1970s meant most reacted negatively towards it. Even as this anger dampens in the twenty-first century the term ‘heroic grandiosity’ still seems highly inappropriate to describe Britain’s attitude. As a study of Journey’s End’s reception will show, responses to its subject matter have been in a constant state of flux as personal proximity and cultural events influence society’s outlook towards warfare.

In the decade immediately after the First World War emotions still ran high and many did not want to hear the conflict openly derided. The early 1920s were largely marked by silence in the arts over the war as the nation privately came to terms with its losses.10 This meant Sherriff had great difficulty in finding a company to produce his play. He explained that the public ‘had shown no interest’ in the subject, with every previous war play ‘without exception’ being a ‘failure’.11 For Gary Sheffield the performance of Journey’s End in December 1928 signalled that ‘the dam finally burst’ on a decade of silent grief.12 In the late 1920s there was a flood of literature on the subject such as Edmund Blunden’s Undertones of War and Robert Graves’ Goodbye to All That. 13 Adrian Gregory argues these texts created an image of the First World War as ‘stupid, tragic and futile’ in ‘popular culture’. 14 Gregory’s conjecture misrepresents both the literature and the period’s mood. Certainly, memoirs like Goodbye to All That discussed war’s horror and bloodshed, yet Graves begrudged his work being labelled anti-war and remained extremely proud of his regiment and service.15 Additionally the publication of this literature did not mean that society instantly consumed and converted their Ann-Louise Shapiro, ‘The Fog of War: Writing the War Story Then and Now’, 10 History and Theory 44.1 (2005), 91-101 (p. 92) DOI: 10.1111/j.1468x [accessed 7 December 2011].

11 R. C. Sherriff, No Leading Lady: An Autobiography (London: Gollancz, 1968), p.


12 Gary Sheffield, Forgotten Victory: The First World War: Myths and Realities (London: Headline, 2002), p. 8.

13 Edmund Blunden, Undertones of War (London: Penguin Classics, 2000).

Robert Graves, Goodbye to All That (London: Penguin Classics, 2000).

14 Adrian Gregory, The Last Great War: British Society and the First World War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), p. 3.

15 Bond, p. 33.

–  –  –

opinions about a war they had lived through.16 This is reflected by the fact that it was Rupert Brooke’s patriotic poetry, not Wilfred Owen’s sombre verses, which the nation still bought.17 Thus, whilst some did begin to question certain aspects of the conflict in the late 1920s, there was no overriding resentment to the First World War. Many still wanted to feel that loved ones had been sacrificed for a worthwhile cause and were too personally connected to the conflict to accept its failings.

Sherriff wished to portray Captain Stanhope and his officers as experiencing what many soldiers had during the war. The play shows an immensely strained and alcoholic Stanhope interacting with his officers such as the wise and calm Lieutenant Osborne on whom Stanhope heavily relies and the young 2nd Lieutenant Raleigh who hero-worships his captain. The play includes a mix of mundane events and moments of great tension to show the unstable situation many lived through in the trenches. At moments the characters complain about the food provided and try to pass the time through idle chitchat and camaraderie which helps them ‘stick it out’.18 This is juxtaposed with scenes of great anticipation and fear such as the ordered raid Lieutenant Osborne and 2nd Lieutenant Raleigh must carry out; which results in the death of the former. Amongst the turmoil produced by Osborne’s death, the play reaches its climax as the much anticipated moment of the German attack arrives. Raleigh is wounded and brought back into the dugout to die poignantly in the arms of Stanhope. The captain then exits the collapsing dugout leaving the audience alone with the dead Raleigh and the noises of the battle taking place outside. Journey’s End reveals the hardships soldiers suffered in the trenches and how they helped each other to continue performing their roles.

It is possible that Journey’s End, which sold 500,000 tickets in its first year, would not have reached such success if interpreted as staunchly anti-war.19 Sherriff himself asserted ‘he did not write it with Samuel Hynes, A War Imagined: The First World War and English Culture (New 16 York: Atheneum, 1991), p. 449.

17 Alisa Miller, ‘Rupert Brooke and the Growth of Commercial Patriotism in Great Britain, 1914–1918’, Twentieth Century British History 21.2 (2010), 141-162 (p.

160) DOI: 10.1093/tcbh/hwq001 [accessed 14 December 2011].

18 R. C. Sherriff, Journey’s End (London: Penguin Classics, 2000), I. 1. p. 31.

19 Bracco, p. 151.

–  –  –

a view to peace propaganda’.20 Instead he simply wanted to ‘express’ the life of ‘some of those men’ by putting into art what he had witnessed at the front. 21 The play was fortunately accepted as such by many reviewers. The Daily Mail stated ‘every detail of the play rings true of infantry life’, whilst the Daily Chronicle claimed it presented ‘the war as the real fighting man knew it’. 22 As many of the male audience members and cast had seen service, the play seemed a site of remembrance rather than grand philosophising about warfare. Perhaps the play provided a cathartic outlet or communicated what many war veterans had been struggling to express since 1918. The play was conceivably a focal point for the strong emotions many still held about the conflict. This is demonstrated by one veteran in the Daily Telegraph whose review explained that ‘not merely my emotions but my memories were being stirred’.23 As a result non-combatants also felt they were finally witnessing what friends and family had experienced abroad. The Daily News and Westminster Gazette praised the play for ‘mak[ing] us understand their minds’ and ‘the common lot of our soldiers’.24 Such comments provide evidence for why the play was so popular. Veterans felt their experiences were being honestly presented which made the play a source of remembrance for them and knowledge for others. Rather than viewing Journey’s End as anti-war, reviewers respected Sherriff’s work for its truthfulness.

When Journey’s End was revived in 1972 British attitudes towards the First World War had changed significantly. Firstly, the Second World War had destroyed the compensatory belief, which was held by many, that the ‘Great War’ would be the war to end all wars.25 Time had proved many initial beliefs about the war were untrue.

Secondly, in this period British society was living through the Cold War with its threat of nuclear annihilation and was also witnessing America’s conduct in the Vietnam War. The result was mass outrage in Britain with 25,000 anti-war protestors gathering in Grosvenor

The Times, 25 November 1929.20

Daily Telegraph, 23 January 1929.

21 22 Daily Mail, 11 December 1928. Daily Chronicle, 22 January 1929.

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