A Play by R. C. Sherriff
Reviewed by Martha Nelson
"There's not a man left who was here when I came." -- Stanhope
I have lived in London for 23 years, with nearly 100 theatres on my doorstep. Despite this, I have only seen a handful of London productions, partly because they ARE on my doorstep (and I take them for granted), and also because it is difficult to find something that I think worth viewing.
It's probably because I prefer thought provoking plays or light entertainment, and these are usually not the most commercial. I know this because most of the London productions on offer this season are themed on sex or violence. (What's new?) So I was pleased to accept a friend's recommendation to see "Journey's End" at the Duke of York's theatre in London. It was a very moving experience and something I am still thinking about weeks afterwards. If you like a play that challenges you to think about life, you would probably enjoy it too.
Journey's End is set in the three days leading up to Operation Michael (March 1918), the most intensive German offensive of the Great War. Some 10,000 men lost their lives in this battle alone, adding to the 9 million soldiers killed in World War I. The play, by R.C. Sherriff, was first performed in 1928 in London and starred an unknown actor called Laurence Olivier. Within a year it was being performed by 14 companies in English and 17 translations running in Europe. Sherriff wrote from his own experience as a soldier in WWI.
The scene is in a British officers' dugout on the front lines in France, and the story revolves around the relationships between the officers and how they respond and cope with the horrors up above in the trenches and the impending German attack. To understand the story, let me introduce the principal characters.
Captain Stanhope is the dashing young officer in charge, but who is also fearful of battle and death. He appears brashly confident, but deep down despises himself for his weakness and tries to cover it with alcohol. Despite his loathing of himself, he is revered by his men and is often in the trenches encouraging them. He is engaged to the girl he left behind, and wishes he could be a better man for her sake. He would not want her to see him as he is now.
Lieutenant Osborne is much older than the other officers, who call him "Uncle". A former schoolteacher and soldier in the Boer War, he is a father figure to Stanhope, who privately looks to him for support and comfort. Osborne sees the gift of leadership that Stanhope has; sees through the alcoholic screen and recognizes the Captain's role in leading the regiment. When another officer tells Osborne that he should be leading instead of the alcoholic Stanhope, Osborne defends the Captain and is content to be who he is called to be in the situation: a rock and steadying influence for the younger men.
2nd Lieutenant Hibbert is a coward and complainer, despised by Stanhope and others because he's always trying to get discharged for false medical problems. Stanhope assures him he will have to stay and fight or be shot for desertion.
2nd Lieutenant Raleigh joins the officer's dugout midway in the story and is the brother of Stanhope's sweetheart. Raleigh has admired Stanhope since schooldays and did everything he could to be posted to his regiment. He is young and green, excited to be under Stanhope's command. Osborne is protective of him like a father, but Stanhope resents Raleigh's presence as he fears Raleigh will report to his sister of how Stanhope really is.
As the three days in the dugout progress the tension increases as each character shows who they really are under the pressures of the battle and impending death. Stanhope continues to anaesthetize himself with booze, and at one point confiscates a letter of Raleigh's to his sistercertain that the boy has written ill of him. Instead he reads of the boy's admiration for Stanhope's leadershipand is ashamed that he doubted him. Stanhope resents the hero worship conferred on him by Raleighbut the schoolteacher Osborne knows that such attitudes often give us courage to be more than we would naturally rise to.
Hibbert steps up his efforts to be discharged for neuralgia, only to be confronted by Stanhope again. When Hibbert breaks down Stanhope surprisingly confides to the Lieutenant of his own fears and how he has to face them (albeit with the bottle). It seems that Stanhope, who at first hated Hibbert, finally sees his own desertion of the situation through alcohol. What he hated in Hibbert was the part of his own fearful self, seen in the cowardly man. Thereafter Stanhope is more understanding of the other's weakness.
Raleigh is soon stunned by the horrors of life in the trenches and wonders why he thought it would be an adventure to go to war. Of all of them, he is most like a lamb going to the slaughter. Throughout it all, Osborne is quietly counselling, distracting or encouraging his comrades -- and trying to keep Stanhope sane and away from the bottle long enough to lead. The quiet schoolteacher-lieutenant was for me the most unlikely hero of the group.
What does this have to do with our lives today, in relatively peaceful times? Certainly I don't experience the horrors and discomfort of living in a WWI dugout on the front lines. Nor do my brothers.
"Journey's End" is an example of how our own life's journey is affected by others. Although we aren't in a WWI trench, we face personal battles and make decisions, which are often inspired or directed by those whom God has placed around us or over us. "No man is an island" as they say. What would we be without our friends and colleagues? Most of us can think of a teacher, boss, colleague or friend who inspired us to do something courageous (even if it was just interviewing for a challenging job) --or who helped us remain faithful to our position (as Osborne did) because our steadiness affected others more than we realised.
I can't compare my easy life as a sales manager with that of the men in those trenchesbut the message of this play has spoken to me deeply about my own calling in life and how I can encourage and inspire othersand how others do that for me. It doesn't matter if we are leaders or followers; every person has a role to play that is important.
"Journey's End" inspires me to be all that God wants me to befor His sake and for othersbecause none of us walks this journey aloneand whenever MY journey ends, I want to know that I have walked it faithfully and appreciated those who made a difference in my life. It is good to be reminded that we all have opportunities to be unlikely heroes.
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