Sunday, September 12, 2021

R. C. SHERRIFF’S JOURNEY’S END



                                                                  Robert Cedric Sherriff

When I started planning this blog, I quickly decided that since Journey’s End was the most well-known World War One play in the English language, I would not write a post about it. What changed that decision was the fact that I mentioned this play in my previous post, Ernst Johannsen’s Brigade Exchange. I feel it is only fair to have Journey’s End as an available post if a reader wants to have a quick source at hand.

Robert Cedric Sherriff (1896-1975) wrote Journey’s End in 1928 for his boat club’s annual fund-raising event. He was required to have an all-male cast. Sherriff drew upon his World War One experiences, while serving as a Captain in the British armed forces at the age of twenty-one, to write this play. 

Journey’s End is set in a British dugout before Saint-Quentin, a town located in northern France. Act One: Monday evening, March 18, 1918. This specific date relates the action of the play historically to the major German Spring Offensive that began on March 21, 1918.

The main room in the dugout is lighted by candles set in two bottles on the table.  The doorway frames several steps that lead up to the parapet of a trench and a narrow strip of starlit sky. On the table is a litter of papers and a bottle of whisky. Officer’s equipment hangs in a mass from a nail in the wall. This is the Officer’s area and Captain Hardy is waiting for a small new group of soldiers to arrive. After Hardy leaves, Second Lieutenant Raleigh arrives to join this unit.  Raleigh went to school with Captain Stanhope, the commander of this unit. Raleigh is excited to be assigned to Stanhope’s unit. This act sets up the possibility of an impending major enemy attack as well as demonstrating the relationships between the officers and the only lower-class soldier in their dugout, Private Mason, their cook.

Act Two. Scene 1: Early Tuesday morning. Officers Osborne and Raleigh are having breakfast as Second Lieutenant Trotter enters. It is quiet in the trench where this platoon of soldiers has spent the past six days. The British trench is a football field away from the German trench which is approximately seventy yards long. Since the English believe the Germans are planning an attack within forty-eight hours, this group of soldiers must stay on duty.

Act Two. Scene 2: Afternoon of the same day. Stanhope believes the German’s major attack will be on Thursday morning. The Colonel arrives with a special order for a small group of Stanhope’s men to raid the German trench to grab a German soldier and bring him back for interrogation.

Act Three. Scene 1: Wednesday afternoon, towards sunset.   Osborne and Raleigh are the two officers who will be directing the raid and they leave on this assignment.  They will select several soldiers in the trench to go with them. There is the sound of machine-guns and a smoke bomb explodes.  Shortly after the attack, a young German soldier is brought down into the dugout for the Colonel to interrogate. The German attack for tomorrow is confirmed. Lieutenant Osborne was killed during the raid.

Act Three. Scene 2. Late Wednesday evening.  Dinner is over.  There is a sense of jovial comradery among the officers. Raleigh returns to the dugout after everyone except Stanhope retires.  Stanhope is angry with him since he remained on duty rather than return for supper.

Act Three. Scene 3: Thursday, towards dawn. The attack is expected shortly, and the officers are awakened and quickly go into the trench.  The final moments of the play involve Raleigh, who is mortally wounded, and Stanhope. 

This plot outline describes the situation the playwright constructed. It illustrates how most of the characters mask the fact they are in constant mortal danger. The intension of this drama is to reveal to the reader/audience members the effects of war on frontline military. Previously there had not been a drama that portrayed this situation so realistically.

Following the boat club’s staging of this play, Sheriff convinced the Incorporated Stage Society of London to present two performances of his play for its thirtieth season at the Apollo Theatre. These performances were presented December 9-10, 1928. Laurence Olivier (1907-1989) played Stanhope and Maurice Evans (1907-89) played Raleigh. After positive reviews, Producer Maurice Brown (1881-1955) transferred the Stage Society’s production to London’s Savoy Theatre opening on 1/21/1929. The only actor who could not assume his same role for Brown’s production was Olivier who had to honor another commitment. Captain Stanhope was played by Colin Clive (1900-1937). This production transferred to the Prince of Wales Theatre on June 3,1929 and continue to be performed through June 7,1930. Its London run totaled an impressive 593 performances.                                                               

                                                                          Colin Clive

Shortly after Journey’s End opened in London, Maurice Brown, who had also been living part-time in America, worked with Gilbert Miller (1884-1969) to stage an American production.  Journey’s End opened on Broadway in the Henry Miller Theatre on March 22, 1929 and closed May 17,1930 after its 485th performance. Brown arranged for British actors Colin Keith Johnson (1896-1980) to play Stanhope and Derek Williams (1911-1988) as Raleigh to appear in the Broadway production.

There were two later productions of Journey’s End on Broadway. The revival opened at the Empire Theatre on September 18,1939 and closed after its sixteenth performance on September 30th.  British actor Colin Keith Johnson starred as Stanhope and Jack Merivale (1917-1990) played Raleigh. The most recent Broadway production opened February 22, 2007 at the Belasco Theatre and played 125 performances before closing on June 10, 2007. It starred Hugh Dancy (1975-   ) as Stanhope and Stark Sands (1978-    ) as Raleigh. 

On August 1, 1939, The Stage reported that the English Players performing in Paris, France gave their one hundredth performance of Journey’s End.  This production performed in English was slated to continue its run until the end of September when this company was booked to tour in Switzerland, Germany and Holland. 

There have been three significant British revivals of the play.  To celebrate Journey’s End seventy-fifth anniversary, David Grindley (no dates available) directed this production. It opened in January, 2004 at London’s Comedy Theatre and later was transferred to the Playhouse. Paul Taylor in The Independent stated that it was a “Deeply affecting revival.”  Grindley created in July, 2011 the second professional theatre London revival. This production starred James Norton (1985-   ) as Stanhope.

The third production mounted by MESH Theatre Company opened for a limited run October 10, 2017 and it played through November 12, 2017. This production opened in Ypres, Belgium and it was to recognize the 100th anniversary since the playwright fought and was wounded in the Third Battle of Ypres. Sally Woodcock, the director of this production and founder of MESH, returned to Flanders with her theatre company in 2018 to present Journey’s End to mark the World War One Armistice and again in November 2019 to perform in the Skindles Ballroom that during World War One had served as the British officers’ club in Poperinge, near Ypres.

There were three major films made of Journey’s End. The first one was released in April 1930.  It was “AN ALL-TALKING PRODUCTION” produced by Gainsborough Pictures and Tiffany Productions. It was filmed at the Fine Arts Studios in Los Angeles, California. The production was directed by James Whale (British,1889-1957). Colin Clive reprised his role as Stanhope and David Manners (1900-1998) played Raleigh.

The second major film was made for BBC TV in 1988. It was directed by Michael Simpson and stars Jeremy Northam (1961-   ) as Stanhope and Mark Payton (1960-    ) as Raleigh. The most recent film of Journey’s End was released 12/14/2017 and it is still available on Prime Video. It is a British production directed by Samuel Dibb (1968-    ). It stars English actors Sam Clafin (1986-   ) as Stanhope with Asa Butterfield as Raleigh (1997-    ).

This drama is a must read if you are interested in World War One.

Sunday, July 4, 2021

ERNST JOHANNSEN’S BRIGADE EXCHANGE (Brigadevermittlung)

 

In 1916 Ernst Johannsen (1898-1977) was drafted into the German military. Prior to World War One, Johannsen had an apprenticeship as an electrician.  This knowledge base may have been a factor when he was sent to Verdun in early 1917 to serve with military radio operators. His experiences during World War One had a major impact on his subsequent novels and radio plays. These works convey an antiwar message.

Brigade Exchange: A Telephone Story of the Great War is a radio play written in 1928-29 after Johannsen moved to Hamburg, Germany. It premiered October 17, 1929 on Munich radio and The Stage, in its 20 February 1930 edition, reported that the German cast was composed of ex-service men. Brigade Exchange became extremely successful on German radio prior to receiving fifty other productions in eleven different European countries. The play was also made available on gramophone records.  With the popularity of this radio play in Germany and several other European countries, Johannsen gained significance prominence.

When Brigade Exchange commences, the listeners are quickly plunged into the chaos of battle. “The time is summer, 1918.  Place: A sector held by a German division on the Western front: the telephone post.” The radio program opens with an announcement that includes: “this dramatization pictures a man’s memory of hours spent in a telephone dugout behind the German lines.” There are twenty-one voices for named characters in the script and nine other German voices designated by the letters A through I.  In addition, there are nine different French voices. The main voice operating the switchboard belongs to the character named Schneider.  He diligently strives to handle the needs and requests of the soldiers and officers in the field.

Since Brigade Exchange is a radio play one perceives the war through the sounds of guns, fear in the voices of men, artillery firings, bombs exploding and cries of wounded soldiers. Added to this chaos is the constant ringing of the telephone switchboard. On every page of the script, the switchboard receives at least one call.  At the beginning of the script, two soldiers, Mueller and Schmidt, receive a few moments of relief from the business of war as they play cards in the telephone dugout. This is the proverbial calm before the storm. Then the war begins to bear down harder and harder on the location of the telephone switchboard.

The audience does not glean much information about each character, but Behnke represents the youngest of men. He mentions in the script that tomorrow he will celebrate his nineteenth birthday.  Brigade Exchange does not focus on the lives of the soldiers or who they were in civilian life.  What it illustrates is how each character reacts as the French army advances towards their location.

The Narrator provides the concluding images for the listening audience. “In the corner of a dugout was found lying between his dead comrades, a badly wounded telephone operator of a Brigade Exchange.”  If the play has not convinced the audience that war is hell, the Narrator provides one more image to hear.

                         Time has erased the marks of the monstrous struggle.

                          In the distance a cemetery, at the roadside a few bent rails,

                          tree stumps, a broken wall--that’s all. Reflecting the wanderer

                          rises, and gazes toward the distant hills.  As a pair of brightly

                          colored butterflies flutter by he goes slowly, down toward 

                         the cemetery to the ten thousand dead comrades.

Brigade Exchange clearly illustrates the critical role that the telephone played throughout World War One. It provided the only means of instant communication for the different ground units. It was catastrophic when the telephone communications were disrupted, and it frequently resulted in battles being lost.  Obviously, telephone communication was a significant tool needed to win.  When the play concludes with the loss of the telephone dugout, it clearly prefigures the German loss of the war.

Brigade Exchange was banned and burned in 1933 after Hitler assumed power.  In 1939, Johannsen left Germany to join his fiancĂ©e and son who in 1938 had moved to England.  The initial English translation of this radio play appeared in 1928-29, it was quickly called the German version of R.C. Sherriff’s (1896-1975) play Journey’s End that premiered on the London stage in 1929.

Johannsen lived in England from 1939 until 1957. He became associated with the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) and his plays were translated and aired on radio. The English version of Brigade Exchange was adapted for broadcasting by Dulcima Glashy (a playwright and children’s author) and I.D. Benzie (1902-1988). Isa Donald Benzie was a female BBC radio broadcaster.

Brigade Exchange was first aired by the BBC on March 25, 1930 and it was described as a “A Sound Picture.”  The Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligence newspaper described this program as “one of the most vivid war plays ever broadcast.”  The cast of fifteen actors was headed by Phillip Wade (1896-1950), Francis de Wolff (1913-1984) who I am guessing played the role of Behnke whose nineteenth birthday was to be the next day, and Dennis Arundell (1898-1988) whose actual WWI experience included being gassed.  This broadcast continued to be aired throughout England, Scotland, and Ireland during the 1930s. The Stage reported on 30 June 1938 that Brigade Exchange will be televised on July 3, 1938. I have not found another reference regarding a television production.  A more recent production of Brigade Exchange was created in October, 2003 by the London theatre group Two’s Company.

In addition to Brigade Exchange, Johannsen wrote several novels and five other radio plays between 1928 to 1970, but none of them achieved the level of success enjoyed by this radio play.  In later life Johannsen turned his career to writing film scripts, and he is most remembered for his achievements in film.

NOTES: 

1.      The copy of Brigade Exchange I read was prepared by Will Jonson in 2013. It                  clearly states that this “modern edition has been carefully prepared and is not a facsimile.” The English text I used in this post is from this edition.

      2.      There are a few articles that discuss how Brigade Exchange compares with Journey’s End. Jonson discusses several of the “broad similarities” in his “Introduction” to the script.