Sunday, September 12, 2021


                                                                  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.

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