Journey's End by R.C. Sherriff

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Notes on Journey’s End by R.C. Sherriff: This set of Tower Notes is 35 pages long and is sold as a fully illustrated PDF file.

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Introduction: A Lesson in Dying .

Journey’s End is a powerful and accurate document detailing the lives of soldiers in 1918, at a particularly crucial moment in the history of the First World War. Its value as a historical and cultural object is obvious. Sherriff’s play, however, is also a significant work of literature that transcends its particular context and deserves to be played on stage as an important work of drama, not just as a memorial to the soldiers of the 1914-18 conflict. Its theme is, after all, a universal one: it is, like Hamlet , a play about death, and specifically about how human beings cope in the face of death.

This theme is introduced quietly at first, so that the audience do not recognise its importance until later: ‘By the way, you know the big German attack is expected any day now?’ says Hardy to Osborne. Only later do the audience realise the deeper significance of this comment, and Captain Hardy’s jubilance at the beginning of the play: Journey’s End begins with one of only two characters who actually survive the ‘big German attack’ (the other being the Colonel). Hardy’s joviality is because he has had the luck to be relieved just before the fighting begins.

The tone of Osborne in this opening scene, however, does nothing to betray this radical distinction between the two men. Osborne joins in the banter; all is business as usual. One of Sherriff’s most obvious points is that human beings simply cannot face the reality of death all the time , day-after-day, week-after-week. Osborne is a past master at every little coping strategy from remembering the garden back home to treating the war as if it were a ‘Rugger’ game, and, finally, just before he meets his own death, to immersion in the fantasy world of Lewis Carroll. He knows that death is just something you cannot afford to think about, and his advice to Raleigh sets the young man on the same path: ‘You must always think of it like that if you can. Think of it all as – as romantic. It helps.’

Trotter seems to take the same approach, that of simply ignoring his fate, and Stanhope accuses him of having no inner life at all. In fact, Sherriff is careful to make it clear that this is not the case: ‘Always the same, am I? ( He sighs ) Little you know,’ is Trotter’s answer to Stanhope, and it reveals a man – probably the strongest in character of all the officers – who faces death with remarkable good humour and toughness.

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R.C. Sherriff