Antonio Gramsci, Authority, Book review., Books, Bourgeoisie, Captain Dennis Stanhope, Cowardice, Death, Hegemony, Heroism, Hibbert, Journey's End, Loneliness, Marxism, Morality, Osborne, R.C. Sherriff, Raleigh, Revolution, Stanhope, Stoicism, The Great War, The Trenches, Theatre, Theatre Review, Trotter, War, Warfare, Warrior, World War One
[MANSIZE is Tychy’s student support resource, which provides an alternative to the English Literature study aids on the BBC’s “Bitesize” website. Rather than regarding GCSE and Higher students as babies, who must be spoon fed “bite sized” portions of information, Tychy treats them like men, who are adult enough to deal with complex arguments and serious literary criticism. Ed.]
Robert Cedric Sherriff would make his name and fortune from Journey’s End, which was first staged in 1928 and thereafter adapted for Broadway, film, and television. This play proved to be Sherriff’s passport to professional writing, but perhaps he was a bit too professional, for along with penning the screenplays for such cinematic classics as Goodbye Mr. Chips and The Dam Busters, he ultimately submitted a cheerful but undistinguished series of historical dramas, mysteries, and ghost stories. There must have been audiences for these plays, because he kept writing them, but only Journey’s End remains in print today.
Journey’s End is, to my knowledge, the only one of Sherriff’s plays to draw upon his firsthand experience of the Great War as a captain in the 9th East Surrey Regiment. Perhaps in 1928 the world was finally ready to be told about the trenches, and before long there was no scarcity of books which had assumed the task of bringing them back in all of their horror. Journey’s End was launched a month before the publication of Eric Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1929), and it was soon followed by Robert Graves’ Good-Bye to All That (1929) and Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (1930).
The desire to avoid a Second World War, by means of League of Nations’ sanctions or diplomatic appeasement, was shared by the overwhelming majority of the British electorate. Journey’s End looks both to the past and to the future, in simultaneously preserving a common memory of the trenches and reminding its audiences that future wars were likely to be just as bad. But beyond this general message, the play seems to have nothing further to say. These soldiers are waiting to die, and we can only wait with them. We may admire their stoicism, but we cannot help noticing that it has done them little good. There is a danger, however, of identifying too closely with these soldiers until we share their own acceptance of their circumstances. For supposing that the end of this particular “journey” was not death, but life?
THE ONLY QUESTION.
A regiment waits to be slaughtered, like pigs on the road to an abattoir, and it is not coincidental that the officer who seems happiest in the trenches is a greedy fellow who is capped with the porcine name of Trotter.
A British task force prepares to raid a German trench. They blow holes in the barbed wire shielding the trench and the Germans make it abundantly clear that they are expecting the raid by tying red rags to the wire as targets for their machine guns. The British go over the top anyway. It is reported that they “naturally take it as a joke. They say that the rags are just what they want to show them the way through the gap.” This raid is for most of them, however, suicide. The stupidity of the British in this respect is only matched by that of the Germans, who, despite expecting the raid, leave a young soldier behind to be kidnapped. Seven of the British soldiers die and it is unclear what they contributed to the war effort because things carry on exactly the same in the trenches after their deaths. The prospects for this raid may have been greater if it was held after nightfall, but the brigadier had decreed that, “the present arrangements have got to stand,” not least because a late raid would have disrupted his dinner.
The British only regard the Germans as enemies in a strictly formal sense, for they otherwise never articulate any warlike hatred of them, nor even any particular reason for fighting them. In an ironic reflection of the play’s actual theatricality, these soldiers are like actors who are trying to follow a script which they did not write and do not understand.
But they are not actors and their blood is real. Why, then, do they not have a revolution?
This is the obvious question. It is the only question. Even if the soldiers merely deserted en masse then, whatever the problems created in the long term, they would, at least in the short term, live. One may protest that this would deliver a decisive military advantage to the Germans, but what of it? Would it matter to these soldiers if they surrendered the unrecognisable remains of an arbitrary French landscape? Would they feel any real dishonour or regret? Our brief glimpse of the German POW who was captured in the British raid affirms that his imprisonment by the enemy is merely the equivalent of being released from that of his own military service.
These soldiers could daringly aspire to return home alive, ready to forget about the trenches and to set to work on building the modern world. Versailles would never happen. The rise of Hitler and the whole of the Second World War would be conceivably avoided. On the home front, the collapse of established authority would lead to greater liberties and a better society. In other words, the dramatis personae of Journey’s End have the fortunes of Western civilisation in their hands and they make the wrong decision. They continue with the charade that the Germans are their enemies, rather than the authorities who are perpetuating this moronic war. The student of twentieth-century history will be conscious that revolutions often end in bloodshed, philistinism, and the wholesale negation of human promise, but here is an example of a people who suffer the same fate precisely because they have failed to have a revolution.
What prevents them? Or rather, who prevents them?
Captain Dennis Stanhope frets that he is not really a hero, because he nightly drowns his cowardice in whisky, but we may generously pronounce that he is really heroic because he continues to fight his cowardice rather than agreeing to be invalided out of the trenches. Stanhope’s heroism is not merely a personal ideal, which anchors his character in a chaotic world, but it is also a means of manipulating the men under his command. He effectively declares that, “I have sacrificed my life for the good of the regiment and therefore you should too.”
Hibbert is the only officer to significantly dissent from the war effort – the only pig who can smell the abattoir – and it will take all of Stanhope’s wiles to prevent him from deserting. He indeed traps Hibbert like an animal: the doctor will dismiss his “neuralgia” and send him back to the front, whilst Stanhope offers to execute Hibbert himself rather than sending him to be shot for desertion. This is superficially a confrontation between judicious authority and a lousy “shirker,” but Hibbert will prove brave enough to offer his life rather than submitting any further to Stanhope’s regime; whilst his act of “striking a superior officer” symbolises the only revolutionary challenge to established authority in the entire play.
Stanhope resorts to a calculated display of friendship and a solidarity which perversely upholds authority. He claims that, “Every little noise up there makes me feel – just as you feel… We all feel like you do sometimes, if you only knew.” If Stanhope had originally wanted Hibbert to conform to his example of stoical heroism, he is now forced to reveal his own cowardice and to conform to Hibbert’s image like a shape-shifting devil from peasant lore. But this cowardice can only lead back to stoicism, and Hibbert is hypnotised with the logic that he should accept the trenches because everybody else does so – a logic which would uphold any exploitation. Once the threat from Hibbert is neutralised, Stanhope can safely snarl, “Little worm gets on my nerves… Doesn‘t his repulsive little mind make you sick?”
“There’s not a man left who was here when I came,” Stanhope admits, which is rather an indictment of his leadership. Although nobody particularly benefits from this war, Stanhope does exact certain privileges, such as dining on fresh food with his commanding officers. It seems unlikely that the spectacle of his debauched drinking would be tolerated in ordinary soldiers. Yet Stanhope remains a victim of the very system which he champions, and acts such as his rebuke to the insensitive colonel reveal a basic decency in his character. To adequately account of the disaster in the trenches, we should look both into and beyond Stanhope.
SMASH THE SYSTEM.
GCSE students are typically required to evaluate the characters of the various officers, dwelling upon Osborne’s wisdom, Trotters’ greed, and Raleigh’s rather unlikely innocence, but this is part of the problem: all of these soldiers, including Stanhope, are only individuals, they are fatally isolated, and they lack the wherewithal to come together in solidarity.
The first two soldiers whom we encounter are characteristically at loggerheads: the cynical Captain Hardy helpfully tells Osborne that, “I should think you’ll get it – right in the neck,” whilst Osborne counters that, “you won’t be far away.” This is not the dialogue of men who are fighting together in a common cause. The personal isolation of these soldiers is taken to extremes in Stanhope’s confession, which provides some of the play’s most significant lines. He demands of Osborne:
D’you ever get a sudden feeling that everything’s going farther and farther away – till you’re the only thing in the world – and then the world begins going away – until you’re the only thing in – in the universe – and you struggle to get back – and can’t?
Rather than being at the heart of a military operation and a social institution, Stanhope is apparently an isolated psyche, adrift in an empty universe. Osborne tries to medicalise Stanhope’s cosmic loneliness as a “bit of nerve strain,” but it remains very much a social condition.
This isolation is partly produced by the conditions of wartime, when the state nationalised most means of communication and the absence of reliable information left ordinary people feeling alone and powerless. When Trotter jokes that, “my wife reads the papers every morning and writes and tells me” what is “going on,” he is doubly wrong, for both newspapers and personal correspondence were censored by the state.
Yet Edwardian society more generally prevented a revolutionary mindset from emerging by determining the behaviour of individuals in manifold, subtle, and often consensual ways. The minds of these soldiers have been produced by a culture in which social institutions are deferentially accepted and one has no choice but to obey established authority. When that authority abandons them, these men can only cherish their memories and personal experiences, rather than envisioning their place in an alternative social destiny.
Stanhope dreams that he will eventually “go away for months and live in the open air and get fit,” before returning to his beloved, who seems to be more of an ideal than a person. He is reportedly accustomed to sitting in a “country vicarage sipping tea,” whilst Osborne‘s home life is equally explosive: “I spent all the time in the garden, making a rockery. In the evenings I used to sit and smoke and read – and my wife used to knit socks and play the piano a bit.” These men are sustained by the memory of home – of peaceful gardens and faithful women – rather than by the idea of fighting for a better future.
But home is the very last thing to have been left at home. These trenches never resemble a warring frontier because there is a general aspiration to make them homely and suburban, with more sustained attention given to planning dinners than to fighting the war. Stanhope complains that the trenches “smell like cess-pits” (what else could they smell like?) and he is not wholly joking when scoffing, “Clean trenches up – with little dustpan and brush… Make you little apron – with lace on it.” Osborne admires beautiful sunsets from the trenches, no doubt wishing that he was back in his garden. After battle he will return to the trenches for a “good hot bath” and “something special for dinner.” It is comical in itself to imagine these peaceable bourgeois folk at war (“Osborne: Don’t forget to throw your bombs”).
When these men do put their heads together, there are scant and somewhat whimsical results. Osborne recites some lines from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which vaguely anticipate his own immanent death, and Trotter replies that “I don’t see no point in that,” although a few moments ago he had trilled some equally premonitory children’s verses about “strawberry jam.” There is at least solidarity between Trotter and Osborne at a subconscious level of nonsense. Osborne and Raleigh recite “The Walrus and the Carpenter” together before the raid, and, ludicrously, they only achieve the beginnings of a solidarity when enthusing over their shared fondness for the New Forest.
The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci once defined hegemony as the sense that cultural norms were “natural” and “inevitable,” and Trotter’s particular gift is for making “things feel – natural.” To listen to Osborne and Trotter chatting, one would think that they were fighting for their gardens rather than for the nation, but Trotter unites the two when planting flowerbeds which display the colours of the Union Jack (except erroneously since calceolaria is yellow rather than, as he claims, “white.”) Trotter further reduces the Great War to a question of gardening when mistaking the blossom of a “may-tree” for Phosgene. The social order can hardly be accepted as natural when these soldiers “putting on gas masks because of a damn may tree” cannot recognise nature in the first place.
At times, the Great War seems to be an extension of the public schooling which has produced these men. Osborne hopes that, “we’re lucky and get a youngster straight from school. They’re the kind that do best.” Stanhope’s company is led by “no more than a boy,” and supervised by a former schoolmaster and sports referee, but, oddly, this strengthens rather than undermines its authority. In school, Stanhope willingly upheld authority by punishing his fellow pupils for smoking and drinking, and whilst we may regard him as a jumped up little martinet, his glamour inspires Raleigh for the rest of his life. The erstwhile schoolmaster Osborne urges that, “There’s something very deep and rather fine about hero-worship.” On his death bed, Raleigh can only understand what is happening to him in the light of an injury which he obtained in “rugger.”
When Raleigh ventures that “The Germans are really quite decent, aren’t they,” Osborne cites an example of the sportsmanship of the other side. The wholesale lack of hatred for the enemy is possibly a disadvantage of warfare conducted by sportsmen. When Stanhope grows morbid, Osborne suggests that they talk about “croquet, or the war.” The interrogation of the captured German soldier resembles an errant schoolchild being hauled before his headmaster. The boy is made to empty his pockets, revealing a treasure trove of “bit o’ string; little box o’ fruit drops; pocket-knife… bit o’cedar pencil – and a stick of chocolate.” It may seem amusing that these items are Britain’s latest colonial acquisitions, and perhaps it is appropriate that the Lewis Carroll-reciting Osborne has devoted his life to delivering this plunder to the British empire. Alas, the colonel returns the boy’s useless “oddments.”
Raleigh’s schooling has preserved him within a perpetual childhood. He is awed by the sight of Lancer’s Alley, as if it was a working toy town, whilst Osborne eggs him on with the advice, “Think of it all as – as romantic. It helps.” The prospect of the raid strikes Raleigh as being “most frightfully exciting,” but his repulsion for the unsporting attitude of his fellow officers potentially leads him to a solidarity with the offstage soldiers. Stanhope may wonder whether Raleigh is undermining his regime, but the ideal of heroism upholds military discipline by enforcing a distinction between heroes and followers, and Raleigh, with his name suggesting a Tudor adventurer from a gentler age, is so immaculate a hero that perhaps Stanhope can soon envision following him.
This duly happens when the understudy Raleigh replaces Stanhope as the hero. During the final massacre, Raleigh assumes the mask of Stanhope’s heroism, Stanhope remains cowering in his dugout, and we are left to witness the cowardly reality behind the facade. The officers’ dugout always had a backstage quality – the hushed, intense atmosphere of a dressing room in the middle of a performance – and it is as if Stanhope’s Hamlet has become stricken with stage-fright before the final act, and he will not partake in the slaughter. When Raleigh dies, however, Stanhope must again become the hero and take to the stage. “All right… I’m coming.” If this is the way the world ends, most of these men have only greeted the bangs with a whimper.