150+ essays on literary topics
R.C.Sherriff’s First World War play, Journey’s End, was one of five chosen to represent the best of early 20th century English drama in Modern Plays, published in the Everyman’s Library series in 1937. The other four, in chronological order of production, were Milestones by Arnold Bennett and Edward Knoblock (1912), The Dover Road by A.A.Milne (1922), Hay Fever by Noel Coward (1925) and For Services Rendered by W.Somerset Maugham (1932). Journey’s End had its first performance at the Apollo Theatre in 1928, with a twenty-one year old Laurence Olivier playing the charismatic, troubled, alcoholic officer, Captain Stanhope.
First-hand accounts of Olivier’s performance must be as rare now as first-hand accounts of life in the trenches. You would have to have been a fourteen year old then, perhaps enjoying your first West End show as a birthday treat, to be able to remember it now in your hundredth year. A reunion of surviving members of the audience for the play’s first run would have made an interesting addition to this year’s WW1 centenary. Small, but interesting.
Most of the playwrights in the anthology are familiar names, though not all of them are remembered now for their plays. We know Arnold Bennett and Somerset Maugham as novelists and A.A.Milne as the author of Winnie the Pooh. If it were not for Journey’s End, R.C.Sherriff would mean as little to most of us as Edward Knoblock. The only one to have held onto his reputation as a dramatist is Noel Coward. As for the plays themselves, only Hay Fever and Journey’s End are still performed.
Modern drama in England ninety years ago was the well-made play, its subject the manners and morals of the middle and upper classes of English society. Journey’s End is about the officer class, Hay Fever is about an eccentric family and their conventional house guests, Dover Road is about marital infidelity among the upper classes, Milestones is about arranged marriages in a patriarchal society, For Services Rendered is about middle class complacency. All five dramatists use the familiar ingredients of the well-made play (individuals thrown together in a situation which exposes strengths and weaknesses of character, classical unities more or less observed) to explore a common theme: the pressure on individuals to conform to social expectations.
The plays were written for a West End audience which, until Barry Jackson founded the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, paving the way for other regional reps and ultimately for the National Theatre, was the only audience there was. That is why Journey’s End, whose subject is the relationship between two young officers who went to the same public school, was the only play about the First World War to be written by an English dramatist until Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop came up with Oh What A Lovely War! in 1963. Journey’s End belongs to the Rupert Brooke end of the literary spectrum, not the Wilfred Owen end. The ‘other ranks’ are represented by the officers’ cook, Mason, and the Company Sergeant-Major, who doesn’t have a name, both parts, especially Mason, gifts to a comic actor. Stanhope, a tragic hero whose tragic flaw is the whisky it takes to get him through the day, a gift to a tragic actor like Olivier, lives up to the ideals of his class, unlike Hibbert who, had it not been for Stanhope, would have betrayed them. Young Raleigh dies for them, inspired by his hero, Stanhope. The ideals themselves, Owen’s ‘old lie’, are never questioned. Ten years after the end of the war, Journey’s End made fine propaganda, as the stage directions which end the play make perfectly clear.
Stanhope pauses for a moment by Osborne’s bed and lightly runs his fingers over Raleigh’s tousled hair. He goes stiffly up the steps, his tall figure black against the dawn sky. The shelling has risen to a great fury. The solitary candle burns with a steady flame, and Raleigh lies in the shadows. The whine of a shell rises to a shriek and bursts on the dug-out roof. The shock stabs out the candle-flame; the timber props of the door cave slowly in, sandbags fall and block the passage to the open air. There is darkness in the dug-out. Here and there the red dawn glows through the jagged holes of the broken doorway. Very faintly there comes the dull rattle of machine-guns and the fevered spatter of rifle fire.
The choreography of the collapsing set (a gift to an imaginative stage manager) does nothing to diminish, everything to enhance, the nobility of the cause and the heroism of those who died for it. The last scene of Somerset Maugham’s For Services Rendered stands in sharp contrast. The action of the play turns on the failure of a war-time hero to make a success of his peacetime career. The comfortable post-war lives of the other characters – a well-to-do solicitor and his family – are gradually revealed as complacent and selfish. His three daughters are unhappily married, happily unmarried and unhappily unmarried. The last of these is the worm that turns, violently rejecting her life of subservient service to her war-wounded brother when the war-hero she might have married commits suicide. The family is startled when she turns on them.
‘Why should I be sacrificed all the time? Why should I be at everyone’s beck and call? Why should I have to do everything? I’m sick of being put upon. I’m sick of you, I’m sick of Sydney, I’m sick of Lois. I’m sick of you all.’
She throws over a table, then ‘she throws herself down and hysterically beats upon the floor with her fists’. Her brother-in-law ‘picks her up and carries her out of the room’. The scene could be played straight or played for laughs or, perhaps best, for both. The play ends on a subversive note which looks forward to the next war, then only seven years off. The patriarch addresses his family: ‘Well, I must say it’s very nice to have a cup of tea by one’s own fireside and surrounded by one’s family. If you come to think of it we none of us have anything very much to worry about. Of course we none of us have more money than we know what to do with, but we have our health and we have our happiness. I don’t think we’ve got very much to complain of. Things haven’t been going too well lately, but I think the world is turning the corner and we can all look forward to better times in future. This old England of ours isn’t done yet, and I for one believe in it and all it stands for.’
The unhappily unmarried daughter, the one who had to be carried out, then ‘begins to sing in a thin cracked voice’ the national anthem: ‘God save our gracious King! Long live our noble King! God save our King!’ The curtain comes down on the family looking at her ‘petrified, in horror-struck surprise’.
The editor of Modern Drama observed in his introduction that For Services Rendered ‘was not Mr Somerset Maugham’s most successful play; but it is probably his greatest’. I don’t suppose I will live to see it revived on stage, but it has aroused my interest in Somerset Maugham the dramatist (a Somerset Maugham, I confess, that I did not know existed).
My subject on 1 October will be John Donne’s cancer diary.
My next Reader’s Diary will appear on 8 October.