Monthly Archives: August 2017

You’re playing for England now

After the Apollo Theatre performances of Journey’s End, and while rehearsals were underway for the new production at the Savoy Theatre, there was time for some further adjustment to the script. Some of the critics at the Apollo performances had drawn attention to some lines that sounded out of place, and Sherriff and Whale themselves were perfectionist enough to have some views of their own as to how the play had worked on its first two outings. Some changes had probably already been made before the Incorporated Stage Society (ISS) production, but from the versions currently available, it is clear that there was some further tinkering before the Savoy premiere.

In fact, including the play as currently published, there are four different versions of the Journey’s End script.

The earliest ‘version’ of the play is at the Imperial War Museum, where it was deposited in 1929 by Sir Walter Lawrence. He had purchased the manuscript, for £1500, at auction at the 10th Anniversary dinner of the League of Nations Union at the Guildhall in London, on 14 November that year. The manuscript is not, unfortunately, a typed and bound one: Sherriff tended not to have many copies of his plays made – they were expensive, and there was little point in running up the bills if the play looked unlikely to find a home. So the papers that were deposited at the Museum are a jumbled assortment of handwritten and typewritten pages.

The earliest complete version of Journey's End. By permission of the Surrey History Centre (Ref: 2332/3/1/1/3)

The earliest complete version of Journey’s End. By permission of the Surrey History Centre (Ref: 2332/3/1/1/3)

Fortunately, two copies of a sequential early manuscript do exist – one in Sherriff’s own papers at the Surrey History Centre, and one at the Victoria and Albert Museum Theatre and Performance Archive: to all intents and purposes they are identical, except that the former is missing some pages towards the end. The SHC manuscript is stamped with a mark indicating that it was used as evidence in the plagiarism case which was heard before the New York South District Court in October 1931, thus supporting the idea that Sherriff himself viewed it as his earliest manuscript copy. The other copy, at the V&A, is labelled on the front as the property of the Incorporated Stage Society, while a further stamp indicates it was typed at the ‘Miss Hayes’ Typewriting office in St Martin’s Lane – suggesting that it was probably typed at the ISS’s request. We can regard these as the original script, and they differ in a number of ways from the version we know today. But the question is: when did the changes from the original come about?

Sherriff said that very few changes were made before the Apollo Theatre performances, but the account in the autobiography of Maurice Evans (the original Raleigh) disagrees. Maurice Browne (the man who produced the play at the Savoy), appears to side more with Sherriff, since after the play opened at the Savoy he commended Whale, who had done ‘a magnificent production, and…some very wise cutting.’

On balance, it seems likely that there were cuts made both before and after the ISS production. Some of the changes seem to have been made solely on the ground of length, and it is not hard to imagine these being made early on in the process, to speed the action up. But some of the other changes are more subtle in their impact, affecting the tone of the play, and altering the portrayal of the characters; these seem more likely to have been made in the light of experience, and following comments made after the initial production.

Exactly how far does the Journey’s End we know today differ from the original? There are approximately 25 significant alterations. Here are the most important:

* The longest excision from the original is in the section in which Stanhope talks to the Sergeant-Major in Act II, Scene 2 (page 50⁠ 1). After the Sergeant-Major asks, ‘What happens when the Boche ‘as all got round the back of us?’, there’s a lengthy sequence in the original in which Stanhope discusses some of the regular soldiers in the company, most notably giving Stanhope the line: ‘A man who can make the chaps laugh out here is worth a dozen big guns’ – which is almost exactly the expression Sherriff uses in his Memoir in discussing his servant Morris. This was most likely cut to reduce running time and because it slowed the arrival of the Colonel to discuss the raid.

* There are several changes in Osborne’s first conversation with Raleigh (Act I). Just after Raleigh notes ‘how frightfully quiet it is!’ (p20) he remarks in the original that he was first billeted (by way of contrast) in a house on the main line and near the trams: Sherriff may have been drawing on his own experience here (given that he was raised in a house backing onto a train line). A few lines later, after Osborne asks Raleigh ‘You thought it was fighting all the time?’ they have a brief exchange in the original about looking up at the moon and the stars, and thinking of those at home doing the same thing. Why this has been elided is not clear, since it reinforces a remark a few lines later that Raleigh should think of it all as ‘romantic’. But a couple of other, rather gentle, reminiscences  are also removed a little later (Act II, Scene 1, pp38-39), when Trotter is discussing the bird in No-Man’s land, and Osborne his rockery. These changes trim the length of the play, but also make its tone just a little bit harder-edged.

* Later in Act I, Osborne and Stanhope discuss hero-worship (p30), but at slightly greater length in the original, when Osborne remarks that the man he fagged for at school now commands a Brigade in Palestine. Given that Journey’s End is grounded in the idea of hero-worship, it seems odd to cut the few extra sentences that discuss it – but the need to move the action along (and perhaps to adhere to William Archer’s prescription to show, rather than tell) is the most likely reason for the change.

* Still in Act I, there are one or two tiny cuts which nevertheless have an impact on our view of Stanhope. When discussing Madge waiting for him, for example (p31), he ‘reaches impulsively for the whisky’ in the original, saying ‘Oh Lord – I must have a drink’ – emphasising the additional strain that Raleigh’s arrival is placing on him. And the strain can be seen even more clearly shortly afterwards (p33) when, in the original, he declines Osborne’s suggestion that he should sleep, replying: ‘Sleep? – I sleep? – Sleep with about three days to live?…’. Nowhere else in the play is the likely result of the German offensive expressed quite so graphically.

* In the conversation between Osborne and Raleigh in Act II, Scene 1 (pp 41-42) there are one or two alterations, but one cut in particular stands out – a rather satirical comment from Osborne (just after Raleigh says that ‘It all seems rather silly’): when Raleigh asks why the newspapers make out that the Germans are such rotten blighters, Osborne replies that ‘It’s their duty to. It’s our duty to hate all Germans. Go on! – Hate them! – Grind your teeth!’, and Raleigh laughs in response. It’s quite an effective line – biting but humorous – but it may have been felt to be too mocking of those on the home front. It is clear from markings on the original manuscripts, however, that Sherriff was having doubts about the whole section amplifying the decency of the Germans (including the reference to the Germans at Wipers allowing the British to carry off their wounded man). Thankfully he kept most of the sequence (other than the ‘Grind your teeth’ line), because otherwise we would have been deprived of the (quintessentially Sherriff) lines: Raleigh: ‘It all seems rather silly, doesn’t it?’; Osborne: ‘It does, rather’.

* One other line in this exchange which caused Sherriff some trouble is one which was identified, after the Apollo Theatre productions, as almost the only false note in the play (in the otherwise flattering review in the Evening Standard)⁠2. When Osborne tells Raleigh that he once played rugger for  Raleigh replies ‘How topping – to have played for England!’, to which Osborne then says (in the original) ‘You’re playing for England now.’ Always mindful of critics’ comments, Sherriff changed Osborne’s response to ‘Well, aren’t you, now?’ in time for the Gollancz first edition of the published play. But sometime later he changed it again, to its present incarnation (p42): ‘It was rather fun’.

* Shortly after, we come to the scene in which Stanhope takes Raleigh’s letter from him, and has Osborne read it out loud. Here (p49) there is a small change, but one which affects our view of Stanhope quite considerably. Raleigh’s letter, which praises Stanhope to the skies, ends with the rather plaintive: ‘I’m awfully proud to think he’s my friend.’ Osborne then turns to Stanhope and asks: ‘Shall I stick it down?’ to which, in the present-day version, Stanhope, sitting with lowered head, answers with a murmur that sounds like ‘Yes, please’ before crossing heavily to Osborne’s bed. Clearly, he is guilty and ashamed of what he has done. In the original, however, his attitude is quite different: his response to Osborne’s question is to throw back his head and laugh, before answering ‘All right! – Stick the damn thing down!’ The Stanhope of the original was much more the senior schoolboy he had once been than the tired and tortured officer of the later version. Interestingly, Sherriff indicated a change at an earlier stage of the drafting process which also emphasised the complex nature of Stanhope’s character. At some point, Stanhope’s reaction to Raleigh’s return from the raid was a simple: ‘Well done, Raleigh’, but he changed it, giving it considerably more depth and power to: ‘Must you sit on Osborne’s bed?’.

* Another pivotal speech with which he grappled was the exchange between Stanhope and Hibbert, after Hibbert has stared down the barrel of Stanhope’s gun (Act II, Scene 2, p58). Stanhope encourages Hibbert to stay by referring to the other officers – ‘Take the chance, old chap, and stand in with Osborne…’ etc. The speech is reminiscent of sections of Sherriff’s Memoir where he wrestles with his own emotions – at one point desperate to ‘worm out’ of things, but then reconciled by the presence of his friends and fellow officers, and with the need not to let them down. In the play it’s a very powerful speech, so it seems surprising that he should have thought of cutting it (which is suggested by pencil marks in the margin of the early manuscript). In the event the only part of the whole section which was removed was a part of a line of Hibbert’s: ‘…and thanks most awfully for – for not shooting me just now’. The italicised part of the line was omitted, perhaps for fear that it would sound incongruous, and provoke some laughter. Now the thought remains unfinished, with nothing more needing to be said.

There are other, lesser, changes too, but overall the impetus after the Apollo performances seems to have been to make the play move a little quicker; the fact that some passages were obviously questioned, yet remained in the text, indicates that they were felt too important to cut. While, on the whole, the changes do not make much difference to the play, there is no doubt that the tone can be affected by even quite innocuous alterations, especially where the character of Stanhope is concerned.



Page references are to the Penguin Modern Classics edition, 2000.

The Evening Standard, 11 December 1928.


Goodbye to the Very lights, goodbye to the war

Having been wounded on 2 August, Sheriff was now in hospital in France. He had dictated one letter to his mother and now wrote briefly home to Pips, noting that he was writing with his left-hand, which is why the writing was shaky. At the point of writing he still did not know whether the wound would be sufficient to see him shipped back to England, but, after a night at the 14 General Hospital at Wimereux near Boulogne, he sailed for Dover on 4 August aboard the Hospital Ship St Denis.

From there it was on to the Royal Victoria Hospital in Netley in Hampshire, where he stayed for two weeks, writing to his mother and father while he was there, but also – very happily from his point of view – being visited by them as well. He fully realised how lucky he had been to have got home (‘considering the comparative slightness of my wounds’ – according to a letter to Pips on 5 August). Ten days later, he noted that only his finger remained damaged, and ‘that will soon be better’ (letter to PIps, 15 August.)

However, by then there there was a new problem: his neuralgia had flared up again. The reoccurrence of the neuralgia may well have been psychosomatic. He knew his wounds were relatively superficial, and expected to be out of hospital relatively soon. On 18 August he wrote to Pips that:

‘As my wounds are now practically better there is nothing for me to stop here for except my neuralgia which will probably be cured by the application of some syringe to my ears. However, I shall not of course hesitate to report any trouble I have with my head, for I think 10 1/2 months is quite a sufficient spell out there and that I am due at least a couple of months off in England – and the kind of neuralgia I had several times in France was enough to knock me up – I have not had it as bad as I did in April this year but it is always hanging about.’

Even as he was clutching at that straw, however, a Medical Board had decided that he was fit for service again. He was granted 3 weeks leave, after which he was to report to the East Surrey’s Grand Shaft barracks at Dover,and, after three weeks Home Service there, he would go back out to France again.

A week into his leave, however, he again reported sick. This time he had boils – which had broken out on his neck when he left hospital, and then formed more widely in places where he had splinter wounds – and he was checked in to St Thomas’s Hospital in London. The treatment took long enough that he had to write to the battalion notifying them that he would not be returning as planned, and requesting an extension of his sick leave. The cause of the boils is unknown, but, while infection may have played a part, so might the stress of knowing that he was just a few weeks away from returning to the din of the trenches.

On 9 November he joined the 3rd East Surreys in Dover. Throughout the course of 1918 a succession of Medical Boards ruled him unfit for overseas service, and he never did go back to France – at least, not until May 1921 when he took his Battlefield Cycling Tour with his father.

According to Pips’ account of their journey, they visited all of the places where Sherriff had spent time in the front lines: Ersatz Crater and the front line at Vimy Ridge; the craters of Hulluch, where he worked with the tunnelling corps; Cité Calonne, with its basement dugouts, where they had enjoyed some merry evenings; Bully Grenay, where he had his photo taken with his fellow officers; Hooge, where they had spent hot days marching in the sun; and, finally, to the battlefields around Ypres, where Sherriff’s father recorded his son’s wounding in unemotional fashion:

‘It was in this battle – about the 1st or 2nd day – that my eldest son, Captain R C Sherriff of the 3rd East Surreys was wounded and sent home to England where he remained until the end of the war.’

In 1930, Sherriff began writing a sequel to Journey’s End, which took up where the play had left off. The first scene shows the men of the Company under heavy pressure from the Germans. Stanhope mounts a suicidal attack, which leaves the Company destroyed and Stanhope and Trotter in than hands of the Germans. ‘Well,’ says Trotter, ‘this is where we say goodbye to the Very lights. Goodbye to the war.’ Sheriff may have felt a similar emotion as he climbed the gangplank of the St Denis on 5 August 1917.

I was wounded this morning

On 1 August the battalion had finally moved forward from its tent encampment at Dickebusch to the Old French Trench, 2 miles south west of Ypres, preparatory to moving up to relieve one of the units which had been engaged in the Battle of Pilckem Ridge, which had begun with an intense artillery barrage prior to an assault on 31 July.

Many years later (1968), writing in a volume of essays  (Promise of Greatness: The 1914-18 War), Sherriff described the barrage:

‘We were surrounded by batteries of artillery, and for three nights it was bedlam…There was something grand and awe-inspiring in the tremendous cannonade of guns. If you stood out there at night, you would see the whole surrounding country lit with thousands of red stabs of flame as salvo after salvo went screaming overhead.’

While the guns may have raised the spirits, the weather and the conditions in camp did quite the opposite, for by the time Sherriff’s battalion was called upon, it had been raining incessantly for three days and nights, and the conditions in which the men were living were unspeakable:

‘The cookhouse was flooded, and most of the food was uneatable. There was nothing but sodden biscuits and cold stew. The cooks tried to supply bacon for breakfast, but the men complained that it “smelled like dead men”. The latrines consisted of buckets with wet planks for the men to sit on but there weren’t enough of them. Something had given the men diarrhoea. They would grope out of their shelters, flounder helplessly in the mud and relieve themselves anywhere. Some of the older men, worn out by the long marching and wretched food, were sick. They would come groping out of their shelters, lean their heads against the corrugated iron walls, and stand there retching and vomiting and groaning. Then they would go back to their huts…These were the men who were to break through the German lines, advance into Belgium and win the war.’

The battalion moved forward from Old French Trench at 5:00pm on 2 August, to take over the brigade battle front from the North Staffs (who held the northern half) and the Queens Royal West Surreys (who held the southern half). ‘C’ and ‘D’ Companies took over the front line, with ‘A’ Company in support and ‘B’ Company in reserve. The battalion diary recorded the difficulties the relieving troops faced:

‘Heavy rain had been falling for three days, no communication trench could be used, for they were more than waist deep in water and liquid mud. Consequently all movement had to take place overland and the dark night and obstacles in the way made progress slow. In addition, on arrival at the support line, and, further, on the way to the front line, ‘C’ Company got caught in a heavy rain of shelling from the enemy, suffering something like 20 casualties in killed and wounded.’

Sherriff was one of the wounded.

In his 1968 article Sherriff wrote of the circumstances surrounding his wounding, suggesting that the battalion had been involved in an ‘over-the-top’ style of attack which had begun at dawn, and that he had been wounded in the afternoon, when attempting to make contact with a neighbouring company. But his account is quite at odds with the battalion diary, which must be seen as much the more reliable source. Being written more than fifty years after the event, it is not surprising that some of the details would be incorrect, but there is no question of the veracity of his general account of the miserable conditions in the days leading up to his wounding nor of the fearsome barrage which proceeded his move towards the front lines, both of which are corroborated by the diary and other sources. Similarly, his account of the shell that caused his wounding seems authentic, as does his description of what happened immediately afterwards:

‘It was a soldier’s legend that you never heard the shell coming that was going to hit you, but I know from first-hand experience that you did. We heard the report of it being fired, and we heard the thin whistle of its approach, rising to a shriek. It landed on top of a concrete pillbox that we were passing, barely five yards away. A few yards farther and it would have been the end of us. The crash was deafening. My runner let out a yell of pain. I didn’t yell so far as I know because I was half-stunned. I remember putting my hand to the right side of my face and feeling nothing; to my horror I thought that the whole side of my face had been blown away. Afterward, with time to think about it in hospital, I pieced the thing together. The light shell, hitting the solid concrete top of the pillbox had sent its splinters upward, mercifully above our heads; but it had sent a ferocious spattering of pulverised concrete in all directions, and that was what we got.’

Sherriff and his runner ‘began the long trek back, floundering through the mud, through the stench and black smoke of the ‘coalboxes’ [shells from 5.9 inch howitzers] that were still coming over’. They made their way back to a dressing station, and then, after a brief examination by a doctor, they carried on to a field hospital. Sherriff reckoned they had walked for 6 hours, over 5 miles, to arrive at the hospital, where, ‘with the aid of probes and tweezers, a doctor took fifty-two pieces of concrete out of me, all about the size of beans or peas. …He wrapped them in a piece of lint and gave them to me as a souvenir.’

The same night (or, most likely, the next day, despite the dating of the letter) he wrote home to his mother (or, more precisely, had an orderly write the letter to his dictation – the handwriting is clearly not Sherriff’s), to let her know that:

‘I was wounded this morning in the right hand and the right side of the face. Nothing at all serious, dear, don’t worry. I walked down all right…rest content that I am quite well and there is a chance of getting home.’

He promised he would write her another letter, unless his wound happened to be a ‘Blighty’.

[Next letter: 3 August]