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Between Entertainment and Elegy: The Unexpected Success of R. C. Sherriff's Journey's End (1928)

  • Emily Curtis Walters
Abstract

Despite West End producers' and critics' expectations that it would never turn a profit, R. C. Sherriff's Journey's End (1928) became the most commercially successful First World stage drama of the interwar period, celebrated as an authentic depiction of the Great War in Britain and around the world. This article explains why. Departing from existing scholarship, which centers on Sherriff's autobiographical influences on his play, I focus instead on the marketing and reception of this production. Several processes specific to the interwar era blurred the play's ontology as a commercial entertainment and catapulted it to international success. These include its conspicuous engagement with and endorsement by veterans of the war, which transformed the play into historical reenactment; the multisensory spectatorial encounter, which allowed audiences to approach Journey's End as a means of accessing vicarious knowledge about the war; and a marketing campaign that addressed anxieties about the British theatrical industry. Finally, I trace the reception of this play into the Second World War, when British soldiers and prisoners of war spontaneously revived it around the world. The afterlives of Journey's End, I demonstrate, suggest new ways of conceiving of the cultural legacy of the First World War across the generations.

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1 For the first publication of the play, see R. C. Sherriff, Journey's End: A Play in Three Acts (London, 1929).

2 Sydney W. Carroll, “Journey's End,” Daily Telegraph, 31 January 1929. Reprinted in Journey's End Pictorial Souvenir, c. 1929 (souvenir program printed by Savoy Theatre, author's collection).

3 “The King Chats With Mr. Sherriff,” Surrey Comet, 16 November 1929, Scrapbook 52; “London Day By Day,” Daily Telegraph, 8 March 1929, Scrapbook 48; “The Prince Sees ‘Journey's End,’” Daily News, 1 March 1929, Scrapbook 48; Sybil Thorndike, “How It Strikes Me,” Era, 27 February 1929, Scrapbook 48; “Mr. Winston Churchill's Praise,” Daily News, 1 March 1929, Scrapbook 48; “Journey's End,” Evening Standard, 18 October 1929, Scrapbook 51; all in Ellen Van Volkenburg–Maurice Browne Collection, University of Michigan Special Collections Library (hereafter identified by scrapbook number followed by VV-B). For Sherriff's account of his audiences with the royal family and Churchill, see R. C. Sherriff, No Leading Lady: An Autobiography (London, 1968), 112–15 and 181–89.

4 See Heinz Kosok, The Theatre of War: The First World War in British and Irish Drama (Houndmills, 2007); Clive Barker and Maggie B. Gale, eds., British Theatre between the Wars, 1918–1939 (Cambridge, 2000); Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory (New York, 1975); Samuel Hynes, A War Imagined: The First World War and English Culture (New York, 1990).

5 Rosa Maria Bracco, Merchants of Hope: British Middlebrow Writers and the First World War, 1919–1939 (Providence, 1993); Robert Gore-Langton, Journey's End: A Biography of a Classic War Play (London, 2013).

6 Heathorn, Stephen, “The Mnemonic Turn in the Cultural Historiography of Britain's Great War,” Historical Journal 48, no. 4 (December 2005): 1103–24, at 1122.

7 Jay Winter, Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History (Cambridge, 1995), 8.

8 Ibid., 29–31.

9 For more on BBC broadcasting and Great War narratives, see Adrian Gregory, The Silence of Memory: Armistice Day 1919–1946 (Oxford, 1994), especially 138–39.

10 Winter, Sites of Memory, 30.

11 Janet S. K. Watson, Fighting Different Wars: Experience, Memory, and the First World War in Britain (Cambridge, 2004), 10, 306–7.

12 This methodological focus constitutes an effort to fulfill Heathorn's second historiographical prescription for analyzing interwar culture, “attentive to the mediums in which representations of the Great War found resonance among the population” and “as conscious of the power of the medium as of the intended message.” Heathorn, “The Mnemonic Turn,” 1123.

13 “Journey's End,” Surrey Comet, 18 January 1929; “Play with No Women,” Western Mail, 23 January 1929, both in Scrapbook 47, VV-B.

14 Adrian Bingham estimates that daily newspaper circulation doubled between 1918 and 1938. See Bingham, Adrian, “‘An Organ of Uplift?’: The Popular Press and Political Culture in Interwar Britain,” Journalism Studies 14, no. 5 (July 2013): 651–62. See also Newman, Sarah and Houlbrook, Matt, “Introduction: The Press and Popular Culture in Interwar Europe,” Journalism Studies 14, no. 5 (July 2013): 640–50; Adrian Bingham, Gender, Modernity, and the Popular Press in Inter-War Britain (Oxford, 2004).

15 “A London Play without Women,” Star, 22 January 1929, Scrapbook 47, VV-B.

16 “Journey's End,” Shields Daily News, 11 November 1929, Scrapbook 52, VV-B. See also Bracco, Merchants of Hope, 182–85; Christopher Hilliard, To Exercise Our Talents: The Democratization of Writing in Britain (Cambridge, MA, 2006).

17 Sherriff, No Leading Lady, 136.

18 “A Great War Play,” Star, 22 January 1929, Scrapbook 47, VV-B.

19 “Fruits of Experience,” Passing Show, 16 March 1929, Scrapbook 49, VV-B.

20 “Battles Over Again,” Evening News, 19 January 1929, Scrapbook 47, VV-B. David Horne (Captain Hardy) also served on the Western Front as a captain with the Grenadier Guards until being wounded in France. H. G. Stoker (the Colonel) was an Australian naval hero taken prisoner in the Dardanelles.

21 “Mr. Zucco in Leeds,” Yorkshire Post, 13 November 1929, Scrapbook 52, VV-B.

22 Sunday Graphic, 20 January 1929, Scrapbook 49, VV-B.

23 “A Great War Play,” Star, 22 January 1929, Scrapbook 47, VV-B.

24 “True to the Trenches,” News of the World, 27 January 1929, Scrapbook 47, VV-B.

25 See, for example, W. A. Darlington, “Realistic War Drama,” Daily Telegraph, 11 December 1928, Scrapbook 48, VV-B.

26 “Journey's End,” Illustrated Sunday Graphic, 11 December 1928, Scrapbook 48, VV-B.

27 “Carried Away,” Sheffield Telegraph, 24 May 1929, Scrapbook 49, VV-B.

28 “Journey's End,” Yorkshire Post, 23 January 1929, Scrapbook 47, VV-B.

29 “Reminders,” Huddersfield Examiner, 19 November 1929, Scrapbook 52, VV-B.

30 “Old Comrades,” Nottingham Guardian, 11 March 1929, Scrapbook 48, VV-B.

31 “‘Journey's End’—The Best War Play,” Evening News, 22 January 1929, Scrapbook 47, VV-B.

32 “Remembrance and Discovery,” Manchester Guardian, 11 March 1929, Scrapbook 48, VV-B; R. C. Sherriff to Clifford Hamilton, 22 January 1930, Box 10, VV-B.

33 R. C. Sherriff to Harold Gosling, 13 May 1930; R. C. Sherriff to Clifford Hamilton, 24 February 1930, Box 10, VV-B. It is unclear whether or not the production team granted any of these requests.

34 “Women Try to Kiss V.C.s,” Daily Mail, 11 November 1929, Scrapbook 52, VV-B.

35 “New War Play,” Sunday Chronicle, 20 January 1929, Scrapbook 47, VV-B; “Battles Over Again,” Evening News, 19 January 1929, Scrapbook 47, VV-B.

36 Journey's End Pictorial Souvenir, 17 April 1929, VV-B; program for benefit performance for the British Ex-Servicemen's League at the Tivoli Cape Town Theatre, 16 November 1929, VV-B; program for benefit performance given in honor of the “Not Forgotten” Association, Adelphi Theatre, VV-B; program for benefit performance in aid of the East Ham Memorial Hospital, East Ham Palace, 29 April 1930, VV-B.

37 Hynes, A War Imagined, 459–60.

38 For example, David Reynolds, The Long Shadow: The Great War and the Twentieth Century (London, 2013); Daniel Todman, The Great War: Myth and Memory (London, 2005).

39 Watson, Fighting Different Wars, 187.

40 “V.C.'s Visit to War Play,” Daily Telegraph, 11 November 1929, Scrapbook 52, VV-B.

41 “Women Try to Kiss V.C.s.”

42 Untitled, Bystander, 20 November 1929, VV-B.

43 “Armistice Performances,” Era, 13 November 1929, Scrapbook 52, VV-B.

44 “V.C.s at War Play,” Daily Mirror, 11 November 1929, Scrapbook 52, VV-B.

45 “The V.C's ‘Journey's End,’” Evening Standard, 11 November 1929, Scrapbook 52, VV-B.

46 “At ‘Journey's End,’” Yorkshire Post, 12 November 1929, Scrapbook 52, VV-B.

47 “Midsomer Norton Honours Victoria Cross Hero,” Somerset Guardian, 4 August 2014, http://www.somersetguardian.co.uk/Midsomer-Norton-honours-Victoria-Cross-hero/story-22068544-detail/story.html, accessed 2 September 2014.

48 I am grateful to Cox's grandson, Steve Cox, and to Mary Hallett for sharing her research on Christopher Cox with me. See Mary Hallett, Without Hesitation: The Story of Christopher Cox V.C. (Horsham, 2005).

49 I am grateful to Tom Adlam's grandson, Martin Adlam, for sharing his memories and some of Adlam's documents with me. “Thomas Edwin Adlam, VC,” The Bedford Regiment in the Great War, http://www.bedfordregiment.org.uk/7thbn/tomadlamvc.html, accessed 1 February 2015.

50 Hugh Walpole, “The Theatre and Reality,” Morning Post, 31 January 1929, Scrapbook 48, VV-B; “Remembrance and Discovery,” Manchester Guardian, 11 March 1929, Scrapbook 48, VV-B; “The Cinema and Peace,” Picture Show, 16 November 1929, Scrapbook 52, VV-B; “War Literature,” Daily Chronicle, 21 November 1929, Scrapbook 52, VV-B; “War Literature,” Daily Mail, 21 November 1929, Scrapbook 52, VV-B. For a thorough chronology of the “war books boom,” see Watson, Fighting Different Wars, chap. 5.

51 Christine Gledhill, “Remembering the War in the 1920s British Cinema,” in British Silent Cinema and the Great War, ed. Michael Hammond and Michael Williams (Houndmills, 2011), 94–108, at 99.

52 Robert Gore-Langton launches this critique in his recent book on the play. See Gore-Langton, Journey's End, xii. But even in 1993, Bracco briefly gestured to the play's effect “on the audiences' senses,” though she left the task of reconstructing this multisensory experience unexplored. See Bracco, Merchants of Hope, 150.

53 “Elaborate Dug-Outs,” Eve, 27 February 1929, Scrapbook 48, VV-B.

54 “Realism,” Sporting Times, 2 February 1929; “One of the Many,” Magazine Programme, 25 February 1929, both in Scrapbook 48, VV-B.

55 Sherriff, No Leading Lady, 48.

56 Untitled, Woman's Pictorial, 2 March 1929, Scrapbook 48, VV-B; Maurice Browne, Too Late to Lament: An Autobiography (Bloomington, 1956), 309–10.

57 “War-Time Dug-Out in Museum,” Daily Chronicle, 20 May 1929, VV-B; “Model Dug-Out,” Bristol Times, Scrapbook 49, VV-B.

58 “Athlete Playwright,” Sunday Graphic, 6 January 1929, Scrapbook 47, VV-B.

59 Sherriff, No Leading Lady, 78; Browne, Too Late to Lament, 309–10.

60 “The War as It Was,” Daily Mirror, 23 January 1929, Scrapbook 47, VV-B.

61 Browne's Journey's End prompt books, c. 1928–1929, VV-B.

62 Frederick T. Smith to R. C. Sherriff, 20 February 1934, Box 3, Folder 3, R. C. Sherriff Papers, Surrey History Centre (hereafter RCS Papers, SHC).

63 “‘Journey's End’ Heard in Darkness,” Daily Chronicle, 12 November 1929, Scrapbook 52, VV-B.

64 BBC listener to BBC Studio Savoy Hill, 11 November 1929, folder 3813, RCS Papers, SHC.

65 Lawrence Napper, “‘That Filth from Which the Glamour is Not Even Yet Departed’: Adapting Journey's End,” in Modern British Drama on Screen, ed. R. Barton Palmer and William Robert Bray (Cambridge, 2013), 12–30, at 12, 20.

66 Film scholar Christine Gledhill analyzes these exhibition practices in “Remembering the War,” 104–5.

67 “Wanted—Realism,” Star, 18 May 1929, Scrapbook 49, VV-B.

68 “War-Time Dug-Out in Museum.”

69 Susan Leigh Foster, Choreographing Empathy: Kinesthesia in Performance (Abingdon, 2011).

70 Untitled, Daily Telegraph, c. March 1929, Scrapbook 48, VV-B.

71 Sherriff, No Leading Lady, 85–86.

72 “Rosary at a Play,” Bristol Evening News, 7 February 1929, Scrapbook 48, VV-B; “The Boom in a Play,” Sunday Express, 10 February 1929, Scrapbook 48, VV-B.

73 “A Father's Tribute,” Daily Mirror, 21 November 1929, Scrapbook 52, VV-B.

74 C. B. Purdom, “The Play of the War,” Everyman, 7 November 1929, Scrapbook 52, VV-B.

75 “Business Man's War Play,” Evening News, 5 January 1929, Scrapbook 47, VV-B; “Journey's End,” Surrey Comet, 18 January 1929, Scrapbook 47, VV-B; “A New Playwright,” Era, 23 January 1929, Scrapbook 47, VV-B.

76 Producer's prompt book for Journey's End, c. 1928, VV-B.

77 Cf. Bracco, Merchants of Hope, 180.

78 Browne, Too Late to Lament, 309.

79 Ibid., 309.

80 The most comprehensive, behind-the-scenes history of Journey's End as a commercial enterprise remains James Curtis's biography of the director, James Whale. See James Curtis, James Whale: A New World of Gods and Monsters (Boston, 1998).

81 Maurice Browne to his mother, 31 January 1929, VV-B.

82 Ibid., 14 February 1929, VV-B.

83 Browne, Too Late to Lament, 54.

84 Maurice Browne, diary c. 1914, Box 16, VV-B. Browne spent the First World War as a conscientious objector, and mounted a touring production of The Trojan Women across the United States to spread pacifist convictions. Shortly before Journey's End, he staged the first English production of Paul Raynal's Le Tombeau sous l'Arc de Triomphe (The Unknown Warrior), a bitter indictment of the Great War.

85 While Sherriff eschewed claims of pacifism, Browne saw something entirely different in the play. For more on Sherriff's war consciousness, see Bracco, Merchants of Hope, 149–50, 176–80.

86 Geoffrey Whitworth, “The League and the Election,” Drama, March 1929, Scrapbook 48, VV-B.

87 “British Plays,” Northern Whig, 25 January 1929, Scrapbook 47, VV-B.

88 “New Plays,” Sheffield Telegraph, 21 January 1929, Scrapbook 47, VV-B.

89 Maggie B. Gale, Errant Nymphs: Women and the Inter-War Theatre,” in Barker and Gale, eds., British Theatre between the Wars, 113–34, 116.

90 “At the Drama,” Clarion, February 1929, Scrapbook 48, VV-B.

91 C. B. Cochran, The Secrets of a Showman (London, 1925); idem, I Had Almost Forgotten (London, 1932); idem, Cock-a-doodle-doo (London, 1941); idem, Showman Looks On (London, 1945). See also Steve Nicholson, The Censorship of British Drama 1900–1968, vol. 1, The Laps of the Gods, 1900–1932 (Exeter, 2003), 88–89.

92 James Agate, Transcript of BBC broadcast, 7 January 1929, Scrapbook 47, VV-B.

93 For Browne's masterful version of this tale, see, for example, Browne, Maurice, “Milestones to Journey's End,” Nash's Pall Mall Magazine 90, no. 478 (March 1933): 4649, 104–6.

94 Transcript of James Agate BBC broadcast, 7 January 1929, Scrapbook 47, VV-B.

95 Hannen Swaffer, “Two Great British Plays,” Sunday Express, 27 January 1929, Scrapbook 47, VV-B.

96 “Mr. Browne's Plans,” Observer, 6 January 1929, Scrapbook 47, VV-B.

97 Ibid.

98 “No Reserved Seats in the Gallery!,” Bristol Evening Times, 3 May 1930, Scrapbook 67, VV-B.

99 C. Egerton Killick protested, for example, that Browne's suggestions for commercial managers would only make it more difficult for independent and small managers to survive in a period of high rents and mega-producers. “Those Extras at the Theatre,” 27 February 1930, Scrapbook 47, VV-B.

100 Letter from Maurice Browne to his audiences, March 1929, printed in Journey's End Pictorial Souvenir (author's collection), emphasis in the original. Browne's decision to transform Binyon's famous line from “We will remember them” to “We will remember” was most likely an accident.

101 C. B. Purdom, “The Play of the War,” Everyman, 7 November 1929, Scrapbook 52, VV-B.

102 “‘Journey's End’ in Germany,” Manchester Guardian, 14 March 1930, Scrapbook 68, VV-B.

103 Lamsdorf is now Łambinowice, Poland. Hand-drawn playbill, c. July 1944, K 99/2208, Imperial War Museum; James E. Wise and Scott Baron, International Stars at War (Annapolis, 2002), 51; Robert Gayler, Private Prisoner: An Astonishing Story of Survival under the Nazis (Wellingborough, 1984), 150; John Jay, Facing Fearful Odds: My Father's Story of Captivity, Escape, and Resistance (Barnsley, 2014), 196.

104 Bankau is now Bąków, Poland. Flight Sergeant Henry Jones, diary, 4 and 11 December 1944, transcribed by his daughter, Rosalind Warden, http://www.pegasusarchive.org/pow/henry_jones.htm, accessed 1 January 2015.

105 According to some sources, it was the word “Hun” that was forbidden. But as these sources were created many years later, it is probably more accurate to use Jones's account, written during captivity. Douglas Smithson, Glider pilot and POW in Germany, diary, BBC WW2 People's War Archive, 2004, http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ww2peopleswar/stories/63/a2704763.shtml, accessed 27 December 2014; interview with NCO Geoffrey Hather, Imperial War Museum, http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/80012976, accessed 1 November 2014. Hather identified this performance as All Quiet on the Western Front, but judging by the date, location, and details of the event, he was almost certainly referring to Journey's End. Hather also relayed that he had convinced the commandant to allow the performance to continue by citing the Geneva Convention and international policy on collective punishment. There were at least two further performances of this production, on 5 and 11 December 1944.

106 The most comprehensive account of Allied POW performances in East and Southeast Asia is Sears Eldredge, Captive Audiences/Captive Performers: Music and Theatre as Strategies for Survival on the Thailand-Burma Railway 1942–1945 (St. Paul, 2011), http://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/captiveaudiences/.

107 Chaim Nussbaum, diary entry, 27 July 1943, reprinted in Chaplain on the River Kwai: Story of a Prisoner of War (New York, 1988), 160.

108 Handwritten program belonging to Frederick Wilfred Thorpe, Royal Field Artillery, K 10/676, Imperial War Museum.

109 Changi playbill, c. Feb. 1943, drawn by Lancashire Lance Bombardier Des Bettany and courtesy of his son, Des Bettany; Stu Lloyd, The Missing Years: A POW's Story from Changi to Hellfire Pass, 1942–5 (Dural Delivery Centre, 2009), 111; Reginald Burton, Railway of Hell: A Japanese POW's Account of War, Capture and Forced Labour (Barnsley, 2002), 62; Hank Nelson, P.O.W., Prisoners of War: Australians under Nippon (Sydney, 1995), 64.

110 See Francis, Martin, “Attending to Ghosts: Some Reflections on the Disavowals of British Great War Historiography,” Twentieth Century British History 25, no. 3 (November 2014): 347–67. Adrian Gregory's The Silence of Memory is one notable exception to this pattern. More recently, Alan Allport's work on the British Army during the Second World War makes repeated reference to the links, both with regard to ideology and military strategy, between 1914 and 1939. See Alan Allport, Browned Off and Bloody Minded: The British Soldier Goes to War, 1939–1945 (New Haven, 2015).

111 Susan Pedersen, Family, Dependence, and the Origins of the Welfare State: Britain and France, 1914–1945 (Cambridge, 1993); Susan Grayzel, At Home and under Fire: Air Raids and Culture in Britain from the Great War to the Blitz (Cambridge, 2012); Brett Holman, The Next War in the Air: Britain's Fear of the Bomber, 1908–1941 (Farnham, 2014).

112 Watson, Fighting Different Wars.

113 I borrow this phrase from Samuel Hynes, who offers it in closing A War Imagined. The generation of men such as Evelyn Waugh, Hynes argues, went to war in 1939 “in a mood very different from that in which their elders had volunteered in 1914 … not cynically, but without illusions, because they remembered a war; not the Great War itself, but the Myth that had been made of it.” Hynes, A War Imagined, 468–69. More recently, Rosie Kennedy has written about children's experience and knowledge of the First World War, but her analysis concludes with 1918. Rosie Kennedy, The Children's War: Britain, 1914–1918 (Houndmills, 2014).

114 “Journey's End,” Yorkshire Observer, 22 January 1929, Scrapbook 47, VV-B.

115 “The War Secretary at ‘Journey's End,’” Manchester Guardian, 7 February 1929, VV-B.

116 For a brief overview of this criticism, including Sherriff's view on the younger generation, see Bracco, Merchants of Hope, 175–76, 178–79.

117 “The War Secretary at ‘Journey's End.’”

118 S. G. Checkland, Voices across the Water: An Anglo-Canadian Boyhood (Aberdeen, 1989), 78.

119 “Journey's End,” Evening Standard, 4 November 1929, Scrapbook 52, VV-B.

120 “Journey's End's Meaning,” Sunderland Echo, 13 November 1929, Scrapbook 52, VV-B.

121 “If Another War Came,” South Wales Evening Echo, 13 November 1929, Scrapbook 52, VV-B.

122 “Youth and War,” Everyman, 21 November 1929, Scrapbook 52, VV-B.

123 Mark Coghlan, Pro Patria: Another 50 Natal Carbineer Years 1945 to 1995 (Pietermaritzberg, 2000), 40–41; Alan F. Hattersley, Carbineer: The History of the Royal Natal Carbineer (Aldershot, 1950), 119.

124 This is the central aim of my dissertation project, “‘Daddy, What Did You Do in the Great War?’: Warfare, Knowledge, and Generations in Britain, 1918–1945” (PhD dissertation, Northwestern University, in progress).

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