'From Journey's End to the Dam Busters: The Life of R.C. Sherriff, Playwright of the Trenches' - An Extract Robert Cedric Sherriff
Born in 1896, R C Sherriff came to fame with his World War 1 drama Journey’s End. From its very first performance in 1928, it was a huge success, celebrated as the War’s most vivid and realistic depiction ever. The play was based on his own experiences as a young officer on the Western Front:. He had initially joined the Artists’ Rifles before being commissioned as a second lieutenant in the East Surreys in September 1916. A few weeks later he arrived in France, and was quickly embroiled in the trench warfare which he hated.
The play’s financial success allowed Sherriff to become a full-time writer. Although his next play (Badger’s Green) was a critical success, it failed to draw the crowds so he tried his hand at a novel instead. The result - Fortnight in September (1931) - was popular with critics and public alike, and, according to one reviewer, contained ‘more human goodness and understanding than anything I have read in years’. Two other novels followed in the next few years - Greengates (1936) and The Hopkins Manuscript (1939) - and all three offer a vivid glimpse of middle class emotions and experiences during the 1930s.
In 1932 he embarked on the screenwriting career that would keep him in the public eye to the 1960s. His friend James Whale, who had directed Journey’s End, invited him to work for Universal Studios in Hollywood (where Whale had just made Frankenstein), and after a huge success with The Invisible Man (1934), Sherriff’s scriptwriting was in great demand. He worked for most of the big studios (MGM, Fox, Warners), and despite tussles with the censors (and with the Nazis), he was able to produce movies as memorable as Goodbye Mr Chips (1939), the Four Feathers (1939), Lady Hamilton (1941 - reputedly Churchill’s favourite movie), Odd Man Out (1947) and many others, including his most famous - The Dam Busters (1955), where he was commended by one critic for finding ‘the right dramatic dialogue for the men of 1939-45, as well as those of 1914-1918’.
Despite his successful films and novels, the stage was his first love, and, although another Journey’s End eluded him, his plays were invariably well-constructed and absorbing, and often very funny. Some of them were set in familiar middle-class settings (Miss Mabel (1948), Home at Seven (1950) and White Carnation (1953)), but others, inspired by his love of history, wandered further afield - to Napoleon’s exile, for example (St Helena (1936)) or Roman Britain (The Long Sunset (1955)). His 1957 play, The Telescope, focused on the problems of juvenile delinquency, and caused quite a stir with its language.
The success of Journey’s End allowed Sherriff to buy Rosebriars, a large house in Esher with extensive gardens which were his pride and joy. He moved there with his mother in 1930, and lived there until he died in 1975. Never married, he left the royalties from his work to be shared between The Scout Association, and his old school, Kingston Grammar. The proceeds from the sale of his beloved Rosebriars meanwhile, provides the funds for the R C Sherriff Trust in its mission to promote the arts in Elmbridge, a cause of which he would wholeheartedly approve.
Here's a link to the full biography: www.amazon.co.uk/Journeys-End-Dam-Busters-Playwright/dp/1473860695
Roland Wales worked as an economist at the Bank of England for many years, and then as Policy Director at the Labour Party. He became interested in R.C. Sherriff when his two sons attended Sherriffs old school, Kingston Grammar, and he became Chair of the parents support group for rowing the Sherriff Club. He produced several Sherriff-themed theatrical nights, and worked closely with the Surrey History Centre in their successful bid for Heritage Lottery Fund support of the Sherriff Archive, including writing a well reviewed play, How Like It All Is, examining the links between Sherriffs wartime experiences and his subsequent work..
By @Tobias Harris - Media Consultant for MESH Theatre Co
The immersive Battlefields production of Journey’s End is as educational as it is entertaining. It provides a direct window into trench warfare, showing the lived experience of WW1 by sharing history through personal narratives.
R.C. Sherriff’s seminal play is a famously authentic depiction of WW1 as he was the only playwright to have fought in the war. This privileges the play with intimate access to the silenced truths of countless fallen soldiers. Live theatre, like no other medium, has the power to unpack and personalise histories that may be component parts of larger, national narratives. This play puts faces and personalities to the macro event of World War One. Sherriff’s story is fictional, but equally it is real, provoking young audiences to engage with relatable ‘stock’ characters – from funny-man Mason to cheery, chubby Trotter to the avuncular Osborne, or the quaking German Prisoner - but who are also surprisingly subtle. Moreover, the play is set in a real historic event (Operation Michael, 1918), which heightens its representation of history through active remembrance.
Particularly, in the context of the centenary, this event has the power to excavate difficult truths of which it is wise to be reminded. Dramatic performance can provide a forum to challenge dominant historical narratives, which can allow people to raise issues that current and future generations may otherwise fail to address. By putting actors and audiences in a bunker together on the Belgian Battlefields to discover this potent story together, empowerment and education become symbiotic. In so doing, people may begin to recognise that each person, both individually and collectively, alters the path of history. This matters because the way we view our histories determines how we view the present and future.
Live theatre offers an interactive method for young people to associate with our past, evoking immediate ‘3-D’ context for the present.. History does not have to simply be a top-down recollection of dates and facts. History through drama engages in multiple ways, serving to inspire rather than merely lecture.
Actors get suited and booted ready for live run on Belgian Battlefields. October 10th - November 12th, 2017
Scenes from Journey's End (Ypres) at Commonwealth War Graves Commission Family Day at Brookwood Military Cemetery