I used my Senior Railcard again yesterday for an Awayday to Woking, where the Surrey Records Centre has R.C.Sherriff’s archive. The centre is a very pleasant place, spacious and light, with a very pleasant staff.
I had asked for the box with Sherriff’s press cuttings, hoping to find out about the reception of Journey’s End in 1929. Unfortunately most of the cuttings are from the fifties and sixties; from 1929-30 there were just a couple of American newspapers, one of which began crumbling in my hands. (And there were a couple of Swedish ones, too (Or were they Finnish? Or Norwegian? Definitely from somewhere up there), which might well be interesting, but alas meant little to me.)
One of the American papers (The New York Evening Journal) reacts very positively to the play (“Here is a play to tear your heart out.”) but feels the need to comment on the very English decorum of the dialogue (“…it is as polite as a tea party in a vicarage without once losing its vigorous touch with reality.”)
Sherriff seems to have started subscribing to a press cuttings agency in the mid-fifties. There are plenty of articles about his new plays in the West End, and amateur productions, but also a lot of response to radio and television productions of his plays, including Journey’s End.
In 1960 there was a season of war plays on BBC television. On consecutive Sundays they presented Allan Monkhouse’s The Conquering Hero, Journey’s End and Miles Malleson’s 1927 Fanatics (which I don’t know – one to investigate).
The reviews of Journey’s End are very positive, but draw attention to what the critics see as dated dialogue and attitudes. Philip Purser in the News Chronicle noted an important aspect of the play when he wrote:
The ethics are of the public school and playing field. There are no politics, no war aims, no future at all beyond getting out of the line and into a bath.
The Daily Telegraph admired the attitudes on display:
How else could that fantastic life have been lived, except on such a chivalrous basis?
The New Statesman review was by Tom Driberg, the most fascinatingly disgraceful politician of the 20th Century (If you haven’t read Francis Wheen’s biography of him – well, you should. You’ll enjoy it.)
Driberg noted the “quaint old decent-chap dialogue and crypto-homo overtones” but admired the effect of the play:
The thickest-skinned viewer may have been moved to reflect on the obscenity and distastefulness of even the 1914-18 war.
The “even” in that sentence is interesting. Four years later, Joan Littlewood ensured that 1914-18 had become the standard example of the obscenity of war. In 1960 a knowledgeable commentator could still refer to it in a way that makes it seem one of the more worthwhile conflicts. Interesting.
While I was finding slim pickings, another researcher was also at work on the Sherriff archive. More intelligently than me, she had chosen to look at Sherriff’s wartime letters, mostly to his father. She kindly let me copy one that definitely seems to prefigure the attitude to war that is found in the play:
I simply feel that we have been set a task which has got to be carried through, and which will probably be unpleasant.
I shall go backto Woking, and comb through the letters for myself.