Every scene in the World War I drama “Journey’s End” is set in a dank, muddy underground dugout, where several British officers go through their tedious daily tasks, trying to ignore the occasional German bomb falling somewhere nearby.
It’s hour after hour of mind-numbing boredom in filthy confinement, interrupted – when you least expect it – by the sudden intervention of death. As the days turn into weeks and months, it takes a toll on the men.
Soldier: "You never know, sometimes it’s quiet for hours on end. And then all of a sudden, over she comes. Rifle grenades. Minis. And those horrid little things like pineapples. You knows -- Swish! Swish! Swish! Swish! Bang!”
Some soldiers lose their sanity. Others, like Captain Stanhope, develop a mean streak.
Stanhope: “Has Hardy gone?”
Osborne: “Yes, he cleared off a few minutes ago.”
Stanhope: “Lucky for him he did, I had a few words to say to Master Hardy. You wouldn’t believe the blasted mess those fellas left the trenches in. Dugouts like cesspits, rusty bombs, damp rifle grenades, impossibly foul. Hi, Mason!”
Mason: "Coming sir! I’m bringing soup.”
Stanhope: “Damn the soup. Bring some whiskey.”
Whiskey is Captain Stanhope’s way of coping, Others feign illness, mental or physical. And there’s one officer who reads aloud from “Alice in Wonderland” –which he maintains, makes as much sense as the war.
Above all, the men keep up a brave front, and avoid talking about who might die in the next German attack. They go to great lengths talking about the tea they’re sipping, or the canned apricots they’re eating. But they can’t stand to discuss the gruesome possibilities the next day might bring.
If Journey’s End has the ring of authenticity – it’s because the man who wrote it was a decorated WWI veteran, who was severely wounded in 1917. This year marks the 100 year anniversary of the start of World War I. This remarkable play provides a sobering glimpse into the reality of the so-called War To End All Wars.
California Stage presents “Journey’s End" through July 6th at the R25 Arts Center in midtown Sacramento.