Authors: R. C. Sherriff

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

English playwright and screenwriter

Author Works

Drama:

Journey’s End, pr. 1928

Badger’s Green, pr., pb. 1930

St. Helena, pb. 1934 (with Jeanne de Casalis)

Miss Mabel, pr. 1948

Home at Seven, pr., pb. 1950

The White Carnation, pr., pb. 1953

The Long Sunset, pr., pb. 1955

The Telescope, pr., pb. 1957

A Shred of Evidence, pr. 1960

Long Fiction:

Journey’s End, 1930 (with Vernon Bartlett; adaptation of his play)

The Fortnight in September, 1931

Greengates, 1936

The Hopkins Manuscript, 1939

King John’s Treasure, 1954

Screenplays:

The Invisible Man, 1933 (with Philip Wylie; adaptation of H. G. Wells’s novel)

The Road Back, 1937 (with Charles Kenyon; adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s novel)

Goodbye, Mr. Chips, 1939 (with Claudine West and Erich Maschwitz; adaptation of James Hilton’s novel)

The Four Feathers, 1939 (adaptation of A. E.W. Mason’s novel)

That Hamilton Woman, 1941 (with Walter Reisch)

This Above All, 1942 (adaptation of Eric Knight’s novel)

Forever and a Day, 1943 (with others)

Odd Man Out, 1947 (with F. L. Green; adaptation of Green’s novel)

Quartet, 1949 (adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s stories)

Trio, 1950 (adaptation of Maugham’s stories)

No Highway in the Sky, 1951 (with Oscar Millard and Alec Coppel; adaptation of Nevil Shute’s novel)

The Dam Busters, 1954

The Night My Number Came Up, 1955 (based on an article by Air Marshal Sir Victor Goddard)

Nonfiction:

No Leading Lady: An Autobiography, 1968

The Siege of Swayne Castle, 1973

Biography

Robert Cedric Sherriff was born on June 6, 1896, at Kingston-on-Thames, near London. His father, Herbert Hankin Sherriff, worked for the Sun Insurance Company; his mother was Constance Winder Sherriff. Robert grew up in Kingston-on-Thames, where he attended the local grammar school. He graduated at age seventeen, after which he followed his father into the insurance business, but his career was interrupted after nine months by the outbreak of World War I. Sherriff volunteered for service and became a second lieutenant in the Ninth East Surrey Regiment. He was wounded so severely at Ypres (where four-fifths of the original British Expeditionary Force died) that he was hospitalized for six months. At war’s end he was mustered out as a captain.{$I[AN]9810000388}{$I[A]Sherriff, R. C.}{$I[geo]ENGLAND;Sherriff, R. C.}{$I[tim]1896;Sherriff, R. C.}

Back in civilian life, Sherriff returned to the Sun Insurance Company, where he worked for the next ten years as a claims adjuster. For recreation, he joined the Kingston rowing club, and to raise funds for the organization, he and some fellow members wrote and produced plays. Sherriff took to playwriting with zeal and studied William Archer’s Play-Making (1912) so thoroughly that he claimed to have memorized it. In addition, he began to read modern plays systematically and commuted to London to see the latest productions. Returning home on the train, he sometimes developed dialogue for a play he had in mind.

After writing plays for six years for amateur productions, Sherriff turned to a more serious project: a drama based upon his firsthand knowledge of trench warfare. His parents had saved the letters he had written to them from the trenches, and these helped him revive the immediacy of the experience, its realistic details, and his friendships and feelings at the time. Throughout 1928 he worked alone on the play. Gradually the drama, at first called “Suspense” and then “Waiting,” took final shape as Journey’s End.

Realizing that this drama was not the stuff of amateur theatricals, Sherriff sent it to the Curtis Brown theatrical agency. Impressed but unable to see the play’s commercial possibilities, Brown sent it on to Geoffrey Dearmer at the Incorporated Stage Society. Dearmer advised Sherriff to send a copy to George Bernard Shaw, who sent it back with the comment that it was “a document, not a drama,” and that as a slice of “horribly abnormal life” it should be “performed by all means, even at the disadvantage of being the newspaper of the day before yesterday.” Even so, all the London theatrical managements rejected Journey’s End; they were strongly opposed to war plays, and this one lacked all the standard ingredients for a popular success. It had no leading lady, no romance, and no conventional heroics, and all the action took place offstage. Though this was the author’s seventh play, the first six were all amateur productions, and the insurance agent earning six pounds a week was utterly obscure.

Nevertheless, Dearmer arranged for a production by the noncommercial Incorporated Stage Society. To direct, he picked a minor actor named James Whale. Whale, in turn, looked for a leading actor to play Captain Stanhope. All the eminent London actors had declined the role, but twenty-one-year-old Laurence Olivier, who was hoping to win the lead in a stage version of Beau Geste that director Basil Dean was then casting, saw the role of Stanhope as a chance to prove that he could play a soldier and thus handle the lead in the Foreign Legion drama.

The first performance, on the evening of Sunday, December 9, 1928, went off flawlessly but received only moderate applause, though Barry Jackson commended the play’s honest realism. The critics did not appear en masse until the second and final performance at the Monday matinee. The play and production so overwhelmed them that Hannen Swaffer, London’s most scathing critic, hailed Journey’s End as “the greatest of all war plays.” James Agate devoted his entire weekly radio talk show to praising it, concluding, “But you will never see this play. I have spoken with several managers, urging them to give you the opportunity of judging it for yourselves, but they are adamant in their belief that war plays have no audience in the theater.”

Six weeks passed with no sign that the play might be revived by a commercial producer, and Olivier accepted the lead in Beau Geste. Then a fan persuaded a millionaire friend to put up the money. The new production opened on January 21, 1929, at the Savoy Theatre. The first performance received nineteen curtain calls, and the success of Journey’s End became a theatrical legend. It went on to play 594 performances in London. A second production opened at the Henry Miller Theater in New York on March 22, 1929, and ran for 485 performances. Translated into twenty-seven languages, Journey’s End played around the world.

Sherriff’s friends urged him to write another play. At the moment, he had no ideas for one and instead, collaborating with Vernon Bartlett, turned Journey’s End into a novel. It did not have the overwhelming success of the play and film versions, and Sherriff turned back to playwriting with his next venture, a problem comedy called Badger’s Green, about the conflict between developers trying to exploit the imaginary village of the title and the conservationists opposing them. Perhaps the problem, now a vital one, was ahead of its time, for the 1930 production fared poorly.

Discouraged, Sherriff feared that he might not be able to continue supporting himself by his pen, and being unwilling to return to the insurance business, he entered New College at Oxford University to earn a degree in history and become a schoolmaster. While a student, he wrote another novel, The Fortnight in September, about a middle-class family’s annual vacation at a seaside resort. Favorably reviewed, it sold well in England and abroad. Still at Oxford, Sherriff joined an undergraduate rowing crew, though he was then thirty-five years old. Before he could participate in the annual races or earn his degree, he received an invitation from James Whale to collaborate with Philip Wylie on a screenplay of H. G. Wells’s 1897 novel The Invisible Man. The scenarios for Whale’s Frankenstein films had departed drastically from the novel, but the script for The Invisible Man followed Wells with reasonable fidelity. Released in 1933, The Invisible Man was one of the year’s most memorable films, and its literate script helped make it one of the most successful film adaptations of a Wells novel.

The Invisible Man was important in Sherriff’s career, introducing him to screenwriting, a genre in which he was to do some of his most memorable work. Immediately after it, however, he first returned to the stage, collaborating with actress Jeanne de Casalis on St. Helena, a play about the exiled and imprisoned Napoleon. Written and published in 1934, it was not produced until 1936, when it had a faltering start until Winston Churchill wrote to The Times (London) in its defense, calling it “a work of art of a very high order.” Churchill added, “I was among the very first to acclaim the quality of Journey’s End. Here is the end of the most astonishing journey ever made by mortal man.” The letter boosted ticket sales from fewer than one hundred for a performance to overflow houses; when the demand held for almost two months, the management moved the production to a larger theater in the West End. Possibly the house was wrong for the show; the move was a disaster, and attendance plunged precipitously.

Fortunately for Sherriff, Whale once more invited him to write a screenplay for him, this time an adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s novel The Road Back. Though the 1937 film was only moderately successful, it was important in Sherriff’s career in that it returned him to screenwriting. During the next eighteen years, he wrote the scripts for an impressive number of outstanding films, among them Goodbye, Mr. Chips, The Four Feathers, That Hamilton Woman, This Above All, Odd Man Out, Quartet, and Trio.

Sherriff did not return to playwriting until 1948, with Miss Mabel, a popular comedy-mystery. From 1950 to 1960, he wrote five more plays: Home at Seven, The White Carnation, The Long Sunset, The Telescope, and A Shred of Evidence. The last two were not successful, and after 1960, Sherriff went into semiretirement. In 1968, he published an autobiography, No Leading Lady, the title of which refers to complaints about Journey’s End before its unexpected triumph. It is valuable as a lively account not only of Sherriff’s life and career but also of forty years in the history of British theater and cinema. In those forty years, Sherriff played a prominent part.

BibliographyBracco, Rosa Maria. Merchants of Hope: British Middlebrow Writers and the First World War, 1919-1939. Providence, R.I.: Berg, 1993. Bracco examines British literature written about World War I, focusing on Sherriff’s Journey’s End. Includes bibliography and index.Cottrell, John. Laurence Olivier. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1975. Laurence Olivier, in 1928, was the star of the first production of Journey’s End, which was staged by the Incorporated Stage Society before it reopened in London. Cottrell gives a detailed account of the play’s first two stagings.Darlington, William A. “‘Keying Down’: The Secret of Journey’s End.” Review of Journey’s End, by R. C. Sherriff. Theatre Arts Monthly 13 (July, 1929): 493-497. A critic who had seen all the performances of Journey’s End compares the play’s first two productions to the New York production.Hill, Eldon C. “R. C. Sherriff.” In Modern British Dramatists, 1900-1945, edited by Stanley Weintraub. Vol. 10 in Dictionary of Literary Biography. Detroit: Gale Research, 1982. Hill goes into detail in his discussion of Journey’s End, quoting G. Wilson Knight’s 1962 statement that it is “the greatest war play of the century.” He gives a briefer account of the other plays and novels and says little about the screenplays. Includes two photographs of the author, a reproduction of the program, and a photograph of the 1929 production of Journey’s End.
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