Sherriff, R.C. 1896–1975
Sherriff, R.C. 1896–1975
PERSONAL: Born June 6, 1896, in Kingston-upon-Thames, England; died November 13, 1975, in Kingston-upon-Thames, England; son of Herbert Hankin (an insurance agent) and Constance (Winder) Sherriff. Education: Attended New College, Oxford, 1931–34. Hobbies and other interests: Rowing, cricket, archaeology.
CAREER: British playwright, novelist, and scriptwriter for films, television, and radio. Claims adjuster for Sun Insurance Office, 1914, 1918–28. Military service: British Army, c. 1915–18; served in 9th East Surrey Regiment; became captain.
MEMBER: Royal Society of Literature (fellow), Society of Antiquaries (fellow).
AWARDS, HONORS: Best Screenplay nomination, British Film Academy, 1952, for The Dam Busters.
Profit and Loss, first produced at Gables's Theatre, Surbiton, England, January 10, 1923.
Journey's End (three-act; first produced on the West End at Apollo Theatre, December 9, 1928; produced on Broadway at Henry Miller's Theatre, March 22, 1929; also see below), Coward-McCann (New York, NY), 1929, Kessinger Publishing (Whitefish, MT), 2004.
Badger's Green (three-act; first produced in London, England, 1930), Gollancz (London, England), 1930, Samuel French (New York, NY), 1934, revised edition, 1962.
Windfall, first produced at Embassy Theatre, Hampstead, England, February 26, 1933.
Two Hearts Doubled (playlet), Samuel French, 1934.
(With Jeanne De Casalis) St. Helena (twelve-scene; first produced on the West End at Old Vic Theatre, February 4, 1936; produced on Broadway at Lyceum Theatre, October 6, 1936), Gollancz (London, England), 1934, Frederick A. Stokes (New York, NY), 1935.
Miss Mabel (three-act; first produced on the West End at Duchess Theatre, November 23, 1948), Gollancz (London, England), 1949.
Home at Seven (three-act; first produced on the West End at Wyndham's Theatre, March 7, 1950), Gollancz (London, England), 1951.
The Kite (published in Action: Beacon Lights of Literature, edited by Georgia G. Winn and others), Iroquois, 1952.
The White Carnation (two-act; first produced on the West End at Globe Theatre, March 20, 1953), Samuel French (New York, NY), 1953.
The Long Sunset (three-act; first produced for BBC Home Service radio, April 23, 1955; produced off the West End at Mermaid Theatre, November 3, 1962), Elek Books (London, England), 1956, Samuel French (New York, NY), 1958.
Cards with Uncle Tom (radio play), first produced by BBC Home Service, February 3, 1958.
The Telescope (three-act; first produced on the West End at Prince of Wales' Theatre, April 20, 1960), Samuel French (New York, NY), 1961.
A Shred of Evidence: A Play in Three Acts, first produced on the West End at Duchess Theatre, London, England, April 27, 1960, Samuel French (London, England), 1961.
Also author of Mr. Bridie's Finger, 1926, and Dark Evening, 1949.
(With Benn W. Levy and J.B. Priestly) Old Dark House (based on the novel Benighted by Priestly), Universal, 1932.
(With Philip Wylie) The Invisible Man (based on the novel by H.G. Wells), Universal, 1933.
One More River (based on the novel by John Galsworthy), Universal, 1934.
(Author of additional scenes) Garret Fort, David O. Selznick, and others, Dracula's Daughter, Universal, 1936.
(With Charles Kenyon) The Road Back (based on the novel by Erich Maria Remarque), Universal, 1937.
(With Claudine West and Eric Maschwitz) Goodbye, Mr. Chips (based on the novel by James Hilton), Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1939.
(With Lajos Biró and Arthur Wimperis) Four Feathers (based on the novel by A.E.W. Mason), London Film Productions, 1939.
(With Walter Reisch) That Hamilton Woman, Alexander Korda Films, 1941, released in England as Lady Hamilton.
(Uncredited author of additional scenes) George Froeschel, Ian Struther, and others, Mrs. Miniver (based on the novel by James Hilton), Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1942.
This Above All (based on the novel by Eric Knight), Twentieth Century-Fox, 1942.
(With Charles Bennett and Alan Campbell) Forever and a Day, Anglo-American/RKO, 1943.
(With Laurence Kirk, Harvey S. Haislip, George Bruce, John L. Balderston, and Herman J. Mankiewicz) Stand By for Action, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1943.
(With F.L. Green) Odd Man Out (based on the novel by Green), Two Cities Films, 1947, published in Three British Screen Plays, edited by Roger Manvell, Methuen (London, England), 1950.
Quartet: Stories (screenplays based on stories by W. Somerset Maugham; produced by Gainsborough/Rank, 1950), Heinemann (London, England), 1948, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1949.
(With Noel Langley) Trio (based on stories by W. Somerset Maugham), Paramount Pictures, 1950, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1950.
(With Alec Coppel, Oscar Millard, and Nevil Shute) No Highway in the Sky (based on the novel by Shute), Twentieth Century-Fox, 1951, released in England and No Highway.
The Dam Busters (based on the book by Paul Brickhill), Associated British Picture Corporation, 1952.
(With Victor Goddard) The Night My Number Came Up, Ealing, 1955.
Storm over the Nile (based on the novel The Four Feathers by A.E.W. Mason), London Film Productions, 1955, Columbia, 1956.
The Ogburn Story (television screenplay), first broadcast by BBC-TV, 1963.
(With Vernon Bartlett) Journey's End (adapted from the play by Sherriff), Frederick A. Stokes (New York, NY), 1930.
The Fortnight in September, Gollancz (London, England), 1931, Frederick A. Stokes (New York, NY), 1932.
Greengates, Frederick A. Stokes (New York, NY), 1936.
The Hopkins Manuscript (science fiction), Macmillan (New York, NY), 1939, reprinted with introduction by John Gassner, illustrations by Joe Mugnaini, 1963, revised edition published as The Cataclysm, Pan Books (London, England), 1958.
Chedworth, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1944.
Another Year, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1948.
The Wells of St. Mary's, Heinemann (London, England), 1962, Hutchinson (New York, NY), 1973.
The Siege of Swayne Castle, illustrated by Graham Humphreys, Gollancz (London, England), 1973.
King John's Treasure: An Adventure Story (for children), illustrated by Douglas Relf, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1954.
No Leading Lady: An Autobiography, Gollancz (London, England), 1968.
ADAPTATIONS: Sherriff's screenplay for The Invisible Man was adapted as a novel by William R. Sanford and Carl R. Green, Crestwood House (Mankato, MN), 1987. Badger's Green was adapted for film by British and Dominions Film Corporation, 1934, and a remake was released in 1948. Home at Seven was adapted as the film Murder on Monday, 1952. Peter Powell's 1960 musical Johnny the Priest was based on Sherriff's The Telescope.
SIDELIGHTS: Though R.C. Sherriff gained fame as a novelist and a screenwriter, he is best known for his play The Journey's End, which has been considered one of the most influential war dramas of its time. Sherriff did not plan to become a writer. He began writing plays for the Kingston Rowing Club to perform in order to earn money for the club. The seventh year, when Sheriff ran out of comedy ideas for a new play, he jotted down some notes on conversations and characters from his experiences during World War I. The resulting play, The Journey's End, was a success not only locally but nationally and internationally as well. Sherriff sent the play for criticism to George Bernard Shaw, who helped launch it on its prosperous West End run.
The Journey's End is about English troops fighting in nightmarish conditions on the Western Front just before a major German offensive in 1918. The characters include Captain Stanhope, a brave soldier and respected leader who retreats into alcohol to help him forget the nightmares of battle; Lieutenant Osborne, who reads Alice's Adventures in Wonderland as an escape; Lieutenant Trotter, who feigns joviality to conceal his fear; and Lieutenant Hibbert, who has attacks of the shivers that he cannot seem to control. Joining these shell-shocked men is Lieutenant Raleigh, fresh from England and idealistic about fighting a war for God and country. Raleigh pulled strings to get assigned to Stanhope, who was a friend of the family's in England and whom Raleigh looks to as a hero. Raleigh is disappointed to see Stanhope drink so much, but after a bloody battle in which many men are lost, he begins to understand why the captain drinks. By the end of the play, Raleigh is killed, too, and the hopelessness of the war is made all too clear. "What is graphically conveyed, though in ironic understatement," commented Peter Raby in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, "is the futility of the enterprise and the unreasonable and ruthless demands made on the front-line soldiers by the generals and staff."
Although a number of authors have portrayed the horrors of World War I—most notably, perhaps, in Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front—The Journey's End was still remarkable at the time for its honest portrayal of war. Even in recent years, critics still see it as a relevant play. For example, Sarah Hemming, writing in a Financial Times review of a 1998 production of the work, asserted that "it has lost none of its power to move, which lies in the playwright's sympathetic portrayal of a group of men trapped in extremis."
Sherriff's success with The Journey's End was a mixed blessing, however, because critics then expected his later works to have similar themes. His subsequent play, a light comedy called Badger's Green that is about a small English village resisting a planned building development, therefore had a disappointing reception in London. Discouraged by the negative criticism, Sherriff determined to become a schoolmaster and entered New College, Oxford, at the age of thirty-five. He excelled more at his rowing than his studies, however, and when he had an attack of pleurisy, it ended his rowing career and his chances of earning a degree as well.
Fortunately, Sherriff's writing talents came to his aid. He wrote a novel, The Fortnight in September, which was an instant success despite the fact that he had originally had no intention of publishing the book. The story is about the mild adventures of a family on vacation at a seaside resort. While Mr. Stevens finds relaxation from his clerk's job and Mrs. Stevens works to overcome her fear of swimming, their daughter, Mary, has a brief affair with a man named Pat that changes her relationship with her parents. The novel drew praise from reviewers, such as one Spectator critic who lauded how the author imbued "more simple human goodness and understanding in this book than in anything I have read for years…. Once more, the author of Journey's End has enriched our lives." Sherriff often commented that he seemed to write best when he was not trying, and this maxim would prove to be true throughout his career.
After the success of his novel, in 1933 Sherriff was invited to Hollywood by director James Whale, who wanted the author to help write a screenplay for H.G. Wells' The Invisible Man. Others had attempted unsuccessfully to write the script, but by sticking to the original plot Sherriff managed it adeptly. In the following years, he returned to Hollywood often to work on such screenplays as Goodbye, Mr. Chips, That Hamilton Woman, and The Night My Number Came Up.
Encouraged by his success with screenplays, Sherriff recovered his confidence and decided to try to write plays again. However, his play about the last days of Napoleon Bonaparte's life, St. Helena, again received poor critical reviews. Around this time he also wrote a science fiction novel, The Hopkins Manuscript, about the survivors of a natural disaster that destroys most of human civilization. Edgar Hopkins, a schoolmaster, is one of those survivors, and he details the panic before the disaster and the greed and selfishness of the survivors as they fight over resources after the cataclysm. Although some reviewers panned the book, New Yorker contributor Clifton Fadiman praised it as "a modest story on a grandiose theme."
Sherriff abandoned writing plays for the next dozen years after the negative reviews of St. Helena, and returned to the screen, where he wrote or contributed to a number of outstanding features, such as the Oscar-winning 1942 film This Above All and The Dam Busters, a war film about the Royal Air Force that received a British Film Academy nomination in 1952.
The late 1940s and 1950s were relatively kind to Sherriff, who gained acceptance again with a number of his plays, including Miss Mabel, Home at Seven, The White Carnation, and The Long Sunset. Like his earlier plays, these works are quiet productions about ordinary people experiencing extraordinary things. Miss Mabel is the story of a woman who poisons her rich twin sister in order to give her money to charity; Home at Seven concerns a man who suffers a period of amnesia during which he learns that he may have killed someone; and The White Carnation is a ghost story. Even Sherriff's historical play The Long Sunset, which is set in England in 410 A.D., just after the Romans have left, is a rather sedate work. Writing about the radio play version of The Long Sunset, Raby commented that the "combination of the expression of the everyday with the power to move was Sherriff's strength, in drama, fiction, and cinema, though Sherriff's simplicity left little margin for error, especially on the stage, where the same dialogue was described as 'relentlessly drawing-room.'"
Although he continued to write into the 1970s, Sherriff had fallen out of favor again in his later career. His novels after The Fortnight in September never gained the same critical accolades as that first work, with his last novel, 1948's Another Year, receiving some of the most unenthusiastic reviews; his later plays performed poorly on stage as well. His last, 1960's A Shred of Evidence, had a short run on London's West End.
While he managed to have a profitable career as a writer of screenplays, novels, and stage plays, Sherriff's insistence on writing conservatively as other authors ventured into experimentation relegated him to also-ran status, say some critics, so that today he is still best remembered for his first critical success, The Journey's End. Nevertheless, as Raby concluded, Sherriff's lengthy ouevre "adds up to something substantial, not least for its insight into the way many people lived in England in the first half of the twentieth century."
In addition to his fiction, Sherriff left behind his autobiography, No Leading Lady, which Dictionary of Literary Biography contributor Eldon C. Hill described as "not only a readable self-revelation but also a valuable record of an epoch in the history of British drama."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 10: Modern British Dramatists, 1900–1945, 1982, Volume 191: British Novelists between the Wars, 1998, Volume 233: British and Irish Dramatists since World War II, Second Series, 2001.
West, Rebecca, Ending in Earnest, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1931.
Books and Bookmen, September, 1968.
Financial Times, January 15, 1998, Sarah Hemming, "In the Shadow of Death: Theatre," p. 27.
Guardian Weekly, January 20, 1973.
London Mercury, January, 1929.
New Yorker, July 8, 1939, Clifton Fadiman, review of The Hopkins Manuscript.
Observer, January 11, 1970.
Observer Review, July 28, 1968.
Punch, August 7, 1968.
Spectator, October 17, 1932, review of The Fortnight in September; January 15, 2005, Robert Gore-Langton, "Truth from the Trenches: Robert Gore-Langton on R.C. Sherriff, the Deeply Untrendy Author of Journey's End, Whose Run Finishes Next Month," p. 20.
Times Literary Supplement, September 19, 1968.
AB Bookman's Weekly, January 5, 1976.
New York Times, November 18, 1975.