In June 1914, a Serbian nationalist assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and his wife with two pistol shots in Sarajevo. By so doing, he started something never seen before: a world war. At the time it was called the Great War. And although it was centered in Europe, ultimately it involved more than 100 countries from as far away as North America, the Middle East, Africa and Australasia. And it’s a fair guess that the vast majority of soldiers and sailors had never heard of Franz Ferdinand and would have been challenged to find Sarajevo on a map. But many of the combatants were readers and writers, and if there was a positive legacy to the war, it was the vast amount of poetry and fiction it produced. After the conflict, Erich Maria Remarque, a German draftee, wrote his classic novel, “All Quiet on the Western Front.” Ernest Hemingway, who drove Red Cross ambulances in Italy, composed “A Farewell to Arms.” And William Faulkner, who joined the Royal Air Force but never saw combat, gave us his first novel, “Soldier’s Pay,” describing a horribly wounded pilot returning home to the American South. And then we have “Journey’s End,” R.C. Sherriff’s 1927 play depicting the psychological and spiritual weariness of British troops on the front lines in France. In what may be its first professional production by a local company, Kansas City Actors Theatre has partnered with the National World War I Museum and the UMKC Theatre Department to stage the show. Sherriff, who served as an officer in the British Army and was stationed on the front lines for three years, modeled his play on his own experiences and people he had known during the war.
“You might expect a war play to be carried along by a narrative that’s about the war,” said John Rensenhouse, KCAT’s executive director, who plays a senior officer in the show. “There is an event later in the play where the guys go on a raid, but it’s not really about that. “It’s about the human psychology of the thing. It’s really quite an autobiographical play, and the characters were people he knew in Company C. It’s really paying honor to the men he knew who fought in the war, and he wanted to do it on a very human and intimate scale.”
Alyson Germinder, a UMKC graduate student pursuing a master of arts degree, is the production’s dramaturg. The job on a play like “Journey’s End,” she said, is to conduct deep research and prepare materials to help the director and actors understand the world of the play, including arcane slang.
She said the models for the characters are clearly identified in Sherriff’s letters and diaries. “There were a lot of similarities between the people he was with but also what he experienced and what he coped with on the front lines,” Germinder said. This production marks the third time KCAT has partnered with the museum and the theater department, beginning in 2011 with “Oh What a Lovely War,” a play from the 1960s that told the story of the conflict in satirical, almost vaudevillian terms. The following year, again partnering with the theater school, the company staged “Billy Bishop Goes to War,” which recounted the career of Canada’s most decorated ace. Rensenhouse said “Journey’s End” has been on the company’s wish list for some time. A few years ago it presented a reading of the play at the museum. The show’s director, Mark Robbins, said when he first read Sherriff’s play, he saw it as an absurdist commentary on the ironic contrast between the English officers observing social rituals from home in their dugout while a brutal war rages around them. Then, after spending more time with the piece, he saw it differently.
“World War I was a very different type of warfare than anyone had been accustomed to,” Robbins said. “It was more industrialized and less of a gentleman’s undertaking. There was a real feeling of culture clash there.”
Set entirely in a dugout for officers, the piece on the printed page acquires a pressure-cooker feel as the young Brits wait for a German assault they all believe is coming. Robbins said that hovering over the play is that sense of impending disaster — “all these thousands and thousands of people separated sometimes by no more than 50 yards, waiting to be told what to do when they go out and try to slaughter each other.”
The play also has a sense of immediacy because in 1927 the war was a fresh memory for the people who saw it. “The war hadn’t been over 10 years,” Robbins said. “At the time everyone who saw this play was familiar with these events.” The cast is a mix of local professional actors and UMKC graduate students. Matt Leonard plays the driven Capt. Stanhope, which might be the most like Sherriff. Also in the show are well-known Kansas City-based actors Charles Fugate, Matt Rapport and Rensenhouse. Additional roles are played by Joseph Fournier, Jacob Aaron Cullum, Nick Papamihalakis, Logan Black and Matthew Joseph. Scenic designer Uldarico Sarmiento, who is studying design at UMKC, has basically built a realistic dugout onstage, Robbins said. The dugout is illuminated by candlelight throughout much the play, although the audience occasionally sees sunlight in the trench just beyond the entrance. According to Rensenhouse, lighting designer Devorah Kengmana illuminated the set from below and within rather than with overhead lights.
Matthew C. Naylor, president and CEO of the museum, said the KCAT shows dovetail perfectly with the museum’s mission. “The museum has two central functions: to learn lessons and derive meaning from the Great War and its impact,” Naylor said, “and secondly, to commemorate and remember. We see those as the two main pieces of what we do. And an important part of that is to tell stories to our audience.”
Naylor can foresee more live theater at the museum. “I would hope so,” he said. “My vision is to see future plays and to engage other aspects of the arts as well. We want to engage as many partners as we can. The guys at UMKC and KCAT are fantastic partners to be working with.”
Coming up in April, the international stage hit “War Horse,” depicting an English boy’s search for a beloved horse that has been sold to the English army for service in the war, will play the Music Hall. Naylor said the museum would partner with Broadway Across America for a yet-unannounced event during the show’s Kansas City run. One of the producers, Chris Harper, was in Kansas City recently and took a tour of the museum. “He was deeply moved by the way in which Kansas City had worked to create this extraordinary museum,” Naylor said. “He was deeply moved by the experience.”
“Journey’s End” runs through March 2 at the National World War I Museum at Liberty Memorial. For more information, call 816-235-6222 or go to KCActors.org. Find the National World War I Museum online at TheWorldWar.org.