After reading ‘Act 1’, we instantly get given a slight insight on some of the horrendous conditions of war, which is something you do initially expect to entice before reading a war play.
It plays a role of developing audiences feelings and expectations by aspects such as stage directions, the setting, sounds and lighting giving you a deeper depth of realisation of how men really lived in the trenches, how they really acted and how they really behaved rather than a previous apprehension of heroic men gaining an easy victory, both physically, emotionally and mentally.
I feel another of the main functions of ‘Act 1’ is to portray and individualise each of the main characters personalities and traits. Hardy, ’a red-faced, cheerful looking man’ starts the play by singing and humming, ‘finishing with a lively burst’, whilst carrying out one of his duties. This automatically informs you he is one of the more cheerful, uplifting soldiers which is something extremely helpful during a horrific period such as World War
1. He is interrupted by the entrance of Osborne, ’physically as hard as nails’ who expresses a more serious, responsible personality being a much more experienced officer. He seems more aware of the realities of the war situation. However throughout the play, the other soldiers call him ’Uncle’ suggesting that they see him as a family figure and can confide in him if necessary, demonstrated by Mason, who also approaches him about the fiasco with the apricot and pineapple mix up rather than Stanhope. Osborne illustrates a very close relationship towards Stanhope and remains loyal throughout.
Whilst most of the other men are joking and criticising Stanhope’s drinking problem, Osborne continuously defends him and repeatedly gives him praise: ’Stanhope goes on sticking it, month in, month out’, ’He’s a long way the best company commander we’ve got’, ’He’ll command the battalion one day..‘ He also seems to be the only man who can bring out the weaker, vulnerable side to Stanhope, shown in the final scene of the act, when there is a dominant focus on the intimacy of the two characters.
We learn the most from Stanhope in the first act and initially, as the audience, we get the impression that Stanhope is usually a reserved, strong soldier, mainly in charge, never showing signs of any fear or weakness, ’I’ve seen him on his back all day with trench fever-then on duty all night.’ He’s also a high achiever being ’skipper of the rugger’ and the owner of a MC. He is well respected from early on in the act and the dialogue proves he is a good officer.. Quite soon though, these traits are challenged and a sign of vulnerability begins to creep in, also giving us an improved insight of the terrible effects of war on these men. He is described as young and good looking but the ’pallor under his skin and dark shadows under his eyes’ really justify the burden he is struggling with.
He does put a lot of trust in Osborne and opens up to him, confessing ‘If I went up those steps into the front line without being doped up with whisky, I’d go mad with fright.’ This resembles the big significant with alcohol and informs us how much he depends on it to help with coping and shows the extremities of the war conditions by establishing how such a tough, hard exterior can easily be weakened. His real feelings are even more intensified when in the last scene of the act, Osborne puts him to bed after being drunk and Stanhope reduces to a sad dependency asking him to ‘tuck’ him up and ‘kiss’ him, craving protection and reassurance.
The further use of the phrase ‘I go sleep’ refers to a toddler and indicates attachment. The last main character in the first act is Raleigh. He is only briefly introduced but I feel he is going to play more of a significant role during the rest of the play. His character represents the stereotypical beginning soldier ‘well built, healthy looking boy of about eighteen’ possessing a polite manner and raring with enthusiasm yet quite inexperienced, having false expectations and unaware of what war beholds, making him appear quite naïve. The audience can relate to Raleigh as similar to us, throughout the play we are endlessly learning about the war from previously not having much knowledge.
The stage directions play a huge role in informing us and giving us some factual information of the extreme, unsanitary conditions the soldiers have to tolerate, which also adds to the tension and dramatic effect. There is a lot of imagery used. We learn Hardy is drying his sock over a candle-flame, inputting how the only light source available in this gloomy tunnel is from a candle and highlights how damp it must be in the trenches and emphasizes the lack of electrical equipment they have.
The description of the ‘misty grey parapet of a trench’ enhances the gloomy atmosphere the dugout potentially could have. Rats scampered around the floors causing trench-foot ‘roughly two million’ and the water had to have disinfectant in it to kill the microbes. Mason also informs the soldiers of the unappetizing meal they will be provided with, ‘yellow soup sir’. This vague interpretation and small portioning of revolting food would have a lasting effect on the men, unable to give them the energy they need.
Furthermore, the constant emphasis of the weaponry and expected German attack increases tension and foreshadows the action yet to come. ‘Rifle grenades — Minnies — and those horrid little things like pineapples….They simply blew us to bits yesterday, three bang in the trench.’ Onomatopoeic language is incorporated to convey the horrors in a more realistic way: ‘Swish–swish–swish–swish–BANG!’
Additionally, ‘And don’t forget the big attack..‘ Sherriff involves the use of characters to keep the main part of the play at the front of the audiences minds- the attack of the Germans. This is also emphasized again as the last line of the act, in stage directions, being ‘through the stillness comes the low rumble of guns’ gently reminding you one last time that the Germans are approaching. There are more light hearted, humorous tones included though, representing the soldiers needing to joke around to relieve the anxiety and tension they may encounter and to break up the more subtle horror of boredom, ‘Ever had earwig races?’, ‘Dip it in whisky-makes ‘em go like hell!’.
The joking is ultimately and evidently there to mask the fear and dread of the bombing yet to come. There is also tension between Stanhope and Raleigh. Just the sight of Raleigh triggers conflict and rage in Stanhope as he is convinced he is there to spy on him and report back to his sister Madge (who Stanhope hoped to marry once he returned). The war scene intensifies Stanhope’s paranoia and you know, just from act 1, there is more friction to come between the men later in the play.
‘He wants to write home and tell Madge all about me…I censor his letters-cross out all he says about me.’ I think it reflects on how Stanhope has got so used to the war routine, cooped up in the dugout resulting in him suddenly being very affected by a familiar face from the outside world. Despite this, Raleigh has a huge sense of admiration for Stanhope and ’hero worships’ him, ’He looked splendid!’ therefore I believe this will be highly significant later in the play and their comradeship will be tested. There is also a prominent parallel between Raleigh’s youthful, enthusiasm and Stanhope’s sharpness, this a good contrast to illustrate how war can change a person, toughening them and frequently causing them to pursue a hard, exterior shell.
Osborne even informs Raleigh of this, protecting Stanhope, by stating ‘You know you mustn’t expect to find him quite the same…he’s commanded t6hrough all sorts of rotten times.’ The stage directions and dialogue further echo this too, ‘Stanhope stares at Raleigh dazed’ and uses blunt, bad mannered replies to Raleigh often expressing many silences.
From initially starting the play, your interpretation of war changes dramatically over the act. The combined descriptions of the suffering they have to experience contributes towards the honourability and heroism of the men, by traits emerging during the lifestyle they had to endure, such as courage, loyalty, patience and dedication.