Humour Utilised in War Literature

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“Life does not make any sense and we all pretend that it does. Comedy’s job is to point out that it doesn’t make sense, and that it doesn’t make much difference anyway.”-Eric Idle

Compare how the writers use comedy to explore the effects of war in Sherriff’s ‘Journey’s End’ and a selection of Sassoon’s poetry.

Portraying the ‘pity of war’ (Owen) through comedy seems, at first, to be a paradox, yet this unusual juxtaposition has been adopted by many writers within War Literature. The definition of comedy in its simplest form is “A dramatic work that is light and often humorous or satirical in tone and that usually contains a happy resolution of the thematic conflict.”(1.) Evidently, the subject of War is in no way comical in terms of it being simply amusing; but through the works of Sassoon and Sherriff it could be interpreted that comedy is utilised in a satirical way; being “an attack on or a criticism of any stupidity or vice in the form of scathing humour, or a critique of what the author sees as dangerous, religious, political, moral or social standards.”(2.) This said there is a thin line between the idea of comedy and tragedy and more often than not, within literature the two become almost synonymous. Certainly the topic of war is one of tragedy and so both the poems of Sassoon and Sherriff’s’ play ‘Journey’s End’ present a clear element of tragedy “a text dealing with tragic events and having an unhappy ending, especially one concerning the downfall of the protagonist.”(3.)

Both Sassoon and Sherriff experienced life at war; Sassoon was an Officer whilst Sherriff was a Captain. Undoubtedly, these experiences had a significant impact on their work and shaped their individual views. The poems which I have selected from Sassoon’s’ collection were all composed during his time in the war, ranging from 1915-1918. He was particularly forthright about his views on the war claiming “that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it.”(4.) (Declaration against the war).

Although both pieces of work have been categorised ‘anti-war’ texts, Sherriff, stated that ‘Journey’s End’ was never intended to be an ‘anti-war’ text, rather, it was “merely a play based on his own experiences.” (5.) Sassoon, however, utilised his poetry in order to express his bitter and enraged feelings surrounding the war; thus possibly contributing to him almost being imprisoned due to his outright opinions which challenged the propaganda which the Government produced.

Both Sassoon and Sherriff focus on the poignancy surrounding the youth of the soldiers through the utilisation of sardonic humour. There are explicit references to the soldiers being ‘boys’ in both Sherriff’s ‘Journey’s End’ and Sassoon’s ‘The Hero’ and ‘Suicide in the Trenches.’ The noun ‘boy’ connotes ideas of naivety, vulnerability and lack of common knowledge; thus enhancing the sick and perverse reason for boys making good soldiers. Furthermore, in Sherriff’s ‘Journey’s End’ the theme of childhood and youth is heightened through the use of a nursery rhyme which Sherriff adopted from Oscar Wilde’s ‘The importance of being Ernest’. “Tell me, mother, what is that

That looks like strawberry jam?
Hush, hush, my dear; ‘tis only Pa
Run over by a tram”
The simplicity of the child’s nursery rhyme could be perceived as being tainted due to the implicit association that Sherriff has now given it. Furthermore, the tarnished innocence of the nursery rhyme leads one to question the innocence of the boys (soldiers) and perhaps suggests that their innocence has equally been destroyed by the war. There is an air of frivolity surrounding the war; Sherriff may have used the simplistic and predictable rhyme scheme in order to reflect the flippant views of the war that society seemed to possess. One may deem it as significant that Sherriff chose to incorporate an extract from a novel which is classified as a comedic text. Again, Sherriff may have been...
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