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Saint Joan

June 8, 2020

IMG_4001George Bernard Shaw’s play Saint Joan was published shortly after Joan of Arc was canonized as a saint in 1920, so one hundred years later it’s a good time to re-read it for #Jazz Age June. Today’s readers have perspective on the events of the “roaring twenties,” a decade of cultural conflicts and the rise of the “New Woman” asserting control over her own life.

The cultural conflicts of today, characterized by extreme ideological divides and name-calling, allow as little room for compromise as the unyielding Joan herself. Joan claims that her voices “come from God.” When a local official corrects her, saying “they come from your imagination” she answers “of course. That is how the messages of God come to us.” Many people feel that way about what they are saying today; possibly the most over-used word of the last few years is “outraged.”

Saint Joan was written at a time of rising nationalism, while today we’re watching barriers between nations go up as the idea itself is changing and perhaps starting to crumble. Shaw’s original audiences understood his ridicule of the churchman by the soldier who argues that “I saw something of the Mahometans. They were not so illbred as I had been led to believe. In some respects their conduct compared favorably with ours.” Today’s audiences (were we able to gather in theaters) would find the characterizations of people by religion, rather than nationality, quaint, even as some countries are fracturing along cultural lines defined by religion.

However, I think that until the last couple of weeks many of us did not believe that individual heroism could still matter to a nation. When Peter Cauchon says reprovingly to Joan that “you, and not The Church, are to be the judge?” she responds with “what other judgement can I judge by but my own?”. Those in charge of Joan’s trial are alarmed by this, calling it “the protest of the individual soul against the interference of priest or peer between the private man and his God.” Those in charge of the U.S.A. today seem to be accepting the Orwellian doublespeak of a president who ordered an attack on peaceful protesters outside the White House with tear gas, flash-bangs and rubber bullets right after proclaiming himself “an ally of all peaceful protesters.” But the people out protesting and others who support them do not accept it.

It is Joan’s judges, the priests of the church and the princes of the world, who are on trial here,” as Michael Holroyd puts it in a review of a performance on Bastille Day (The Guardian, July 14, 2007). We see them rationalizing their own behavior, like the archbishop who defines a “miracle” as “an event which creates faith….An event which creates faith does not deceive: therefore it is not a fraud, but a miracle.” Today we see our own capitalist society paying lip service to many “essential workers” without paying them a wage that corresponds to their importance. This is like Ladvenu admitting that what Joan says about her soldier’s dress having “a grain of world sense in it such as might impose on a simple village maiden” and Joan saying dryly that “if we were as simple in the village as you are in your courts and palaces, there would soon be no wheat to make bread for you.”

Saint Joan is about fear of change. Those who are afraid of change may try to hold it back, but it will eventually burst out, as we’re seeing this week in all fifty states of the United States of America and other countries.

In the epilogue to the play, one of Joan’s judges asks “must then a Christ perish in torment in every age to save those that have no imagination?” And the answer seems to be yes. Right now we’re being asked to change; to use our imaginations and employ our powers of empathy. It’s easy to do this for a few hours in a crowd of theater-goers or protestors, but harder to keep it up day by day, on our own.

15 Comments leave one →
  1. June 8, 2020 11:17 am

    This is why we make art, as humans: some of it comes back over and over because it resonates with the new. My last chapter was based on Othello.

    • June 8, 2020 11:22 am

      Othello is my favorite Shakespeare play! I think it resonates with almost everything.

      • June 8, 2020 11:29 am

        Then I think you might like Chapter 28 of Pride’s Children NETHERWORLD. It is not a retelling but a resonance. Because some stories never go away.

        I do have to finish it before you can read.

  2. June 8, 2020 1:50 pm

    Shaw never asks you to do anything less than think and then challenge your own thinking as well as that of others. And he wrote some wonderful parts for women.

    • June 11, 2020 5:57 pm

      So true.
      I’m sorry I missed the last production of this play at the Shaw festival–it was right before we started going every fall. Not this fall, sadly.

  3. June 8, 2020 7:32 pm

    It’s been a long time since I read this play and I like how you show the contemporary tie-ins.

    I have always been fascinated by Joan of Arc and the many iterations of her story. There is another play about her by Bertolt Brecht called Saint Joan of the Stockyards that takes place in Chicago where the “historical” mission of Joan of Arc is changed to an advocate of animal slaughterhouse workers of the 1930s. Another illustration of her as a champion of change.

    • June 11, 2020 5:58 pm

      The story does offer itself as a story about change. I was also thinking about the role of “John Dark” in a recent book I reviewed, A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World.

  4. June 10, 2020 8:34 am

    I miss seeing live theater. This one must be dynamite when acted well.

    • June 11, 2020 6:01 pm

      It is! I’ve seen great productions of it. And yes, live theater. Sigh. We already had tickets to a play next January in Chicago.

  5. June 10, 2020 1:45 pm

    A fine review, thanks! Over half a century ago this took on added resonance as I studied it in a Catholic school run by Irish Christian Brothers, teachers who were just coming to terms with the implications of the liberalising Second Vatican Council. The play’s discussion about miracles (something along the lines of them being something that inspires faith rather than being supernatural happenings) made a big impact on my route to becoming a permanently lapsed Catholic!

    Would I read it again? Possibly, but I’d rather tackle ‘Arms and the Man’ or an Ibsen play like ‘Hedda Gabler’, both of which failed to register much with me at the time.

    • June 11, 2020 6:05 pm

      Shaw has the character say a very pragmatic line about miracles inspiring faith. I love that about him.
      My favorite Shaw play is always the last one I saw, and right now (oh dear, maybe forever) that’s Man and Superman with Don Juan in Hell. We saw an all-day production of that at last year’s Shaw Festival and it was terrific.

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