Saint Joan (play)

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Theatre

Sybil Thorndike as Joan.
Sybil Thorndike as Joan.

Saint Joan is a 1923 play by Irishman George Bernard Shaw written shortly after the Roman Catholic Church canonized Joan of Arc. It is a dramatization based on what is known of her life and on the substantial records of her trial. It was first presented on Broadway in 1923 by the Theatre Guild with Winifred Lenihan as Joan. Its London premiere starred Shaw's friend Sybil Thorndike, the actress for whom he had written the part. Shaw's personal reputation following the Great War was at a low ebb, and it is thought that he wanted to first test the play away from England. Saint Joan is often credited for Shaw's 1925 Nobel Prize for Literature, but in actuality he kept the award and refused the money

Caught between the forces of the Church and the Law, Joan is the personification of the tragic heroine and the part is considered by actresses to be one of the most challenging of roles to interpret (see below). It is sometimes played by small feminine women and sometimes by tall strong women. Because of the challenges of the role, it is often played by very experienced actresses who are much older than the age of the character. As an interesting exception, for the movie version Joan was played by Jean Seberg who actually was 19 at the time of filming and who, according to the views of many critics, was not very good, due to her lack of dramatic experience.

The actual trial and burning of Joan in 1431 at the age of 19 was recorded in great detail by reporters of the day. Shaw studied the transcripts, decided that the concerned people acted in good faith according to their beliefs, and took a neutral point of view. He wrote in his long preface that "There are no villains in the piece. Crime, like disease, is not interesting: it is something to be done away with by general consent, and that is all [there is] about it. It is what men do at their best, with good intentions, and what normal men and women find that they must and will do in spite of their intentions, that really concern us."

The play takes few liberties with the factual record of her short life, and the plotting of the story is straightforward. It begins with her first approaching a lowly soldier about the voices she hears. She then pays a visit to the weak and vain Dauphin to tell him that she will help him become a true king by rallying his troops to drive out the English occupiers and restore France to greatness. Joan succeeds in doing this through her excellent powers of negotiation and leadership. Afterwards, she is betrayed and captured by the English at the siege of Compiègne. The third act of the play deals with her trial and its conclusion at the stake. But there is a coda to the play, not always performed, where we see her in heaven conversing cheerfully with her old enemies. Shaw thus spins the ending amusing himself and his audience with this epilogue. He has her looking forward to her rehabilitation by the Church that killed her, nearly 500 years later.

Shaw was a famous pacifist, and there has been controversy over his approach, which was consistent with his anti-war speeches at the time of the First World War, a conflict in which he stated that Great Britain and its Allies were equally culpable with the Germans, and argued for negotiation and peace (which damned him in the eyes of many).

His interpretation of the events in Joan's life and its times has upset historians many of whom regard the play as highly inaccurate, especially in its depiction of medieval society. Shaw states that the characterization of Joan by most writers is "romanticized" to make her accusers come off as completely unscrupulous and villainous. Some writers claim that Shaw attempts to wrongly rehabilitate Cauchon, the powerful Bishop of Beauvais, and the Inquisitor, who were most instrumental in sending Joan to the stake. It is worth noting that Shaw takes no position on whether the sentence was just or otherwise. He does however dabble in psychological insight when he claims that Joan wore male clothing as a reflection of personal preference rather than out of necessity. Certainly the wearing of armor was never a female pursuit. The opposing point is made that Joan wore male clothes to protect herself from rape, especially towards the end of her life in the dungeon.

Modern historians have the advantage of recent translations into English of voluminous French transcripts, and have concluded that Joan was in fact "beautiful and shapely", while Shaw claims in his preface that she was most likely not physically attractive. He bases this claim on the fact that, at the time, no evidence had been found that Joan was beautiful. That Shaw was unquestionably an admirer of Joan is found in the fact that he placed a small statue of her in his garden, and instructed that his ashes be scattered nearby.

It is in the to and fro thrill of words used in the art of debate that elevates this play, and in fact is the mainstay of most of his work. Members of the world of literature, and audiences, do appreciate that this creation is one of the greatest examples of theatre in the English language. Shaw's last words for Joan, before she is taken by her jailers to the stake, are:

JOAN: "You think that life is nothing but not being dead? It is not the bread and water I fear. I can live on bread. It is no hardship to drink water if the water be clean. But to shut me from the light of the sky and the sight of the fields and flowers; to chain my feet so that I can never again climb the hills. To make me breathe foul damp darkness, without these things I cannot live. And by your wanting to take them away from me, or from any human creature, I know that your council is of the devil."'

Notable Joans and Stage Productions

  • Winifred Lenihan, New York, December 1923 - April 1924 (Initial production)
  • Sybil Thorndike, London, March 1924 (Shaw wrote the play with her in mind)
  • Katharine Cornell, New York, March 1936 - May 1936 ( Tyrone Power made a pre-Hollywood appearance)
  • Wendy Hiller, 1936 Malvern Theater Festival (to honour Shaw's 80th birthday) Malvern,England, July 1936
  • Uta Hagen, New York, October 1951 - February 1952
  • Siobhán McKenna, New York, December 1956 - January 1957 ( Peter Falk appeared in a small part)
  • Jean Seberg, (in a film) 1957
  • Joan Plowright, London, 1963
  • Genevieve Bujold, (in a television production) 1967
  • Diana Sands. New York, January 1968 - February 1968
  • Lynn Redgrave, New York, November 1977 - February 1978
  • Sam Long, Chicago, April 2006, Ethel M. Barber Theatre

Other notable Joans include Judi Dench, Zoe Caldwell, Elisabeth Bergner, Constance Cummings, Ann Casson, Roberta Maxwell, Barbara Jefford, Pat Galloway, Sarah Miles, Ellen Geer, Jane Alexander, Lee Grant, Janet Suzman, and Eileen Atkins.

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