Thursday, October 29, 2009

Saint Joan - by Bernard Shaw

First performed in New York in 1923, Saint Joan, tells Shaw's version of Joan of Arc. My copy has a very long preface delving into his interpretation of Joan. In the play she is an individual, committed to following her inspiration - manifesting itself as voices of Saints and God - she conducts herself in a manner appropriate to her calling. She is a leader with a passion for weapons and a vision of how battles are won.

The play is organized into six scenes and an epilogue. Shaw starts the play with her seeking the horse and men of a military squire in order to raise an army to crown the Dauphin and throw the British out of France. The sixth scene is the trial which results in Joan being burnt at the stake. The epilogue melds time, fifty years after the burning, when she was declared innocent of charges and 1920 when she was canonized as a saint. The spirits of Joan and others in the play return for this finale.

Shaw places Joan in the middle of power struggles amongst the church, the feudal lords and the king. As well as portraying a genius compelled to live and act powerfully and with clear principles, he uses her story to illustrate a moment in time when Nationalism was coming into prominence - the idea of the French and the English under a king - instead of the feudal system of whatever lord held power over an area.

Similarly to the play read yesterday, In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer, a terrible thing - the H-Bomb, the burning at the stake of a 19 year old - is put on trial. And in both the individual, complex and human, faces the powers of the State and Morality - powers that don't hold real sway in the main character's struggle with their own powers.

This play, from the 1920s, is certainly using the theater to present an argument and reveal the motivations of those who wield power over others. I would say revealing hypocrisies, but Shaw goes to lengths to give everyone their reason for their actions, and in the epilogue we see some of the fall out - and weigh some of the possible outcomes.

Though Joan gets the last word,
Oh God that madest this beautiful earth, when will it be ready to receive Thy saints? How long, O Lord, how long? (Joan, epilogue)


  1. oh god, this play is the only reason I will not give up being an actor. I have to play this part once in my life.

  2. Oh yes you should. Start finding the men that can play off of you and do it!