Saint Joan by George Bernard Shaw
Posted September 16, 2007on:
I own a vague memory of reading this play in grade 9 but I may as well have come to it for the first time for this second read. In a rare turn of events the preface, written by Shaw, is as energetic and memorable a piece as the play. He displayed dissatisfaction with previous historical and fictional accounts of Joan of Arc’s life; exhibited a Protestant take on the saint’s actions while rejecting (what he described as) the virulent anti-Catholicism in the Victorian Protestant perspective; briefly elucidated religious, historical and political aspects of medieval Catholic Christendom, often by comparing it to his modern times; and tops it off by concurrently explaining certain authorial decisions and puncturing shallow, fashionable interest in theatre. It may seem like quite a lot to take in but Shaw deals with his many points in only one or two pages, often less, and revealed a wonderful capability of treating serious ideas both sombrely and with humour, one that is reflected in the play.
He makes some very good points on how an understanding of Joan is often hindered by the typical mistakes people make by confusing the middle ages with the dark ages, the blanket assumption that the participants in the Vatican’s Inquisition were morally dark monsters, engaging in the most heinous acts at the slightest provocation, and the modern persons smug assurance that the human race has only been on a steady, wholesale march to improvement from then on.
As to the assessor’s [at Joan d’Arc’s trial], the objection to them is not that they were a row of uniform rascals, but that they were political partisans of Joan’s enemies. This is a valid objection to all such trials; but in the absence of neutral tribunals they are unavoidable. A trial by Joan’s French partisans would have been as unfair as the trial by her French opponents; an an equally mixed tribunal would have produced a deadlock. Such recent rials as Edith Cavell by a German tribunal and Roger Casement by an English one were open to the same objection; but they went forward to the death nevertheless, because neutral tribunals were not available. Edith, like Joan, was an arch heretic: in the middle of the war she declared before the world that ‘Patriotism is not enough’. She nursed enemies back to health, and assisted their prisoners to escape, making it abundantly clear that she would help any fugitive or distressed person without asking whose side he was on, and acknowledging no distinction before Christ between Tommy and Jerry and Pitou the poilu. Well might Edith have wished that she could bring the Middle Ages back, and have fifty civilians, learned in the law or vowed to the service of God, to support two skilled judges in trying her case according to the Catholic law of Christendom, and to argue it out with her at sitting after sitting for many weeks. The modern military Inquisition was not so squeamish. It shot her out of hand; and her countrymen, seeing in this a good opportunity for lecturing the enemy on his intolerance, put up a statue to her, but took particular care not to inscribe on the pedestal ‘Patriotism is not enough’, for which omission, and the lie it implies, they will need Edith’s intercession when they are themselves brought to judgment, if any heavenly power think such moral cowards capable of pleading to an intelligible indictment.
The point need be no further laboured. Joan was persecuted essentially as she would be persecuted today. The change from burning to hanging or shooting may strikes us as a change for the better. The change from careful trial under ordinary law to recklessly summary military terrorism may strike us as a change for the worse. But as far as toleration is concerned the trail and execution in Rouen in 1431 might have been an event of today; and we may charge our consciences accordingly. If Joan had to be dealt with by us in London she would be treated with no more toleration that Miss Sylvia Pankhurst, or the Peculiar People, or the parents who keep their children from the elementary school, or any of the others who cross the line we have to draw, rightly or wrongly, between the tolerable and the intolerable.
Shaw wrote the preface in 1924 and I do not find the core of his remarks less salient close to a century later. As a reader I found myself stubbornly holding on to my assumptions as Shaw did his best to wrest them away in his criticism of the Catholic church at the time with his dedicated stance to analysing the situation as any proper historian would — in the context of the times, with an eye to the moral, philosophical, social, and practical constraints of the time rather than with the hindsight of the 20th century values. (In other words, I was looking for comfortable blanket condemnation and was presented with something more complex. How awful of him.) His criticism of scientists and the scientific community I found to be considerably weaker. He rightly mocked, in an almost merciless manner, how the general public takes as gospel any new piece of information scientists provide without being able to even attempt a simple explanation of any of it.
In the Middle Ages people believed that the earth was flat, for which they had at least the evidence of their senses: we believe it to be round, not because as many as one percent of us could give the physical reasons for so quaint a belief, but because modern science has convinced us that nothing that is obvious is true, and that everything that is magical, improbably, extraordinary, gigantic, microscopic, heartless, or outrageous is scientific.
He was quick to assert that he only wishes to defend his “own age against the charge of being less imaginative than the Middle Ages” but I could not shake the impression that he held something more than a healthy scepticism about the existence of atoms. He presented the differences between the ages in too simplified a difference for my taste, and does it throughout, perhaps in an admittedly acknowledged attempt and knocking down assumptions we hold about the past and the present. In any case, it was only 1924.
From the quotes one can see that Shaw is pretty in-your-face about his ideas and Saint Joan, while a more subtle work in comparison the preface, is not so to a remarkable difference. Words like “Nationalism” and “Protestantism” are sprinkled into the script, and Shaw’s ideas about English patriotism, as mentioned in the preface, are easily discerned in the actions and lines of certain characters. My disappointment at the ideas being so readily discernible, at least superficially not being under the impression that I’ve understood the book inside out, did not significantly impede on the play’s quality until the horrid epilogue. (Is there a good one in existence, I’d like to know.) Shaw damns subtlety and goes for an all out maudlin reunion of Joan d’Arc’s and all her colleagues’ ghosts in the bedroom of King Charles VII, the man she crowned King. They are even visited by a Vatican official from the future who lets her know that she became a saint.
The play’s plot charts selected major moments of Joan’s life, from her fateful meeting with Robert de Baudricourt in order to gain access to the Dauphin to her excommunication by the Catholic church and burning by the “secular arm” of rule. To my delight Shaw did not skimp on stage directions, and the reader is able to imagine the actors moving on stage and intoning lines as the writer intended. (Perhaps this is how it is with modern plays?) In fact, I would often re-read lines because I did not think that my mind’s reading voice matched Shaw’s direction.
Joan as a character on the page did make the deep impression Shaw intended, particularly during her brief speeches in which she expressed the most fervour. With her and with other characters Shaw, as in his preface, is able to combine humour satisfactorily with weighty issues, which makes his thinly veiled ideas a lot easier to swallow. No character was written without given some breadth or hint of multi-dimensions, not even the spoiled, cowardly Dauphin who complained when his army was losing, when he was crowned, and when his stance had been made secure by a rehabilitation of Joan’s reputation after her death.
The only strange thing I noticed was how British the play was even though it was about a French, Roman Catholic figure. When I first started reading I tried to impose a French accent on the dialogue, but gave up on the second page because the characters’ cadence and idiom were distinctly English. I’m sure there’s something in that but I’m a bit too tired to think about what that is at the moment, so my apologies.
All in all, a very good read. I’m looking forward to reading more plays while I still remain interested in the form, from Shaw and other writers. If you’d like to recommend any in comments, please do so.
Cross-posted at Outmoded Authors with some changes.