George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan: A Chronicle Play in Six Scenes and an Epilogue premiered in 1923, three years after Joan of Arc was canonized by the Catholic Church, and 492 years after she was burnt at the stake by the English for heresy. Some call Saint Joan Shaw’s masterpiece. It is unique in the Shavian canon: the playwright, notoriously irreverent, reveres the maid at every turn. Humility, hardly a virtue ascribed to GBS, peeks out from this description: “All I’ve done is to put down the facts, to arrange Joan for the stage. ... I’ve told the story exactly as it happened. … It is the easiest play I have ever had to write.”
However simple his account, Shaw did more than dramatize historical record. His telling of Joan’s story marks the glory and catastrophe of human progress: our need for visionaries and our resistance to them, our insistence on and despair of change. Joan was probably 17 when, in 1429, she went in pursuit of French victory in the Lancastrian phase of the Hundred Years’ War. Instructed, she said, by the voices of saints to drive the English out of France and to crown the Dauphin at Reims, this remarkable girl urged support from a magistrate, made her way to the French Court, and from there to the besieged Orléans. Her entrance into the fray raised the siege and with it the hopes of prince and country. Joan’s progress aroused suspicion, faith, and terror, in variegated sequence.
In Joan, Shaw locates genius and imagination. Both confounded her country as well as its enemies. Shaw makes Joan’s imagination a playing field for truth and conscience. It is through imagination, she states early on, that “the messages of God come to us.” For his part, Shaw seems less invested in divine voices than he is in Joan’s own. Her appeals and assertions are impressive. Her voice resonates in speech at once earthy and magnificent. Her enemies, too, find her compelling.
Shaw would challenge the word ‘enemies’ as it applies to Joan’s judges. He insists that there are no villains in the work, that part of Joan’s tragedy is that honest judges confronted her at trial. Their crimes lay in the ideas they defended and in which they believed. Shaw ennobles these men, and has them speak hard truths. Take, for example, Cauchon’s acknowledgment that “mortal eyes cannot distinguish the saint from the heretic.”
Joan’s previous dramatists, Shakespeare among them, demonstrate similar shortcomings. Shakespeare’s Joan la Pucelle (trans. “Joan the maid”) in Henry VI, Part I limits the character, in Shaw’s view, to a “singular moment” of excellence before relegating her to the roles of witch and whore. Arguably, Joan is never free from such stereotyping in Shakespeare’s play: the frequent references to Joan simply as “la pucelle” identify her as a harlot. The English pronunciation of “pucelle” would sound like puzel or pussel in the mouths of male authority.
And yet, Saint Joan is considered Shaw’s most Shakespearean play, due to his announcement of a ‘chronicle’ in the title, and mostly for the play’s overlays of genre: history and tragedy infused with comic impulse throughout. (Bedlam’s spirited and briskly paced production enables us to savor each.) Shaw’s consideration of Joan, however, is markedly different from Shakespeare’s. In spite of her devout Catholicism, Shaw identifies her as an early Protestant martyr because she proclaimed the legitimacy and value of her direct communications with God. Joan challenged religious and secular authority. She put her conscience against the judgment of Church and State.
It is our consciences that Shaw insists we recognize at the play’s close. His Epilogue, wildly denounced when the play first appeared, presses us to look into the future of humankind’s relationship with Joan, and, by extension, with all its saints and upstarts. Twenty-five years after the play’s action (though it may as well be centuries), Joan’s willingness to serve her God and people remains constant. Other characters’ ambitions are more narrowly defined. The Epilogue treats us by turns to comedic irony and wit, albeit with the worry that dreams offer saints occasions to call us to reckoning.