Saint Joan - George Bernard Shaw, Dan H. Laurence, Imogen Stubbs While listening to the discussion, it occurred to me about three-quarters of the way through our monthly book club meeting that Saint Joan really doesn't seem to be about Joan of Arc at all. As Shaw states in his (lengthy) preface
A villain in a play can never be anything more than a diabolus ex machina, possibly a more exciting expedient than a deus ex machina, but both equally mechanical, and therefore interesting only as a mechanism. It is, I repeat, what normally innocent people do that concerns us; and if Joan had not been burnt by normally innocent people in the energy of their righteousness her death at their hands would have no more significance than the Tokyo earthquake, which burnt a great many maidens. The tragedy of such murders is that they are not committed by murderers. They are judicial murders, pious murders; and this contradiction at once brings an element of comedy into the tragedy; the angels may weep at the murder, but the gods laugh at the murderers.

There's nothing about Joan that seemed to resonate with me. She's depicted as a zealot. Simple and, at times, an adrenaline junkie. She doesn't strike me as the early feminist that others see. She is not making a stand against any societal constraints because she seems practically oblivious to them. Voices guide her, not conscience nor judgment.

For me, she represents an idea. She is a vehicle for innocence. Around her is the tragedy. This is not a tragedy a of a woman fighting against destiny. Joan represents destiny. She is Destiny. Unchanging. Unrelenting. Unavoidable. The tragedy is in the failure of all those around her to accept her. They destroy her and, in the end, despite all their justifications and moralizing, history condemns them. The memory of Joan, on the other hand, lives on and "shall be remembered when men have forgotten where Rouen stood."

Unfortunately, I couldn't find the Bobbs-Merrill edition I read on Goodreads. It contains some notes by Shaw regarding Saint Joan that I found incredibly valuable. In the Extract from a Letter to Mrs. Patrick Campbell, Shaw speaks of his desire to create a play about Joan of Arc (this is 10 years before writing Saint Joan ). He is already well versed in her story. He states that the English soldier who gave Joan two sticks tied together in the shape of a cross "is the only redeeming figure in the whole business." This soldier takes a central role in the Epilogue. He receives a one day reprieve from Hell for his one good deed. His gift of the cross to Joan. Despite the fact that she is about to be burned for heresy, he provides this gift. He knows nothing about her, but is compassionate. He is the only in the play who interacts with her that does not try to change her or undermine her. If Joan represents Destiny, he avoids the tragedy of everyone else around her by acceptance.

I could be completely off on all this, but it seems to click as I write it. At least it sounds good.

I can't imagine actually watching this as a play. It's arranged to go about 3 1/2 hours. No action, just dialogue. Most of Joan's speeches serve only to demonstrate her fanatical devotion (with the exception of her "I am alone" speech prior to the march on Paris in Scene V and her recantation -and recanted recantation- before the stake). The other nobles and clergy (whom the play is really about) lack a certain energy and depth. I think I see where Shaw was going with the play, but I'm not sure I feel very engaged in the journey.


"The more obedient a man is to accredited authority the more jealous he is of allowing any unauthorized person to order him about." (Preface, pg. 44)

"I want to remind you of one thing. Joan chose to be burnt. She could have escaped being burnt. [...:] Now, I recommend that to all of you who are listening to me, because in almost all of your criminal codes, here in England, in America, in Italy, in France, we are always condemning people for crimes to this very punishment of imprisonment, of long terms of imprisonment, sometimes of solitary imprisonment, and in that we are using a crueler punishment than burning, according to the judgment of this woman who had her open choice between the two. That is something for you to think about. I will not dwell any more on it." (Saint Joan: A B.B.C. Radio Talk)