Stanley J. Solomon (essay date February 1964)

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SOURCE: Solomon, Stanley J. “Saint Joan as Epic Tragedy.” Modern Drama 6, no. 4 (February 1964): 437-49.

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[In the following essay, Solomon explores the consequences of synthesizing epic and tragic elements in Saint Joan.]

Several of the critical problems related to Saint Joan stem from the unusual nature of the play—unusual, that is, for Shaw, for in no other Shaw play do we have a predominantly tragic tone.1 In the numerous commentaries on the play, we find three key questions frequently recurring: 1) Is Joan a tragic heroine with a tragic flaw or an innocent victim of circumstances? 2) Although Joan has our sympathies throughout, why does Shaw go to such elaborate lengths to align us intellectually on the side of her opposition? and 3) If the play is a tragedy, what is the purpose of the epilogue? In dealing with the above questions, I propose to consider Saint Joan as indeed a tragedy, but a special kind of tragedy, one that encompasses an epic design. The play is as consistently tragic in tone (at least from the first third of it to the end), as it is epic in structure. We may speculate on Shaw's reasons for not using the conventional tragic structure for Joan's story, but it is perhaps more rewarding to concern ourselves with the effects that Shaw achieves by coordinating epic and tragic elements.


The significant structural feature of epic drama is that emphasis is placed on important incidents in the history of an event or in the life of a hero. Naturally, the epic play is essentially dramatic, and therefore conflicts must arise, but the play does not raise the central issue of conflict as quickly as is done in tragedies. In the development of the action, long periods of time often elapse between scenes.2 Epic drama is related to epic poetry in the sense that both strive for an heroic representation of character: the contending parties are never merely involved in a personal conflict, but rather one nation against nation, or one hero against a representation of evil, such as Ulysses against Polyphemus or Beowulf against the dragon. The greatness of the hero is measured by the strength of his opposition. The chronicle structure becomes necessary to the epic play in order to build up both forces of contention to formidable size, not just to increase the hero's reputation. Thus, Shaw keeps Joan off-stage for an entire scene in which he depicts the coalescence of Joan's three opposing forces: the feudal system (Warwick), the Catholic Church (Cauchon), and, the least formidable, the English nation (de Stogumber).

The scope of the material handled in the epic play is generally of greater social significance than that of the tragedy, which is concerned with the fall of a single person. The fall of Joan is tragic in itself, but the focus of the play is often on the social significance of the conflict between the established order of the Church and the feudal system on the one hand, and society's disruptor, the heretical saint, on the other. Therefore, because of the scope of epic drama, the playwright requires more than a single dramatic situation to develop the ideas and the conflicts at the heart of the play. The action of such plays usually necessitates the use of more scenes than ordinary plays have. We can readily see that the dramatist's technical ability is severely tested, inasmuch as the artistic harmony and unity of the play depend upon the theme and the repetition of patterns of action or the development of character. The two key patterns that are found in Saint Joan are the repeated demonstrations of Joan's pride and the several anticipations of future events. Both patterns will be discussed later.

Since each force in the epic conflict represents great, if not equal, power, the dramatic form might naturally tend to allow the decision of the conflict to be determined by the...

(The entire section contains 12857 words.)

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Criticism: Pygmalion (1913)


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