Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 764
In the protagonist of Saint Joan, Shaw has created his most lasting embodiment of the Life Force, a figure who is superior in character and vision and who tries to elevate ordinary people to her level by becoming their leader. Shaw’s Saint Joan is funny and self-confident; she is guided by practicality and common sense but does not fit the traditional image of a religious martyr. Although Saint Joan is filled with comic moments, it is considered Shaw’s only tragedy. Yet it has also been called a comedy containing one tragic scene.
Joan’s legend had been revived in France during World War I; an ambitious Hollywood film, Joan, the Woman, had been released in 1917; and in 1920 Joan was canonized. The ensuing interest in Joan of Arc also seized Shaw and especially his wife. In Joan’s assertion of her will against institutional restraints Shaw recognized so many of his convictions that, as the famous drama critic-historian Eric Bentley has written, Shaw would have had to invent Joan had she never existed. In the play’s preface, Shaw praises “the vigor and scope of her mind and character, and the intensity of her vital energy.”
Although she is a warrior, Joan is also a preserver of life. As she appears on the scene, the hens start laying eggs again. In her enthusiasm she appeals to the French soldiers because “she’s so positive.” Joan’s affirmation of life and the indestructibility of her vital energy are felt throughout the play. Even when Joan is burned as a witch, the executioner admits thatHer heart would not burn; and it would not drown. I was a master at my craft . . . but I could not kill The Maid. She is up and alive everywhere.
Guided by voices, the eighteen-year-old country girl Joan is set on liberating France from the English, who are occupying half of the country in 1429. Through perseverance and persuasiveness she manages to be appointed commander of the French army by the Dauphin Charles. Joan leads the soldiers to victory by giving them back their courage. In something of a miracle, Orleans becomes the first city to be freed from English occupation.
When the English are losing battle after battle, the Earl of Warwick and his chaplain persuade Cauchon, the bishop of Beauvais, that Joan must be a witch because she could not have been so successful otherwise. He calls her death a “political necessity.” While Cauchon is not convinced that Joan’s military victories make her a heretic, he is angered by what he perceives to be Joan’s pride and her disregard for the Church. He blames her for asserting that she is guided by God and not by the Church and for crowning Charles herself in the cathedral of Rheims. What her accusers also cannot accept is Joan’s unwomanly behavior and attire. She dresses as a soldier and protests, “I will never take a husband. . . . I am a soldier: I do not want to be thought of as a woman.”
Joan falls victim to the Church’s intolerance of nonconformists and to the revenge of the English. In the figures of Warwick and his chaplain, Shaw criticizes English nationalism and patriotism. At her trial Joan is unwilling to put her obedience to the Church above her obedience to God. She refuses to comply with the Church’s demand that she denounce her voices as those of the devil. Although Joan is pronounced guilty, the Inquisitor, in private, calls her “innocent.” Nonetheless she is burned as a witch.
In the play’s epilogue Joan appears to King Charles in a dream twenty-five years after her execution. Her guilty verdict has been annulled. She is joined in Charles’s dream by those responsible for her death and is universally hailed. Finally, a papal messenger of the year 1920 announces that Joan has just been made a saint. As she offers to come back into the world, however, all shy away. Joan must realize that she is ahead of her time. Her famous last words are: “O God that madest this beautiful earth, when will it be ready to receive Thy saints? How long, O Lord, how long?” Shaw believed that the ordinary world was not yet sufficiently prepared for the superior being he envisioned. His epilogue makes Saint Joan less a historical play than a passion play, reminiscent of Christ’s Passion. It connects the past to Shaw’s present, illustrating that little has changed. Saint Joan remains Shaw’s most popular play, although he himself did not rate it that highly.