In Saint Joan: A Chronicle Play in Six Scenes and an Epilogue, George Bernard Shaw tells a historically faithful version of how Joan of Arc went from being a provincial adolescent, to military hero, to executed heretic, to rehabilitated venerable by the Roman Catholic Church twenty-five years later and to saint in 1920. Shaw’s prefaces and postscripts to the play explain his knowledge and admiration of Joan.
In scene 1, in 1429, Robert de Baudricourt, on the River Meuse in France meets Joan of Arc for the first time and sees her extraordinary personality, complete with candidly announced dream visions and messages from saints Catherine, Margaret, and Blessed Michael, who tell her to lead the French army to victory at Orleans. To get the job, she wants an audience with the Dauphin.
In scene 2, March 8, 1429, Joan is in Chinon in Touraine, where she asks the Dauphin to let her lead the French army. She must first go through the rough scrutiny of La Trémouille, the archbishop, Monsieur de Rais (Bluebeard), and Captain La Hire, who has stopped swearing along with the soldiers in the presence of Joan. In realilty, the trial for heresy of Joan begins here. The archbishop’s views represent the medieval Roman Catholic Church. “She is not a saint. . . . She does not wear women’s clothes.” Joan arrives late to meet the Dauphin and other members of the court, who are in disguise to test her. Joan instantly, and with casual humor, picks out the Dauphin.
Ominously, the archbishop says to Joan, “You are in love with religion.”...
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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....
(The entire section is 764 words.)