Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 800

Like most of George Bernard Shaw’s dramatic works, Saint Joan has a didactic purpose. By the 1920’s, Shaw was disillusioned about many political programs, including aspects of his own Fabian Socialism, and he developed the concept of the “evolutionary appetite” or Creative Evolution. According to this belief, the Life Force itself needs to keep evolving and developing, thereby producing individuals who, by embodying new ideas, force humanity to the next evolutionary stage; such individuals include Jesus, Muhammad, Oliver Cromwell, and Saint Joan. New concepts necessarily threaten the existing social order, and people in power often try to suppress the ideas by killing those who embody them. Nevertheless, such powerful evolutionary ideas eventually triumph, as they must if humanity is to fulfill its destiny. Shaw believed that Joan forced the people of her time to confront two central tenets of modern consciousness: Protestantism and nationalism, both of which give greater scope to individual conscience. He discusses this theme at length in the preface (nearly half as long as the play itself) and presents it most explicitly in the confrontation between Warwick and Cauchon in scene 4. This scene was criticized for being too wordy and for its implausibility. After all, intelligent medieval people, for whom the social structure of feudalism and the power of the Catholic Church were completely self-evident, might well struggle with the exact nature of Joan’s threat, but there would have been no need for them to explain their fundamental worldviews to each other in such detail. Anticipating this criticism, Shaw insisted that twentieth century audiences, who were profoundly ignorant of history, had to have the medieval perspective spelled out for them if the play were to make any sense.

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Joan’s trial (scene 6) also drew criticism for compressing historical events, for blending comedy (Stogumber’s extraneous charges) and tragedy (Joan’s excommunication and death), as well as, occasionally, for the uninspired poetry of Joan’s last speeches. However, these two scenes display one of Shaw’s greatest strengths—his ability convincingly to express points of view completely different from his own. In the preface, he insists that Joan received a fair trial from Cauchon and the Inquisitor; he therefore gives these men wonderfully persuasive speeches, even though the characters embody what Shaw considered doomed ideas. Shaw’s Joan dies because she is, in truth, a heretic from the prevailing system of thought. With typical Shavian perversity, her heresy is the necessary precondition for her sanctity.

Chronologically, Saint Joan follows the despairing play about war (Heartbreak House, 1919) and his massive five-play cycle about Creative Evolution (Back to Methuselah, 1921), which reflects Shaw’s disgust with the postwar world and traces human life from the Garden of Eden to the year 31,920. Compared with these two works, Saint Joan is simple and direct, and it reflects real affection for its heroine. Like the earlier plays, however, it also reflects contemporary issues that concern Shaw. Shaw chooses, for example, to contemplate Joan’s era from the perspective of one who observed the horrors of trench warfare; the implicit comparison of old cruelties with new ones allows him to present Warwick and Cauchon more sympathetically. Shaw also implies that society still persecutes anyone who resists the prevailing orthodoxy. Thus, in the preface, he equates the twentieth century belief in science and medicine with the unthinking medieval faith in the Church, noting the modern condemnation of those who refused inoculations. In the epilogue, he has Cauchon wonder if Christ (and, by extension, any truly original but disruptive individual) “must perish in torment in every age to save those that have no imaginations.” He questions traditional gender roles by focusing on a heroine who sensibly rejects them, and he uses Stogumber’s mindless English chauvinism to criticize British imperialism, especially in his own native Ireland.

Structurally, this historical play presents a mixture of romance, tragedy, and farce; the combination of styles underscores Shaw’s ironic approach to his subject. The first three scenes, in which Joan moves from triumph to triumph, have a fairy-tale quality that vanishes as the forces of conventionality converge to destroy her. Both the inevitability and the cruelty of her approaching death make the last three scenes dark indeed. The epilogue, by contrast, turns her suffering into a cosmic joke. First, her just conviction is overturned in a politically motivated show trial. Then, her former friends and enemies, living and dead, gather in Charles’s dream to consider their past actions with detached amusement. Finally, a ridiculous man in twentieth century clothing appears, rather like a space alien, to inform the people of 1456 that Joan the heretic has become a saint. When Joan suggests a miracle to make her live again, however, everyone flees in panic. For ordinary humans, Shaw sardonically implies, the only good saint is a dead one.

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Saint Joan