Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 779

Even before Saint Joan first appeared on stage, it inspired commentary. At least one critic worried about how Joan would fare in the hands of an irreverent writer like Shaw, but when he finally saw the play he was pleased by Shaw’s treatment of the subject. The play had successful first runs in New York in 1923 and in London in 1924, running for 214 and 244 performances respectively. An early production in Paris was also a great success, even though Shaw had previously not been very popular in France. However, Shaw himself was not pleased with the French production because it made Joan a weaker, more victimized character than he had envisioned her to be. There were also successful early productions in Berlin, Moscow, Madrid, and Tokyo. Overall, Saint Joan, though something of a departure from Shaw’s usual comic output, solidi- fied his reputation as a great playwright.

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On the other hand, the early critics did not all write favorably about the new play. There was a great deal of negative comment about Shaw’s use of history: many historical inaccuracies were pointed out, and his anachronistic use of terms like Protestantism and nationalism was criticized. The wellknown medieval historian Johan Huizinga said Shaw had not succeeded in reproducing the medieval atmosphere, despite his claims to have done so in his Preface. Many critics disliked the Epilogue, saying its comic character did not fit the tragic events depicted in the preceding scene. One critic, though, said it was the tragic events that did not fit; seeing the play primarily as a comedy, he said the Epilogue was appropriate, but Joan’s execution was out of place.

The mix of comedy and tragedy in the play inspired criticism, as did some of the more farcical elements in the story. The French critics, who generally praised the play, found the comic depiction of Charles and his court unacceptable. Shaw himself referred to the opening comic scenes as ‘‘flapdoodle’’ (in a letter cited by Nicholas Grene in George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan), but he said Saint Joan was generally ‘‘a magnificent play’’ (in another letter, cited by Stanley Weintraub in Saint Joan Fifty Years After) and an ‘‘act of respect’’ for Joan (cited by James Graham in Saint Joan Fifty Years After).

Other commentators have also found much to praise in the play. In Saint Joan Fifty Years After, Desmond MacCarthy wrote in awe of how the play lifted the audience on ‘‘waves of emotion to be dashed on thought.’’ He called it intellectually exciting and emotionally moving. The Italian playwright Luigi Pirandello praised its poetic emotion, though he found Joan’s character too simple and preferred the character of Stogumber, a view not held by many, Stogumber being seen by others as too extreme to be believable. Later writers have also praised the play, seeing it either as Shaw’s greatest, or at least his most important, play because it deals effectively with important themes. Some have even ranked it with Shakespeare’s tragedies. It is also seen as being part of a new development in Shaw’s work, a shift towards a more melancholy, less optimistic attitude, coupled with a friendlier attitude towards authority, all this stemming in part from his reaction to World War I.

The play itself had no problems with the censors, unlike Shaw’s earlier play Mrs. Warren’s Profession. However, a screenplay of Saint Joan that Shaw drafted in the 1930s was never produced because the Catholic Church put pressure on the Hollywood censors not to approve it.

The issue of whether the play is a tragedy or a comedy has exercised many commentators. Some see it as a traditional tragedy with Joan causing her own downfall because of the hubris of which she stands accused by the Archbishop. Others say that Shaw does not agree with the Archbishop and that Joan’s pride is a positive quality in the play. One critic, while unsure whether Joan’s pride qualifies as a tragic flaw, says the play is a tragedy in the Greek manner because Fate, in the form of the social forces arrayed against Joan, brings about the catastrophe. Another critic, noting how the fairly happy ending in the Epilogue follows the unhappy ending of the previous scene, suggests that what Shaw has produced is a tragicomedy.

The critics have also disagreed about whose side Shaw is on in the play: Joan’s or her opponents’. Eric Bentley writes that Shaw is actually on both sides. Arnold Silver says Joan represents the younger, rebellious Shaw, while Cauchon is the older, more authoritarian Shaw. But most critics see Shaw as being on Joan’s side.

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