Underlying Philosophy

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2086

Saint Joan is full of surprises. The first surprise is that a nonreligious writer like Shaw (at least nonreligious in a conventional Christian sense) should even write on a topic like this: the martyrdom of a Christian saint. Indeed, when it was first announced that Shaw, the ‘‘professional iconoclast,’’ was writing on Saint Joan, at least one critic worried that the play would not be properly reverent. And critics in France, before the French version opened, were similarly nervous about how the irreverent Irishman would treat their national heroine.

But the critics were all satisfied, at least on this point: Shaw, the mocking non-Christian, produced a completely sympathetic portrait of a Christian saint. Except in a way the saint is less Christian than Shavian: Shaw’s Joan does hear Heavenly voices, it is true, and ends up a martyr, but she is no shrinking, timid victim (except in the French production, which displeased Shaw immensely). She is an active warrior saint, keen to go into battle, strong and clever, ready with a pert reply when challenged. For instance, when told (in Scene I) that the voices she says are from God actually come from her imagination, she says: ‘‘Of course. That is how the messages from God come to us.’’ Commentators have disapproved of this line, saying the historical Joan would never have spoken like that. Probably true. But the line is very revealing about the nature of the Shavian Joan: she is as witty as her creator, a genius just like him, though a somewhat untutored genius, whose inexperience contributes to her downfall.

Not that it is clear that even an experienced genius can triumph in our world. As Shaw says in his Preface, even the experienced Socrates was forced to drink hemlock. The world cannot tolerate its geniuses; superior men and women make others feel inferior and resentful, and so the superior ones end up being condemned to die, just as Joan is condemned to die by the Catholic Church and its Holy Office of the Inquisition.

But here is another surprise from Shaw. In both the Preface and the play itself, Shaw is at pains to say that Joan received a fair trial at the hands of the Church. He goes out of his way to present a flattering portrait of Cauchon, one of her chief judges, even though the historical record suggests he was unscrupulous and corrupt, not the merciful and fairminded defender of the Church that Shaw makes him out to be. How can Shaw, the professional rebel and defender of Joan, be sympathetic to the Inquisition, that instrument for suppressing individual rights, for maintaining dictatorial rule, and stamping out new thoughts, the instrument that sent Joan to her death?

According to Louis Crompton, in George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan, Shaw is not actually sympathetic to the Inquisition at all; he is merely warning us that individuals may believe themselves to be right and still do evil things: ‘‘the most nefarious institutions and their administrators always seem perfectly justified in their own eyes and in the eyes of most onlookers.’’

But Shaw is actually more sympathetic to the Inquisition than Crompton suggests, saying in his Preface not that Joan was executed by a nefarious institution but by ‘‘normally innocent people in the energy of their righteousness.’’ And though Shaw says that executing Joan was a horrible action, he suggests that the Church was within its rights to punish her in some way, perhaps to excommunicate her, because societies have the right to set down laws and have them obeyed: ‘‘society must always draw a line...

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somewhere between allowable conduct and insanity or crime, in spite of the risk of mistaking sages for lunatics and saviors for blasphemers.’’ He even says, ‘‘We must persecute, even to the death.’’

In Saint Joan: Playing with Fire, Arnold Silver sees this persecuting side of Shaw as reflecting his growing disillusionment with democracy and his simultaneous attraction to dictatorial regimes like that of Lenin’s Bolsheviks in Russia. It is certainly true—and this is another surprise—that Shaw takes a shot at democracy in his Preface, saying, somewhat bizarrely, that the Catholic Church is in practice a democracy, and therefore flawed, because the process of selecting bishops, cardinals, and the Pope is one of ‘‘selection and election . . . of the superior by the inferior (the cardinal vice of democracy).’’ The result is that the leaders of the Church cannot match geniuses like Joan who are self-selected rather than elected by their inferiors.

But what is notable here is that Shaw is calling the Church, the persecuting agency, a democracy. He is not contrasting dictatorship and democracy; he is associating the two. The actual contrast in the play is between the dictatorial orders of a democratic organization like the Church, on the one hand, and the rights of individuals on the other. It may be commonplace nowadays to associate individual rights with democracy, but Shaw is actually placing these two concepts in opposition to each other. On the one hand, there is the democratic organization of the Church, representing the people and society as a whole, and on the other hand there are individuals with their own private interests. What Shaw is doing is opposing collective rights to individual rights, and saying in his Preface that in many cases society is justified in putting its collective rights ahead of individual rights. This sounds like Shaw the socialist speaking, not necessarily Shaw the lover of dictators.

As a socialist, Shaw was impatient with individual rights and individualism. In the Preface, in his discussion of Shakespeare’s plays, he specifi- cally derides the individualism of the middle classes. He describes Shakespeare’s characters as being ‘‘individualist, sceptical, self-centred . . . and selfish . . . without public responsibilities of any kind’’ and says that ‘‘that is why they seem natural to our middle classes, who are comfortable and irresponsible at other people’s expense.’’

Shaw also seems critical of the individual rights of the working classes, another surprise, given that as a socialist, one would expect him to be supportive of the rights of laboring people. However, Shaw was never that close to the masses; instead of joining the proletarian Social Democratic Foundation in the 1880s, he joined the intellectual socialists in the Fabian Society. And as noted above, he was no great fan of the power of ‘‘inferiors’’ to elect their superiors. It is notable that, in his Preface, Shaw goes out of his way to emphasize that his heroine is not a mere laborer, but comes from a higher social class. And in the play itself (in Scene IV), Cauchon worries that Joan’s assertion of the right to follow her private judgment may lead to the thrusting aside of the Church and its accumulated wisdom ‘‘by every ignorant laborer or dairymaid.’’ This will lead, he adds, to blood and fury and devastation as well as to national conflict and destructive war.

Now, this is Cauchon speaking, not Shaw, but Cauchon’s two speeches on these topics are so powerful that they seem to reflect Shaw’s own views, and indeed, they meet with no rebuttal in the play.

All of this leads to seeing the following set of conflicting attitudes in the play. On the one hand, Shaw seems to be asserting the right of society through institutions like the Church to set down laws that must be obeyed and to persecute ‘‘even to the death’’ those who break those laws. Shaw seems to be strongly asserting the collective rights of society against individual rights, and seems to be opposed to allowing such rights to either the selfish middle classes or the ignorant working classes. He also seems to be attacking nationalism and the horrors of war.

At the same time, he has created a very sympathetic heroine who stands preeminently for individual rights, at least for her own right to judge God’s will for herself in accordance with her private visions. Moreover, this heroine is a strong nationalist who wants France for the French as well as an advocate for a more serious, that is, a more destructive, approach to warfare.

How can these contradictory ideas be reconciled? How can Shaw be both for and against individual rights, for and against nationalism and war?

Some, like Eric Bentley, in Bernard Shaw, say that in fact Shaw was on both sides of the individual rights issues. Arnold Silver says that there are two Shaws in the play: the young, rebellious supporter of individualism (represented by Joan) and the older, grimmer supporter of authoritarianism (represented by Cauchon). On the issue of nationalism and war, J. L. Wisenthal, in Shaw’s Sense of History, says Shaw supported Joan’s spirit and power but not the causes she used that spirit and power to advance.

There is something in all these views, especially in Wisenthal’s. There is a sense in the play (and the Preface) that Shaw supports Joan because she is a genius, one of those rare people who help advance the ‘‘creative evolution’’ of the human race. From one perspective, then, as Wisenthal says, it matters less what specific policies Joan favored; the point is that such geniuses are important leaders for others to follow. It may also be that Shaw, who saw history as progressing through stages, accepted the nationalist stage promoted by Joan as a necessary stage in humanity’s progressive development. Or he may simply have been thinking of the society of his own day: in Shaw’s view, modern society had to be transformed; he was a supporter of those who can transform societies; and therefore he would be drawn to Joan because she was one of those who brought about a transformation, even if the specific nature of that transformation was not one he favored. In other words, Shaw was in favor of rebels and geniuses and that he would support them whatever specific proposals they were advocating.

This support for geniuses also may be the key to explaining the apparent contradiction between Shaw’s support for Joan’s individual rights and his opposition to individual rights for others. Shaw’s basic philosophical attitude as it emerges from this play seems to be the following: There are a few selfselected geniuses in the world who see further and probe deeper than other people, and whose ideas are more advanced than those to be found in organizations representing the people at large. It is important to respect, tolerate, and even celebrate these geniuses, for it is through them that society advances. Society’s organizations should give them free rein.

At the same time, the bulk of the population, not being geniuses, should not have the same rights as the geniuses. The ‘‘ignorant’’ working classes and the ‘‘selfish’’ middle classes should follow the rules established by society’s organizations.

So there should be order and discipline for the majority (imposed by organizations representing the majority) and free rein for the small minority of geniuses. Unfortunately, this system is not often found. It is hard to recognize a genius, for one thing. As Cauchon says in the Epilogue, ‘‘mortal eyes cannot distinguish the saint from the heretic.’’ Or perhaps it is not so much that geniuses cannot be recognized as that they inspire fear, as Shaw says in his Preface. Then instead of following them, the people or their organizations put them to death. After they are dead, they may be worshipped, as Joan is in the Epilogue, which suggests something hopeful, but if the genius threatens to return to life, as Joan does, the ordinary people are most unhappy. As Charles says in the Epilogue, ‘‘If you could bring her back to life, they would burn her again within six months.’’

Still, Joan does triumph in a way. Though burnt at the stake and not wanted back on earth, the causes she advocated do win out. The English are pushed out of France, warfare becomes more modern, and the individualism she represents in Shaw’s play becomes the dominant ideology of Western society. Shaw’s geniuses may exert influence even though they die; there is thus some optimism present even though the play ends with Joan’s lament about the earth not being ready to receive God’s saints. The saints may rule from Heaven.

Source: Sheldon Goldfarb, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale Group, 2001. Goldfarb has a Ph.D. in English and has published two books on the Victorian author William Makepeace Thackeray.

Religion and Philosophy

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 462

We turn to Saint Joan. It is generally regarded as a very religious play. True, there are many clergymen in it and a lot of talk about God and much wrangling over theology, but it is very difficult to understand how Joan of Arc qualified as a saint. She was a military genius. This is very rare, even among men—can you think of a military genius during World War I? For an uneducated country girl to have possessed it is extraordinary indeed. But what has this to do with religion? The French novelist, Huysmans, has expressed the regret that Joan of Arc ever rose to wrest France from the Normans who were seeking to preserve her racial and prehistoric unity with England, and thus handed her over to Charles VII and his southerners. The advantage of the union of France and England for the world generally would have been incalculable (and incidentally, the Mediterranean population of France and the Mediterranean population of Ireland would have rendered impossible an ‘Irish question’). And indeed, anyone today walking across the soil of France between Passchendaele and the Somme, knowing that beneath his feet lie nearly a million British dead who were comrades of the French, might well endorse this view. At any rate the claim seems to me by no means outrageous that when the peasant girl from Lorraine with her hallucinations galvanized into action the nerveless arms of Charles she inflicted a blow upon the progress of the modern world which may never have been exceeded.

It is hard to see exactly where her sainthood comes in. She was a martyr, certainly, to outward cruelty and inward folly. I am fond of the Epilogue because of its splendid rhetoric. But it is confusing. Near the end the various parties praise Joan. Each in turn kneels in praise. Indeed they give her a very good hand. But when she asks if they would like her to come back to earth, each makes an excuse and discreetly withdraws. We are supposed to think ill of them for this. But why should they want her back? She was not a saviour with a gospel of salvation; she was not a philosopher with a solution to the riddle of the world; she was not a moralist with a message for mankind. She was a soldier. Why should they want her back unless they had some military coup in mind? When they have all departed she has the nerve to kneel down in a holy manner and to ask God how long it must be before this beautiful earth is ready to receive its saints.

Source: John Stewart Collis, ‘‘Religion and Philosophy,’’ in The Genius of Shaw: A Symposium, edited by Michael Holroyd, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1979, p. 86.

The Climax of a Career

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Though in form Back to Methuselah and Shaw’s next play stand in sharp contrast, they are similar in two ways—both reflect the pressures of the war period on their creator and both deal with religious themes. Shaw once said Saint Joan would not have been written had he not visualized the subject as relevant to ‘‘a world situation in which we see whole peoples perishing and dragging us toward the abyss which has swallowed them, all for want of any grasp of the political forces that move civilization.’’

Other authors had written of the Maid, among them, Shakespeare, Voltaire, Southey, Schiller, Andrew Lang, Mark Twain, Tom Taylor, Percy MacKaye; but Shaw did not learn much from these predecessors in the field. He felt that Voltaire and Shakespeare did Joan an injustice. Mark Twain’s Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc Shaw regarded as a romantic creation, ‘‘an unimpeachable American school teacher in armor.’’ He learned little, if anything, from Twain’s book. The direct source of the play is T. Douglas Murray’s Jeanne D’Arc, a work that centers on Joan’s shrewdness and courage in her trial. On reading it, Mrs. Shaw urged her husband to write a play about the subject, and he readily acceded. It was the second time her direct suggestion bore fruit, the first being The Doctor’s Dilemma. Shaw not only read Murray’s account, he also thoroughly studied the case in Quichert’s transcription of the trial in 1431 and the rehabilitation proceeding in 1456.

In its form, Saint Joan is a chronicle play like Caesar and Cleopatra, which it resembles also in having as its central figure a character with the attributes of a Superman. Joan exemplifies the strength, the faith, and the wisdom of Shaw’s concept of the race that must supersede homo sapiens through Creative Evolution if civilization is to be saved. Saint Joan is also like Caesar and Cleopatra in presenting a main character to whom all the other persons in the play—most of them types—are contributory. Just as Britannus, Rufio, Appollodorus, and even Cleopatra herself are significant chiefly in letting Caesar shine in all his glory and wisdom, so De Baudricourt, Warwick, Dunois, De. Stozomber, Cauchin, the Inquisitor, the Dauphin, and all the others keep the spotlight on Joan. So skillfully does Shaw write, that she is (in Louis L. Martz’s words) ‘‘the simple cause of every other word and action in the play.’’

Shaw describes her in the preface as a peasant girl, soldier, ‘‘Protestant martyr,’’ yet ‘‘a professed and most pious Catholic.’’ She was also ‘‘one of the first apostles of nationalism, and the first French practitioner of Napoleonic realism in warfare.’’ ‘‘The pioneer of rational dressing for women,’’ Shaw continues, ‘‘she refused to accept the specific woman’s lot, and dressed and fought and lived as men did.’’ She defied popes and patronized kings. ‘‘As her actual condition was pure upstart, there were only two opinions about her. One was that she was miraculous: The other that she was unbearable.’’

She was a Protestant because she insisted that her religion came from God, not from the Church, as she trusted her inner Voices rather than the traditional dogmas of Catholicism. This left the Church with nothing to do, as Shaw said, ‘‘but to burn her or canonize Wycliff and Hus.’’ Shaw had no doubt of her sanity. ‘‘Joan must be judged as a sane woman in spite of her voices,’’ he said, ‘‘because they never gave her any advice that might not have come to her from her mother wit exactly as gravitation came to Newton.’’ Like Shaw’s Caesar, she was a natural, unpretentious person. She spoke in dialect at times and called the future king Lad and Charlie, thereby showing her disregard for titles, officialdom, and worldly station. Her naturalness in speech and behavior (indeed, she talks and acts like a twentieth- century young woman) is part of her charm and appeal.

Though Shaw creates her as a person without sexual attraction or interest, he is careful not to make his Joan a supernatural, self-mortifying saint. Gallant and heroic as she is, she is not the all-perfect protagonist. Charismatic, she has strong power over men ‘‘from her uncle to the king, the archbishop, and the military General Staff.’’ She is not without human weaknesses such as stubbornness, conceit; and she has a marked pride in what she conceives to be her God-given capabilities. Shaw portrays her as neither a melodramatic victim nor a romantic heroine.

As there is no conventional heroine in Saint Joan, neither are there any villains. In all his dramas Shaw presents his characters, as he saw his contemporaries and historical figures, as mixtures of both good and evil. Accordingly, Joan’s judges are not portrayed as incarnations of malice that are bent on sending her to the stake. The Catholic Church is not the villain, and nowhere in the play does Shaw condemn or ridicule the Church, as he sometimes does in his earlier polemical writings. In the trial scene, which is central, Shaw presents both sides of the case, a fact which Eric Bentley praises as adding power to the drama.

Saint Joan is Shaw’s nearest approach to tragedy; but it is not tragic in the classical or Shakespearean sense; it is more like the tragicomedies of Ibsen or Chekhov. The controversial epilogue, which brings Joan back to earth for her 1920 canonization, detracts from the tragic effect. Moreover, just as in Hedda Gabler, society is to blame for the tragedy of a wasted life; and Shaw makes it clear that the tragedy lies not so much in Joan’s fate as in the failure of her society—the establishment of Church and State—to accept and understand her. Indubitably, Joan is one of Shaw’s great evocations. ‘‘She is,’’ as an astute German critic declares, ‘‘the last and most radiant in the long gallery of women that testify to his deep reverence for the high function of the feminine element in life.’’

This play is the climax of Shaw’s career. Though he lived on for more than half a century, nothing that he did afterward is of comparable importance.

Source: Eldon C. Hill, ‘‘The Climax of a Career,’’ in George Bernard Shaw, Twayne Publishers, 1978, pp. 131–33.


Critical Overview