Saint Joan

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The action of the play takes place during the Hundred Years War between France and England. Northern France is controlled by the English, and the forces of Charles VII of France are demoralized. The teenage peasant girl from Lorraine, against all likelihood, gains the confidence of a local squire, then Charles himself, in her military leadership.

Joan has all along claimed a special mission from God, communicated to her by means of inner voices; and the miracles which aided her as a French soldier now provide her enemies with a basis to destroy her. Thus, after some significant successes in the field, she is captured by the English and tried by the Inquisition as a witch. She stoutly holds to her convictions, however, and is eventually burned at the stake.

Shaw’s Joan is a natural, determined, and charismatic young woman. But she also has divine gifts which are either unrecognized or feared by her political and ecclesiastical opponents. His play develops her character with feeling and complexity. It has a wide range of dramatic effects, from light comedy to high drama (as in the trial scene) and poetic lyricism (as in the epilogue).

Yet the play is most effective for its dramatization of the conflict between individual genius or inspiration (represented by Joan) and social, historical, and ecclesiastical necessities (represented by the Inquisitor). In this way, it avoids romanticism, piety, and positivism, and advances a view of saints and miracles which is modern, yet respectful of traditional religious values.

Bibliography:

Hill, Holly. Playing Joan: Actresses on the Challenge of Shaw’s Saint Joan. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1987. Consists of twenty-six interviews with actresses who have played the role of Joan, sometimes in languages other than English. Partly anecdotal, the collection provides insight into the varied interpretations of the play.

Holroyd, Michael. 1918-1950: The Lure of Fantasy. Vol. 3 in Bernard Shaw. New York: Random House, 1991. Part of Holroyd’s magisterial biography of Shaw. Provides a brief analysis of Saint Joan as well as a great deal of information on the circumstances surrounding its creation and production. Also includes an excellent analysis of the development of Shaw’s ideas.

Nightingale, Benedict. A Reader’s Guide to Fifty Modern British Plays. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble Books, 1982. Considers Shaw and thirty-three other British playwrights and thus provides a historical, comparative context for Shaw’s work. Includes a concise analysis of Saint Joan and four other Shaw plays.

Tyson, Brian. The Story of Shaw’s “Saint Joan.” Kingston, Ontario: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1982. Detailed scene-by-scene analysis of the play based on examination of Shaw’s original manuscript in the British Museum. Covers Joan’s miracles in one chapter, then focuses on the Warwick-Cauchon confrontation, the trial, and the epilogue.

Weintraub, Stanley, ed. Saint Joan: Fifty Years After, 1923/24-1973/74. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1973. A collection of twenty-five essays that analyze Joan from Marxist, feminist, Irish nationalist perspectives and many other perspectives (including a consideration of Joan as a 1920’s flapper). Authors include T. S. Eliot and Luigi Pirandello.

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