Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 811
*Vaucouleurs castle (voh-kew-lewr). Castle of Robert de Baudricourt in which the play opens. A historical place, the castle stands near the Meuse River, between Lorraine and Champagne, not far from Joan’s home village of Domremy. The castle represents the first stage of Joan’s odyssey to fulfill her Lord’s commands; she must convince Robert to supply her with a horse and an escort to Chinon, where she wants to see the Dauphin, the heir presumptive to the French throne.
The seeming invulnerability of the Vaucouleurs stronghold is indicated by the furnishings of the first-floor room where Robert sits: a “plain strong oak table,” a “stout four-legged stool,” and a wooden chest. His position on a floor above Joan, which allows him to look down upon her in the lower courtyard, indicates his social superiority. A doorway leads to a winding stair to the courtyard, where Joan waits impatiently for an audience with Robert. When Robert’s knight Bertrand de Poulengy enters the castle, he places the stool between the table and the window, just as he acts as an intermediary between Joan and Robert.
Although he is weak-willed, Robert tries to be as imposing as his castle when he finally admits Joan, who easily deflects his arguments with her presumption that her miraculous mission and her logical reasons will enlighten him. This scene represents the triumph of human reason over class snobbery, and identifies Joan as the herald of democracy.
*Chinon (sheeh-NON). Town in Touraine where Joan meets the Dauphin. The curtain that separates the antechamber in which the second scene takes place from the Chinon throne room hints at the curtains that screen the realities of power from ostensible ones. Immature and perhaps illegitimate, the Dauphin is ignored by the real powers in France—his government ministers and the leaders of the Church. To test Joan’s claims that she has been sent by God, the Dauphin and Bluebeard exchange their clothing and their places in the ceremonial order. By immediately recognizing the disguised Dauphin, Joan inspires courage in him, and he gives her charge of the French army. Joan thus demonstrates that common sense may prevail over pretensions, and that places, even the throne room, fail to intimidate her, armed as she is with the sword of God.
*Battlefields. In battles between the French and English on the banks of the Loire River, at Orleans, Joan demonstrates that her conception of warfare makes more sense than the prevailing view of war as a kind of game. The wind that changes direction in the favor of the French not only suggests Joan’s divine mission, but hints at a change in Joan’s fortune. Indeed, Joan is reported wounded in these scenes. In spite of her wound, she continues to fight, firming the resolve of her army, and firming the resolve of the Church’s leaders to burn her, as she places her own private judgments above the dictates of the Church.
*Rheims (reemz; now spelled Reims). Historic city in northeastern France whose cathedral was the traditional site of royal coronations. The play’s fifth scene is set in an ambulatory near the foot of the cathedral’s vestry, where Joan prays beneath a cross while the Dauphin is crowned King Charles VII. This ancient site of the crowning of kings parallels Joan’s fortunes, as she is at the height of her powers, the point at which her fortunes are about to change because she has incurred the indignation of the Church.
*Rouen castle (REW-ahn). Normandy city on the lower Seine, west of Paris, where Joan is tried for heresy in the stone hall of the city’s great castle. In scene 6, the elevated seating of the many ecclesiastical judges is juxtaposed with the plain wooden stool below on which she sits, indicating the extent to which the odds are stacked against Joan. Despite her good sense, the political intrigues and subtle theological sophistries of the Church overwhelm Joan’s youthful and unschooled naïveté, and she is condemned to be burnt in the adjoining courtyard, indicated by the reddening of the window of the castle.
King’s château. The epilogue occurs on a restless night in 1456, the year Joan was officially rehabilitated. Now king for many years, Charles dreams of Joan and the other participants in the drama that had occurred some twenty-five years earlier. His bed is raised, and the canopy bears the royal arms, but other than that, nothing distinguishes this room from an ordinary bedroom, just as nothing inherent indicates the superiority of the man himself. A sudden darkness in the room indicates that, while Joan accomplished her goals with regard to Charles, neither he nor anyone else wants her to return, as saints are easier to tolerate dead than alive.
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Joan and Her Times
Shaw follows the historical record fairly closely in describing Joan’s career. Just like the Joan in the play, the real Joan of Arc was a farmer’s daughter who, dressed in men’s clothes and aided by Robert de Baudricourt, won the ear of the Dauphin and was instrumental in lifting the siege of Orléans. This action is generally seen as the turning point in the Hundred Years’ War (1337–1453) between England and France; England at that point controlled most of northern France, but after triumphing at Orléans in 1429, the French went on to push the English almost completely out of the country.
The Hundred Years’ War, though it began in part because of the complications arising from feudal landholding in which English kings held lands in France as vassals of the French king, led to the growth of nationalism, the strengthening of royal power, and the weakening of the feudal nobility and the whole feudal system—the very things Warwick fears in the play.
While Warwick fears nationalism, Cauchon fears Protestantism, a force that did not really exist until a century after the time of Joan. But there were forerunners of the Protestant Reformation even before Joan’s time, most notably the Englishman John Wyclif (1328–1384) and the Czech Jan Hus (1369–1415), both of whom Cauchon mentions (in Scene IV). Wyclif and Hus both questioned the ultimate authority of the Church, somewhat like the way Shaw has Joan question its authority, although Wyclif and Hus subordinated the Church to Scripture rather than to mystical contact with saints in Joan’s manner, and modern critics say Joan did not intend to be a reformer or to challenge the Church’s role in the way that Wyclif and Hus did.
Shaw and His Times
Shaw wrote Saint Joan at the same time that T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, and other modernists were writing in experimental forms about an incomprehensible universe, but Shaw was no modernist. Indeed, it is a curious fact about his Preface that in it he more than once compares life in Joan’s time with life in the nineteenth century, as if he were still writing in the nineteenth century instead of in 1924.
Shaw was very much a man of the nineteenth century, influenced by one of the major nineteenthcentury beliefs: socialism, in its Fabian form. Fabian socialism, which became influential in England in the 1880s and 1890s, advocated a gradual, nonrevolutionary reorganization of society to create a utopian society in which poverty and excessive individualism, profit-making, and competition would be eliminated.
Of course, Shaw could not help but be influenced by developments in the early years of the twentieth century, and he was especially affected by World War I. The first World War was notable for the large-scale destruction and loss of life that it caused and also for the nationalistic propaganda associated with it. J. L. Wisenthal, in Shaw’s Sense of History, says Shaw’s negative feelings about World War I are reflected in Saint Joan, for instance, in Cauchon’s remark in Scene IV about how the division of united Christendom into nations would cause the world to perish in war.
In 1916, Irish rebels led a short-lived uprising (the Easter Rebellion) against British rule in Ireland. The rebellion was suppressed and its leaders executed, much to the dismay of Shaw. In Saint Joan, the struggle to push the English out of France may echo the Irish struggle to push the British out of Ireland.
In 1917, the Bolsheviks came to power in the Russian Revolution and dedicated themselves to establishing socialism in Russia by whatever means necessary, including methods reminiscent of the medieval Inquisition. Shaw was quite sympathetic to the Bolshevik enterprise, and even sent Lenin, the Bolshevik leader, an autographed copy of Back to Methuselah, the play he wrote before Saint Joan. Arnold Silver, in Saint Joan: Playing with Fire, suggests that there is sympathy for the Inquisition in Saint Joan because of Shaw’s growing sympathy for the dictatorial methods being used in Russia.
In 1903, Emmeline Pankhurst founded the Women’s Social and Political Union to win the right to vote for women. Over the next decade this group (called suffragettes) picketed and protested, winning partial voting rights for women by 1918. There is no evidence that Shaw modeled Joan on Pankhurst or her followers, but the belief in equal rights for women that underlay the woman’s suffrage movement also underlies Shaw’s play.
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Saint Joan is set in France in the period 1429– 1431, with an epilogue set in 1456. Four of the scenes are set in castles in the northern part of the country, including the castle occupied by the court of the Dauphin in Chinon and the castle in Rouen where Joan’s trial takes place. One scene takes place in the cathedral at Rheims where Charles is crowned, another takes place on the banks of the Loire River in the French military camp across from Orleans, and one (the so-called Tent Scene) takes place in a tent in the English camp.
Structure and Tone
In his Preface, Shaw suggests that his play is divided into three parts: ‘‘the romance of [Joan’s] rise, the tragedy of her execution, and the comedy of the attempts of posterity to make amends for that execution.’’ The first three scenes depict the rise, showing Joan’s successes and ‘‘miracles’’ in a lively manner. In the next three scenes, the play becomes darker: Joan’s enemies plot against her, her friends desert her, and she is put to death. The Epilogue for the most part restores the light tone of the early scenes as it depicts Joan’s posthumous triumph, but it does end on a plaintive note, with another desertion of Joan.
There has been much debate about whether Shaw’s play is a comedy or a tragedy. It certainly has elements of both. There are humorous, even farcical moments, as in the opening scene about the hens that will not lay eggs, or the moment when Robert de Baudricourt looks up apprehensively to see if there really is a halo over his head. There is a jaunty tone in the opening scenes and again in the Epilogue, but a much darker tone in between, and Joan’s death can be seen as the fall of a tragic hero. On the other hand, the play does not end with her death, but with a mostly light-hearted presentation of her posthumous vindication. At least one critic has said that the play is best described as a tragicomedy.
In his Preface, Shaw calls the play a tragedy, but mainly in an attempt to distinguish it from melodrama. His point is that he is not telling a story of evil villains and a pure saint, as in a melodrama; instead, he wants to show how a murder can be committed by ‘‘normally innocent people,’’ that is, by honorable characters who are not villains. He also notes that there is an element of comedy in the tragedy.
If the play is a tragedy, at least in part, then there is the question of whether Joan is a tragic hero in the traditional sense of being a character of high standing who falls because of some tragic error she commits. Joan is not of high social standing, but she does rise to a powerful position, and she is accused in the play itself (by the Archbishop) of suffering from one of the traditional tragic flaws of Greek drama: hubris, or pride. She herself admits to vanity in wearing a gold coat into her final battle, an action that made her easily singled out and captured. And especially in the later scenes she does seem to lose some of her earlier humility and become a bit overbearing: giving orders to the Archbishop instead of falling on her knees before him. Of course, she has been brash and self-confident all along; those are some of her strengths, but it is typical of tragedy to have the hero’s tragic error stem from his own strengths. Joan has other flaws as well: her inexperience and simplicity, her impatience, and what seems like an excessive enjoyment of soldiering. These may all be said to bring her down. However, the play’s emphasis is actually less on the personal errors committed by Joan and more on the sociopolitical forces that surround her. The Church, the English, and the feudal aristocracy want her removed; they are the main causes of Joan’s fall, along with the desertion of Joan by her supposed friends in the French camp.
The fact that Joan’s heart will not burn suggests that, as is said at the end of Scene VI, her execution is not really the end of her. And indeed Joan reappears in the Epilogue in a sort of resurrection.
This quasi-resurrection of Joan makes her seem something like Christ. And there are other sugges tions in the play that Joan functions as a Christ figure: more than once it is suggested that a character may play the role of Judas in relation to her; Stogumber says the onlookers who laughed at her burning would have laughed at Christ; and in the Epilogue, on hearing that it took the burning of Joan to save Stogumber, Bishop Cauchon wonders if a Christ must perish in every age to save those (like Stogumber) who lack imagination.
Anachronisms and Discussions
Saint Joan features long philosophical discussions typical of Shaw, most notably in the Tent Scene, in which characters use historical terms like Protestantism and nationalism that were not yet in use. Shaw’s purpose in using these devices is, as he says in the Preface, to help the audience to better understand the medieval period and the forces at work that bring Joan down.
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1400s: The Hundred Years’ War, and increases in royal power and economic development, lead to the growth of national feeling and modern nation-states.
1923: World War I, which itself resulted from nationalist clashes, gives rise to a number of new nation-states, encouraging national rivalries.
Today: With the end of the cold war, which had suppressed many nationalist rivalries, old and new conflicts between nations and ethnic groups have come to the fore.
1400s: The Catholic Church is the dominant religious and political force in the Western World.
1923: The Catholic Church retains its dominant religious role in some parts of the Western World, including France and southern Europe, but elsewhere (England, the United States) it has no such dominant status.
Today: The Catholic Church, like other churches, has tried to modernize itself to broaden its appeal in an increasingly secular age.
1400s: In the traditional medieval world, individuals have few rights.
1923: In the capitalist democracies, individual rights are enshrined in law and the economy, but various socialist groups call for putting collective rights ahead of individual ones, a philosophy that the Communist Party in the newly formed Soviet Union is trying to put into practice.
Today: With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the disappearance of most socialist states and movements, capitalist individualism holds sway in much of the world, though kept in check to a certain extent by governmental regulation and certain political movements, such as environmentalism.
1400s: In the traditional medieval world, women have few political or economic rights, and are confined to a few traditional roles.
1923: Women have won some property rights, and some have won the right to vote; some women have entered traditional male spheres, but the division into male and female spheres remains largely intact.
Today: Feminism has had a large impact on Western culture. Women have entered more and more traditionally male occupations; laws have been enacted guaranteeing them equality or priority in employment; many no longer feel obliged to follow the traditional paths of marriage and motherhood, or seek to combine such paths with professional careers.
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Shaw himself drafted a screenplay for Saint Joan in the 1930s, but no movie was made of it, owing to pressure from the Catholic Church. Shaw’s screenplay, edited by Bernard F. Dukore, was published in 1968 by the University of Washington Press.
A movie version of the play was later made based on a screenplay by Graham Greene. Directed by Otto Preminger, this 1957 version starred Jean Seberg as Joan, Richard Widmark as the Dauphin, Richard Todd as Dunois, Anton Walbrook as Cauchon, and John Gielgud as Warwick.
There was also a television version of the play in 1967, starring Geneviève Bujold as Joan and Roddy McDowall as the Dauphin.
The Media Resources Center at the University of California at Berkeley lists a version of the play read by Siobhan McKenna as Saint Joan.
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Bentley, Eric, Bernard Shaw, 1856–1950, New Directions, 1957.
Crompton, Louis, ‘‘A Hagiography of Creative Evolution,’’ in George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan, edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House, 1987, p. 47.
Graham, James, ‘‘Shaw on Saint Joan,’’ in Saint Joan Fifty Years After, edited by Stanley Weintraub, Louisiana State University Press, 1973, p. 17.
Grene, Nicholas, ‘‘Shavian History,’’ in George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan, edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House, 1987, p. 121.
Huizinga, Johan, ‘‘Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan,’’ in Saint Joan Fifty Years After, edited by Stanley Weintraub, Louisiana State University Press, 1973, p. 54–85.
MacCarthy, Desmond, ‘‘St Joan: The Theme and the Drama,’’ in Saint Joan Fifty Years After, edited by Stanley Weintraub, Louisiana State University Press, 1973, p. 31–38.
Pirandello, Luigi, ‘‘Bernard Shaw’s St Joan,’’ in Saint Joan Fifty Years After, edited by Stanley Weintraub, Louisiana State University Press, 1973, p. 23–28.
Shaw, George Bernard, Saint Joan: A Chronicle Play in Six Scenes and an Epilogue, edited by Dan H. Laurence, Penguin, 1957.
Silver, Arnold, Saint Joan: Playing with Fire, Twayne, 1993.
Weintraub, Stanley, ‘‘Bernard Shaw’s Other Saint Joan,’’ in Saint Joan Fifty Years After, edited by Stanley Weintraub, Louisiana State University Press, 1973, p. 233.
Wisenthal, J. L., Shaw’s Sense of History, Clarendon, 1988.
Allmand, C. T., The Hundred Years War: England and France at War, 1300–1450, Cambridge University Press, 1988. This text provides information on the historical background to Joan’s career.
Bloom, Harold, ed., George Bernard Shaw’s ‘Saint Joan,’ Chelsea House, 1987. Bloom’s book is a collection of essays on the play dating from 1955 through 1984.
Gies, Frances, Joan of Arc: The Legend and the Reality, Harper and Row, 1981. Gies presents a study of Joan’s life and the literature about her.
Holroyd, Michael, Bernard Shaw, 5 vols., Chatto and Windus, 1988–1992. Holroy’s book is the major modern biography of Shaw.
Irvine, William, The Universe of G. B. S., Russell [and] Russell, 1968 (first published in 1949). Irvine’s work is a study of Shaw’s philosophical and political views.
Silver, Arnold, Saint Joan: Playing with Fire, Twayne, 1993. In this book, Silver gives a full-length study of the play. Weintraub, Stanley, ed., Saint Joan Fifty Years After, Louisiana State University Press, 1973. Weintraub assembles a collection of essays on Shaw’s play. This book includes several early reviews and essays from the 1920s.
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Sources for Further Study
Astell, Ann W. “Shaw’s Saint Joan: Judging Joan and Her Judges.” In Joan of Arc and Sacrificial Authorship. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 2003. A reasoned reading of Saint Joan in the light of Shaw’s Marxism.
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.
Pharand, Michel W. “Part 4: Shaw and Jeanne d’Arc.” In Bernard Shaw and the French. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2000. The reception of Shaw’s Saint Joan in France, with reference to an inventory of more than a hundred plays about Saint Joan; indispensable for the world reputation of Shaw’s play.
Tyson, Brian. The Story of Shaw’s “Saint Joan.” Montreal, Que.: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1982. Examination of Shaw’s conception and composition of Saint Joan and its first reception and later influence on twentieth century drama.
Weintraub, Stanley, ed. Saint Joan: Fifty Years After 1923/24-1973/74. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1973. A treasure trove of positive and negative analyses from twenty-five distinguished writers on Saint Joan.
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