Tuesday, 21 April 1998

George Bernard Shaw: Saint Joan (1924)

Edition: Penguin, 1966
Review number: 24

This is Shaw's play based around the life of Joan of Arc, who was canonised by the Catholic church just before the play was written. The story is well known. Joan was a young farm girl (not, as Shaw is at pains to point out, a peasant), inspired by visions of saints, who gave new heart to the French and caused a complete change of fortune in the Hundred Years' War with the English at a time when it seemed as good as lost. She was eventually caught by the English and burnt by the church as a heretic. The story allows Shaw a whole play (and, in this edition, a long preface as was his custom) to expound his ideas about religion.
As you would expect from Shaw, his ideas are interesting. As I didn't expect, he doesn't deny the reality of religious experience (and specifically, the reality of Joan's visions, at least to herself); he looks upon it as a way to rationalise the irrational. In Joan's case, visions of saints giving instructions was the natural way for a fifteenth century farmer's daughter to understand the ideas she had. This is far less patronising than to declare those who experience these visions to be insane, as many rationalists would do, though it doesn't explain the source of the ideas rationalised as visions.

In the introduction, Shaw also writes perceptively about the various retellings of Joan's story from Shakespeare to the publication of the heresy trial transcripts in the nineteenth century. He is scathing about how strongly these accounts are affected by the ideas of the time in which they were written rather than by those of the time in which Joan lived; this taint is clearly impossible for a writer to avoid, but is something they should at least be aware of. Many writers of the currently fashionable genre of medieval mysteries completely ignore the differences between modern thought and medieval thought, and present twentieth century people in medieval dress.

Shaw's major thesis is that Joan was effectively a Protestant martyr, whose error as seen by the church of her day lay in putting the content of her visions above the authority of the church and its churchmen. The play itself, particularly with the strange epilogue where the ghosts of several of the characters reflect on their lives, argues persuasively for this point of view. (In the introduction, Shaw attacks the playing of his work without the epilogue, saying that to leave it out as an embarrassment shows a complete lack of understanding of what he was trying to do.) He ignores the major difference between Joan and the Protestant reformers; they did not rely on direct inspiration for their ideas, but advocated a return to the Bible, which the Catholic church acknowledged as the foundation of the faith (though abuses had arisen which took it a long way in doctrine from the Bible). To look instead to one's own inspiration encourages arbitrariness and megalomania; just look at the doctrines of some of today's cults. That is not to say that Joan suffered from this. She was far too much a daughter of the fourteenth century church to stray far from accepted teaching, but the church recognised a threat in the insistence she made on her visions and her unwillingness to submit to the conventions of the time where these differed from what she had seen (for example, in the wearing of masculine clothing).

The play is certainly thought provoking, and provides one of the biggest female roles in modern theatre. However, I myself found the introduction more interesting, perhaps because Shaw has to present his thought more clearly and provide more justification; fiction and drama are good for rhetoric but it is easier to see the strengths and weaknesses of Shaw's arguments when they are presented directly.

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