Saturday, June 4, 2016

Saint Joan by George Bernard Shaw

Genre: play
Pages: 160
Published: 1923


I really enjoyed this play, the first I have ever read by George Bernard Shaw.  Set in fifteenth century France during the Hundred Years War, it is Bernard Shaw's interpretation of the story of Joan of Arc, revered as both a French heroine and a saint (but only since 1920, nearly 500 years after she was burnt at the stake as a heretic!)  I will make a very strange comparison and say that the play reminded me a bit of a particularly brilliant episode of Game of Thrones.  It is a series of fascinating, sometimes philosophical and sometimes funny and always confrontational conversations.  Bernard Shaw foregoes writing any bloody battle scenes and instead concentrates on developing Joan's character and those of the people who condemned her as a heretic, as well as her supposed allies who essentially stood by and let her be condemned.

I liked that Bernard Shaw portrays Joan as a human being, complete with a very stubborn nature and a propensity for lightly making fun of her supposed social betters to their faces.  Honestly, desperate though he might have been, would the dauphin have listened to just any country girl who told him that he could only win back French territory and be crowned if he let her lead his army against the English?  No, divinely inspired or not, Joan of Arc must surely have been one tenacious, determined, and even slightly arrogant young woman.  She was certainly bold, even reckless enough to suddenly and a bit mysteriously recant her confession at her trial when she had might have been imprisoned for life rather than burned at the stake.  Bernard Shaw portrays her as all of these things, as very human.
First printing of Saint Joan

Joan was burnt not as a witch, as is sometimes thought, but as a heretic.  She was tried by a Church tribunal not only for political reasons, but because the Church officials perceived that she felt her direct divine connection to God meant that she must obey Church authority only if it did not go against what her "voices" told her was God's will.  Cauchon, the preceding bishop, is actually sympathetic to Joan in the play, not the kind of heartless Catholic monster that a less thoughtful Protestant playwright might have written him as.  He tries hard to convince Joan to submit to "the considered wisdom and experience of the Church," but she refuses to believe her spirits could be wrong.  So, Joan was maybe a bit of a Protestant.  Bernard Shaw actually uses the word "Protestantism" several times in the play, though it is an anachronism, to drive home this point.  Though his subject is medieval, the play is very much a product of the 1920s, especially as it reflects on Joan's recent canonization as a saint in 1920.

In the epilogue, a surreal scene in which Joan and those who condemned her reflect on her legacy as ghosts, King Charles VII (formerly the dauphin) says:

"...But I will tell you this about her.  If you could bring her back to life, they would burn her again within six months for all their present adoration of her."

In short, Bernard Shaw means that Joan is revered as a martyred saint, but was ridiculed and mistreated during her life.  People, whether religious or not, are happy to think of her as a misunderstood "woman ahead of her time," a martyr and a national heroine.  But people like Joan--a cross-dressing, sharp-tongued woman who rode into battle and claimed she regularly spoke to Saint Catherine and knew what was best for everyone better than they themselves did--are often better-loved after they are dead, and treated as outcasts or lunatics while they are alive.  This was a fascinating perspective on Joan that I had never considered before.

This play is also very funny at times.  Bernard Shaw's dialogue reminded me of that of Oscar Wilde, to whom he is sometimes compared, in that he is good at writing aphorisms and witty remarks.  Here are a couple of the quotes that I particularly appreciated:

Charles: "If we could only have a treaty, the English are sure to have the worst of it, because they are better at fighting than at thinking."

"Poulengey:  "...We want a few mad people now.  See where the sane ones have landed us!"

This play is:

poignant, engrossing, surprisingly funny


P.S. I have decided to phase out my old rating system, which basically uses the Goodreads system and substitutes unicorns for stars.  One of the benefits of writing reviews is that I can assess books in a more qualitative fashion, and I often cannot even explain to myself why I gave a book four stars instead of five or vice versa.  It seems to depend largely on my mood at the moment, so I am going to try using adjectives to sum up my feelings towards and perceptions of books instead.

...This review is part of my Classics Club project!

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