David Sarkies's Reviews > Saint Joan

Saint Joan by George Bernard Shaw
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's review
Jul 10, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: historical
Recommended for: Students of Church History
I own a copy , read count: 2

After reading Henry VI part one I thought that I might return to Shaw's play about Joan of Arc, and in a way I am very glad that I did because when I wrote the review on this play previously I feel that I left out quite a few things, and in many ways, missed the point that he was trying to make in the play. I will try not to repeat any of the things that I have said about the play below because they are still correct, with the exception of the final paragraph because it is not a vision that Joan has but rather some strange collective vision that Charles the Victorious has 25 years after the events where participants in the event reflect on what happened.
One of the things that I really like about Bernard Shaw is that he explains most of his plays in a prologue (though not all of the plays have the privilege of a prologue) but he also uses the prologue (and sometimes an epilogue) to explain and expand upon what the play is about, though he will always refer back to the play for us to get a better understanding. One of the great things about these prologues is that English teachers are less able to actually twist the meaning of the play away from the author's original intention, and maybe Shaw did this because this was what was coming out of the universities in his time.
Shaw uses the play to explore the trial of Joan of Arc and to ask the question whether it was just. The answer to his question is that yes it was because the way the trial was conducted was actually much better than some of the show trials that happen today. In fact the nature of the trial was simply to determine whether Joan was indeed a heritic and whether she would recant of her sins. Joan did not consider herself a heritic, she was a beloved child of God. However she was having visions and speaking on behalf of God, something which the church could not allow. In those days revelation was restricted to the church and nobody could speak on God's behalf outside of the church. The question of her being a woman is not really raised, however many of the church's leaders (in fact all of them) were men, so having a woman step out of one of God's chosen was offensive to them.
The question is not whether the church was right or not, because the church was sticking to its law, and its law had been broken. Somebody had claimed a vision of God and sought to speak God's word out of place. As Shaw points out, and as he continues to point out during the play, that this is the essence of protestantism and as he indicates, Joan was one of the first protestants, not that she criticised the Church's teaching but rather she, not being a member of the clergy, dared to act as if she were, and that was unacceptable. The reason being is that it undermined the authority of the church and of the Pope, and that could not happen. The Church existed to unify Western Europe, and any challenge to that unification was sure to bring bloodshed to the continent. In fact it did as is evident by the 30 year war, which in many cases was a war between the Catholic Church and the Lutheran Church.
Many consider Joan to be a poor illiterate farm girl, and that I believe is what adds to the romance of the character. Joan is a classic example of how through death one ceases to be human and becomes a legend. It is much more romantic for somebody from the mud and grit of the peasant community to rise up and become a legend, rather than being a highborn farm girl whose family had influence in local affairs. The same is the case of Jesus. We like to think of him as a poor peasant, which is was not, he was a carpenter, and carpenters were tradespeople, not peasants. We do not like the idea of Jesus coming from the middle class, so we ignore the man and create the legend.
Joan, as Shaw also explores, is what I would call a modern prophetess, and she meets the fate of a prophetess. In fact many prophets and prophetesses have met the same fate, if we are to include some of the reformers who met sticky ends. We can even give Martin Luther King that title, though while not executed under state authority, did find himself on the receiving end of an assassin's bullet. Socrates' execution was state sponsered, as we a number of the early Christians. He also notes that it is more likely for a hero and a martyr to be cannonised than it is for a Pope. In a way he suggests that a Pope is not fit for cannonisation simply because while he may be the authority over the church, he has not done anything to move the church, and humanity forward (though I believe that Pope John Paul II is on his way there).
I want to finish off by talking a bit more about the Hundred Years War. I mentioned below that Joan was executed and suggested that it was the French who executed her, but that is not correct. The French cannot escape blame because not only did they simply step back and not intervene, it was the Church that condemned her and the French did have influence within the church. It is similar to the situation of Pilate in that despite washing his hands of the blood of Christ, he still handed Christ over to the Jews to be executed even though he had the power to release them. As such, by handing him over one simply cannot escape blame.
The time that Joan had appeared, the war had been raging for about 90 years (as far as the historians are concerned, though the war did go for much longer, and was more a lot of skirmishes and battles rather than one long continuous war). Joan in the play speaks about France being for the French, and in a way is flagging the beginning of nationalism. She says that England is for the English, nor France, however Shaw seems to have missed something in that England was, and still was, conquered by the Normans. The Normans were never thrown out of England, but rather England was brought into Norman territories, so in a way much of the region was in fact English. However, they had expanded and taken more than their fare share. However, we must remember if the English had not managed to conquer France in 90 years, they were never going to. The war had cost the lives of at least three Kings, as well as at least one crown prince. However the French were suffering as well. Joan indicates that to the French the war was a game, but it was a game that they were losing, so Joan comes along and shows them how to fight a war. It is a change of strategy, a change of tactics, and it was one that put the English on the back foot.
So, by looking at this play, and this period, we see some major changes. The first being the beginnings of the reformation where a woman appears and speaks on behalf of God without Church authority. We have the concept of England for the English and France for the French, which is the beginnings of nationalism (which protestantism also brought about because it broke the rule that the Church had over Western Europe), and finally we also see a change in warfare, as war moved away from the jousting contests of the middle ages, and into the idea of fighting for freedom, for nationalism, and to defeat an enemy. Oh, and before I forget, just to be clear, Joan was captured by the Burgundians (allies of the English) who then handed her over to the Church for trial who then handed her over to the English to be executed.

Joan of Arc was a hero of the French during the Hundred Years War against England and she is seen as being the crucial turning point that delivered the French from domination by the English. Even though it was only a couple of battles that she won, and that her life ended at the stake, it was enough to turn the tide of the war and over the next twenty years (though they still retained a foothold in Calais). At the time the play was written Joan had just been canonised by the church, and the play was written in response to that.
While Shaw was not decidedly anti-christian, he was a socialist and a critic of the social structure (particularly the treatment of women). This play is no exception. Like Shakespeare before him, this is a history play, but it is a play with a tragic ending. Joan, as history tells us, ended her life at the stake, guilty of witchcraft. As the story goes, France was at war with England and was losing badly. Joan, a devout Catholic, received a vision and rose up to lead the French armies against the English, and after a number of decisive battles, turned the tide of the war. All of a sudden, public opinion turned against her and she was found guilty of witchcraft and burnt at the stake. Talk about gratitude.
I guess this is a tale of gratitude and that how hundreds of years after the event the woman is finally recognised for what she had done for France. I guess it is possible to be repentant for an act done by one's ancestors. We have seen this in Australia with the apology to the aboriginals for the stolen generation (where we took the children of the aboriginals from their families and put them into Western schools to teach them Western values). Unlike the stolen generation, this happened centuries ago, and involved one person, so there is no fear of being sued for ones' actions.
What is interesting is how this play ends. After she has been found guilty she is given one final vision where she sees herself as a hero remember throughout the ages, and in the end cannonised. She leaps on this to request redemption for the now, but is sternly rebuked. The conclusion is that while she is a hero and the saviour of France, Europe, and indeed the world, is simply not ready for a feminine heroine, or even a Feminine monarch. Okay, England did manage to bring about Female monarchs much sooner than many of the other nations, but Joan is person out of time. She should not exist because it is too uncomfortable for a male dominated society to accept a female warrior (and in many cases, it still is).
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