Arcadius's Reviews > Saint Joan

Saint Joan by George Bernard Shaw
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Oct 09, 2011

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bookshelves: i-hf-c300-to-1659
Read in September, 2011

An interesting and entertaining take on Joan of Arc – historically very controversial (especially Shaw's insistence on Cauchon's political impartiality), but that needn't worry us. Historically justifiable or not, the acid exchanges we get between this Cauchon, principled upholder of canon law, and Warwick, who simply needs whatever PR cover he can get for Joan's politically imperative disposal, are one of the best things in the play.

There are many other good things too - notably the opening comedy at Vaucouleurs, the cut and thrust of the trial, and imho (though this is a minority view) the imaginative and wry epilogue.

The main problem is with Joan herself. Understandably, GBS wanted to sandblast away all the Creeping Jesusry which had encrusted her in the run-up to canonisation but, Shaw being Shaw, he overdoes it. I can accept the rustic manners, the tactless frankness, the adolescent insistence on principle at all costs. All this makes her real enough. But the most important thing about Joan of Arc, surely, was the very powerful charismatic effect she had on other people, and I don't think this is conveyed at all successfully. In context, she must have inspired a strong sense of religious awe which is entirely lacking here. His Joan claims a hotline to heaven, is very sure of herself and is remarkably bossy - that's about it. Various characters inform us that, yes, they have been reduced to jelly by her, but it is not at all obvious why they should have been.

Contrast this with the portrayal of the great charismatic characters in Shakespeare, and Shaw's limitations as a dramatist become very apparent.
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