By George Bernard Shaw
and comments on critical essays on the play from the 15th century trial, Luigi Pirandello, and Alice Griffin. From: BERNARD SHAW’S PLAYS. Edited by Warren S. Smith
New York: W.W. NORTON & COMPANY, 1970
ISBN # 0-393-09942-3
pages 77 and 53

Comments by Bob Corbett
April 2012


This play was written first performed in 1924. I read Saint Joan in order to think it through and enter into some sort of dialogue with Shaw’s ideas. Thus these comments are not written as a review of something one has not yet seen or read. The comments below will assume that one has read the play and basically knows the text. If you have come across these notes and are not in that situation I would encourage you not to read further notes until you have first read the play itself.

I would guess most people know the basic story. The young Joan d’Arc, in 1429 comes forward to say that she has “voices” from God who have instructed her to don the clothes of a male warrior and come forward to lead the French to a victory over the invading English. She has a good deal of success at the outset, but soon runs afoul of the church and crown, is convicted of being a heretic and burned at the stake. Some 400 years later she was recognized by the Roman Catholic Church as a “saint.”

In Shaw’s play, which is fairly closely based on the surviving details of the trial of Joan for heresy, but enhanced by Shaw’s understanding, she is presented as a relatively unlearned girl (Shaw has her as unable to read, but the text of the trial itself says she can read), about 20, who has no experience in war, comes forward to lift the siege of a French town. The soldiers immediately like her and Shaw is careful to point out that they see her as what she says she is – a warrior, and not, as one would certainly expect, a woman first and foremost. The soldiers and some of the commanders also trust that she, indeed, is in touch with transcendental voices which guide her, most likely from God.

But the hierarchy of the church and Charles (soon to be elevated by Joan’s effort, King of France) don’t much believe in her voices, and, while realizing they may well be able to use this girl and her ability to move the troops, are prepared to watch carefully that she not become too powerful.

Shaw has the flustered royal to scoff at Joan’s view:

Her idea is that the Kings should give their realms to God and then reign as God’s bailiffs.

Yet he sees Joan as advocating nationalism, and being against the degree of power over the spiritual life of the faithful which the Catholic hierarchy takes for granted. At the same time he has her give us a witty quip of what it is to come in some 70 years:

It is the protest of the individual soul against the interference of priest or peer between the private man and his God. I should call it Protestantism if I had to find a name for it.

What I found so exciting in the play was not Joan’s unquestioning faith in her voices, but in the necessity that she put her OWN understand of her life and fate into her own hands, and not to be bullied by bishop or king or any other person for her to act against what her inner being tells her is the meaning of her life.

In terms of the 20th century I see Shaw’s Joan as a sort of Existentialist hero (not heroine) who has the courage until death to follow her own inner counsel in the face of pressures (even death) from the outside world. At the same time, she is a very human character. When she sees that crown and church are really going to burn her at the stake, she begins to doubt the certainty of her voices that had never told her she would die. This alone makes her doubt the voices, and she agrees she was in error and would condemn her own views as being of the voice from God.

The officials of church are delighted; the crown less so, since they just want to be rid of her. But, when Joan discovers she will be imprisoned for life, she rebels that this is not her “freedom” she will be given, and that life is simply not worth living without the freedom of her person, thus she reverts to her faith in the “voices” and dies at the stake.

Shaw’s Joan is, for me, a courageous hero, even though I couldn’t for a moment continence her “voices.” However, I can accept her incredible courage to be who she really is, and that comes to be what I would call an authentic Existentialist hero.

In 1924 the play wasn’t recognized by most critics as being very great, and especially the epilogue – a scene that occurs after Joan’s death when she comes back to face all her accusers and they all back down from their condemnations. However, I tended to be in agreement with critic Desmond MacCarthy who wrote in The New Statesman in April 1924 about the epilogue:

I think, (it’s) the greatest of Shaw’s plays.

He continues:

"As to the epilogue, to which several dramatic critics have objected, shows, the essence of the theme is the struggle of religious inspiration against established religions, against the patriot, the statesman, and the indifferent.”

The play is a marvelous read, and I came away wishing that Joan really was much like Shaw described her, but alas, the actual historical record is just too slim for us to really know.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett