edited by Jean Chothia
Saint Joan is Bernard Shaw’s homage to one of history’s most iconic figures, Jeanne d’Arc. First performed in 1923 in New York, the play first premiered in London the following year, with Sybil Thorndike in the title role.
Joan is the teenage daughter of a Lorraine farmer who communes with saints, who tell her that she must ensure the coronation of the French Dauphin, and rid the country of its English invaders by leading the French troops into battle. Although she is at first laughed at, she gathers followers as prophecy and miracle support her assertions. Eventually, however, her disobedience to the earthly ‘Church Militant’ in favour of the heavenly ‘Church Triumphant’ leads to her being burnt at the stake as a heretic.
In his unsentimental depiction of Joan, Shaw desired to work from scratch, detaching his characterization of the heroine from centuries of historical chronicles and literary re-tellings, in particular the derogatory portrayals he felt she had received from Shakespeare and Voltaire. Shaw paints his Joan as a zealous, self-confident ‘Warrior Saint’, unperturbed by martial and social barriers. Her spiritualism is downplayed, but her religious affirmation is omnipresent throughout the play, to the point that, in his 1924 Preface, Shaw calls the Catholic Jean ‘in fact one of the first Protestant martyrs’. He portrays Joan’s independence as a young woman who ‘refused to accept the specific woman’s lot’, who went against Biblical teachings to dress as a soldier and cut her hair short. Ultimately, Shaw writes, Joan, like Socrates before her and Napoleon after, did not hate or fear her enemies, and, despite her intelligence, could not fathom why they hated or feared her, an imaginative failing that was to be her downfall.
Just as Joan has been seen throughout history as either a vox populi or a single-minded, ardent martyr, so too has the play had its manifold interpretations in the twentieth-century. Saint Joan was portrayed in the Third Reich as a celebration of charismatic leadership and as a demonization of the English and treacherous French; in England, a 1942 BBC radio production endorsed the war effort, going on tour in 1945 to various Allied camps throughout Europe.
Saint Joan was first performed in 1923 at the Garrick Theatre in New York, and in London the next year.