Joan of Arc, They Are Calling You:
George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan (1923)
Discussion Sunday is December 1st
© 2013 by Eileen Warburton
Joan of Arc, Joan of Arc,
Do your eyes, from the skies, see the foe?
Don’t you see the drooping Fleur-de-lis?
Can’t you hear the tears of Normandy?
Joan of Arc, Joan of Arc,
Let your spirit guide us through;
Come lead your France to victory;
Joan of Arc, they are calling you.
Vernon Dalhardt, 1917
French soldiers in World War I carried Joan’s image into battle at Ardennes, at Charleroi, at the Marne. They wore medals bearing her face around their necks and tucked her picture into the pockets of their uniforms. Looking upwards from the hellish trenches, they saw her riding in full armor on horseback through the clouds–and the battle turned. She wasn’t yet a certified saint, but French soldiers in the Great War knew Joan of Arc was with them. She was always, after all, devoted to the common soldiers who fought and paid for France’s freedom with their lives. They prayed to her, told stories about her, sang about her. After the war, taking into account that the English and the French in this war had been allies, the Vatican hastened to canonize her in 1920. It had taken 489 years. When will the earth be ready to receive Your saints, Joan prays at the end of this play. “How long, O Lord, how long?” It is the great question of the play.
Bernard Shaw had been fascinated for years by Joan of Arc, but the 1920 canonization was the final impetus for him to write Saint Joan (1923), the play preceding his receiving the 1925 Nobel Prize for Literature. It’s important to see this play in the context of the aftermath of the First World War, when Shaw’s published pacifist arguments, Common Sense about the War (1914), had almost indicted him for treason and his one wartime play, Heartbreak House (1919), reflected his despair and bitterness about the war as the dying gasp of the civilization he knew.
Before the war, Shaw was by nature an optimist, though also a tremendous (and witty) critic of existing bourgeois culture in Britain. George Bernard Shaw (1856 – 1950) was born in Dublin, Ireland, from Protestant stock. His father was a civil servant and his mother was a singer who ran off to London with her voice teacher, taking two of the three children with her. Bernard spent his earliest writing years as an unsuccessful novelist and as “GBS,” the highly successful, much feared, mighty arts critic of music and the theatre. He is almost single-handedly responsible for changing the taste of the British theatre-going public from Victorian melodrama and sanitized, edited “acting versions” of classics to realistic social plays like those of Henrik Ibsen, whom he much admired. Shaw didn’t write a successful play himself until he was 37, so his greatest plays were produced from his 40s through his 60s, reflecting his most mature philosophical ideas.
For, to be sure, Bernard Shaw’s theatre is a theatre of ideas. Shaw himself was a committed political and social activist throughout his long life. He was an ardent socialist and humanitarian, and a charter member of the Fabian Society. The Fabians are a middle-class organization founded in 1884 that work for social reform in non-violent, gradualist ways, believing in the positive evolution of society over time. Through the Fabians, Shaw was a founder of the London School of Economics and the British Labour Party. As progressives, the Fabians advocated for advancement of the working classes, a minimum wage, improved comprehensive education, woman suffrage, universal health care, and the abolition of the hereditary peerage, among other issues. Shaw’s plays were all addressed to like social themes, although—like the plays of his good friend Oscar Wilde–his mordent wit and satirical dialogue made them extremely popular as entertainments. Mrs. Warren’s Profession (1893), Arms and the Man (1894), Candida (1894), The Devil’s Disciple (1897), Caesar and Cleopatra (1898), Man and Superman (1903), Major Barbara (1905), Pygmalion (1912)—take your pick, there are 63 of them. Shaw, however, always wrote his plays to plead his case. As he declared in a 1909 letter to another writer friend, novelist Henry James:
“I, as a Socialist, have had to preach, as much as anyone, the enormous power of the environment. We can change it; we must change it; there is absolutely no other sense in life than the task of changing it. What is the use of writing plays, what is the use of writing anything, if there is not a will which finally moulds chaos itself into a race of gods.”
Shaw’s plays are shaped and invigorated by this idea of the “will which finally moulds chaos itself into a race of gods,” a concept derived from influential French metaphysical philosopher Henri Bergson’s anti-materialistic theory of Creative Evolution. Creative Evolution held that, rather than the universe unfolding through mechanical, mathematical laws, there is a living Will, an élan vital, a creative surging “Life Force.” God doesn’t exist yet, but must be created, must evolve through human action. The Life Force blindly, spontaneously seeks its own progressive way, selecting noble, potentially superior human beings to bring the Divine into Being step by step, eon by eon. In Shaw’s plays, sometimes there is the notion of a Superman evolving through the best actions of the characters (this takes a page from Nietzsche, of course). Often, however, Shaw’s Life Force selects a woman as its conduit into a better future. Hence, Saint Joan.
Joan, the young soldier maiden from the rural provinces, is an advance guard for progressive ideals that stretch beyond her time and into the future. Shaw (in his Preface to Saint Joan) calls her a proto-Protestant, since she believes her individual conscience and direct relationship with God supersede the instructions of the Catholic Church. She is also an early nationalist, fighting for the French nation to the obsolescence of feudal traditions. She reinvents the arts of war and siege and democratically transforms the lives and self-respect of the common soldiers and townspeople. She is a harbinger of women’s rights, not to mention sensible dress. She defies authority and convention. And she is loved, and hated, and ultimately feared for being such a challenging person, that is, a saint.
Joan, as everyone in the play admits, is an innocent—young, chaste, pure of mind and heart, devout, often frightened and weepy, and uneducated. A country lass, though certainly not simple. She is carried beyond what should be her limited capabilities, carried by something greater than herself. Whether her inspiration and courage arise out of her own brilliant common sense or are the gift of her voices and the apparitions of Saints Margaret, Catherine, and Michael really doesn’t matter. Joan is obedient to the best of the future. She is a visionary (says Shaw), whose voices and visions empower her own native brilliance. They are just the way that her powerful imagination works out the strategies of what must be done, giving her the persuasive tongue to convince her comrades and the courage to carry out the necessary.
Saint Joan is the play in which Shaw, after the despair of the Great War, recommits himself to his vision of the Life Force struggling on into a transformed, better destiny. His native optimism, however, is now tempered by the recognition that the world isn’t ready yet for the revelation that arrives with saints, supermen, or God’s anointed. Shaw is at great pains to show that the representatives of Church and secular powers were neither malicious nor politically corrupt. By their lights, they reluctantly consigned the Maid to the fire because they had to. With poignant comedy, he also shows how even Joan’s bosom companions cannot bear the demands of her vision of the new world, how they leave her to die and can’t reclaim her when she returns as a saint. We are left with that final question: “How long, O Lord, how long?”
Shaw himself was content to wait. When he died, 27 years after Saint Joan was first performed, he had long erected a statue of Joan in his private garden in Hertfordshire. There, in accordance with his final will, Bernard Shaw’s ashes were scattered at her feet.
The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the theatre.