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Saint Joan is a play by playwright George Bernard Shaw that premiered in 1923. The play tells the story of the 15th-century French historical figure Joan of Arc, who was formally canonized as a catholic saint in 1920. The play was a critical success, and, shortly after its premiere, Shaw was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1925. Shaw includes a lengthy preface before the script of the play where he compares the medieval setting to contemporary culture and lays out his interpretation of Joan of Arc as an early Nationalist and Protestant reformer. Structurally, the play is broken down into 6 scenes that depict Joan of Arc’s life and then an epilogue that concerns her legacy after she is condemned for heresy and executed by burning at the stake in 1431.
This guide references the version published by Hesperides Press in 2006.
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Content Warning: This play and guide contain threats of torture, sexual assault, and suicide.
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The preface to Saint Joan argues for an interpretation of Joan of Arc as a sane and pragmatic yet highly exceptional individual. Shaw compares her persecution to the unpopularity of Socrates and Napoleon, whose extraordinary abilities likewise frightened their contemporaries. Rather than legitimating Joan’s visions of the saints as the product of genuine divine inspiration or invalidating them as a form of insanity, Shaw suggests that Joan was such a highly imaginative person that she perceived her own strongly felt ideas as though they came from an outside source. Therefore, Shaw treats her visions as the imagined visualizations of an ingenious military leader.
The Preface similarly makes the case that Joan of Arc anticipated many developments in ideology, suggesting that her commitment to freeing France from England was a sign of nascent nationalism and that her refusal to submit to clerical authority in favor of her own convictions aligned her with the early Protestant reform movement. While the play maintains a medieval setting, Shaw’s preface seeks to compare the contemporary culture of Britain and America in the 1920s to the situation in 15th-century France. Shaw makes the point that medieval Christianity should not be seen as full of ridiculous superstitions, because, he claims, contemporary medical science is equally full of fraud and false information. He suggests that the men who condemned Joan of Arc to death were not villains or criminals, but rather men acting with good intentions. For this reason, Shaw claims, the play is a tragedy for a modern audience, because it exposes the limits of what society can tolerate and shows that well-meaning people will condemn exceptional and forward-thinking individuals.
The first scene of Saint Joan opens at the household of Robert de Baudricourt in 1429. Baudricourt berates his steward because the hens have not been laying eggs, which the steward attributes to the presence of a maiden called Joan at the castle. Baudricourt’s stewards seem to believe that Joan possesses some supernatural power, and Baudricourt complains that they have been unable to send her away. She has come to petition Baudricourt for soldiers and armor so she can seek out the Dauphin, Charles VII, and repel the English occupation of Orléans. While Baudricourt initially finds Joan ridiculous, he notices the inspiring effect she has upon his men, and he consents to her demands, deciding that she might at least have a favorable impact upon the demoralized French troops. As Joan leaves with her soldiers and armor, the steward reports to Baudricourt that the hens are laying again. To Baudricourt, this circumstance confirms Joan’s divine status.
In Scene 2, Joan arrives at the court of the Dauphin, a weak and passive ruler who is deeply in debt. Courtiers, including the Archbishop of Rheims, Lord Chamberlain La Trémouille, Gilles de Rais, and Captain La Hire, gather to discuss Joan’s arrival. When the Dauphin, Charles VII, learns that Joan has arrived, he welcomes the chance to see her, believing that having a saint on his side will confirm his royal blood, which his mother has called into question. The Dauphin has no interest in military leadership, and he whines that his courtiers bully him and control him. To test Joan’s miraculous abilities, the Dauphin decides to switch clothes with Gilles de Rais, a nobleman whose dyed beard has earned him the moniker “Bluebeard.” The Archbishop of Rheims acknowledges that Joan will likely be able to spot the trick, since Gilles de Rais’s blue beard makes him very recognizable, but he asserts that it will still be a miracle, as is any act that increases a person’s faith, even if it is fraudulent. When Joan arrives, she correctly sees through the trick and spots the real Dauphin, but her piety moves the calculating Archbishop. Joan convinces the Dauphin to give her command of the army and to allow her to crown him as king at the cathedral in Rheims.
The third scene takes place at Orléans, where the French commander, Jean de Dunois, is impatiently waiting for the wind to turn so that he can move heavy artillery across the river on boats to retake the city. Dunois and his page watch the river, and Dunois attempts to compose poems to the wind, while his page spots a blue kingfisher. Joan of Arc arrives with her forces and urges Dunois to stop stalling and begin the battle. She demonstrates both courage and pragmatic tactical knowledge, charming Dunois. However, Dunois is adamant that they cannot retake Orléans without the wind in their favor to move the gunboats. Joan, impatient for battle, promises to pray for a wind, and the wind immediately changes direction.
Scene 4 shifts to the perspective of the English. The Earl of Warwick and the chaplain John de Stogumber debate whether Joan’s victories are the result of sorcery. Warwick dismisses her, claiming that they will execute her as soon as the Burgundian army captures and ransoms her to the English. The men debate the exact nature of the threat Joan poses—with each man defining her according to the specific institutions of power with which he is most aligned. Strogumber is concerned that she is a witch, and his allegiance to England leads him to fear her nationalistic defense of the French. The Bishop of Beauvais, Pierre Cauchon, argues that Joan is not a witch, but rather a heretic, which is more dangerous. Because she does not recognize the wisdom of the Church as an institution and listens only to her own judgment, she poses a danger to Catholic universality. Cauchon, however, advocates that she be shown mercy and that they ought to redeem her soul rather than kill her. Warwick feels that Joan’s true danger lies in her support for divinely anointed monarchy, endangering the authority of feudal aristocrats. They all agree that she must be stopped.
Scene 5 takes place at Charles VII’s coronation. Joan wonders why she is so unpopular with the courtiers despite having led the army to victory. Dunois explains that her competence exposes the incompetence of powerful people, which makes them jealous. Joan wants to retake Paris next, but Charles VII wants to make a peace treaty. The Archbishop warns Joan that she is becoming too proud, but she is baffled by the accusation since her military strategies and advice are sound and come from God. The courtiers warn her that if she is captured by the English and the Burgundians, the French court will not pay her ransom or rescue her. Joan, still believing in the strength of God and the common people, leaves them to go and fight.
Scene 6 stages Joan of Arc’s trial after she is captured by the English. Cauchon attempts to convince Joan to renounce her heretical beliefs, while Stogumber demands that she must be executed. Joan asserts that the voices she hears are from God and defies the need for Church oversight, prompting the court to excommunicate her and allow her to be burned at the stake. When Joan realizes that she will be killed, she decides that the voices she hears must be devils, because God would never mislead her, and common sense tells her to avoid death and suffering. However, as she recants her heresy, she learns that the alternative to burning is life in prison, and so she returns to her original testimony, deciding that a life of confinement is not truly living. Joan is taken to be burned at the stake by the English. Stogumber, who virulently sought her conviction, returns from the execution shaken and horrified, worrying that he will be damned for his part in her death. He recounts that an English solider gave Joan two sticks tied together when she asked for a cross. Warwick commands that Stogumber be restrained for his own safety and wonders if this will be the last they hear of Joan of Arc.
The epilogue occurs in 1456, 25 years after Joan’s trial. King Charles VII has a dream where Joan appears to him, joined by all the other characters from the play. The soldier who gave Joan the cross at her execution arrives from hell, explaining that he gets a day off from punishment every year on the anniversary of Joan’s death for his act of kindness. A cleric of the Catholic Church arrives from the year of 1920, bringing the news of Joan’s canonization. All of the men pledge their loyalty to Joan. However, when Joan realizes that, as a saint, she could miraculously come back from the dead, the other characters balk and make excuses to leave. The English solider stays but is summoned back to hell before he can explain himself. Joan asks God when the world will be ready to accept a living Saint on earth, rather than only a dead martyr.
By George Bernard Shaw