Saint Joan (play)

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Saint Joan
Saint Joan (play).gif
Constable & Co., Ltd. cover, 1924
Written by George Bernard Shaw
Date premiered28 December 1923
Place premiered Garrick Theatre
Manhattan, New York City
Original languageEnglish
Setting15th century France

Saint Joan is a play by George Bernard Shaw about 15th-century French military figure Joan of Arc. Premiering in 1923, three years after her canonization by the Roman Catholic Church, the play reflects Shaw's belief that the people involved in Joan's trial acted according to what they thought was right. He wrote in his preface to the play:


There are no villains in the piece. Crime, like disease, is not interesting: it is something to be done away with by general consent, and that is all [there is] about it. It is what men do at their best, with good intentions, and what normal men and women find that they must and will do in spite of their intentions, that really concern us.

Michael Holroyd has characterised the play as "a tragedy without villains" and also as Shaw's "only tragedy". [1] John Fielden has discussed further the appropriateness of characterising Saint Joan as a tragedy. [2]

The text of the published play includes a long Preface by Shaw.



Shaw characterised Saint Joan as "A Chronicle Play in 6 Scenes and an Epilogue ". Joan, a simple peasant girl, claims to experience visions of Saint Margaret, Saint Catherine, and the archangel Michael, which she says were sent by God to guide her conduct.

Scene 1 (23 February 1429): Robert de Baudricourt complains about the inability of the hens on his farm to produce eggs. Joan claims that her voices are telling her to lift the siege of Orléans, and to allow her several of his men for this purpose. Joan also says that she will crown the Dauphin in Reims Cathedral. Baudricourt ridicules Joan, but his Steward feels inspired by her words. Baudricourt eventually begins to feel the same sense of inspiration, and gives his consent to Joan. The Steward enters at the end of the scene to exclaim that the hens have begun to lay eggs again. Baudricourt interprets this as a sign from God of Joan's divine inspiration.

Scene 2 (8 March 1429): Joan talks her way into being received at the court of the weak and vain Dauphin. There, she tells him that her voices have commanded her to help him become a true king by rallying his troops to drive out the English occupiers and restore France to greatness. Joan succeeds in doing this through her excellent powers of flattery, negotiation, leadership, and skill on the battlefield.

Scene 3 (29 April 1429): Dunois and his page are waiting for the wind to turn so that he and his forces can lay siege to Orléans. Joan and Dunois commiserate, and Dunois attempts to explain to her more pragmatic realities of an attack, without the wind at their back. Her replies eventually inspire Dunois to rally the forces, and at the scene's end, the wind turns in their favour.

Scene 4 (June 1429): Warwick and Stogumber discuss Joan's stunning series of victories. Joined by the Bishop of Beauvais, they are at a loss to explain her success. Stogumber decides Joan is a witch. Beauvais sees Joan as a threat to the Church, as she claims to receive instructions from God directly. He fears she wants to instill national pride in the people, which would undermine the Church's universal rule. Warwick thinks she wants to create a system in which the king is responsible to God only, ultimately stripping him and other feudal lords of their power. All agree that she must die.

Scene 5 (17 July 1429): the Dauphin is crowned Charles VII at Reims Cathedral. A perplexed Joan asks Dunois why she is so unpopular at court. He explains that she has exposed very important people as incompetent and irrelevant. She talks to Dunois, Bluebeard, and La Hire about returning home. Charles, who complains about the weight of his coronation robes and smell of the holy oil, is pleased to hear this. She then says to Dunois "Before I go home, let's take Paris", an idea which horrifies Charles, who wants to negotiate a peace immediately. The Archbishop berates her for her "sin of pride". Dunois warns her that if she is captured on a campaign he deems foolhardy, no one will ransom or rescue her. Now realizing that she is "alone on earth", Joan declares that she will gain the strength to do what she must from the people and from God. She leaves, leaving the men dumbfounded.

Scene 6 (30 May 1431): deals with her trial. Stogumber is adamant that she be executed at once. The Inquisitor, the Bishop of Beauvais, and the Church officials on both sides of the trial have a long discussion on the nature of her heresy. Joan is brought to the court, and continues to assert that her voices speak to her directly from God and that she has no need of the Church's officials. This outrages Stogumber. She acquiesces to the pressure of torture at the hands of her oppressors, and agrees to sign a confession relinquishing the truth behind her voices. When she learns she will be imprisoned for life without hope of parole, she renounces her confession:

Joan: "You think that life is nothing but not being dead? It is not the bread and water I fear. I can live on bread. It is no hardship to drink water if the water be clean. But to shut me from the light of the sky and the sight of the fields and flowers; to chain my feet so that I can never again climb the hills. To make me breathe foul damp darkness, without these things I cannot live. And by your wanting to take them away from me, or from any human creature, I know that your council is of the devil."

Joan accepts death at the stake as preferable to such an imprisoned existence. Stogumber vehemently demands that Joan then be taken to the stake for immediate execution. The Inquisitor and the Bishop of Beauvais excommunicate her and deliver her into the hands of the English. The Inquisitor asserts that Joan was fundamentally innocent, in the sense that she was sincere and had no understanding of the church and the law. Stogumber re-enters, screaming and severely shaken emotionally after seeing Joan die in the flames, the first time that he has witnessed such a death, and realising that he has not understood what it means to burn a person until he has actually seen it happen. A soldier had given Joan two sticks tied together in a cross before the moment of her death. Bishop Martin Ladvenu also reports that when he approached with a crucifix to let her see it before she died, and he approached too close to the flames, she warned him of the danger from the stake, which convinced him that she could not have been under the inspiration of the devil.

Epilogue: 25 years after Joan's execution, a retrial has cleared her of heresy. Brother Martin brings the news to Charles VII. Charles then has a dream in which Joan appears to him. She begins conversing cheerfully not only with Charles, but with her old enemies, who also materialise in the King's bedroom. The visitors include the English soldier who gave her a cross. Because of this act, he receives a day off from Hell on the anniversary of Joan’s death. An emissary from the present day (the 1920s) brings news that the Catholic Church is to canonise her. Joan says that saints can work miracles, and asks if she can be resurrected. At this, all the characters desert her one by one, asserting that the world is not prepared to receive a saint such as her. The last to leave is the English soldier, who is about to engage in a conversation with Joan before he is summoned back to Hell at the end of his 24-hour respite. The play ends with Joan ultimately despairing that mankind will never accept its saints:

O God that madest this beautiful earth, when will it be ready to accept thy saints? How long, O Lord, how long?


Jeanne d'Arc statue at Place des Pyramides, Paris by Emmanuel Fremiet, 1874 Paris 75001 Place des Pyramides Jeanne d'Arc equestre by Fremiet S1.jpg
Jeanne d'Arc statue at Place des Pyramides, Paris by Emmanuel Frémiet, 1874

One historian at the time (1925) reacted to the play by arguing that it was highly inaccurate, especially in its depiction of medieval society. [3]

Shaw states that the characterization of Joan by most writers is "romanticized" to make her accusers come off as completely unscrupulous and villainous. [4]

More general interpretation of Joan's character is to describe her as a rebel against general institutional authority, such as that of the Catholic Church and to the feudal system. [5] Contemporary comments have noted her particularly strong form of religious belief and how it borders on religious fanaticism. [6]

Tony Stafford discussed Shaw's use of imagery related to birds in the play. [7] Frederick Boas has compared the different treatments of Joan in dramas by Shakespeare, Schiller, and Shaw. [8]

T. S. Eliot, discussing the play after its premiere in London in 1924, wrote that although Saint Joan was not the masterpiece that some claimed it to be, the play "seems to illustrate Mr. Shaw's mind more clearly than anything he has written before." And although he credited Shaw with providing an "intellectual stimulant" and "dramatic delight", he took issue with his portrayal of the heroine: "his Joan of Arc is perhaps the greatest sacrilege of all Joans: for instead of the saint or the strumpet of the legends to which he objects, he has turned her into a great middle-class reformer, and her place is a little higher than Mrs. Pankhurst" (the militant leader of the British suffragettes). [9]


Shaw's personal reputation following the Great War was at a low ebb, and it is thought that he wanted to first test the play away from Britain. The play received its premiere on 28 December 1923 at the Garrick Theatre on Broadway by the Theatre Guild with Winifred Lenihan in the title role. [10] The London première, which opened on 26 March 1924 at the New Theatre, was produced by Lewis Casson and starred Shaw's friend Sybil Thorndike, the actress for whom he had written the part. [11] Costumes and sets were designed by Charles Ricketts, and the play had an extensive musical score, specially composed and conducted by John Foulds.

Caught between the forces of the Church and the Law, Joan is the personification of the tragic heroine and the part is considered by actresses (see below) to be one of the most challenging of roles to interpret. It is usually played by very experienced actresses who are much older than the age of the character, a teenager. For a film version, Joan was exceptionally played by Jean Seberg, who was 19.

Notable St. Joans

Other notable Joans include Judi Dench, Zoe Caldwell, Elisabeth Bergner, Constance Cummings, Ann Casson, Roberta Maxwell, Barbara Jefford, Pat Galloway, Sarah Miles, Ellen Geer, Jane Alexander, Lee Grant, Janet Suzman, Maryann Plunkett, [16] Eileen Atkins, Kitty Winn and Sarah Snook.




Sound recordings

The play has also been adapted into an opera by composer Tom Owen. [17]

Awards and honors


See also

Related Research Articles

Joan of Arc 15th-century French folk heroine and Roman Catholic saint

Joan of Arc, nicknamed "The Maid of Orléans" or "Maid of Lorraine", is considered a heroine of France for her role during the Lancastrian phase of the Hundred Years' War, and was canonized as a Catholic saint. She was born to Jacques d'Arc and Isabelle Romée, a peasant family, at Domrémy in the Vosges of northeast France. Joan claimed to have received visions of the archangel Michael, Saint Margaret, and Saint Catherine of Alexandria instructing her to support Charles VII and recover France from English domination late in the Hundred Years' War. The as-yet-unanointed King Charles VII sent Joan to the Siege of Orléans as part of a relief army. She gained prominence after the siege was lifted only nine days later. Several additional swift victories led to Charles VII's consecration at Reims. This long-awaited event boosted French morale and paved the way for the final French victory at Castillon in 1453.

Siege of Orléans Turning point and French Victory in the Hundred Years War

The Siege of Orléans was the watershed of the Hundred Years' War between France and England. It was the French royal army's first major military victory to follow the crushing defeat at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, and also the first while Joan of Arc was with the army. The siege took place at the pinnacle of English power during the later stages of the war. The city held strategic and symbolic significance to both sides of the conflict. The consensus among contemporaries was that the English regent, John of Lancaster, would have succeeded in realizing his brother the English king Henry V's dream of conquering all of France if Orléans fell. For half a year the English and their French allies appeared to be winning, but the siege collapsed nine days after Joan's arrival.

Pierre Cauchon

Pierre Cauchon was Bishop of Beauvais from 1420 to 1432. A strong partisan of English interests in France during the latter years of the Hundred Years' War, his role in arranging the execution of Joan of Arc led most subsequent observers to condemn his extension of secular politics into an ecclesiastical trial. The Catholic Church overturned his verdict in 1456.

La Hire

Étienne de Vignolles, called La Hire, was a French military commander during the Hundred Years' War.

Sybil Thorndike British actress

Dame Agnes Sybil Thorndike was an English actress who toured internationally in Shakespearean productions, often appearing with her husband Lewis Casson. Bernard Shaw wrote Saint Joan specially for her, and she starred in it with great success. She was made Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1931, and Companion of Honour in 1970.

<i>Joan of Arc</i> (1948 film) 1948 film by Victor Fleming

Joan of Arc is a 1948 American hagiographic epic film directed by Victor Fleming, and starring Ingrid Bergman as the eponymous French religious icon and war heroine. It was produced by Walter Wanger. It is based on Maxwell Anderson's successful Broadway play Joan of Lorraine, which also starred Bergman, and was adapted for the screen by Anderson himself, in collaboration with Andrew Solt. It is the only film of an Anderson play for which the author wrote the film script. It is the last film Fleming directed before his death in 1949.

Lewis Casson

Sir Lewis Thomas Casson MC was an English actor and theatre director, and the husband of actress Dame Sybil Thorndike.

Battle of the Herrings A battle during the Hundred Years War

The Battle of the Herrings, also called the Battle of Rouvray, was a military action near the town of Rouvray in France, just north of Orléans, which took place on 12 February 1429 during the siege of Orléans in the Hundred Years' War. The immediate cause of the battle was an attempt by French and Scottish forces, led by Charles of Bourbon and Sir John Stewart of Darnley, to intercept a supply convoy headed for the English army at Orléans. The English had been laying siege to the city since the previous October. This supply convoy was escorted by an English force under Sir John Fastolf and had been outfitted in Paris, whence it had departed some time earlier. The battle was decisively won by the English.

<i>Saint Joan</i> (1957 film) 1957 film

Saint Joan is a 1957 historical drama film adapted from the 1923 George Bernard Shaw play of the same title about the life of Joan of Arc. The restructured screenplay by Graham Greene, directed by Otto Preminger, begins with the play's last scene, which then becomes the springboard for a long flashback, from which the main story is told. At the end of the flashback, the film then returns to the play's final scene, which then continues through to the end.

<i>Joan of Arc</i> (1900 film)

Joan of Arc is a 1900 French silent film directed by Georges Méliès, based on the life of Joan of Arc.

<i>The Maid of Orleans</i> (opera)

The Maid of Orleans is an opera in 4 acts, 6 scenes, by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. It was composed during 1878–1879 to a Russian libretto by the composer, based on several sources: Friedrich Schiller's The Maid of Orleans as translated by Vasily Zhukovsky; Jules Barbier's Jeanne d'Arc; Auguste Mermet's libretto for his own 1876 opera; and Henri Wallon's biography of Joan of Arc. Dedicated to conductor Eduard Nápravník, this work represents the composer's closest approach to French grand opera, albeit in the Russian language, notably with its inclusion of a ballet in act 2.

Isabelle Romée

Isabelle Romée, also known as Isabelle de Vouthon and Isabelle d'Arc (1377–1458) and Ysabeau Romee, was the mother of Joan of Arc. She grew up in Vouthon-Bas and later married Jacques d'Arc. The couple moved to Domrémy, where they owned a farm consisting of about 50 acres (200,000 m2) of land. After their daughter's famous exploits in 1429, the family was granted noble status by Charles VII in December of that year. Isabelle moved to Orléans in 1440 after her husband's death and received a pension from the city. She petitioned Pope Nicholas V to reopen the court case that had convicted Joan of heresy, and then, in her seventies, addressed the opening session of the appellate trial at Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. The appeals court overturned Joan's conviction on 7 July 1456. Isabelle died two years later, probably at Sandillon near Orléans.

Trial of Joan of Arc Trial and execution conducted by a pro-English church court overseen by English commanders at Rouen

Joan of Arc was a young French woman who said she had been sent to help Charles VII during the Hundred Years' War, which led to her capture by the English-allied Burgundians during the siege of Compiègne in 1430. She was then put on trial by a pro-English church court overseen by English commanders at Rouen, Normandy in 1431. The court found her guilty of heresy and she was burned at the stake. The trial verdict was later reversed on appeal by Jean Bréhal, the Inquisitor-General in 1456, thereby completely exonerating her. Considered a French national heroine, she was declared a saint by the Roman Catholic Church in 1920. The trial is one of the most famous in history, becoming the subject of many books and films.

The conviction of Joan of Arc in 1431 was posthumously investigated on appeal in the 1450s by Inquisitor-General Jean Bréhal, at the request of Joan's surviving family. The appeal was authorized by Pope Callixtus III.

French history in the English-speaking theatre

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<i>Village Wooing</i>

Village Wooing, A Comedietta for Two Voices is a play by George Bernard Shaw, written in 1933 and first performed in 1934. It has only two characters, hence the subtitle "a comedietta for two voices". The first scene takes place aboard a liner, the second in a village shop. The characters are known only as "A" and "Z".

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Mary Casson was an English theatre actress who made her name in portraying characters in the plays of William Shakespeare and Wendy Darling in Peter Pan. Born into a theatrical family, she was in the theatre until the late 1930s before she switched to a career in music touring the United Kingdom.


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  2. Fielden, John (July 1957). "Shaw's Saint Joan as Tragedy". Twentieth-Century Literature. Hofstra University. 3 (2): 59–67. doi:10.2307/441003. JSTOR   441003.
  3. Robertson, J. M. (1926). Mr. Shaw and "The Maid". London: Cobdon-Sanderson. p. 85.
  4. Preface to the play
  5. Billington, Michael (12 July 2007). "Saint Joan: Olivier Theatre, London". The Guardian. Retrieved 2009-01-18.
  6. Gardner, Lyn (3 July 2007). "The shock of the old". The Guardian. Retrieved 2009-01-18.
  7. Stafford, Tony J. (1986). "From Hens' Eggs to Cinders: Avian Imagery in Shaw's Saint Joan". Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature. Rocky Mountain Modern Language Association. 40 (4): 213–220. doi:10.2307/1566575. JSTOR   1566575.
  8. Boas, Frederick S. (January 1951). "Joan of Arc in Shakespeare, Schiller, and Shaw". Shakespeare Quarterly. Folger Shakespeare Library. 2 (1): 35–45. doi:10.2307/2866725. JSTOR   2866725.
  9. Eliot, T. S. (October 1924). "A Commentary". The Criterion. 3: 1–5.
  10. Harben, Niloufer. Twentieth-century English history plays: from Shaw to Bond . p.  31. ISBN   0-389-20734-9.
  11. Guttenberg, Percy (c. 1924). "Portrait of Sybil Thorndike as St. Joan in George Bernard Shaw's St. Joan" (picture). Digital Collections – Pictures. National Library of Australia . Retrieved 2012-11-08.
  12. Gray, Tom. "St. Joan May Be Theater's Best Effort". The Atlanta Constitution. October 13, 1965. Retrieved 2018-07-16.
  13. Clapp, Susannah (15 July 2007). "Joan burns bright in a match made in heaven". The Observer. Retrieved 2009-01-18.
  14. "Saint Joan – Donmar Warehouse". Retrieved 2016-09-11.
  15. "Condola Rashad to Star in Saint Joan on Broadway". Retrieved 2018-02-20.
  17. "Spring Opera Productions". The University of Sheffield. Archived from the original on 2008-12-23.