Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Friday, September 22, 2006

George Bernard Shaw's SAINT JOAN

In his preface, there are several questions Shaw wants us to consider as we read his play. He not only asks questions, he also gives us the answers. These are some of the questions that interested me in the Preface:

(1) Did Joan get a fair trial?
Shaw’s answer: “Joan got a fairer trial from the Church and the Inquisition than any prisoner of her type and in her situation gets nowadays in any official secular court...”
(2) What about Joan’s “voices and visions”? Shaw reminds us: “Socrates, Luther, Swedenborg, Blake saw visions and heard voices just as Saint Francis and Saint Joan did.” Therefore, in Shaw’s opinion, “If Joan was mad, all Christendom was mad too…”
(3) Why was Joan so much in love with war?
Shaw’s answer: “She objected to foreigners on the sensible ground that they were not in their proper place in

Did Shaw successfully achieve his objectives? I believe he did mostly. In the first case (did Joan get a fair trial) there’s a clear distinction between what the English wanted and what the Church wanted. The English wanted her dead, and as soon as possible. The Church wanted her to repent of heresy. The Earl of Warwick summarizes the English view: “…I tell you now plainly that her death is a political necessity…” Cauchon summarizes the Church’s view: “I am determined that the woman shall have a fair hearing. The justice of the Church is not a mockery, my lord (Warwick).” I take both Warwick and Cauchon at their word. I haven’t read the official proceedings of the real trial, but within the context of this play I believe Joan did, indeed, get a fair trial. And I think that’s the way Shaw intended to portray it. Had Joan repented of her heresy, she would not have been excommunicated from the Church and burned at the stake.

Were Joan’s “voices and visions” real? Here Shaw isn’t so clear. In some cases (early on in her career) Joan’s voices lead her to victory and conquest. But later on they seem to abandon her. What are we to make of this? Were the voices God’s messengers, or just in her own head? Shaw is ambivalent on this point. Joan herself says “It is in the bells I hear my voices.” Charles points out that since he’s the king, then why don’t the voices speak directly to him, instead of through Joan? Joan says they do speak to him, but he isn’t listening. This is a shrewd answer, but doesn’t endear her to the king. The straightforward soldier Dunois says: “You make me uneasy when you talk about your voices: I should think you were a bit cracked if I hadn’t noticed that you give me very sensible reasons for what you do…” However, we know that Abraham and all the Hebrew prophets also heard divine voices, as well as St. Paul himself. Like Dunois, the modern world is uneasy when people claim to hear voices, divine or not. On this point the play lets us find out just how open-minded we really are.

Finally, why did Joan love to fight so much? Her primary motivation: it wasn’t “proper ”. It wasn’t in the divine order of things for the English to be on French soil. They should go back to England. Driven back by force, if necessary. (It reminds me of a story about Robert E. Lee early in the Civil War. As he looked out over a valley observing the movement of Union troops, Lee turned to one of his generals and said: “Who are these people? And what are they doing in Virginia?”) It’s to Joan’s credit that she’s willing to fight so hard to restore the divine order of things. But what if she’s wrong? And what of soldiers (the English for instance) who feel it’s in the divine order of things for them to conquer and rule France and convert the French to Anglicanism? Or what about people who don’t believe it’s in the divine order for women to dress in men’s clothes and fight battles?

In the final analysis, Joan was a remarkable woman. One of a kind. How many people do we know who could say, like Joan, “the world is too wicked for me” and really mean it? This imperfect world cannot long endure more than one Joan living in the same neighborhood.

-- RDP


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