Friday, October 31, 2008

George Bernard Shaw – ‘Saint Joan’

It’s got that smell, of cold fitted cushions in a caravan. The paper is spongy to the touch, and quite thick, unevenly cut along the side and bottom edges. It’s hardback, but not luxuriously so: the type is small, and the book itself is larger than an old Everyman, smaller than a modern Penguin. On the first right hand page, top right, are prices in pencil: ‘1.25’, fairly big and bold, and then ‘6/-’ , fainter and smaller. There is a message written in fountain pen, black with a hint of blue, which reads: ‘To Ronnie, Wishing him a Happy Christmas, With love, from, John.’ Who would bother with all that punctuation now? Lower down, in the same hand: ‘Christmas. 1928.’ The book is half preface and half play, the preface being broken down into breathless chunks stamped with headlines like ‘Joan the Original and Presumptuous’, ‘Was Joan Suicidal?’, ‘Joan a Galtonic Visualizer’. The content is didactic and disordered, mostly tending towards the point that contrary to popular opinion, Joan did have a fair and considered trial in 1431, and that the re-examination of the evidence in 1456 which exonerated her and marked the beginning of her legend was a ‘corrupt job’ (p. xi). Joan was canonised in 1920, which explains why this play was written when it was (1924).

Shaw doesn’t think that Joan’s execution was justified, his point is that previous accounts of the story have been too polarised, with Joan pure, beautiful, saintly, and her prosecutors old, corrupt, stodgy. They don’t understand the context, and especially the difference between secular and religious authority. All the same, some of his pronouncements apply equally well to both: ‘The more obedient a man is to accredited authority the more jealous he is of allowing any unauthorized person to order him about.’ (p. xlviii). Except – who could possibly have the authority to accredit God? Sitting in a house stuffed with crime novels it was a thrill to read that ‘There are no villains in this piece. Crime, like disease, is not interesting.’ (p. lv). Shaw has a very likeable tone in his preface – the restless, flitting, energetic intellectual (how appropriate for Leslie Howard to have starred in Pygmalion, the manner is the same). I warmed to him even as I wondered what he was doing explaining away his play. He describes it as a ‘sober essay on the facts’ (p. l), but how sober can an essay be which compares the fifteenth century Vatican with twentieth century Trade Unions?

The explanations mean that, by and large, the reader knows in advance the effects that the play is aiming towards: it wants to humanise both Joan and her prosecutor Peter Cauchon, rescuing her from the myth of purity, and him from the myth of corruption. But Cauchon’s corruption at the trial is replaced by Warwick’s (he threatens to have her killed whatever the outcome), and Joan’s purity of purpose is never in serious doubt, though there are a few references to her not being all that pretty. The interesting scenes are early on, when Joan’s conviction carries all before it, forcing the French nobility to let her lead their army by sheer force of will. Robert de Baudricourt is the weak-willed blusterer whom she forces into recommending her to the Dauphin. He opens the play with the marvellous line: ‘No eggs! No eggs! Thousand thunders, man, what do you mean by no eggs?’ (p. 1), before flatly refusing Joan admittance for the nth day in a row. Once she does get in, she makes short work of him, and the possibility that she might actually be in some way divine is suggested at the end of the scene when, after she has secured the recommendation and departed, the hens start laying again.

Scene two follows the same formula, with Joan exerting her naïve charm at court, this time winning over the weak Dauphin, Charles. Joan makes short work of him, too: ‘ I can turn thee into a king, in Rheims Cathedral; and that is a miracle that will take some doing, it seems.’ (p. 31). In the same scene, the Archbishop neatly side-steps the question of Joan’s divinity, saying that a miracle is ‘an event which creates faith’ (p. 23): it is true for those who believe in it, and its objective truth is unimportant. And Joan, a confidence-woman who can’t judge when to stop, takes on ever grander military objectives until the inevitable defeat, capture, and trial. As the circumstances get more serious, the play’s charm ebbs away, and the trial and epilogue seemed less important than the feel of the paper, the inscription at the front, and Christmas 1928.

1 comment:


A Brilliant play! I am rereading it again.

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