© 1924 George Bernard Shaw
In the darkest hour of the Hundred Years War, a teenage girl re-inspired both a defeated nation and a despondent king to fight again for what was theirs. She — Joan of Arc — would be captured by her enemies and condemned a heretic by the English, but later vindicated by the Church. In 1920, in fact, Joan was pronounced a saint. Shaw’s play no doubt follows on the heels of the news of her canonization. Scoffing at saintly romanticization of the Maid, Shaw chose to pay tribute to her in his own way, making her an apostle of Whiggism. “Saint Joan” pays tribute to the Maid’s time in the historical sun, relegating unpleasant battle-and-execution bits to the background and focusing instead on her conflicts with the silly men she is forced to enlighten. Considering that the title character is burned alive, the play is far funnier than it has a right to be, from the opening scene with a duke arguing with his page almost to the end, where the man Joan made king is visited by the shades of his past after her vindication. Shaw fills the play with modern conceits; his characters seem to wish they were living in the 1920s instead of the rotten ol’ middle ages. They even invent words like Protestant and Nationalism to describe how Joan makes them feel.
Shaw’s Joan is more ambiguous than this, however; he endeavors to save her from beatification and her enemies from damnation in the same stroke. Joan as written is not ‘saintly’ she is cheeky. Assuming familiarity with lords of the realm and lords of the church alike, she gives as good as she gets when they argue her down with reason, or scold her for acting so presumptuously. The irreverent, tomboyish Joan may be the star of the play, but her opponents are no villains. They may be guilty of pious fraud at times, but their arguments seem perfectly sensible, and prompt a reader to wonder just where Shaw’s sympathies lie. When the churchmen accuse Joan’s patriotic zeal of threatening to divide Christendom into nations and in so doing, dethrone Christ and allow the world to perish in a welter of war, the graveyards of the Great War do not seem far removed from Shaw’s mind. They are less villains than men moved to horror through fear, and happily ere the conclusion is reached they experience the genuine crisis of remorse, repenting in turn. Although Shaw is just as guilty as having the Maid carry his own standard as any of the old romanticists, “Saint Joan” succeeds in granting both her and her enemies humanity and redemption.