Saint Joan (play)

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Saint Joan
File:Saint Joan (play).gif
Constable & Co., Ltd. cover, 1924
Written by George Bernard Shaw
Date premiered 28 December 1923
Place premiered Garrick Theatre
Manhattan, New York City
Original language English
Genre Drama
Setting 15th century France

Saint Joan is a play by George Bernard Shaw, based on the life and trial of Joan of Arc. Published in 1924, not long after the canonization of Joan of Arc by the Roman Catholic Church, the play dramatises what is known of her life based on the substantial records of her trial. Shaw studied the transcripts and decided that the concerned people acted in good faith according to their beliefs. 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 begins with Robert de Baudricourt complaining 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 eventually crown the Dauphin in Rheims cathedral. De Baudricourt ridicules Joan, but his servant feels inspired by her words. De Baudricourt eventually begins to feel the same sense of inspiration, and gives his consent to Joan. The servant enters at the end of the scene to exclaim that the hens have begun to lay eggs again. de Baudricourt interprets this as a sign from God of Joan's divine inspiration.

In 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.

In 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.

Ultimately she is betrayed, and captured by the English at the siege of Compiègne. Scene 6 (30 May 1431) deals with her trial. John de 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 de 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. De 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. De 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 at the stake 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 cross to let her see the cross before she died, and he approached too close to the flames, she had warned him of the danger from the stake, which convinced him that she could not have been under the inspiration of the devil.

In the Epilogue, 25 years after Joan's execution, a new trial has cleared her of heresy. Brother Martin brings the news to the now-King Charles. 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. An emissary from the present day (at the time of the play, the 1920s) brings news that the Catholic Church is to canonise her, in the year 1920. 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?


Joan of Arc (Paris)

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][citation needed]

Shaw states that the characterization of Joan by most writers is "romanticized" to make her accusers come off as completely unscrupulous and villainous.[4] Some writers[who?] claim that Shaw attempts to wrongly rehabilitate Pierre Cauchon, the powerful Bishop of Beauvais, and the Inquisitor, who were most instrumental in sending Joan to the stake.

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 to be one of the most challenging of roles to interpret[citation needed](see below). Because of the challenges of the role, it is often played by very experienced actresses who are much older than the age of the character, who was a teenager. For a film version, Joan was played by Jean Seberg, who was 19 at the time of filming.

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,[13] and Eileen Atkins.




  • Lanford Wilson's 2000 play Book of Days is a modern day re-imagining of Saint Joan.

Sound recordings

The play has also been adapted into an opera by composer Tom Owen.[14]

Awards and honors



  1. Holroyd, Michael (14 July 2007). "A tragedy without villains". The Guardian. Retrieved 2009-01-18.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  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.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. Robertson, J. M. (1926). Mr. Shaw and "The Maid". London: Cobdon-Sanderson. p. 85.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Preface to the play
  5. Billington, Michael (12 July 2007). "Saint Joan: Olivier Theatre, London". The Guardian. Retrieved 2009-01-18.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. Gardner, Lyn (3 July 2007). "The shock of the old". The Guardian. Retrieved 2009-01-18.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  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.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  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.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. Eliot, T. S. (October 1924). "A Commentary". The Criterion. 3: 1–5.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. Harben, Niloufer. Twentieth-century English history plays: from Shaw to Bond. p. 31. ISBN 0-389-20734-9.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  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.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. Clapp, Susannah (15 July 2007). "Joan burns bright in a match made in heaven". The Observer. Retrieved 2009-01-18.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  14. "Spring Opera Productions". The University of Sheffield. Archived from the original on 2008-12-23.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Dailey, Jeff. "The Villains Always Wear Red" 2007 Accessed August 7, 2010
  • Shaw, Bernard (1924). Saint Joan: A Chronicle Play in 6 Scenes and an Epilogue. London: Constable & Co., Ltd. OCLC 248014614.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links