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Saint Joan (play)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Sybil Thorndike as Joan.
Sybil Thorndike as Joan.

Saint Joan is a 1923 play by Irishman George Bernard Shaw written shortly after the Roman Catholic Church canonized Joan of Arc. It is a dramatization based on what is known of her life and on the substantial records of her trial that was premiered first on Broadway in 1923 by the Theatre Guild with Winifred Lenihan as Joan just before its London premiere, starring his friend Sybil Thorndike, the actress for whom he had written the part. 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 England.

Saint Joan is often credited for Shaw's being awarded the 1925 Nobel Prize for Literature (which he refused). Caught between the forces of the Church and the Law, she 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 (see below). It is sometimes played by small feminine women, and sometimes by tall strong women, and always by experienced actresses too old, with the exception of Jean Seberg who actually was 19 in Otto Preminger's filmed effort, and who reportedly was not very good.

The actual trial and burning of Joan in 1431 at the age of 19 was recorded in great detail by reporters of the day, and Shaw studied the transcripts, decided that the concerned people acted in good faith according to their beliefs, and took a neutral point of view. He wrote in his long preface that "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."

The play takes few liberties with the factual record of her short life; it begins with her first approaching a lowly soldier, the voices she hears, her visit to the Dauphin to persuade him through her excellent powers of negotiation that she will help him become king of a restored country by rallying the troops to drive out the English occupiers of France, how she does this, her betrayal and capture at the siege of Compiègne, and finally her trial. The plotting of the story is straightforward, and Shaw allows himself to spin the ending and amuse himself (and his audience) with a coda to the play showing Joan in heaven, joking with her old friends and enemies, and looking forward to her rehabilitation by the Church nearly 500 years later. Some productions choose not to use this epilogue. It is in the to and fro thrill of words used in the art of debate that elevates the play, and is the mainstay of most of Shaw's plays.

There has been controversy over Shaw's approach, which was consistant with his anti-war speeches at the time of the First World War, a conflict in which he stated that Great Britain and its Allies were equally culpable with the Germans, and argued for negotiation and peace (which damned him in the eyes of many).

Shaw was a famous pacifist and his interpretation of the events in Joan's life and times has upset historians many of whom regard the play as highly inaccurate, especially in its depiction of medieval society. Shaw states that the characterization of Joan by most writers is "romanticized" to make her accusers come off as completely unscrupulous and villainous. These same unnamed writers claim that Shaw attempts to wrongly rehabilitate Cauchon, the powerful Bishop of Beauvais, and the Inquisitor, who were most instrumental in sending Joan to the stake. It is worth noting that Shaw takes no position on whether the sentence was just or otherwise. He does however dabble in psychological insight when he claims that Joan wore male clothing as a reflection of personal preference rather than out of necessity. Certainly the wearing of armor was never a female pursuit. The opposing point is made that Joan wore male clothes to protect herself from rape, especially towards the end of her life in the dungeon.

Modern historians have the advantage of recent translations into English of voluminous French transcripts, and have concluded that Joan was in fact "beautiful and shapely".

Members of the world of literature, and audiences, do appreciate, however, that Shaw's creation is one of the greatest plays in the English language. Shaw's last words for Joan, before she was taken by her jailers to the stake, were:

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."'


Notable Joans and some Stage Productions

Winifred Lenihan. New York, December 1923 - April 1924 (Initial production)

Sybil Thorndike. London, March 1924 (Shaw wrote the play with her in mind)

Katharine Cornell. New York, March 1936 - May 1936 (Tyrone Power made a pre-Hollywood appearance)

Uta Hagen. New York, October 1951 - February 1952

Siobhan McKenna, New York, December 1956 - January 1957 (Peter Falk appeared in a small part)

Jean Seberg (in a film) 1957

Joan Plowright. London, 1963

Genevieve Bujold. (in a television production) 1967

Diana Sands. New York, January 1968 - February 1968

Lynn Redgrave. New York, November 1977 - February 1978

Judi Dench

Zoe Caldwell

Elisabeth Bergner

Wendy Hiller

Constance Cummings

Ann Casson

Roberta Maxwell

Barbara Jefford

Pat Galloway

Sarah Miles

Ellen Geer

Jane Alexander

Lee Grant

Janet Suzman

Eileen Atkins


  • Joan of Arc: By Herself and Her Witnesses by Regine Pernoud
  • Joan of Arc: Her Story by Regine Pernoud
  • Joan of Arc: In Her Own Words by Willard Trask
  • Joan of Arc: Playing Joan: Actresses on the Challenge of Shaw's Saint Joan by Holly Hill

See also

  • Saint Joan (movie)
  • Joan of Arc
  • George Bernard Shaw


External links

  • Primary Sources about Joan's male clothing in context
  • Description of the physical Joan
  • Discussion on Shaw's character and attitude to war
  • IBDb records for full casts in New York productions
  • Playing Joan interviews


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