Saturday, April 13, 2019

Saint Joan by Bernard Shaw

This is a short and complicated play about Joan of Arc, in which I got more out of Shaw’s preface to it than from the play itself. Here, I think, is an essential piece:

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 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 rascally bishop and the cruel inquisitor of Mark Twain and Andrew Lang are as dull as pickpockets; and they reduce Joan to the level of the even less interesting person whose pocket is picked. I have represented both of them as capable and eloquent exponents of The Church Militant and The Church Litigant, because only by doing so can I maintain my drama on the level of high tragedy and save it from becoming a mere police court sensation. A villain in a play can never be anything more than a diabolus ex machina, possibly a more exciting expedient than a deus ex machina, but both equally mechanical, and therefore interesting only as mechanism. It is, I repeat, what normally innocent people do that concerns us; and if Joan had not been burnt by normally innocent people in the energy of their righteousness her death at their hands would have no more significance than the Tokyo earthquake, which burnt a great many maidens. The tragedy of such murders is that they are not committed by murderers. They are judicial murders, pious murders; and this contradiction at once brings an element of comedy into the tragedy: the angels may weep at the murder, but the gods laugh at the murderers.

This is exactly the kind of drama I like -- philosophies, each defendable, in conflict with one another. In the case of Saint Joan, the philosophies appear essentially to be those of Catholicism and Protestantism; the idea that God only speaks through an ordained church against the idea that God can speak directly to people.

The person in question is, of course, Joan of Arc.

Joan of Arc, a village girl from the Vosges, was born about 1412; burnt for heresy, witchcraft, and sorcery in 1431; rehabilitated after a fashion in 1456; designated Venerable in 1904; declared Blessed in 1908; and finally canonized in 1920. She is the most notable Warrior Saint in the Christian calendar, and the queerest fish among the eccentric worthies of the Middle Ages. Though a professed and most pious Catholic, and the projector of a Crusade against the Husites, she was in fact one of the first Protestant martyrs.

These seems really critical to understanding Shaw’s play. Joan goes to war to defend Catholic France against the Protestants, but she goes to war because God told her to directly, contrary to the Catholic doctrine that God only speaks through His church. When she is killed, she is killed by the Catholic church, killed for heresy, killed for refusing to recant her sacrilege, and is therefore a martyr to the cause that Martin Luther would nail up to the church door eighty-six years later.

But the story is more complicated than that, because it is not just the authority of the Catholic Church that Joan challenged.

At eighteen Joan’s pretensions were beyond those of the proudest Pope or the haughtiest emperor. She claimed to be the ambassador and plenipotentiary of God, and to be, in effect, a member of the Church Triumphant whilst still in the flesh on earth. She patronized her own king, and summoned the English king to repentance and obedience to her commands. She lectured, talked down, and overruled statesmen and prelates. She pooh-poohed the plans of generals, leading their troops to victory on plans of her own. She had an unbounded and quite unconcealed contempt for official opinion, judgment, and authority, and for War Office tactics and strategy. Had she been a sage and monarch in whom the most venerable hierarchy and the most illustrious dynasty converged, her pretensions and proceedings would have been as trying to the official mind as the pretensions of Caesar were to Cassius. As her actual condition was pure upstart, there were only two opinions about her. One was that she was miraculous: the other that she was unbearable.

Joan’s sin is not just against the authority of the Church, but the authority of the Crown as well. And where one might shelter her against the conscriptive forces of the other, by making an enemy of both she more or less seals her fate.

The following section from the play, in which Peter CAUCHON, the Bishop of Beauvais, and Richard de Beauchamp, the Earl of WARWICK, wonderfully illustrates the dark realization of this situation.

CAUCHON [conciliatory, dropping his polemical tone] My lord: we shall not defeat The Maid if we strive against one another. I know well that there is a Will to Power in the world. I know that while it lasts there will be a struggle between the Emperor and the Pope, between the dukes and the political cardinals, between the barons and the kings. The devil divides us and governs. I see you are not friend to The Church: you are an earl first and last, as I am a churchman first and last. But can we not sink our differences in the face of a common enemy? I see now that what is in your mind is not that this girl has never once mentioned The Church, and thinks only of God and herself, but that she has never once mentioned the peerage, and thinks only of the king and herself.

WARWICK. Quite so. These two ideas of hers are the same idea at bottom. It goes deep, my lord. It is the protest of the individual soul against the interference of priest or peer between the private man and his God. I should call it Protestantism if I had to find a name for it.

CAUCHON [looking hard at him] You understand it wonderfully well, my lord. Scratch an Englishman, and find a Protestant.

WARWICK [playing the pink of courtesy] I think you are not entirely void of sympathy with The Maid’s secular heresy, my lord. I leave you to find a name for it.

CAUCHON. You mistake me, my lord. I have no sympathy with her political presumptions. But as a priest I have gained a knowledge of the minds of the common people; and there you will find yet another most dangerous idea. I can express it only by such phrases as France for the French, England for the English, Italy for the Italians, Spain for the Spanish, and so forth. It is sometimes so narrow and bitter in country folk that it surprises me that this country girl can rise above the idea of her village for its villagers. But she can. She does. When she threatens to drive the English from the soil of France she is undoubtedly thinking of the whole extent of country in which French is spoken. To her the French-speaking people are what the Holy Scriptures describe as a nation. Call this side of her heresy Nationalism if you will: I can find you no better name for it. I can only tell you that it is essentially anti-Catholic and anti-Christian; for the Catholic Church knows only one realm, and that is the realm of Christ’s kingdom. Divide that kingdom into nations, and you dethrone Christ, and who will stand between our throats and the sword? The world will perish in a welter of war.

WARWICK. Well, if you will burn the Protestant, I will burn the Nationalist.

And there you have it. The Church and the Crown working together to defeat the twin danger of Protestantism and Nationalism. And all of it in the person and actions of Joan of Arc. It makes for an intriguing drama, especially when one harks back to Shaw’s first point. The “villains” are acting against The Maid, not from evil intent or design, but from an honest and sincere understanding of the natural order of all things.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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