Book Review: Bernard Shaw – Saint Joan

First published in 1924; my edition – 1969 Penguin Books

Rating (out of 10): 6

I like reading plays. I think of people I know who could play each character, and in my mind as I am reading I cast those people as those characters and imagine them saying their respective lines. In this one I imagined my friend Sam (guitars/vocals in Blue Grama Bluegrass) as Robert de Baudricourt, local comedian Nick Holland as Robert’s steward, and the uber-talented Mer Sal (vocals/bass for The Symbols) as Joan. Other friends came into view in their costumes as needed, and the play took shape before my mind’s eye. I suppose my imaginary Nick made his steward character far more engaging than it ought to have been, almost Falstaff-like, but overall I think Mr. Shaw would have been pleased with how it turned out in my head.

Did I like the play itself? Well, I did enjoy it, once I waded through Shaw’s 47 page preface anyway. I did not, however, find Shaw’s rendition of Joan to be as much of an improvement on the various accounts of Joan of Arc that Shaw was ragging on in his preface. Shaw went on for many pages about how badly others have represented Joan, and he stated that his play accomplished quite a lot towards improving her image, crafting a more accurate and fair character for her. Joan was a teenager, growing up Catholic, and a tomboy. She wanted to be a soldier, and she claimed she heard the voices of saints telling her to be a soldier and lead Charles’ army to defeat the English at Orleans.

Shaw wrote Joan as a teenager, sure, but she seemed like the sort of idiot creature that the writers for Doctor Who used to create to be the Doctor’s companions, dumb as a post but likeable. I can imagine how a stubborn, arrogant teenager might stick to an impossible story to the death rather than admit she was wrong. Imagine yourself as such a teenager- you told your local military captain that you were commanded by voices of God, a semi-plausible tale in a world of Catholic saints and miracles, and he goes along with it, You know you are making it up, but so what? It got you out of the house, on a horse, in armor, and all the way to the Dauphin. Then, crazily enough, your efforts in Orleans succeed, and you start to believe that you really do hear the voices of saints. By the time you get to that fateful trial with the Archbishop, you really might believe that you are guided by God through those voices, even though at first it was just a ploy to get out of the house.

I’ll grant that reading Shaw’s preface and play were helpful towards developing such a model of Joan of Arc, but the girl I just described is not the one Shaw described in his play. His is the sort of teenage girl that grown men in the 1920′s would write, not quite a match for what we ladies remember from our teenage years. Bernard Shaw didn’t grow up being stuffed into dresses and prodded into being ladylike, and he doesn’t seem to understand the appeal that boys’ games have for girls who are expected to stay clean and calm and at home. His somewhat resolved quandry about why Joan wanted to be a soldier and do men’s things reveals plenty about Shaw, but for those of us ladies who were tomboys with disapproving parents, Joan makes perfect sense.

About Ravenmount

Independent science nerd/writer/music blogger/arts enthusiast/theorist currently in Colorado.
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