Monday, 12 June 2017

Saint Joan - Europe's Turning Point

It seems as if there is a resurgence of interest in the plays of George Bernard Shaw, though when I say resurgence I am referring to having seen three plays of his over the past three years, which is significant because I pretty much haven't seen any of his plays previously. That probably has a lot to do with not actually knowing about him, or having any appreciation of his work prior to purchasing a copy of Pygmalion and proceeding to read it. The other problem is that the lack of options when it comes to theatre in Australia, but then again it does teach me to keep my eyes open. However, the stage on screen series that are now being played at various cinemas around Australia helps a lot as well. So, when I discovered that Saint Joan was going to be one of the films shown I took the day off work, made my way down to the Palace Brighton Bay, and began to treat myself to another play that I am not expecting to see again any time soon.

The first thing that stood out with this version, which was performed in London's Donmar Theatre, was that it was done in modern dress, that is that the bulk of the actors were men in suits. Actually, being a play about Jean d'Arc (as her name is spelt in French) pretty much the only female actor in the play is the one playing Jean. Also, they had a TV screen at the back of the stage which would show regular stock market reports as well as some other images. Also, the only major prop was a large table like what one would see in a board room, and a number of chairs around it, though the stage would be rotating throughout the performance. The reason that it was done this way, as was explained by the director, was that she was trying to help us understand that Bernard Shaw wasn't just writing to the people of his era, but also to ours, and the best way to do this would be to use a modern setting.

The problem is that when Bernard Shaw crafted the play he wasn't using a modern setting - rather he was using the original setting of the story of Jean d'Arc: medieval France. However, what we don't get in the play, or at least those of us who do have the opportunity to see it live, meaning that we don't get one of those brochures, or have the opportunity to purchase one of those programs at the entrance, is Bernard Shaw's own commentary on the piece. A friend of mine suggests that directors who do this with plays (using modern costume) are not only treating the audience as if they are idiots, but are attempting to clearly spell out how the play relates to us now. A part of me is actually starting to agree with him, and did find Baz Luhrman's Romeo and Juliet an abomination. Mind you, I still appreciated Ralph Fienne's Coriolanus namely because of all the machine guns (Shakespeare with machine guns and modern military vehicles is always fun), though that was on screen as opposed to being on stage.

However, it seems as if Shaw might have considered his audience to be idiots anyway because with a number of his plays he would write a preface, and sometimes an afterword as well, that basically explained what he was trying to get at with the production. This probably had a lot to do with people having completely misinterpreted his plays (as was the case with Man and Superman) and simply seeing them as mindless comedies. Mind you, this is Victorian England we are talking about, and I have never considered the theatre going public at that time to be all that intellectual. These days there seems to be a split between the avant-garde and the upperclass, though you generally wouldn't get members of the modern aristocracy attending a play at the Donmar, which generally falls into the category of the avant-garde.

Jean's France

I'm not sure how much background I need to go into namely because I'm sure we all have heard of Joan of Arc. I would point you to another post that I wrote about her after visiting the Joan of Arc Museum in Rouen but the problem is that I haven't got anywhere near to actually writing about that museum (and considering the amount of stuff that I have set down to actually write I'm not sure how long it will be before I actually get to poor Jean. One thing that I will mention is that Rouen, the city where Jean was imprisoned and executed, has a tour where you can visit all of the Jean d'Arc sites, including the tower where she was imprisoned (or more specifically the tower which happens to be the only remaining part of the castle where she was imprisoned), and the town square where she was burnt, upon which has been built a church.

Anyway, the play is set during the Hundred Years War, which was a war between England and France that lasted something like 125 years, though theoretically the war lasted quite some time longer, and was more a series of skirmishes, a couple of set piece battles, and a long period of occupancy by the English over large parts of France, than a sustained conflict that lasted all that time. In a sense it was more like a cold war which heated up occasionally, than an actual war.

So, France had just suffered a number of humiliating defeats and her territory had been reduced dramatically. In fact France didn't even have a king, and the heir to the throne, the Dauphin, was having his legitimacy challenged. Pretty much every thing looked incredibly bleak, and it was as if the French were looking at annihilation as a country to be dominated by the English and the neighbouring Burgundians. Then, all of a sudden, a girl from a village in Lorraine appears on the scene claiming to have been sent by God, and that if she were to be given an army then she would defeat the English, liberate the French, and see the king crowned in Rheims.

Jean's Story

The play pretty much follows the story of Jean d'Arc from when she first appeared on the scene requesting an audience with the king through to her trial and then on to her execution, and eventually beatification (that is being made a saint). I'm not necessarily going to say that the play is faithful to the story, namely because there is only so much that you can squeeze into a small space in a building. Okay, modern technology does allow for greater scopes, but the director of a theatrical production is limited, as are the writers. For instance, Jean was captured by the Burgundians and then handed over to the English, which doesn't seem to be raised in the play, but then again I don't believe Shaw considered this to be necessary.

Anyway, the play begins with Jean appearing before one of the local lords, which was pretty gutsy in and of itself because not only was she a peasant girl, but she was also a woman. As I have mentioned, she is the only female character in the play, which means that she is a lonely female in what is effectively a male dominated world. Anyway, after persistent badgering, she is finally allowed to see the king, and is then given an army and successfully defeats the English at the Battle of Orleans, and then proceeds to see the King crowned at the Cathedral at Rheims. However this is where her luck seems to run out because she wants to press her advantage and once again meets resistance.

In fact this seems to be a story of Jean's life - resistance and overcoming resistance. In a sense she may have defeated the English once, but that was it because nobody, except her of course, wanted to press the advantage. However, for Jean to give up now would be a betrayal of her character. So, she leads an army to capture Paris, but loses and she herself is captured and handed over the the English, whose capital is in Rouen. It is here that she is put on trial, convicted of heresy, and sentenced to death.

However, after the war is concluded, and after she is well and truly dead, they decide to have a retrial (which is the subject of the Museum in Rouen) where she is found not guilty and exonerated of all crimes. Centuries later she is then canonised, which is the subject of the end of the play. In relation to her innocence though, Shaw, through the mouth of the Inquisitor, says it the best:
Oh, quite innocent. What does she know of the Church and the Law? She did not understand a word we were saying. It is the ignorant who suffer.
The thing is that Jean's existence basically challenged the status quo, which was why she had to be put to death. This wasn't a question of the English vs the French, this was a question that had the potential to shake the entire European order than had been established for centuries. Well, not quite because these ideas were beginning to filter out of Italy through the Renaissance movement, but what we have here was a peasant girl from a back water province in France moving in to the courts of the powerful. In a sense she rose above her gender and class to make an impact upon the world. One of the reasons that the director set the play in what looked like a modern boardroom was because this was what Jean was doing - she was like the ordinary person barging into the world of the captains and industry and turning everything upside down.

However, let us look at the world that Jean was ushering in.

Jean's Challenge

Beginning of Protestantism

It was going to be another hundred years before Martin Luther would nail his protests against the Catholic Church to the doors of the Wurtemberg Cathedral, however he wasn't the first person to begin agitating against the domination of the Catholic Church, and neither was Jean, but like Luther, Jean did have an impact, and a pretty significant one at that. For instance one of the reasons that she was executed, on the charge of heresy, was the claim that she spoke directly to God. To Christians for the modern era this doesn't seem to be all that striking, and moreso we would probably write her off as being mentally ill, since people who run around claiming to hear voices in their head are generally considered mad (I believe that is a symptom of schizophrenia).

However what Jean was doing by claiming to be hearing God's voice was that she was challenging the authority of the Church, something that would come back again and again to haunt them. The thing was that the Church saw themselves as the guardians of religion, and the defender of doctrine. They took this role so that any old person couldn't simply come along and start either a new religion, or reinterpret Christian religion. The problem was that the church had reached a point where you couldn't question it, or its beliefs, for to do so would result in you being considered disruptive. The other thing was that the church set itself up as an arbitrator between you, the normal person, and God - being a normal person you were simply not worthy of approaching God, therefore you needed the priest to do that in your stead.

The problem is that this completely overturns the original purpose of Christ. The thing about Jesus was that he came to do away with priests and organised religion, so that everybody could have a direct relationship with God, not just the ordained priests. The thing is that nobody, not even the priests, are worthy to approach God, so we needed God to send somebody who was worthy to approach him on our behalf - and that was Christ. The problem is that human nature meant that sooner, rather than later, churches would once again interpose themselves between God and ourselves.

What Jean did was that she challenged the authority of the church. Here was a peasant girl appearing and making claims that God spoke to her. This was outrageous - not only was she a peasant, and a girl, but she was also illiterate. The problem was that when she prophesied these prophecies came true, which challenged the church even more. The thing is that they couldn't simply have anybody come along and start sprouting the word of God - only the church was allowed to do that, just like they couldn't have just about anybody read, and interpret, the Bible - if they did, the church would become obsolete.

The problem was that its obsolescence was inevitable.

Beginning of Nationalism

Nationalism is a funny thing because there are claims that it didn't come about until the 19th century when people stopped seeing themselves as subjects to a king but rather as members of a nation. I'm inclined to argue that the roots of nationalism were earlier than that, and while the 19th Century saw a shift away from monarchies towards republics and democracies, people in earlier times did have a concept of belonging to what could be considered a nation. In fact that sense of belonging to a people group goes back to the ancient times where groups of people who spoke the same language and held the same belief systems saw themselves as better that anybody who didn't - and isn't this basically what nationalism is all about.

One of the ideas that is explored in Saint Joan is this idea of nationalism, and Shaw suggests that around this time people began raise this idea of identifying themselves based on the language that they spoke and the land in which they lived. In fact there was even this idea that this land was rightfully theirs and that the foreign invader, that is the English, should be banished back to the island from which they came. Mind you, this doesn't take into account the history of England, which was conquered by the Normans and ruled from Rouen by the Normans for at least a century. Yet Jean is an illiterate peasant girl so she was no doubt history was something that she was not going to be all that familiar with.

However the church saw the rise of this national identity as a threat. Basically Western Europe was ruled from Rome, with the Pope as the emperor. Sure, he claimed to only be God's representative on Earth, but God is king in Heaven, and is the King of King and Lord of Lords, so if God's representative says something, then it is expected to be obeyed because to refuse to obey the Pope is tantamount to refusing to obey God. This is where nationalism becomes a danger - it undermines the authority of the church, in that the church ceases to be a universal church and instead becomes a national church. This means that the power of the church, and the pope, is subsumed to that of the earthly King.

This is why Jean was a danger because she was raising an army of the French to fight for France. This was no longer a petty question of quarrels between nobles, and became a question of a people, of a nation, being invaded by another nation. When people were the subjects of kings, if a king were to change then the identity of the people were to change. Take a look at some of Shakespeare's plays and you will note that the characters are named after the regions in which they rule - that is their identity, and the region's identity is based upon that of it's ruler. When Jean crowned the king, it was not a question of him regaining his authority, but rather the nation taking over the role that used to be filled by the church.

Beginning of Feminism

I have mentioned this a few times previously, but it is important to note that Jean d'Arc is a peasant women. These to descriptors are incredibly important, one I will raise now, and the first I will raise shortly. The thing with Jean is that she was a woman in a man's world. This was very clear throughout the play since she is the only female character - all of the other characters are male. Okay, while she may not have been the first women thrust into a man's world, she was a significant one, and one that shook the foundations of gender inequality.

However, unlike figures such as Queen Elizabeth, Jean wasn't thrust into this world, she thrust herself into the centre of a realm that was dominated by males. Well, there would be women with medieval armies, but they wouldn't be doing the fighting, and they certainly wouldn't be in command. At best they might be cooks and such, at worst they would be abused by the soldiers and be treated as little more than spoils of war. Yet Jean was not only able to enter this world, but she was able to do so with the respect of the men that came under her command - it was as if she was living a charmed life in that regard.

The interesting thing is how one of her charges was wearing men's clothes. This is something that goes back to the Old Testament law that forbade cross dressing. What is interesting is that in the modern world there are clothes that are distinctly feminine and then there are clothes that are worn by men. Okay, you generally don't see women wearing suits, and there are pants that are made for women, and clothes that are made for men, but while it is a common site to see women in trousers, you don't see men wearing dresses.

However, back in those days there was work that was considered feminine and work that was considered masculine. For instance the women raised children and the men went to war. Women dressed in one way and men dressed in another. Women had certain styles of hair, men had another. However Jean challenged those roles by cutting her hear, wearing trousers, and riding a horse into war. In a sense what she was saying was that this gender gap is artificial - it is a construct that is not natural, and that anything that a male can do a woman can do as well.

It sort of reminds me of this idea of the job snob. In a sense "woman's work" sounds like the statement of a job snob, the person who is too proud to work in certain industries, such as hospitality and cleaning. Mind you, I can appreciate the difficulties of working in hospitality, but the suggestion that a certain type of work as being woman's work is the suggestion that there are jobs that are beneath the person making the statement. In a way what Jean is doing is that she is challenging this mentality, and stating that she should have the right to do any job that she would want to do.

Mind you, it is interesting to note that I still don't see all that many women in the manual trades, or working on construction sites. In a sense, while it is reasonable that women be given the same opportunities as men are, promotion should still be based on merit, not just to create a gender balance. In a way, this seems to have more to do with giving women more of an opportunity to work in some of the more prestigious roles than to, in reality, balance out the gender inequalities in some industries. Mind you, I can probably understand why some women wouldn't want to work on a construction site.

Death of Aristocracy

I'm not really sure whether Jean making her presence felt was important or not, but the directors seemed to think so, particularly since each of the scenes were set in what was effectively a board room of some investment firm. In a way these parts of the world are inhabited by the movers and the shakers, and while we might get a fleeting glance inside one, we are rarely ever invited in to participate. In a sense these places are where decisions are made that affect hundreds, thousands, or even millions of people. Sure, things have changed dramatically since Jean's time in that these roles are open to anybody, but in reality they are not.

The thing with Jean was that she barged into the board room, or into the courts of the lords and the kings. These were places where you were invited, and if the lord didn't want to see you, then you weren't going to be seen. Sure, you may be able to go in there and plead your case before the Lord, but the lord held the ultimate say. However there was no chance of a peasant becoming an aristocrat, and there was definitely no chance that they would be given an army to lead.

However, he we have Jean, barging into the world of the aristocrats, and showing them up in not only leading an army, but leading an army to victory. All of the sudden we have this person, this peasant, that is inspiring the troops. In fact even at the start of the play we are being told how she is inspiring the troops in the lord's castle. The thing is that this is dangerous as an inspirational person can lead people away from the legitimate ruler, and in fact challenge the ruler's rule. In this world the peasant has their place, and they should know their place, and their place is not in the courts of the kings, dukes, and the rulers, and certainly not at the head of an army.

Jean's Legacy

She certainly has left us with a legacy, especially if a wander around Rouen, or even France as a whole, is to demonstrate. In fact the Jean d'Arc Museum has a whole display on her legacy, and in fact she is regularly invoked by politicians of all stripes to inspire the people. Not only is she a saint, but she is a national hero of France, claimed by both the left and the right. She inspires women, the weak, the marginalised, and the oppressed, to rise up, to take charge, and go against standard opinion to prove that the accepted way is not the only way.

Sure, she only won one major battle, and her life was snuffed out before it had even began, but even before the flames had begun to die the French were mobilised, the king inspired, and the English then on the run. Sure, the war still had a while to run, but it ended with a French victory, with the English being sent back back across the channel to their miserable island. In fact, upon losing the war the English were then plunged into civil war.

Sure, she didn't start the feminist movement, or the protestant movement, or even the nationalist movement. Neither did she bring about the downfall of the monarchies or break apart the aristocracy, but seeds were sown, and the people inspired, and the movement out of a medieval age ruled by the church, with advancement based on family ties and when you were born, had begun.

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Saint Joan - Europe's Turning Point by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images or videos that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me


  1. Great post - I really enjoyed it. There were quite a few fascinating women in the Middle Ages who pushed back against sexism and gender roles - and their stories are as fascinating as Joan's.

    Regarding the question of setting of a play, I have mixed feelings. Setting histories of actual people in modern times can be really awkward and contrived, so I am dubious. However, last year's Utah Shakespeare Festival set Julius Caesar in Cold War eastern bloc costumes - and it really worked well, which surprised me.

    On the other hand, some stories are deliberately from "any place, any time," so to speak. Shakespeare's comedies are anachronistic in so many ways anyway. (I snort whenever supposed ancient Greeks or Italians are cracking jokes about the French...) One of my favorite "modern" settings is Comedy of Errors in the Wild West. It fits so perfectly - the banishment from the city, the casual violence against servants, the whole vibe.

    I really do wish someone would do a Shaw play here again. And Oscar Wilde. On the plus side, will be seeing Richard II live in a couple of weeks!

    1. Thankyou. I agree with you on the setting, though to me it does come down to the actual production. Also, I guess a part of me does enjoy a Shakespeare play turned into a modern action film (one of my guilty pleasures).