Sunday, February 26, 2017

St. Joan by George Bernard Shaw

The other evening at the Lensic Theater in Santa Fe we watched the National Theater’s “St. Joan” by George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) streamed live from the Donmar Warehouse in London.  It was quite an incredible performance with a number of excellent actors especially St. Joan played by Gemma Arterton.  She is just 30 years old and has already spent a decade in great theatre.  For me it was perfect casting.  She has the most angelic face when she smiles but can turn that into the face of the ardent believer, one might say fanatic when need be.

After Shaw’s play “Pygmalion” (1913) made famous in the last half century by the musical “My Fair Lady” “St. Joan” (1923) must be his best known.  It is certainly most quotable and was written just 3 years after Joan of Arc was declared a Saint.  The play has been called a tragedy without villains and that is a very good description, indeed.  The grand inquisitor, another fanatic, is just as ardent a speaker for his cause as Joan is for hers.

Shaw’s script is based on a well documented history; in 1429 a young country girl known as Joan of Arc though most call her simply “The Maid”, appeals to Robert de Baudricourt asking for men, horses and armor because she has heard the voices of St. Margaret and St. Catherine commanding her to go to the Dauphin of France, have him crowned King and raise the siege of Orleans which was occupied by the British.  Needless to say, she is thought quite daft but she is so persuasive that slowly but surely she has men following her.  De Baudricourt OK’s the expedition and sure enough she wins the day.  Later, she wishes to go on and take Paris because god wants France to belong to the French.  Her arrogance knows no bounds and those that followed her before are not willing to see her killed after her “beginners luck”.  Her insistence that she is doing god’s work is finally too much for the Church.  When an inquisitor is sent by the Pope she is tried and finally burned at the stake.

Joan as Warrior
Many of the lines in this play are so insightful that they get you thinking: Joan comes to de Baudricourt and says “I hear voices telling me what to do. They come from God” His response is “they come from your imagination”.   Joan replies “Of course, That is how the messages of God come to us.”  Who can argue with either statement?

Joan as Persuader
So often we see a production that is updated to the present, and so often I just don’t see it’s pertinence. But while watching “St. Joan” I kept having to remind myself, that though set in a modern board-room by the director Josie Rourke, it was written almost 100 years ago.  There are so many great lines.  For instance, the Inquisitor says ,“ I’ve never seen a fairer trial. It's so fair that Joan doesn't even need a defense attorney, because everybody here is trying to save her.”  Right out of today’s headlines, I can hear our President saying it.

Joan over King Charles
Another gem,  “Political necessities sometimes turn out to be political mistakes.”  Wouldn’t it be nice if our politicians would learn that lesson?  From the preface, “The degree of tolerance attainable at any moment depends on the strain under which society is maintaining its cohesion.” It seems to me that today there is, anything but cohesion in our country.

We should remember, however, that “A life spent making mistakes is not only more honorable, but more useful than a life spent doing nothing.”

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