Almost everything about OpenStage Theatre's production of George Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan is superb, with the exception of the director's basic concept -- and that's a very big exception. The cast, led by Jessica V. Freestone as Joan -- a strange, stubborn young peasant woman of fifteenth-century France who emerges from obscurity to hearten her countrymen and lead them into battle against the English -- is strong, the set clean, suggestive and elegant, the script as brilliant as ever. Since this is a Shaw play, the action is set in a matrix of talk, talk and more talk: witty observations about politics and religion (which were pretty much the same thing in medieval Europe), about the nature of history, about humanity's place in the universe.
Joan wins over her critics with a mix of peasant shrewdness and shining faith, but it's the same stubborn insistence that God speaks directly to her, mixed with narrowness of vision and a willful blindness to the world's realities, that brings her down -- at least on the temporal level.
Shaw's response to the mythologizing of Joan of Arc is clear both in the play itself and in the long exploratory preface. He understood Joan's famous voices not as genuine manifestations from a divine realm, but as the form taken by her intuitive common sense, ideas that she concretized into images she knew and understood from a life in the church. Which is not to say that he scorned or debunked her religious fervor. On the contrary, he honored the power of Joan's imagination, her willingness to break convention, her courage and her truly transcendent sense of joy in action. There are apparent miracles in his play -- the hens that refuse to lay until Captain Robert de Baudricourt agrees to see Joan, the wind that changes direction for her -- but all of these, even the fact that her heart survives the flames, can be explained by coincidence and a medieval worldview teeming with saints and signs. If Joan is a kind of saint, her saintliness lies in her unbending integrity, and Shaw certainly saw her visions as more true than the shabby compromising of those around her.
She is also intensely practical. Her voices tell her she will not be executed, and she believes them, but when she hears the stake is ready, she renounces them in fury. It is only when Joan understands that even if she's spared execution, she will spend the rest of her life in prison that she tears up her recantation and prepares to walk into the flames, reclaiming her voices on the way.
It wasn't only the character of Joan that fascinated Shaw; he was equally interested in the politics surrounding her. As director Peter Anthony points out in his program note, nationalism didn't really exist in the fifteenth century. But it was very much in evidence a few years after World War I, when Shaw wrote Saint Joan -- and some of what he said about it, through her, might interest us today. When the Black Prince (Edward of Woodstock) "touched the soil of our country," Joan says, "the devil entered into him...but at home, in the place made for him by God, he was good. It is always so. If I went into England against the will of God to conquer England, and tried to live there and speak its language, the devil would enter into me; and when I was old I should shudder to remember the wickednesses I did."
Shaw also debunked the idea that Joan was hounded to her death by the evil conniving of politicians and churchmen. He asserted -- though many historians disagree -- that her trial was scrupulously fair by the standards of the time. Joan's claim of a direct personal connection with God resonates today, but it would have been anathema to an institution whose wealth and authority depended on its spiritual power over ordinary people. As Shaw saw it, the church simply couldn't afford to let Joan live, nor was it in the interests of the English to spare her.
But for all his matter-of-fact rationality and willingness to defend her persecutors, you can tell that Shaw loved Joan. You can feel it in the sad and terrifying scene when she realizes that the church she has served so steadfastly will not protect her, and the soldiers whom she led to victory will not come to her rescue. You can feel it in the earthy humor of her early scenes and the ringing speeches with which she defends her faith and her life.
This is a very long play, and Anthony was justified in cutting some of the endless chat -- though every word of it has relevance today. But he's also seen fit to add a supernatural dimension in the person of a white-clad Angel, with whom -- to the accompaniment of portentous music -- Joan periodically communes in distinctly un-Shavian language. Where do sentences like "I am the bow that shoots the arrow and also its target" and "When can we be real? When can we be true?" come from? The Angel lingers on the outskirts of several scenes; he holds the silken banner that announces the change in the wind's direction; and when Joan is sentenced to death, he takes her in his arms. This is distracting and sometimes inadvertently funny. Joan's great speeches of faith and affirmation are accompanied by new-agey music and voices, and when she first goes into battle, she does a peculiar little herky-jerky fight dance.
Despite all this, the production works, and Freestone does convey Joan's great spirit. But the interpolations seem presumptuous, an affront to Shaw's rationalism and clarity of thought. In his view, it took a combination of ordinary characteristics -- groundedness, youthful blindness and feverish imagination -- in conjunction with the convulsions of a hundred-year war to produce Saint Joan. And the play he shaped around her should be miracle enough for us.
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