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Saint Joan (play)

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Saint Joan

Constable & Co., Ltd. cover, 1924
Written by George Bernard Shaw
Date premiered 28 December 1923
Place premiered Garrick Theatre
New York City
Original language
Genre Drama
Setting 15th century France
IBDB profile

Saint Joan is a play by George Bernard Shaw, based on the life and trial of Joan of Arc. Published not long after the canonization of Joan of Arc by the Roman Catholic Church, the play dramatises what is known of her life based on the substantial records of her trial. Shaw studied the transcripts and decided that the concerned people acted in good faith according to their beliefs. He wrote in his preface to the play:

"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 [there is] 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."

Michael Holroyd has characterised the play as "a tragedy without villains" and also as Shaw's "only tragedy". John Fielden has discussed further the appropriateness of characterising Saint Joan as a tragedy.


  • Robert de Baudricourt
  • Steward to Robert de Baudricourt
  • Joan
  • Bertrand de Poulengey
  • Monseigneur de la Trémouille, Lord Chamberlain
  • Duchess de la Trémouille
  • Archbishop of Rheims
  • Gilles de Rais ("Bluebeard")
  • Captain La Hire
  • Peter Cauchon, Bishop of Beauvais
  • Dauphin, Charles VII
  • Richard de Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick
  • Dunois, Bastard of Orleans
  • Page to Dunois
  • John de Stogumber, English chaplain
  • Canon John D'Estivet
  • Canon de Courcelles
  • Brother Martin Ladvenu.
  • Brother John Lemaître, The Inquisitor
  • Executioner
  • English Soldier
  • Gentleman

Shaw characterised Saint Joan as "A Chronicle Play in 6 Scenes and an Epilogue". Joan, a simple peasant girl, hears voices which she claims to be those of Saint Margaret, Saint Catherine, and the archangel Michael, sent by God to guide her conduct.

Scene 1 begins with Robert de Baudricourt complaining about the inability of the hens on his farm to produce eggs. Joan claims that her voices are telling her to raise a siege against Orléans, and to allow her several of his men for this purpose. Joan also says that she will eventually crown the Dauphin in Rheims cathedral. de Baudricourt ridicules Joan, but his servant feels inspired by her words. de Baudricourt eventually begins to feel the same sense of inspiration, and gives his consent to Joan. The servant enters at the end of the scene to exclaim that the hens have begun to lay eggs again. de Baudricourt interprets this as a sign from God of Joan's divine inspiration.

In Scene 2 (8 March 1429), Joan talks her way into being received at the court of the weak and vain Dauphin. There, she tells him that her voices have commanded her to help him become a true king by rallying his troops to drive out the English occupiers and restore France to greatness. Joan succeeds in doing this through her excellent powers of flattery, negotiation, leadership, and skill on the battlefield.

In Scene 3 (29 April 1429), Dunois and his page are waiting for the wind to turn so that he and his forces can lay siege to Orléans. Joan and Dunois commiserate, and Dunois attempts to explain to her more pragmatic realities of an attack, without the wind at their back. Her replies eventually inspire Dunois to rally the forces, and at the scene's end, the wind turns in their favour.

Ultimately she is betrayed, and captured by the English at the siege of Compiègne. Scene 6 (30 May 1431) deals with her trial. John de Stogumber is adamant that she be executed at once. The Inquisitor, the Bishop of Beauvais, and the Church officials on both sides of the trial have a long discussion on the nature of her heresy. Joan is brought to the court, and continues to assert that her voices speak to her directly from God and that she has no need of the Church's officials. This outrages de Stogumber. She acquiesces to the pressure of torture at the hands of her oppressors, and agrees to sign a confession relinquishing the truth behind her voices, so that she can live a life in permanent confinement without hope of parole. Upon hearing this, Joan changes her mind:

Joan: "You think that life is nothing but not being dead? It is not the bread and water I fear. I can live on bread. It is no hardship to drink water if the water be clean. But to shut me from the light of the sky and the sight of the fields and flowers; to chain my feet so that I can never again climb the hills. To make me breathe foul damp darkness, without these things I cannot live. And by your wanting to take them away from me, or from any human creature, I know that your council is of the devil."

Joan accepts the ultimate punishment of death at the stake as preferable to such an imprisoned existence. de Stogumber vehemently demands that Joan then be taken to the stake for immediate execution. The Inquisitor and the Bishop of Beauvais excommunicate her and deliver her into the hands of the English. The Inquisitor asserts that Joan was fundamentally innocent, in the sense that she was sincere and had no understanding of the church and the law. de Stogumber re-enters, screaming and severely shaken emotionally after seeing Joan die in the flames, the first time that he has witnessed such a death, and realising that he has not understood what it means to burn a person at the stake until he has actually seen it happen. A soldier had given Joan two sticks tied together in a cross before the moment of her death. Bishop Martin Ladvenu also reports that when he approached with a cross to let her see the cross before she died, and he approached too close to the flames, she had warned him of the danger from the stake, which convinced him that she could not have been under the inspiration of the devil.

In the Epilogue, 25 years after Joan's execution, a new trial has cleared her of heresy. Brother Martin brings the news to the now-King Charles. Charles then has a dream in which Joan appears to him. She begins conversing cheerfully not only with Charles, but with her old enemies, who also materialise in the King's bedroom. An emissary from the present day (at the time of the play, the 1920s) brings news that the Catholic Church is to canonise her, in the year 1920. Joan says that saints can work miracles, and asks if she can be resurrected. At this, all the characters desert her one by one, asserting that the world is not prepared to receive a saint such as her. The last to leave is the English soldier, who is about to engage in a conversation with Joan before he is summoned back to hell at the end of his 24-hour respite. The play ends with Joan ultimately despairing that mankind will never accept its saints:

"O God that madest this beautiful earth, when will it be ready to accept thy saints? How long, O Lord, how long?"


Joan of Arc (Paris)

Shaw was a famous pacifist, and there has been controversy over his approach, which was consistent with his anti-war speeches at the time of the First World War, a conflict in which he stated that Great Britain and its Allies were equally culpable with the Germans, and argued for negotiation and peace (which damned him in the eyes of many).

His interpretation of the events in Joan's life and its times has upset some historians, many of whom regard the play as highly inaccurate, especially in its depiction of medieval society.

Shaw states that the characterization of Joan by most writers is "romanticized" to make her accusers come off as completely unscrupulous and villainous. Some writers claim that Shaw attempts to wrongly rehabilitate Cauchon, the powerful Bishop of Beauvais, and the Inquisitor, who were most instrumental in sending Joan to the stake. It is worth noting that Shaw takes no position on whether the sentence was just or otherwise. He does, however, dabble in psychology when he claims that Joan wore male clothing as a reflection of personal preference rather than out of necessity. Certainly the wearing of armor was never a female pursuit. The opposing point is made that Joan wore male clothes to protect herself from rape, especially towards the end of her life in the dungeon.

The playwright claims in his preface that she was most likely not physically attractive. He bases this claim on the fact that, at the time, no evidence had been found that Joan was beautiful. However, modern scholars have the advantage of recent translations into English of voluminous French transcripts, and have concluded that Joan was in fact "beautiful and shapely".

More general interpretation of Joan's character is to describe her as a rebel against general institutional authority, such as that of the Catholic Church and to the feudal system. Contemporary comments have noted her particularly strong form of religious belief and how it borders on religious fanaticism.

Tony Stafford has discussed Shaw's use of imagery related to birds in the play. Frederick Boas has compared the different treatments of Joan in dramas by Shakespeare, Schiller, and Shaw.

T. S. Eliot, discussing the play after its premiere in London in 1924, wrote that although St. Joan was not the masterpiece that some claimed it to be, the play "seems to illustrate Mr. Shaw’s mind more clearly than anything he has written before." And although he credited Shaw with providing an "intellectual stimulant" and "dramatic delight," he took issue with his portrayal of the heroine: "his Joan of Arc is perhaps the greatest sacrilege of all Joans: for instead of the saint or the strumpet of the legends to which he objects, he has turned her into a great middle-class reformer, and her place is a little higher than Mrs. Pankhurst," a militant leader of the British suffragettes.


Shaw's personal reputation following the Great War was at a low ebb, and it is thought that he wanted to first test the play away from Britain. The play received its premiere on 28 December 1923 at the Garrick Theatre on Broadway by the Theatre Guild with Winifred Lenihan in the title role. The London première, which opened on 26 March 1924 at the New Theatre, was produced by Lewis Casson and starred Shaw's friend Sybil Thorndike, the actress for whom he had written the part . Costumes and sets were designed by Charles Ricketts, and the play had an extensive musical score, specially composed and conducted by John Foulds.

Caught between the forces of the Church and the Law, Joan is the personification of the tragic heroine and the part is considered by actresses to be one of the most challenging of roles to interpret (see below). It is sometimes played by small petite women and sometimes by tall strong women. Because of the challenges of the role, it is often played by very experienced actresses who are much older than the age of the character, who was a teen-ager. As an interesting exception, for the movie version Joan was played by Jean Seberg who actually was 19 at the time of filming and who, according to the views of many critics, was not very good, due to her lack of dramatic experience.

  • Winifred Lenihan, New York, December 1923 - April 1924 (Initial production)
  • Sybil Thorndike, London, March 1924 (Shaw wrote the play with her in mind)
  • Katharine Cornell, New York, March 1936 - May 1936 ( Tyrone Power made a pre-Hollywood appearance)
  • Wendy Hiller, 1936 Malvern Theater Festival (to honour Shaw's 80th birthday) Malvern,England, July 1936
  • Uta Hagen, New York, October 1951 - February 1952
  • Siobhán McKenna, New York, December 1956 - January 1957 ( Peter Falk appeared in a small part)
  • Joan Plowright, London, 1963
  • Genevieve Bujold, (in a television production) 1967
  • Diana Sands, New York, January 1968 - February 1968
  • Lynn Redgrave, New York, November 1977 - February 1978
  • Imelda Staunton, London, 1979
  • Frances de la Tour, London, 1984
  • Imogen Stubbs, London 1994
  • Anne-Marie Duff, London 2007, National Theatre
  • Amy Irving, (in an audio production), 2010

Other notable Joans include Judi Dench, Zoe Caldwell, Elisabeth Bergner, Constance Cummings, Ann Casson, Roberta Maxwell, Barbara Jefford, Pat Galloway, Sarah Miles, Ellen Geer, Jane Alexander, Lee Grant, Janet Suzman, and Eileen Atkins.

Film adaptations

In 1957, the play was adapted for film by Graham Greene, directed by Otto Preminger, with Jean Seberg as Joan of Arc, Richard Widmark, Richard Todd, and John Gielgud.

In 1927, Lee de Forest filmed Sybil Thorndike in the cathedral scene from Saint Joan in a short film made in his Phonofilm sound-on-film process.

Television adaptations

In 1960, the BBC released the television series, The Age of Kings, a 15-episode condensation of Shakespeare’s Richard II, Henry IV, Henry V, Henry VI and Richard III. Eileen Atkins played Joan.

Audio adaptations

Caedmon Records released a complete audio adaptation of the play in a three-record set starring Siobhan McKenna as Joan, Donald Pleasence as The Inquisitor, Felix Aylmer as Peter Cauchon and Alec McCowen as The Chaplain.

In 2010, Blackstone Audio released a full-cast recording starring Amy Irving, Edward Herrmann, Kristoffer Tabori, Robertson Dean, Scott Brick and Stefan Rudnicki. The production was directed by Yuri Rasovsky.


The play has also been adapted into an opera by Sheffield composer Tom Owen

Awards and nominations

  • 2008 Laurence Olivier Award for Best Revival
  • 1993 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play
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