By Charles Matthews

Saturday, May 8, 2010

8. "Saint Joan," by George Bernard Shaw, pp. 101-159

Scenes 5, 6, and Epilogue
JOAN. Isnt it strange, Jack? I am such a coward: I am frightened beyond words before a battle; but it is so dull afterwards when there is no danger: oh, so dull! dull! dull!
This sounds just right, the essence of the warrior mentality. And it gets at Joan's weakness, her "tragic flaw" if you will. Even fear (the fear of the pyre) is preferable to idleness (prison). The Archbishop will charge her with the sin of pride, though I think he mistakes bravado for pride.
ARCHBISHOP. ... The old Greek tragedy is rising among us. It is the chastisement of hubris.
CHARLES. Yes: she thinks she knows better than everyone else.
JOAN [distressed, but naïvely incapable of seeing the effect she is producing] But I  d o  know better than any of you seem to. And I am not proud: I never speak unless I know I am right. 
This elicits hoots of derision from Bluebeard and Charles, but the Archbishop asks how she knows she is right. Her answer, of course, is her voices. But it falls to Dunois to talk sense:
I think that God was on your side; for I have not forgotten how the wind changed, and how our hearts changed when you came; and by my faith I shall never deny that it was in your sign that we conquer. But I tell you as a soldier that God is no man's daily drudge, and no maid's either.... For He has to be fair to your enemy too: dont forget that. Well, He has set us on our feet through you at Orleans; and the glory of it has carried us through a few good battles here to the coronation. But if we presume on it further, and trust to God to do the work we should do ourselves, we shall be defeated; and serve us right! ... King Charles: you have said no word in your proclamations of my part in this campaign; and I make no complaint of that; for the people will run after The Maid and her miracles and not after the Bastard's hard work finding troops for her and feeding them. But I know exactly how much God did for us through The Maid, and how much He left me to do by my own wits; and I tell you that your little hour of miracles is over, and that from this time on he who plays the war game best will win -- if the luck is on his side.
 He goes on to predict that Joan's self-assurance will not be enough to prevent her being captured:  "And then she will find that God is on the side of the big battalions."

He's right, of course, and then comes the big trial scene in which Shaw audaciously makes the Inquisitor a figure of reason and even compassion, even though he is aware that Joan is her own worst enemy. He tells Warwick, "You have an invincible ally in the matter: one who is far more determined than you that she shall burn.... The Maid herself. Unless you put a gag in her mouth you cannot prevent her from convicting herself ten times over every time she opens it." He is aware that such hotheads as the Courcelles and the Chaplain only undermine their own case in their zeal:
I will ask you, therefore, to say nothing, when The Maid is brought before us, of these stealings of horses, and dancings round fairy trees with the village children, and prayings at haunted wells, and a dozen other things which you were diligently inquiring into until my arrival. There is not a village girl in France against whom you could not prove such things: they all dance round haunted trees, and pray at magic wells. Some of them would steal the Pope's horse if they got the chance. Heresy, gentlemen, is the charge we have to try. ... Heresy begins with people who are to all appearances better than their neighbors. A gentle and pious girl, or a young man who has obeyed the command of our Lord by giving all his riches to the poor, and putting on the garb of poverty, the life of austerity, and the rule of humility and charity, may be the founder of a heresy that will wreck both Church and Empire if not ruthlessly stamped out in time. 
And in fact, the great heresies of the Reformation were promulgated by those who railed against the corruption of the Church and presented themselves as more pious than the established clergy. Joan's "excesses," the Inquisitor tells the court, "have been excesses of religion and charity and not of worldliness and wantonness." He also defends the Inquisition as more merciful than the mob: Without the Inquisition's formal inquiry, "the unfortunate wretch suspected of heresy, perhaps quite ignorantly and unjustly, is stoned, torn in pieces, drowned, burned in his house with all his innocent children, without a trial, unshriven, unburied save as a dog is buried: all of them deeds hateful to God and most cruel to man."

Nevertheless, Courcelles persists in his sadistic desire to torture a confession out of Joan, even after she admits that she'll say anything (and "take it all back afterwards") to be spared the pain.
LADVENU [disgusted] Do you want to torture the girl for the mere pleasure of it?
COURCELLES [bewildered] But it is not a pleasure. It is the law. It is customary. It is always done.
THE INQUISITOR. That is not so, Master, except when the inquiries are carried on by people who do not know their legal business.
COURCELLES. But the woman is a heretic. I assure you it is always done.
As the Inquisitor predicted, Joan, even without the customary torture, convicts herself:
JOAN. My voices do not tell me to disobey the Church; but God must be served first. 
CAUCHON. And you, and not the Church, are to be the judge? 
JOAN. What other judgment can I judge by but my own? 
THE ASSESSORS [scandalized] Oh! [They cannot find words]. 
Inevitably, a little bit of class conflict injects itself into the cross-examination:
LADVENU. My lord: what she says is, God knows, very wrong and shocking; but there is a grain of worldly sense in it such as might impose on a simple village maiden.
JOAN. If we were as simple in the village as you are in your courts and palaces, there would soon be no wheat to make bread for you. 
When she is convicted and sentenced to burn -- which her voices had told her would not happen -- Joan recants and puts her mark on the paper that will spare her from the fire, but then tears it up when she learns she will spend the rest of her life in prison.
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 ride with the soldiers nor climb the hills; to make me breathe foul damp darkness, and keep from me everything that brings me back to the love of God when your wickedness and foolishness tempt me to hate Him: all this is worse than the furnace in the Bible that was heated seven times.... [W]ithout 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, and mine is of God.
It is left to the Inquisitor to deliver the ironic truth:
I am accustomed to the fire: it is soon over. But it is a terrible thing to see a young and innocent creature crushed between these mighty forces, the Church and the Law.
CAUCHON. You call her innocent!
THE INQUISITOR. 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. Come, or we shall be late for the end.
But as Ladvenu says afterward, "This is not the end for her, but the beginning."

Would that it were the end of the play, however. The Epilogue seems to me a mistake -- part historical pageant, with the spirits of the characters in the play reuniting to pay obeisance to the newly canonized Joan, and part sermon, with Joan getting the last words: "O God that madest this beautiful earth, when will it be ready to receive Thy saints? How long, O Lord, how long?" I've never seen Saint Joan performed, but it would take skillful staging and brilliant acting to make the Epilogue seem anything but an anticlimax after the trial scene.

No comments:

Post a Comment