Plays, Racine

Classics Spin #23: Review of La Thébaïde by Racine

La Thébaïde by RacineI did it! I finally completed a Classics Spin book. My pick for this month’s spin was a play: La Thébaïde by Racine.

La Thébaïde, ou les frères ennemis by Racine follows the bitter war fought between the two sons of Oedipus and Jacosta: Étéocle (Eteocles) and Polynice (Polynices). At the start of the play, we learn that Eteocles’s term has ended. According to Oedipus’s decree, it is now his brother’s turn to rule Thebes. Unfortunately, Eteocles refuses to share the throne with Polynices. Although Antigone initially supported Polynices’s claim to the throne, she can no longer stand by and look on while her brothers fight each other. Thus, she and her mother arrange a meeting with the two men, in hopes that they might finally lay down their weapons and come to a peaceful agreement. Why don’t Eteocles and Polynices rule together? But waiting in the wings is their uncle Creon, who insists that only one man should be king. The law must be respected, even if the people are unhappy. Jacosta is convinced, however, that Creon wants the throne for himself.

Racine was one of the three greatest playwrights of 17th-century France (the other two being Corneille and Molière). He is best known for his tragedies — a genre that appears to have lost its appeal in the 21st-century. As you might expect from the character list, La Thébaïde is a tragedy. Nothing good can come from an incestuous marriage:

Tu ne t’étonnes pas si mes fils sont perfides,
S’ils sont tous deux méchantset s’ils sont parricides :
Tu sais qu’ils sont sortis d’un sang incestueux,
Et tu t’étonnerais s’ils étaient vertueux.

Jacoste, Act 1, Scene 2

Although this is not Racine’s best play, it is not terrible (he also wrote it when he was 25!). The dialogue is brilliant even if the characterization is lacking. My favorite character was Creon because he had layered motives. Despite knowing that Creon aspired to the throne, I was often struck by how reasonable he sounded. I also enjoyed the tension between passion and duty. The play gave me many story ideas…

I don’t know how many English versions there are of this play. I suspect, not many. But if you have enjoyed other plays by Racine and you come across a copy of La Thébaïde, I recommend you give it a try. I will certainly be reading other plays by Racine in the near future. The only other play by him that I have read is his most famous: Phèdre.

Plays, Shakespeare, William, Taming of the Shrew

The Taming of the Shrew: Some Thoughts

Image result for taming of the shrewOn BookTube (the book section of YouTube), a group of us are participating in a read-along of all of Shakespeare’s plays. We will be reading one play a week. This week’s play is The Taming of the Shrew. I didn’t enjoy Shakespeare when I studied his major plays in high school, but after watching a Masterpiece Theater adaptation of Richard III, I’ve decided to give Shakespeare another go. I’m excited to participate in this read-along, but it’s easier for me to organize my thoughts in a blog post than in a video. So here are some of my thoughts about The Taming of the Shrew. There will be spoilers, but I don’t think this should really matter since Shakespeare’s audience already knew the stories.

Thoughts about The Taming of the Shrew

The great Shakespeare scholar Marjorie Garber has published a massive commentary of all of the Bard’s plays called Shakespeare After All. I have been reading the appropriate sections of Garber’s book to gain a better understanding of each of the plays. Garber’s commentary on The Taming of the Shrew focuses on the role of disguise in the play. Highborn people disguise themselves as lowborn people, and men disguise themselves as women (both the actors and the characters).

Christopher Sly is a drunk tinker whose made to believe that he is a lord. Lucentio and his servant Tranio exchange places so that Lucentio can woo Bianca, the modest daughter of a wealthy gentleman. A pedant pretends to be pseudo-Tranio’s father Vincentio. Although Petruchio never physically disguises himself, he disguises his true intention in marrying Katherina. He claims to love Katherina, but he’s only interested in proving to his friends that he can tame the shrew. Garber shows the parallel between Sly and Katherina. Both are the butt of a joke, and both are told to believe the opposite of what they believe to be true. However, Garber insists that unlike Sly, Katherina changes into a different person by the end of the play. We never learn about Sly’s fate. Kate, on the other hand, becomes the submissive wife that Petruchio wanted all along.

Garber’s commentary not only highlights the major theme of disguise in The Taming of the Shrew, it also argues rightly that disguise was a device employed in many medieval plays. It was also common for a play to feature another play as a subplot. The Kate story is a performance put on by Sly’s captors.

However, I think that Sly and Kate are even more similar than Garber allows. True, there’s no evidence of sarcasm in Kate’s final speech to Petruchio and his friends. She has sincerely come to believe that women are the weaker sex and should therefore be submissive to their husbands. But Kate’s relationship to Petruchio is far from ideal. Petruchio is not a good husband. He is abusive. He starves his wife and psychologically manipulates her. Kate ultimately falls in love with her abuser, but she isn’t ever free to say no. Like Sly, Kate is the slave of another. While I agree with Garber that Kate is sincere in her speech, the final scene is highly ironic. I think that even Shakespeare’s misogynistic audience would consider the relationship problematic. Petruchio is not the model husband.

Garber writes:

Her final performance is for him [Petruchio], and seems to represent not an abandonment of her earlier independence, but a revised understanding of what freedom means, in sexuality and in marriage.

But even if Kate has come to believe that she is independent, anyone can see that she isn’t. Kate has no choice but to obey her husband. If she disobeys Petruchio, she is abused. Therefore, Kate’s final speech, while sincere, is also a testament of what an abuser can do to his victim. An abuser can convince his victim that his oppression is true freedom. Sly too comes to believe that he is a lord, but his freedom is an illusion. He has come to believe that he’s an actual lord, but the people who are fooling Sly are truly the ones in power. At the end of the play, Petruchio wins his bet. He was never concerned about Kate’s well-being or his marriage. It was all a game. Even if Kate’s final speech is supposed to be marriage wisdom, on the lips of Kate, the speech is ridiculous. Kate has been brain-washed into believing that she should be obedient to her husband. This is not wisdom that she freely came to. How long will this last? The dialogue between Hortensio and Lucentio at the end of the play suggest that Kate’s taming may not be complete:

HORTENSIO: Now, go thy ways; thou hast tamed a curst shrew.
LUCENTIO: ‘Tis a wonder, by your leave, she will be tamed so.

But Garber rightly points out that the ambiguous ending lends itself to numerous, even contradictory interpretations. Indeed, modern productions of the play try to downplay the apparent sexism in the final speech by having Kate wink at the audience. Garber argues (and I agree) that the speech is supposed to be taken seriously, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that there is only one way to read the play or that a modern production shouldn’t re-interpret the ending. We will never know Shakespeare’s true intentions.

Indeed, it is one of Shakespeare’s brilliant gifts as a dramatist to provide, in almost every case, a credible contrary argument, onstage, to what might seem to be a prevailing viewpoint. The “philosophy” of Shakespeare’s plays is offered, always, contrapuntally, with opposing ideas placed in explicit juxtaposition.

It’s possible that I disagree somewhat with Garber’s assessment of Kate’s speech because I want The Taming of the Shrew to be more than a comedy praising misogyny. I want Shakespeare to at least acknowledge that the relationship is abusive. Kate claims that “Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,/ Thy head, thy sovereign; one that/cares for thee” but where do we see Petruchio caring for Kate?

If you have read the play, let me know what you think. How do you interpret the end of the play?

Marivaux, Plays

Review of Two Plays by Marivaux

Since the two plays I recently finished were in the same collection, I will review them both in the same post.

Note: While the name of the characters are the same in the last three plays I’ve read, the characters play different roles in each of the plays. So, the beginning of one play does not spoil the ending of another play.

      1. La double inconstance (Double Inconstancy)

La double inconstance suivi de Arlequin poli par l'amourWhat was it about?

A prince and his servants try to break up the relationship between Silvia and Arlequin. The prince wants to marry Silvia, but she is just too devoted to Arlequin. Unfortunately, bribery does not work because neither of the two cares for courtly life. It’s all flattery and hypocrisy. Still, the prince tries his best to deceive the lovers. Double Inconstancy is a slapstick comedy about love and fidelity.

What did I think of it?

While the comedy is less complex than in A Game of Love and Chance, it’s more immediate. Arlequin carries a baton, which he uses to strike at the prince’s servants. This must be the first slapstick comedy I have ever read, so I was initially horrified by Arlequin’s actions. We are conditioned to find abuse in comedy off-putting, especially in domestic comedies. That’s understandable, and probably good. But I quickly overcame my horror, and began to appreciate Arlequin’s witticisms. While I preferred A Game of Love and ChanceDouble Inconstancy was still quite clever.

    1. Arlequin poli par l’amour (Harlequin Polished by Love)

What was it about?

A fairy kidnaps Arlequin while he’s sleeping the woods. But he seems completely oblivious to his kidnapping. The fairy tries to force him to love her, but Arlequin is only concerned about food. The wizard Merlin is already engaged to be married to the fairy, but the fairy does not care about her own reputation. She will get Arlequin to love her by hook or by crook. Harlequin Polished by Love is one of the magical slapstick comedies in Marivaux’s Commedia dell’arte – inspired repertoire.

What did I think of it?

In comparison to the two previous plays I read, Harlequin Polished by Love is the least complex, but it is highly entertaining for a one-act play. I would love to see a performance of this play. Fairies, goblins, and a magic ring make this a very engrossing comedy. I’m sure the stage design would be more elaborate. Arlequin is also the most ridiculous in this play. This may be my favorite Marivaux play so far.

Bloomsbury has published a collection of Marivaux’s plays in English:

Marivaux, Plays

Review of Le jeu de l’amour et du hasard (A Game of Love and Chance) by Marivaux

Résultat de recherche d'images pour "le jeu de l'amour et du hasard"What was it about?

Sylvia is betrothed to a man whom she fears may be a hypocrite like other men. She She knows women who are married to men who pretend to be virtuous in public but are abusive at home. With her father Monsieur Orgon’s approval, Sylvia disguises herself as her servant Lisette to put her suitor Doronte to the test. Lisette disguises herself as her mistress. But what Sylvia and Lisette don’t know is that Doronte has had the same idea. He too has decided to disguise himself as his servant. Doronte’s valet Arlequin now has the difficult task of passing as his master. Only Monsieur Orgon and Sylvia’s brother Mario know the truth. Each party in the drama does not know that the other is pretending to be someone else. Le jeu de l’amour et du hasard by Marivaux (1688-1763) is a comedy that explores the role of social class in love.

What did I think of it?

I first heard about this play through the French film L’Esquive. The teenagers in the film were performing Marivaux’s play in school. Their own personal struggles mirrored that of the characters in the play. I’m interested in social class, so I was immediately excited to read Le jeu de l’amour et du hasard.

While I enjoyed the play, it was quite challenging to read. Whenever Sylvia was speaking I had to tell myself that she was disguised as Lisette. Lisette disguised as Sylvia might be speaking to Arlequin disguised as Lisette, but the play merely said that Lisette was speaking to Arlequin. I had to fill in the rest in my mind. It was even more challenging when there were three characters in a scene. I found a performance of the play on YouTube. The performance is much easier to follow than the book.

Still, I do not regret reading the play. It is brilliantly constructed. It is not only an exploration of social class but also a commentary on performance in general. The audience of the play knows that it is watching a performance, but do we realize that we are acting in our everyday lives? Sylvia and Doronte insist that people wear masks in public to hide their true selves. Everyone knows subconsciously that the whole world is a stage. By disguising themselves as their servants, Sylvia and Doronte try to profit from the system. Ironically, their disguises only reinforce what they want to knock down. Sylvia disguises herself to see Doronte as he truly is, but Doronte isn’t who he truly is.

Le jeu de l’amour et du hasard is the play you return to time and time again because of its brilliant construction and universal themes. I look forward to reading more Marivaux soon. I own two other of his plays: Double inconstance and Arlequin poli par l’amour. There are English versions of A Game of Love and Chance available.

Favorite Quote

Lisette : Venons au fait ; m’aimes-tu ?
Arlequin : Pardi ! oui. En changeant de nom, tu n’as pas changé de visage, et tu sais bien que nous nous sommes promis fidélité en dépit de toutes les fautes d’orthographe.

[My Translation]:

Lisette: Let’s get to the fact; do you love me?
Arlequin: For heaven’s sake! Yes. In changing your name, you have not changed your face, and you know well that we promised fidelity to one another despite all spelling mistakes.

Goethe, Plays, Poems

Review of Faust, Part I by Goethe

Image result for faust philip wayneWhat was it about?

Heinrich Faust’s desire for knowledge is so great that he makes a pact with the devil to attain it. The more he reads the more he feels in despair. He doesn’t want any kind of knowledge. He wants the knowledge that is only proper to God. At the start of the play, Faust contemplates suicide, but the sound of bells ringing stays his hand. As he is returning to his study on Easter day, he notices that a small dog is following him. He tries to get rid of the dog but to no avail. In his study, the dog transforms into Mephistopheles (i.e. the devil), and Faust sells his soul. The two go on adventures throughout Leipzig. Mephistopheles calling the shots, and Faust obeying. It is all fun and games until Faust meets Gretchen. Faust, Part I by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is a cautionary tale about one man’s lust for knowledge.

What did I think of it?

Faust is a poem in two parts, but the actual story is in the first part. I have not read the second part yet, but when I do I will review it here. Although Faust takes place during Easter, it is perfect for the winter holidays. There is magic everywhere. The play takes place in Heaven, Hell, and on earth. Mephistopheles and Faust participate in ceremonies and celebrations. I would love to see this play performed on stage. It reminded me a lot of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, perhaps because they both are moral tales.

Part I is not very philosophical. Most of the emphasis is on the action. Faust makes a pact with the devil and decides to seduce a woman. The reader is, however, dazzled by an array of really odd characters. Everything is so dramatic. Unfortunately, I did not enjoy the translation. Philip Wayne tried to preserve the rhyme pattern found in the original German, but that just ended up compromising the poem’s lyricism. I feel like a lot was lost in translation. I hope to purchase a new edition in 2017 before reading Part II. Still, I loved the magic of the story and the character of Mephistopheles. I assume that Faust’s character (whom we don’t learn much about in Part I) will be explored in more detail in Part II.

Favorite Quote

You are, when all is done – just what you are,
Put on the most elaborate curly wig,
Mount learned stilts, to make yourself look big,
You still will be the creature that you are.

I know. In vain I gathered human treasure,
And all that mortal spirit could digest:
I come at last to recognize my measure,
And know the sterile desert in my breast.
I have not raised myself one poor degree,
Nor stand I nearer to infinity.

Eliot, T.S., Historical Fiction, Plays, Religious

Review of Murder in the Cathedral by T.S. Eliot

What was it about?

Murder in the Cathedral by T.S. Eliot is a play in verse about the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket in 1170 in Canterbury Cathedral. Caught up in one of the perennial conflicts between pope and emperor, Thomas Becket is exiled to France. Upon his return to England, four tempters try to prevent him from assuming his role as archbishop. They remind him of the power he had as Lord Chancellor to Henry II prior to his ordination. In view of more pleasant alternatives, why risk martyrdom?

What did I think of it?

Thomas Becket’s tomb was the site of a popular pilgrimage in the late Middle Ages. He was venerated as a holy archbishop who defended the Church against the encroachments of the State. Becket represented not only a good person but a man who defended a particular model of Church and State. Eliot rightly explores Becket’s murder from this latter perspective. Becket is not humble and peace-loving but arrogant and power-seeking. I really enjoyed this play. Despite its short length, the play packed a punch. It explored questions relating to Church and State that are debated still today in England. I also loved the style. I know that not everyone will enjoy a play in verse, but the repetition of imagery and language heightened the drama. The critics are right to compare this play to Saint Joan by George Bernard Shaw. They are both excellent!

Favorite Quote

“Peace. And let them be, in their exaltation.
They speak better than they know, and beyond your
They know and do not know, what it is to act or suffer.
They know and do not know, that action is suffering
And suffering is action. Neither does the agent suffer
Nor the patient act. But both are fixed
In an eternal action, an eternal patience
To which all must consent that it may be willed
And which all must suffer that they may will it,
That the pattern may subsist, for the pattern is the
And the suffering, that the wheel may turn and still
Be forever still.”

Historical Fiction, Plays, Schiller, Friedrich

Review of Don Carlos (Mike Poulton Adaptation)

What was it about?

Don Carlos, the Prince of Spain, is the son of the tyrannical King Philip II. At the start of the play, King Philip has commissioned the Duke of Alba to violently impose Spanish rule on Flanders. Carlos hates his father for two reasons: for marrying Elizabeth, a woman whom Carlos loved first, and for his ruthless political policy. With the help of Rodrigo (the Marquis of Posa), Don Carlos attempts to stop the Duke of Alba from enslaving Flanders. In the background is the passionate love of Elizabeth for her step-son. Mike Poulton’s adaptation of Friedrich Schiller’s Don Carlos is a fast-paced, intrigue-filled play centered on the tumultuous relationship between an ambitious monarch and his naive son.

What did I think of it?

I have never read the original play by Friedrich Schiller or seen a performance of Poulton’s adaptation, so I don’t know how this book stacks up against other versions of Don Carlos. However, I did enjoy this version. While some of the characters (such as Elizabeth and especially the Cardinal Grand Inquisitor) were not as well developed as I would have liked, the intrigue kept me engaged. This was definitely a page-turner. Don Carlos is a visionary, but because of his age, he is very short-sighted. He doesn’t really understand the forces at play in his father’s court. The whole play is in verse, but this speeds up rather than slows down the action. My only major criticism was the pacing. While most of the play was at a reasonable but engaging pace, the denouement was too steep. The story wrapped up too quickly. It would be interesting to compare this adaptation to the original Schiller play. Maybe there is more character development in the original. Regardless, I enjoyed Don Carlos and recommend it to anyone interested in a light historical drama.

Favorite quote

“Of all the fathers in the world
why do the Heavens punish me with him?
Of all the sons that could have pleased a king
why was God pleased
to displease this King with me?
No two minds are more at odds,
yet here we remain – we three – unnaturally linked
in a single chain of love. Impossible equation!
Wretched, wretched fate!”


Claudel, Paul, Plays, Religious

Review of L’Annonce Faite A Marie (The Annunciation of Mary) by Paul Claudel

2253660What was it about?

L’Annonce Faite A Marie (The Annunciation of Mary) is a 1912 play in four acts by Paul Claudel. The drama is centered around a young woman named Violaine who contracts leprosy from a friend (Pierre de Craon) and is banished from her family by her jealous sister Mara. At the start of the play, Violaine learns that Pierre, who is a stonemason and a builder of cathedrals, is suffering from leprosy. As a show of compassion, Violaine kisses Pierre. But Violaine is engaged to be married to Jacques Hury, the same man whom Mara loves. Mara conspires with her mother to break up the relationship between Violaine and Jacques. Mara approaches Violaine and informs her sister that she knows the truth about her condition. Without a warning, Violaine leaves home to live alone in a cave outside of the village. Shortly afterward, Anne Vercors, the father of the household, sets off on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Everything seems to be going in Mara’s favor, but her luck soon runs dry. She is not as “in control” of her life as she thinks. Written in the style of a medieval mystery play, L’Annonce Faite A Marie has more than just an earthly dimension; it has a pronounced cosmic dimension. There are miracles in the play of Biblical magnitude. Violaine is not merely a pitiful character. Her suffering has a spiritual significance, one that the characters discover over the course of this lengthy play.

What did I think of it?

Although the play is a little over three hundred pages long, I got through it in the space of two days. This is a play unlike any other written in the last century. As I mentioned above, it is written in the tradition of the medieval mystery plays. Therefore, the audience is expected to know something about the Christian faith. The Mass and the Angelus feature prominently as well as a few earth-shattering miracles. Like much of Claudel’s works, there is no real frontier between the earthly and the spiritual. God’s hand guides the action. L’Annonce Faite A Marie really caught my attention as I have a great interest in medieval French hagiography particularly in the context of performance. I welcomed the blending of the sacred and the profane, and (for the most part) appreciated what Claudel was trying to accomplish through his play. However, I was shocked by the ending. The whole play was an emotional roller coaster ride. There was one life-changing event after another. And I enjoyed it. I raced toward the end hoping that there would be a neat conclusion, but there wasn’t one. Mara’s character continues to baffle me. I wanted her to develop as a person, and evidently she does, but her development is so subtile that I missed it the first time I read Act IV. I have since reread the last act along with the alternative ending. Although I understand the endings more than the first time I read them, I can’t honestly say that I’m satisfied. L’Annonce Faite A Marie definitely challenged my expectations. I have a tendency to expect a certain kind of ending from stories. I hope to reread the play sometime soon because I was so emotionally involved throughout most of it. In fact, I have never experienced such emotions whilst reading a play. If you like reading plays, I highly recommend this one despite my reservations about the ending because it is different than anything you’ve probably ever encountered.

Bolt, Robert, Historical Fiction, Plays

Review of A Man For All Seasons by Robert Bolt

What was it about?


A Man for All Seasons by Robert Bolt is a play about the life of Saint Thomas More, the Lord Chancellor to Henry VIII who was later executed for refusing to acknowledge the king as the supreme ruler of the Church of England. In addition to being venerated as a Catholic saint, Thomas More is known in the West as the scholar who wrote Utopia. Although an Agnostic, Robert Bolt admired Thomas More for being true to himself and for striving after an ideal. In his preface to the play, Robert Bolt wrote, “[W]e no longer have, as past societies have had, any picture of individual Man (Stoic Philosopher, Christian Religious, Rational Gentleman) by which to recognize ourselves and against which to measure ourselves; we are anything. But if anything, then nothing, and it is not everyone who can live with that, though it is our true present position. Hence our willingness to locate ourselves from something that is certainly larger than ourselves, the society that contains us.” 

Thomas More had an identity that was not determined by the swiftly-changing values of his society. A Man for All Seasons portrays More as a brilliant statesman who loved life and law, but when push came to shove, defended what he believed.

What did I think of it?

This is the second contemporary play I have read about a Medieval saint ( I read Saint Joan by George Bernard Shaw in June). Both plays offer a refreshing portrayal of the heroes. No longer are More and Joan of Arc depicted as stock saints – perfect individuals who have no fear of death. In A Man for All Seasons, Thomas More respects the law and turns to it for guidance. Although he is a staunch Catholic, More admits that he doesn’t always know what God wants of him.

Like Bishop Cauchon in Saint Joan, Henry VIII in A Man for All Seasons is not a purely evil man. He has understandable objections to the Pope’s conduct. Pope Leo X supported sins when they were convenient (Henry VIII’s incestuous marriage to Catherine of Aragon appeased the Spanish) but denounced them when they weren’t in his favor. The Pope was politically motivated like Henry VIII. A Man for All Seasons underlines the Church-State tension.

The most interesting character in the play is The Common Man. The Common Man introduces each scene but takes on such roles as a servant, a boatman, a spy, and eventually as Thomas More’s executioner. As the play goes along, the Common Man assumes more unpleasant and controversial roles in the kingdom. Money and fame are temptations. Unlike Thomas More, the Common Man has no integrity of character. He will do anything to climb the social ladder.

I laughed at More’s sarcastic jokes, sympathized with his personal struggles, and was inspired by his final words to his accusers. Thomas More is diplomatic throughout the play. Even before his family, he does not insult the king. A Man for All Seasons is an excellent portrayal of a man whom I’ve admired for years.

Favorite Quotes

[The 1520 quote from Robert Whittington that inspired the title of the play]: “More is a man of an angel’s wit and singular learning. I know not his fellow. For where is the man of that gentleness, lowliness and affability? And, as time requireth, a man of marvelous mirth and pastimes, and sometime of as sad gravity. A man for all seasons.”

[Thomas More to his daughter Margaret]: “When a man takes an oath, Meg, he’s holding his own self in his own hands. Like water. (He cups his hands) And if he opens his fingers then – he needn’t hope to find himself again. Some aren’t capable of this, but I’d be loathe to think your father one of them.” 

Historical Fiction, Plays, Shaw, George Bernard

Joan of Arc: Saint, Traitor, or Heretic?

Saint Joan - New MermaidsThere have been many adaptations of the life of Saint Joan of Arc. Among the many adaptations created were Christine de Pizan’s poem Ditie de Jehanne d’Arc (Song in Honor of Joan of Arc) in 1429, Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Giovanna d’Arco (1845), and Georges Méliès’ silent film Jeanne d’Arc (1900).  The Nazis even made a propaganda film on the life of Joan of Arc: Das Mädchen Johanna (1935). She has been memorialized in countless films, plays, songs, paintings, and sculptures. She is also the patroness of France and the patron saint of soldiers.

 In 1924, four years after the canonization of the maid of Orleans by the Catholic Church, George Bernard Shaw wrote and directed his own play about Joan of Arc: Saint Joan. A year later, Shaw won the Nobel Prize in literature.

 Saint Joan is a more or less historically accurate retelling of the events that led up to the execution of Joan of Arc. It follows the maiden turned warrior from the gates of Captain Robert de Baudricourt to her execution outside of the cathedral of Rheims. Unlike many adaptations that focus on Joan’s miracles or on her maidenhood, Shaw’s play portrays Joan as nothing short of a warrior. She is stubborn and prideful, not afraid to criticize military and ecclesiastical officials to their faces. She is neither beautiful nor gentle. The other characters speak and treat her like a man. Joan leads Jean (called Dunois in the play) and the French army to victory against the British who had laid siege to Orleans. Afterward, she crowns Charles VII (the Dauphin) king of France.

 The focus of the play is not on the nitty-gritty of warfare but on the nature of Joan’s crime. Why was she burned at the stake, and why, after almost four hundred years, was she canonized a saint? Shaw’s Joan is a Christ-like figure. Like Jesus, this Joan puts herself above the political and religious leaders of her time. She claims that the Archangel Michael, Saint Catherine, and Saint Margaret have given her a mission that she must fulfill at all costs. There is one question that all the leaders struggle to answer: Who is this Joan of Arc? Like Jesus whom some claimed was a prophet, others claimed was the Messiah, and still other claimed was a blasphemer, Joan’s identity is a mystery. The Archbishop Regnault de Chartres thinks Joan is foolishly “in love with religion” (Scene II, line 466). The Nobleman believes that Joan is a witch (Scene IV, line 87) while Cauchon is convinced she is a heretic (Scene IV, line 267). Only Dunois thinks Joan is a saint (Scene III, lines 176-177).

The play analyzes the motivations behind the execution of Joan of Arc. Shaw disagrees that she was killed for dressing like a man or because the Church thought she was a witch. Rather, he believes that her executors were convinced that Joan was a threat to the established political and religious structures in Europe. To Shaw, Joan was one of the first Protestants and Nationalists (he uses the terms rather anachronistically). Bishop Cauchon is outraged by Joan’s lack of reverence toward Church authority. Because she claims an authority over and above that of the Pope, Cauchon labels Joan a heretic.

[Cauchon]: “A faithful daughter of The Church! The pope himself at his proudest dare not presume as this woman presumes. She acts as if she herself were The Church. She brings the message of God to Charles; and The Church must stand aside. She will crown him in the cathedral of Rheims: she, not The  Church! She sends letters to the king of England giving him God’s command through her to return to his island on pain of God’s vengeance, which she will execute. Let me tell you that the writing of such letters were the practice of the accursed Mahomet, the anti-Christ. Has she ever in all her utterances said one word of The Church? Never. It is always God and herself” (Scene IV, lines 369-379).

Richard Beauchamp, the 13th Earl of Warwick, wants Joan killed for a different reason. As a statesman, Joan’s alleged heresy is of little consequence to him. But her role in crowning the Dauphin is inexcusable. She undermines the feudal system by crowning an absolute monarch. Because Warwick has an obvious stake in the current political system, he can’t let Joan get away with what he considers as treason.

 [Warwick to Cauchon]: “My lord: pray get The Church out of your head for a moment; and remember that there are temporal institutions in the world as well as spiritual ones. I and my peers represent the feudal aristocracy as you represent The Church. We are the temporal power. Well, do you not see how this girl’s idea strikes at us?” (Scene IV, lines 470-475).

 In Saint Joan, the eponymous hero is like Jesus, executed for religious and political reasons. While there are many obvious differences between Joan of Arc and Jesus, I find the similarities quite striking. It is no accident that Shaw places the words of Caiaphus in John 11:49 in the mouth of the Chaplain, John de Stogumber: “It is expedient that one woman die for the people” (Scene IV, lines 586-587).

 The play does not paint any of the characters in black and white. Joan may hear messages from God, but she is still human. She doesn’t want to die. By showing her love for life, Shaw repudiates the notion that Joan is a rash or suicidal person. Even Bishop Cauchon and the Inquisitor, Bishop Jean Lemaitre, are not sinister characters. Shaw makes it clear in his Preface that Cauchon and Lemaitre were not essentially different people than ourselves.

 The end of the play was quite enjoyable and included a very interesting commentary on Joan’s legacy. I recommend this play to anyone who enjoys learning about an old hero through the perspective of a modern writer.