Richard Nisley

Saint Joan, a play by George Bernard Shaw
History - American Released - May 03, 2020
In 1968, while a Freshman in college, I watched the Hallmark Hall of Fames's televised broadcast of "Saint Joan", a play by Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw. I was intrigued with the history, drama, and wit of Shaw's majestic play. I wanted to learn more about Joan, and in my college library discovered "Joan of Arc: By Herself and Her Witnesses", a book by French historian Regine Pervoud, which I checked out and duly read. It contains the complete transcript of Joan's "Trial of Condemnation", plus interviews with those who knew her or were a part of the trial (the interviews were conducted 24 years after the trial, as a part of Joan's Rehabilitation hearings). I also read Shaw's play, which includes an illuminating 54-page introduction that's as informative and entertaining as the play itself.

Shaw published his play in 1923, about three years after the Roman Catholic Church made Joan a saint. Shaw sums up her road to sainthood thusly: "Joan of Arc, a village girl from the Vosges, was born about 1412; burnt for heresy, witchcraft, and sorcery in 1431; rehabilitated after a fashion in 1456, designated venerable in 1904; declared Blessed in 1908; and finally canonized in 1920."

As with many people of her time and social situation, Joan was unclear about the exact date of her birth, which historians have put at 1412. She was born in the farming community of Domrémy, in northeast France (where her house is now a museum). At the time, France was embroiled in "The Hundred Year War" with England, and losing badly. Indeed, the English occupied much of Northwest France, including Paris. The last French stronghold was what today is known as Alsace-Lorraine, in the eastern region bordering Germany and Switzerland.

At the age of thirteen, Joan began having visions of three saints, who urged her to leave home and save her country. The saints were Saint Michael, Saint Catherine, and Saint Margaret. They directed her to travel to the court of Robert de Baudricourt, in Vaucouleurs, as the first of several steps that would ultimately lead to the French army driving the English off French soil. Without informing her parents, she left home in the company of her uncle, Durand Lassois. The journey was made on foot through mostly occupied France, and unsafe for a girl of any age, particularly a teenager. (To insure she was not molested, the voices urged Joan to cut her hair and dress as a man).

Having arrived safely in Vaucouleurs, Captain Robert de Baudricourt, a squire, at first refused to see her, "I take orders only from the king," he said. Bolstered by the persistence of her voices, she returned some time later, and was not only granted an audience with the Squire, but given a horse, and a small attachment of soldiers to accompany her to the French Royal Court at Chinon, in Touraine, and a meeting with the hapless Dauphin, the disputed heir to the French throne, who had proved utterly ineffective as a military leader. Swayed by Joan's self-confidence and persuasiveness, the Dauphin first had some theologians examine her for signs of witchcraft. When they pronounced her pure, he sent her to the war zone at Orleans, ostensibly to see how she would do.

Joan's first test as a military leader was to break the six-month Siege of Orleans, which she succeeded in doing in nine days. She devised plans, led bravely, and carried a sword, but never used it.

Having taken Orleans, the English threat of ruling all of France was over. Now the toast of France, Joan led the Dauphin to the great Gothic cathedral of Rheims, where on July 17, 1429, she crowned him Charles VII, King of France.

Six months later, in a less taxing military engagement at Compiegne, Joan was captured by the Burgundians (French troops loyal to the English crown), who then sold her to the English army, encamped in Rouen.

Under pressure from secular English leadership, a court conducted by the Catholic Church, tried Joan and found her guilty of heresy. Forces under Charles VII were stationed nearby, and made no attempt to rescue her. In 1431, still in her teens, Joan was found guilty of sorcery (and, for good measure, for dressing like a man), and burned at the stake in the marketplace of Rouen.

Why hadn't the French King, who owed her so much, come to her rescue? According to Shaw, Charles VII had grown weary of Joan's overbearing assertiveness, among other of her character traits, and like so many who had encountered her, was glad to be rid of her. In the Introduction, Shaw explains: "If Joan had been malicious, selfish, cowardly or stupid, she would have been one of the most odious persons known to history instead of one of the most attractive. If she had been old enough to know the effect she was producing on the men whom she humiliated by being right when they were wrong, and had learned to flatter and manage them, she might have lived as long as Queen Elizabeth. . . . "


And what of the voices of the three saints? Was she a sorcerous? Or a genius?Under their direction, she led the French army to a number of important victories, and faithfully honored Charles' claim as heir to the French throne. But at the trial, her voices let her down with promises that in the end she would be exonerated and set free. What does Shaw say? "Joan's voices and visions have played many tricks with her reputation. They have been held to prove that she was mad, that she was a liar and imposter, that she was a sorcerer (she was burned for this), and finally that she was a saint. They do not prove any of these things; but the variety of the conclusions reached shew how little our matter-of-fact historians know about other people's minds, or even about their own. There are people in the world whose imagination is so vivid that when they have an idea it comes to them as an audible voice, sometimes uttered by a visible figure. . . . Socrates, Luther, Swedenborg, Blake saw visions and heard voices just as Saint Francis and Saint Joan did. . . . nobody disputes that the relief of Orleans, followed up by the coronation at Rheims of the Dauphin as a counterblow to the suspicions then current of the legitimacy and consequently of his title, were military and political masterstrokes that saved France. They might have been planned by Napoleon or any other illusion-proof genius. That they came to Joan as an instruction from her Counsel, as she called her visionary saints, proved nonetheless she was as able a leader of men for imagining her ideas in this way."

And what of the play? Factual or fanciful? Shaw, who researched Joan's story in France, says everything you need to know about her military career and the facts about her trial are in the play; in other words, for the full story you need not consult the actual trial and rehabilitation transcripts. I would agree. However, having read the transcripts that contain the very words spoken by Joan, did create quite a favorable impression of her sincerity, intelligence, and guilelessness. She answered every question faithfully (without benefit of a defense attorney to protect her against self-incrimination), and ultimately was judged and sentenced to death on information that was withheld from her; information we now have that is not quite as damning as her judges made it out to be.

Curiously, every part of Joan's human body was destroyed in the fire–except her heart. The executioner tried burning it several times, but for some unknown reason, fire would not consume it. In the end, the executioner threw her heart into the Seine River, along with her ashes.


Shaw wrote Saint Joan in seven scenes. In Scene I, she meets Captain Robert de Baudricourt, whom she convinces to send her to Chinon to meet the Dauphin. In Scene II, she meets the Dauphin, and convinces him to appoint her head of the French Royal Army. In Scene III, she meets Jack Dunois, who leads the French forces at Orleans; there she discovers the French have failed to take the English bridgehead on the River Loire, because the eastward wind is contrary, stranding their boats far from the enemy stronghold. After she arrives, she prays to her saints, and the wind begins blowing westward, allowing the stalled attack to go forward, with Joan leading the way.

Scene IV takes place at an English encampment, where a nobleman (Richard de Warwick) and a chaplain (Master John de Stogumber), and a Bishop (Monseigneur Cauchon) discuss the inroads the French Army has been making on territory held by the English, now that they are led by "the Maid of Orleans", (as she is now being called after her miraculous victory there), success they can't explain, but rather attribute to witchcraft and sorcery. "Our friends here take the view that the young woman is a sorceress," says Warwick to Cauchon. "It would, I presume, be the duty of your reverend lordship to denounce her to the Inquisition, and have her burnt for that offense." Cauchon responds: "If she were captured in my diocese: yes."

Scene V takes place in the Rheims Cathedral, where Joan crowns the Dauphin as Charles VII, King of France. Afterwards, several in the King's Court complain of Joan's intrusiveness. "If only she would keep quiet," says Charles, "or go home!"

Scene VI depicts Joan's trial in Rouen, where the lead prosecuting attorney is none other than Monseigneur Cauchon, who makes good his vow to have her tried as a sorceress. On the last day of the trial, Cauchon announces that Joan has been found guilty, and will be burned at the stake that afternoon. Joan is surprised, and for the first time recants, hoping her sentence will be commuted. When it isn't she retracts her statement, and is led away by the executioner.


Scene VII is the Epilogue, and takes place in the King's Royal Chateau, 26 years after the execution. Joan's rehabilitation has been completed, and one of the King's couriers, tells Charles, "It is solemnly declared that her judges were full of corruption, cozenage, fraud, and malice. Four falsehoods."

A storm rages outside, and as the room darkens; Charles moves to his bed, picks up a book, and is startled by an apparition that mysteriously appears at the foot of his bed. He hides under the covers, peers out at the apparition, and asks: "Joan! Are you a ghost, Joan?"

It is indeed Joan, in a scene where Shaw takes some liberties with the characters, to bring the play to a satisfying close.

Joan: "Hardly even that, lad. Can a poor burnt-up lass have a ghost? I am a dream that thou art dreaming. Thou looks older, lad."

Charles: "I am older. Am I really asleep?"

Joan: "Fallen asleep over thy silly book."

Charles: "That's funny."

Joan. "Not so funny as that I am dead, is it?"

Charles: "Are you really dead?"

Joan: "As dead as ever is, laddie. I am out of the body."

Charles: "Just fancy. Did it hurt much?"

Joan: "Did what hurt much?"

Charles: "Being burnt."

Joan: "Oh, that! I cannot remember very well. I think it did at first; but then it all got mixed up; and I was not in my right mind until I was free of the body. But do not thou go handling fire and thinking it will not hurt thee. How has thou been ever since?"

Charles: "Oh, not so bad. Did you know, I actually lead my army out and win battles? Down into the moat up to my waist in mud and blood. Up the ladders with the stones and hot pitch raining down. Like you."

Joan: "No! Did I make a man of thee after all, Charlie?"

Charles: "I am Charles the Victorious now. I had to be brave because you were. Agnes put a little pluck into me too."

Joan: "Agnes? Who was Agnes?"

Charles: "Agnes Sorel. A woman I fell in love with. I dream of her often. I never dreamed of you before."

Joan: "Is she dead, like me?"

Charles: "Yes. But she was not like you. She was very beautiful."

Joan (laughing heartily) Ha ha! I was no beauty: I was always a rough one: a regular soldier. I might almost as well have been a man. Pity I wasn't: I should not have bothered you all so much then. But my head was in the skies; and the glory of God was upon me; and, man or woman, I should have bothered you as long as your noses were in the mud. Now tell me what has happened since you wise men knew no better than to make a heap of cinders of me?"

Charles: "Your mother and brothers have sued the courts to have your case tried over again. And the courts have declared that your judges were full of corruption and cozenage, fraud and malice."

Joan: "Not they. They were as honest a lot of poor fools as ever burned their betters."

Charles: "The sentence on you is broken, annihilated, annulled: null, non-existent, without value or effect."

Joan: "I was burned, all the same. Can they unburn me?"

Charles: "If they could, they would think twice before they did it. But they have decreed that a beautiful cross be placed where the stake stood, for your perpetual memory and for your salvation."

Joan: "It is the memory and the salvation that sanctifies the cross, not the cross that sanctifies the memory and the salvation. (She turns away, forgetting him) I shall outlast that cross. I shall be remembered when men will have forgotten where Rouen stood."

Charles: "There you go with your self-conceit, the same as ever! I think you might say a word of thanks to me for having had justice done at last."

Monseigneur Cauchon (appearing at the window between them) "Liar!"

Charles: "Thank you."

Joan: "Why, if it isn't Peter Cauchon! How are you, Peter? What luck have you had since you burned me?"

Cauchon: "None. I arraign the justice of Man. It is not the justice of God."

Joan: "Still dreaming of justice, Peter? See what justice came to with me? But what has happened to thee? Art thou dead or alive?"

Cauchon: "Dead, Dishonored. They pursued me beyond the grave. They excommunicated my dead body: they dug it up and flung into the common sewer."

Joan: "Your dead body did not feel the spade and the sewer as my live body felt the fire."

Cauchon: "But this thing they have done against me hurts justice; destroys faith; saps the foundation of the Church. The solid earth sways like the treacherous sea beneath the feet of men and spirits alike when the innocent are slain in the name of law, and their wrongs are undone by slandering the pure of heart."

Joan: "Well, well, Peter. I hope men will be better for remembering me; and they would not remember me so well if you had not burned me."

Cauchon: "They will be worse for remembering me: they will see in me evil triumphing over good, falsehood over truth, cruelty over mercy, hell over heaven. Their courage will rise as they think of you, only faint as they think of me. Yet God is my witness I was just: I was merciful: I was faithful to my light: I could do no other than I did."

Charles (scrambling out of the sheets and enthroning himself on the side of the bed) "Yes: it is always you good men that do the big mischief. Look at me! I am Charles the Good, not Charles the Wise, not Charles the Bold. Joan's worshippers may even call me Charles the Coward because I did not pull her out of the fire. But I have done less harm than any of you. You people with your heads in the sky spend all your time trying to turn the world upside down; but I take the world as it is, and say that top-side-up is right-side up; and I keep my nose pretty close to the ground. And I ask you, what king of France has done better, or been a better fellow in his little way?"

Joan: "Art you really king of France, Charlie? Be the English gone?"

Jack Dunois (coming through the tapestry on Joan's left, the candles relighting themselves at the same moment, and illuminating his armor and surcoat cheerfully): "I have kept my word: the English are gone."

Joan: "Praise be God! now is fair France as a province in heaven. Tell me about the fighting, Jack. What is thou that led them? Wert thou God's captain to thy death?"

Dunois: I am not dead My body is very comfortably asleep in my bed at Chateaudun; but my spirit is called here by yours."

Joan: "And you fought them my way, Jack: eh? Not the old way, chaffering for ransoms; but The Maid's way: staking life against death, with the high and humble and void of malice, and nothing counting under God but France free and French. Was it my way, Jack?"

Dunois: "Faith, it was any way that would win. But the way that won was always your way. I give you the best, lassie. I wrote a fine letter to set you right at the trial. Perhaps I should have never let the priests burn you; but I was busy fighting; and it was the Church's business, not mine. There was no use in both of us being burned, was there?"


I will end it here. There is more, but this is as good a places as any to end the dialogue. For more, read the play.

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