One of the great playwrights of the 20th century is George Bernard Shaw, and thanks to the National Theatre Live series, “Saint Joan,” one of his most disturbing works, will be broadcast at Macon’s Douglass Theatre on Sunday.
Like his near-contemporary Henrik Ibsen, Shaw was a master at using the theater to examine social problems, and in the era before television and the motion picture, the stage was a potent weapon. Shaw repeatedly scandalized Victorian society with his looks at women’s issues (“Mrs. Warren’s Profession”), war (“Arms and the Man”) and the class system (“Pygmalion”).
In “Saint Joan” he takes a different approach. Critics have called this tale of a simple peasant Shaw’s only tragedy. He himself observed that there “are no villains in the piece.” It may be significant that Shaw wrote this work shortly after Joan was canonized by the Catholic Church.
He did considerable homework prior to composing this work, yet if Joan’s true nature was a mystery in her lifetime, it remains such.
In the NT production (actually performed in the intimate Donmar Warehouse in Covent Garden), the script has been cut somewhat by director Josie Rourke, but still is said to run two and three-quarter hours.
Joan is played by Gemma Arterton, and while the rest of the cast is in modern dress, Joan alone is in medieval costume. As an illiterate peasant girl who believes she communicates directly with God, hearing “voices,” she is said to represent for Shaw the faith of the individual up against the might of the established social order.
It’s useful to know a bit of history surrounding the Hundred Years’ War between England and France, but it is by no means essential. At the end, of course, Joan is burned at the stake. In the epilogue, she asks when the world will be ready to acknowledge its saints. “How long, O Lord, how long?”
The critics love this play, and more than one proclaims that it speaks to the ills of our age. Apparently 1431 is not that long ago.