Providence recently brought to my hands a previously lent out (and completely forgotten by me) copy of George Bernard Shaw's play Saint Joan just as I most needed to reread it.
Shaw, in sort of an extremity of his usual style, starts the text with a preface chock full of exciting ideas and thoughts, which in this case is almost a full book length by itself. He wrote the play in the 1920s sort of in a state of enthusiastic excitement over the Catholic church canonizing Joan of Arc, who was burned at the stake by the Church about 500 years prior. Shaw saw great significance on a number of levels and great lessons for his time.
I am very fond of the work of George Bernard Shaw. I think the reason he's not as widely performed as Shakespeare or Wilde is that his plays are difficult to stage, very long, and full of ideas. In fact, I would almost accuse him of using plays as an excuse to write ideas for public consumption in a venue where they might actually listen to them. I don't wonder if he wasn't perfectly aware of this. His scripts read almost like a novel. His stage direction and character descriptions are very vivid and detailed. Having said that, if the sack of money ever fell on me and I found myself finally able to fulfill my dream of starting a classical theater company, Saint Joan would definitely be one of my first plays, if not my first.
Part of what's so fascinating to me about Shaw is that I fully agree with him on some of his major worldviews: pacifism, socialism, vegetarianism, a love for the music of Richard Wagner. Other of his worldviews I reject completely: his agnosticism (which he rather emotionally manipulatively called "Freethinking"), his apparent support for eugenics, his teetotaling. But regardless of what he's on about, he is engaging, lucid, and very well spoken in his arguments. In many ways he was far ahead of his time (I think his view of women was almost a century ahead of his time.) In some ways, he was a direct product of his time and it is my argument that this play is often an example of that. Having said that, I think it has vast lessons for today. And by today, I also mean to say today as in my life right at this moment, but more on that a little later.
Shaw wrote Joan as a young woman who visualized her intellect to the point of actual visions of saints, being the tunnel through which she viewed reality. Miracles are redefined fairly early on in the play as events which strengthen faith, regardless of their factual accuracy. Shaw is operating in a world still warm from the glow of Einstein's annus mirabilis but not yet scorched by nuclear fission, when Freud and Jung still walked the Earth (and this was before Wilhelm Reich hit the scene), with the very cynical hindsight of the "war to end all wars" in recent memory and, really, it was a time straddling the fence between the world of Joan and our modern world. Shaw had no way of knowing so many facets of the modern to come over the next century which may very well have painted a different picture of Joan in retrospect. Now we have psychoactive drugs, and the most humane and forward thinking of treatments for psychosis in Shaw's day look barbaric to modern behavioral health. In Shaw's day, Aliester Crowley scandalized Western civilization. Now, we have creative visualization classes and Eastern spiritual practices taught at the local gym. While Shaw was blissfully ignorant of String Theory and Quantum Mechanics, we now sit waiting for the Large Hadron Collider to fire up like a cthonic god. Shaw had no hive-mind of the internet.
Shaw's world was just beginning to peek out from behind the skirts of Victoria, which were forged in the fires of the Enlightenment, which was a reaction to the Puritans who grew from Reformers who reacted to the church of Joan. The breadcrumbs backward in history were fairly easy to follow. Today we live as if this world sprang forth as-is full-grown like Minerva from the cranium of Jove. We forget history even from our own lifetime as though it were irrelevant. We cover our eyes in kitsch and techno-babble to hide our connection to the past and the ways in which we're still soaking in it.
Even the church in Shaw's day had no Emergence, no Jesus Movement, no New Perspectives, no Quest for the Historical Jesus; Karl Barth hadn't even really shown up to the party yet. The Catholic Church itself was pre-Vatican II by almost 40 years, so needless to say it was very much still in like mind to the days of Joan. I must admit it tempts me to revisit Joan of Arc as Shaw did, as Paul Mathers in the year 2010 and what her story means now.
I do have tremendous gratitude for how Shaw handles the historicity of the piece. I think he very rightly places Joan as a Proto-Protestant, belonging with Savonarola, Hus and Wycliff. This makes the Catholic Church eventually sainting her all the more remarkable, what ought to be a very unifying act except that the fractured Protestants (of which I am one) are too dunderheaded to know what to do with a story like Joan's. I also strongly appreciate that Shaw makes clear that there are no villains in the piece, no diabolus ex machina. The men who burned Joan are men, doing their jobs, working within a system, trying to live their lives while a young woman from an obscure farm is barking orders "from God" at kings and generals.
What struck me to the core is the section where he addresses the (then) current state of the theater and likens it to the modern church. Those who attend without passion out of a sense of duty comprise the bulk of the audience and therefore, through their economic vote, decide the length of the plays or sermons as well as, largely, their content. Along with that, and as in the days of Joan, the popular FAR outweighs the righteous and rather drowns the latter out of any meaningful public discourse. It takes someone speaking loud enough or a long slog of swaying public opinion to effect change in either venue, both places where the exact opposite should be the case; the people who attend should be at the mercy of the institution on its own terms in order to get what they really need from it, rather than what they are most comfortable with. And, of course, in my own way I am drawing parallels to some of the battles I'm experiencing first-hand with a period where people had no qualms about burning young women at the stake if the authorities thought they deserved it.
I would recommend Shaw to anyone and everyone. He is a delight to read, a sharp mind and wit, iron that will sharpen your own iron regardless of what you think of his iron. Furthermore, I would recommend Saint Joan as the starting point for anyone. It is a wonderful play. Certainly one of the great plays in the history of Western Civilization.
But do yourself a favor if you do take my advice, don't skip the Preface.