Friday, March 5, 2010

Saint Joan- Thoughts on One of The Greatest Plays of All Time

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.


  1. I do not like Shaw much but I agree he had a lot of ideas but it is my personal opinion that a desire to have a good life or shall we say prosperous life proved a bit of handicap for him perhaps.. I may be wrong

  2. You may be right at that. I think it may have proved a handicap for him. Well put.

  3. I wonder if I am right in reading your piece as a meditation on “ the law” as it applies to various religious doctrines that have been developed? I am not very knowledgeable about Protestantism vs. Roman Catholicism, but you appear to be saying that Joan was burned for remaining faithful to an inner voice, which is more in keeping with the roots of Protestantism, in the sense that this voice could not be tolerated by those who adhered to church doctrine at the time. I find that these horrible situations and events, such as Joan’s burning, come into being because of insights (which may be “original” when they occur) that are ossified and then turned into spiritual doctrines or laws. The fossilized , dead version becomes a mechanically-followed code of conduct because of a fear of punishment from God that develops out of the resultant belief system. I see the Bible as being a highly dangerous book in this sense. It is a collection of writings by people attempting to make sense of the world through a developing belief system and not the direct voice or the orders of a deity. It follows that Joan of Arc was executed simply because of second or third hand beliefs rather than substantial acts. I suspect that this problem relates to why Shaw became an agnostic.

    In the same vein, I can see where this problem would be relevant in your life right now. Yet I don't see how the bible can help any of this when it can be used to support almost any position under the sun. In Shaw’s own phrase, it makes one wonder if the angels are weeping at murder, but the Gods are laughing.

  4. Well, nearly so, but I would say that Joan rightly belongs as a proto-Protestant by simple virtue of the fact that she was challenging the authority of the Catholic church. Also, I apologize as I've only just now noticed your follow-up comment in the previous post, but I think I may be able to address both here.
    I am in complete agreement with you on the fossilized code of conduct and fearing of God's punishment that comes from a legalistic view of scripture. I share your disgust with this (and, just to make sure we understand one another, I am not a Christian out of preference, but out of being convinced of scripture. If I wasn't convinced it was true, believe me, I would be ANYTHING but a Christian, ANYTHING but associated with the nuts who share that label.) I also agree that the Bible is a highly dangerous book, but I suspect for different reasons.
    Christ says that all of scripture can be summed up in "Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, mind, soul and strength and love your neighbor as yourself." Paul writes in Galatians that observance of the law is death (also to be clear and define my terms, I am speaking of the Law as in the prohibitions of the early Old Testament, not as in traffic rules, etc.) We are saved by faith alone in Christ alone by His grace alone. Out of the abundance of our hearts should come love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. This is the covenant that earnest Christians should be under and this is how they ought to behave.
    Why then is there beating to death in the name of Christ? Why were people burned at the stake? Well, there were also riots during the Indian revolution in the name of Gandhi, although Gandhi completely rejected the violence and, in fact, fasted until the violence ended.
    The law of Christ is grace, love, peace and forgiveness. Any deviation from this is a bastardization of Christianity. I sense you may share with me an astonishment with how so very full the world is of examples of this bastardization and how rare it would seem true Christianity occurs, although I would add that the peaceful and quiet don't tend to make the evening news.

  5. Part II..
    Putting all Christians in the same basket as the more objectionable Christians in history is like saying all musicians, composers, music fans, dancers, and people who whistle or drum their fingers on a table in all of human history are responsible for Kanye West's behavior.
    I get that this sounds like the "no true Scotsman" argument, but I would also say that we all fail constantly. I am consumed with a desire to be as compassionate, loving and kind as I can, but I still get annoyed, grumpy and touchy. I'm not proud of it and I'll be the first to admit that I'm flawed.
    I've recently become a vegetarian because I was struck by how I have dogs and cats for whom I have great affection and who I care for deeply, but I had no problem eating other animals whose faces I never saw. Morality is not a movable feast.
    And I think I am in greater agreement with Shaw and possibly you than you may expect with one key difference. I am still convinced of Christ and I still desire to follow Him in spite of all of the foul, evil and wicked things that have been done in His name. You see, I went for years convinced of the doctrine of Total Depravity, which is to say the doctrine that all humans are wicked by nature. But I stopped there. That was the extent of my theology and world view. I believed that humans were basically evil and... that's pretty much an accurate description of the world in which we find ourselves. Just ask the dodo bird. Over time I became convinced of God and a savior, without which I think conditions would be entirely hopeless.
    But, I don't think the Bible can be accurately used to support any condition under the sun. I think that meaning is very often twisted and bits are taken entirely out of context and whole theologies are built around one Proverb (oh, say, "Spare the rod and spoil the child.") But I think the theme of the Bible and what the testimony intends to point us to is grace, love, peace, kindness and compassion. I could be wrong, I'll also admit that. But personally I'm fine with the idea of living a life aspiring toward those things.
    Thank you for commenting. I really do appreciate your thoughts and your respectful tone, by the way, and the fact that you're willing to discuss with people of different viewpoints. I think that's a very healthy thing and I wish there was more of it in the world.

  6. As you may have surmised, I came across your blog because I read your comments in the salon article. When I followed the link to your blog, I found your comments to be very interesting and also some of your other entries that I had a chance to read. I can't say for sure what I would feel and think if the same thing were to happen in my midst, however I am certain that I would question and inquire into the reasons for the tragedy as you have, mostly about how the mind can be mislead by religion. Yes, of course I can see that you are not in the same basket as "legalistic" thinking Christians as you put it. I suppose that I may have thought so originally since you were acquainted with these people.

    In my own experience I would now have difficulty in "following" Christ. My parents were of two different Christian religious denominations, so I am acquainted with Christianity. The reason that I feel unable to follow is that 1) I wonder if it was actually Christ's intent to attract followers in the sense of a founded religion or was this mostly a later development as others interpreted him and doctored the record about him, and 2) I do not see him as divine, but as a man. I wonder if he saw himself as divine? I doubt it, actually.But at any rate, we can't know for sure, as the record seems inconclusive, his exact words and self-concept are uncertain.

    All that being said, I appreciate your sincerity and your stance that it is possible to make a conscious decision to turn away from darkness through discernment. On this we agree, but I think that your discernment is your own intelligence and not a reflection of God. We are not hopeless without a God because we can discern. Maybe at some points in your life, you have been a little braver and a little smarter than others and this is why you see what you do. Not to suggest that others are doomed to always remain as they are. Thanks for taking the time to write such a thoughtful reply, I enjoyed it and find your story to be compelling.

  7. Well, I'm certainly glad you found my blog. I've appreciated your thoughtful comments and let me tell you, in all honesty, your kind words really mean a lot to me. I don't mean to get all gushy, but I was really touched by your response. You'd be surprised at the awful things people who call themselves Christians have written to us over the past few weeks (actually, maybe you wouldn't be surprised. Laurie and I were surprised anyway.) I really do appreciate your willingness to discuss civilly.
    In short, thank you. You're welcome here any time.

  8. Dear Paul: In my experience I have found that every "major" religion has its conservative and liberal factions, if I may put it that way. I don't mean to single out Christianity in order to belittle it - I am trying, awkwardly perhaps, to make the point that the liberal traditions of many different religions may have more in common than the factions within a particular religion. For example some liberal Christians or Catholics have found that they have thoughts or concepts in common with Buddhism. How do I know this? Once upon a time I did read quite a bit on religious themes. From reading some of your entries, I suspect that you have a lot in common with the "direct experience" model. The terminology might not be correct but I hope that you get my drift.

    In closing and in reference to what you said about the hate mail you received: in my opinion the fear of "legalists (a new term for me)" and their influence in our country appears to be justified and is not just an idle paranoia. I am not surprised that you have received hate mail and I hope that there is help for others who may be immersed in the same mindset as the Schatzes. Who knows, maybe someone like them has read your blog and had second thoughts. I hope so! W.