An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

February 13, 2017

G.B. Shaw: Saint Joan (Bedlam)

George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan performed by Bedlam at the McCarter Theatre Center, Princeton, NJ.

Reviewed by Kevin J. Harty (

Bedlam is known for staging multi-part plays using only four actors to play all the required roles—in this case Andrus Nichols as Joan, and Eric Tucker (who also directs), Edmund Lewis and Tom O’Keefe playing more than two dozen different characters and changing roles multiple times often in mid-sentence.  The result is mesmerizing theatre that trusts Shaw’s often problematic text to tell the story of a character whose life and legacy have always been the subject of, to use current parlance, alternate facts, and whose trail and execution were based on both extraordinary rendition and false equivalencies, and fueled by nationalism and its attendant concerns. Why do Shaw’s Saint Joan today? The answer is simple: the play’s relevance to contemporary events is more than apparent without even the slightest stretch.

Of the three Western European medieval figures who have continued to inform all of post-medieval aspects of high and low culture—Robin Hood, King Arthur, and Joan—it is perhaps ironic that only the real historical figure of the three should have the most complicated legacy.  Because of the surviving detailed records of the 1431 trial that condemned her to death and of the 1456 trial that exonerated her, Joan’s biography is among the most detailed of any person who lived before the twentieth century.  And the facts of her life have only been amplified by the way they have been interpreted to inform the Jehane cult and legend. Mark Twain would write of her in a book he considered his best:

“When we reflect that her century was the brutalest, the wickedest, the rottenest in history since the darkest ages, we are lost in wonder at the miracle of such a product from such a soil. The contrast between her and her century is the contrast between day and night. She was truthful when lying was the common speech of men; she was honest when honesty was become a lost virtue; she was a keeper of promises when the keeping of a promise was expected of no one; she gave her great mind to great thoughts and great purposes when other great minds wasted themselves upon pretty fancies or upon poor ambitions; she was modest, and fine, and delicate when to be loud and coarse might be said to be universal; she was full of pity when a merciless cruelty was the rule; she was steadfast when stability was unknown, and honorable in an age which had forgotten what honor was; she was a rock of convictions in a time when men believed in nothing and scoffed at all things; she was unfailingly true to an age that was false to the core; she maintained her personal dignity unimpaired in an age of fawnings and servilities; she was of a dauntless courage when hope and courage had perished in the hearts of her nation; she was spotlessly pure in mind and body when society in the highest places was foul in both—she was all these things in an age when crime was the common business of lords and princes, and when the highest personages in Christendom were able to astonish even that infamous era and make it stand aghast at the spectacle of their atrocious lives black with unimaginable treacheries, butcheries, and bestialities.”

Indeed, Joan, now co-opted in France by the Far Right and Marine Le Pen’s National Front as their role model and patron saint, remains variously virgin and whore, heretic and saint, mother of a nation and flashpoint for fascism, fanatic and madwoman, warrior and Maid of Orléans.  On the stage, she has attracted decidedly different treatments from, among others, Shakespeare, Lope de Vega, Zamora, Schiller, Brecht (more than once), Claudel, Maeterlinck, Anouilh, Mell, Anderson, Feiffer, and, of course, Shaw—who saw Joan as one of the first Protestants and the pioneer for rational dressing for women. (See Shaw’s preface to his play for further details.)

And Shaw’s Joan has become a rite of passage and benchmark for women actors in the way Shakespeare’s Hamlet has become for men. Among those who have played her on stage are Wendy Hiller, Uta Hagen, Siobhan McKenna, Sian Phillips, Zoe Caldwell, Sarah Miles, Joan Plowright, Judi Dench, Lee Grant, Janet Suzman, Lynn Redgrave, Eileen Atkins, and Roberta Maxwell.  And the challenges of playing Shaw’s Joan were clearly delineated by Winifred Lehman, the first to play the role, in an interview in the American (11 May 1924):

“Joan of Arc is an international religion.  It wasn’t just a sentimental song-writer who put into the mouths of millions during the war a song calling upon Joan.  He voiced a mass emotion. Something was needed beyond ourselves.  If we couldn’t all reach up to God, we could to one of His workers, Joan of Arc, her history, legend, idealization, root in our childhood.  Each member of the audience comes to the theatre with an ideal, not cerebral, but emotional.  This is why I say the actress is given an almost impossible task to fill. . . .

The lines the actress speaks show the girl wise, courageous, far-sighted, intensely human—but the lines themselves don’t show the saint.  The inner vision, the spiritual surge which lifts the role to the plane of the audience’s ideal are not in the lines but behind them.  To play the one and let the others shine through is the most difficult task in the world.”

But Andrus Nichols rises to that task.  Shaw’s Joan is not the Joan we may be familiar with from the screen who can play to the camera.  As Nichols shows, Shaw’s Joan can be self-assured; she can be cocky; she can even at times be funny.  And Nichols is more than ably supported by her colleagues who follow Shaw’s advice that both Joan’s her opponents and her supporters are not simply contrasting one-dimensional studies in black and white.

The production is done in modern dress, with some of the audience seated on stage.  This set up works much better in the second and third parts of the production, when the audience, seated in bleachers more clearly become observers as well as participants once removed in the action.  In the first part of the McCarter production, the audience sits on folding chairs on a stage that appears at first littered with random detritus, and the result is too much visual discord and disjunction.  And throughout the production, actors exit into and enter from the auditorium proper in a production that is a kinetic opening up of Shaw’s talky play, which does not include scenes easily staged as spectacle, such as the taking of Orléans, the Charles’s coronation, or the burning of Joan—all of which, Shaw averred in his preface, would only distract from the play and cause the audience to lose their train of thought..  The interaction between cast and the audience seated on the stage is most successful in Shaw’s epilogue, when the now rehabilitated Joan’s ghost appears to King “Charlie” and others, and the English soldier who fashioned a cross of wood for her to hold at the stake is given his annual day out of hell for this one act of kindness.  Shaw’s Saint Joan is a masterpiece, as the wonderful, engaging, and never dull Bedlam production makes more than abundantly clear.

George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan, January 13-February 12, in rotating repertory with William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, performed by Bedlam at the McCarter Theatre Center, Princeton, NJ. Directed by Eric Tucker. Set by John McDermott. Lighting by Les Dickert. Fight direction by Trampas Thompson.  Featuring Edmund Lewis as the Dauphin, John de Stogumber and others; Andrus Nichols as Joan; Tom O’Keefe as Bishop Pierre Cauchon,  Bertrand de Poulengey and others; and Eric Tucker as “Jack” Dunois, the Earl of Warwick, and others.

Kevin J. Harty
La Salle University