The Doctor's Dilemma (Anglais) Relié – 1 mai 2008
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Why then does "Saint Joan" fall short of five stars?
Fictional accounts of Joan of Arc's life are numerous and seldom accurate. Shakespeare makes her a witch. Voltaire makes her an idiot. Schiller makes her admirable - and gives her a magical helmet that protects her from harm until she falls in love.
In a rare exception to his usual satirical style, Mark Twain spent months in France researching her life and published a fictional biography. Readers who enjoy accurate historical fiction would do well with Twain's "Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc." Twain considered this - not "Huckleberry Finn" - to be his finest work.
Shaw pays far more attention to accuracy than most fictionalizations. Several lines in the play are Shaw's own translations from her trial transcript. Shaw's long introductory essay aspires to be history as well as drama. Most scholars agree with his assessment of Joan of Arc's socioeconomic background. Shaw acknowledges a few dramatic economies: he combines the historical Jean d'Orleans and Duke Jean d'Alencon into a single character. What causes problems are Shaw's unacknowledged deviations from the factual record.
Shaw argues that Joan of Arc was a forerunner of Protestantism who got a fair trial. Among serious scholars this argument gains no credibility. A surviving letter from the English government that financed the trial guaranteed her execution even if the court found her not guilty. Joan of Arc never rejected the Roman Catholic Church: she rejected the authority of politically biased judges bent on discrediting her and, by inference, on discrediting the king she had crowned. Twenty-four years after her death the Pope reopened the case. The appeals court not only found her innocent but discovered such extensive violations of proper court procedure that it accused the late Bishop Cauchon of heresy.
Shaw's choice works as drama rather than as history yet he advocates it on historical grounds. He might be sincere but he is certainly not honest. To an academic scholar who has explained the facts to umpteen Shaw enthusiasts the difference can be infuriating. This is why "Saint Joan" collects a handful of scathing reviews.
A reader who understands this little shell game with history should have a lively time with the drama. If this is your first reading of "Saint Joan" then I envy you. Nothing quite equals the first encounter.
If anyone who reads this review has seen a staged production of the play, I'd be interested in hearing whether it was 'played for laughs' or performed earnestly. Shaw is of course taken quite seriously in the world of anglophone theater, though actual productions of his works are rare in the USA. Shaw was not reticent about assuring "us" of his intelligence, and not particularly chary of condescension, but this play features some of the dumbest jokes and most preposterous dialogue I've ever read. Any audience that wasn't overawed by Shaw's elevated reputation would groan out loud at Joan's flippant folksiness.
There seems to be a "Joan-of-Arc" effect on the minds of writers, which disposes them to bizarre extravagance. I turned to Shaw's 'Saint Joan' as a follow-up to reading Mark Twain's romantic novel/ biography "Joan of Arc.' Both works are based on historical sources, chiefly the trial records, yet neither can be interpreted as 'history' in a modern sense. Shaw was aware of Twain's book, and regarded it skeptically, yet the two works have more in common than not. Both are polemics against humanity's inability to comprehend sainthood.
He makes a very good point when he says that, right as that Church was to ban her on those grounds, nothing could give it the moral right (or any other right, for that matter) to condemn a woman who disagreed with it on matters of faith. In all fairness, they should have simply excommunicated her and said: "If you think you have a better idea, then you go ahead and create your own Church".
It may be a thoroughly idealistic point of view of course, too democratic for that age (perhaps any age), but nonetheless it strikes me as completely fair.
If you like a club but object to some of its rules, and that club isn't willing to change for your sake, they may have the right to throw you out, just as you may have the right to start a new one on your own - but they shouldn't be given the right to take away your life for having dared to challenge their concepts.
This lesson has stayed with me and I recommend this book for the wisdom it contains.
So speaks a more engaging, complex executioner of the legendary young soldier put forth by Bernard Shaw in "Saint Joan." Even if the Bishop put Joan to death for political reasons he likely believed that her execution was just. The Catholic Church's problems with Joan lingered for nearly 500 years. Her active assertion of nationalism as a holy endeavor intuited by her own judgment undermined the Catholic church's political authority, and yes, presaged the Reformation, even if Joan was not a Protestant (Shaw labels her "anti clerical").
And she willingly asserted a non-traditional feminine role (soldiering and politicking), which by its nature required non-traditional feminine behavior and dress. Reviewers who say that Joan wore armor to keep from being raped are half right, since Joan's soldiering included such hazards, like being wounded. But she thrived in it too. In fact, I agree with Shaw that the voices spurring her on were Joan's own subconcious, but that is another debate...
Those who are skeptical of Shaw's ideas would do well to consider the year of her Canonization: 1920. It's no accident that a year after the Great War, in which the world's powers successfully mobilized against each other in the name of Nationalism (the churches providing prayers and getting out of the way), Catholicism threw up its hands and recognized the genius of the French teenager. This too as women had been called on in support roles like nurses and ambulance drivers, and were being enfranchised by their European and American nations.
The play itself is typical Shaw - bright, smart, very worthwhile. None of the play's acts goes on too long. None is weak, except for Act III on the eve of the battle of Orleans, but Shaw is Shaw and seems embarassed by the warlike bluster. Joan herself, as others have observed, often speaks in lines that are taken directly from the trial transcripts. When she doesn't it's usually to give her a flash of wit that rarely seems contrived. This is Joan for grown-ups. And it is Joan for the 21st century: post-modern, the old sentiments put aside.
Also reccomended: Regine Pernoud's books. If you need to hear what a pretty, chaste, tear-provoking, goody goody of a girl Joan was buy Mark Twain (I myself donated that volume to the public library when I was 17).