Joan of Arc fascinates me and always has. She’s one of those people that I would love to go back in time to meet, even if she was probably schizophrenic and completely out of her head. She’s just so interesting, and she was so influential, to the point where she had to be killed in order to be silenced. While she fascinates me, though, I don’t believe I’ve ever read anything about her until now.
This play impressed me on two levels. The first was the (plainly obvious to modern people) viewpoint that Joan was primarily persecuted because she was female. One of the best lines of the play comes from this:
I might almost as well have been a man. Pity I wasn’t: I should not have bothered you all so much then.
And it’s true, at least in this particular narrative. Joan had great strength, military prowess, and courage, and she fought in God’s name – something quite common at the time. Yes, she claimed to hear voices from God, but if she had been a man, that might not have been looked on as quite so crazy or scary. It might have been tolerated in the wake of all the battles she helped France to win. She might have been considered holy rather than a heretic or witch. She bothered people because she stayed firm to her beliefs and refused to wear women’s clothing, something that at the time was against church law.
Personally, I think Joan was probably a bit mentally unbalanced, and would have been as a man as well, but I don’t think she would have gotten everyone so up in arms if she’d belonged to the other gender. There would still be people who didn’t like her, or were jealous of her works, or who felt they needed to kill her for political or strategic reasons, sure, but probably not with the same vehemence.
The second thing that struck me is Shaw’s focus on political scare tactics. This is a long quote, but it’s important, and you’ll probably recognize this sort of reasoning from recent years on more modern issues:
Mark what I say: the woman who quarrels with her clothes, and puts on the dress of a man, is like the man who throws off his fur gown and dresses like John the Baptist: they are followed, as surely as the night follows the day, by bands of wild women and men who refuse to wear any clothes at all. When maids will neither marry nor take regular vows, and men reject marriage and exalt their lusts into divine inspirations, then, as surely as the summer follows the spring, they begin with polygamy, and end by incest.
Sound familiar? Anyone else remember all those arguments around Proposition 8 about how if we legalize gay marriage, then people will want to legalize polygamy, incest, and/or bestiality? The argument is equally absurd in our time, Shaw’s time, and Joan’s time. We’ve seen proof of what happened when women stopped wearing “women’s clothing,” and it did not involve the world devolving into a bunch of raving, depraved nudists who hate God. The idea is laughable to us now. I love that Shaw emphasizes how ridiculous the church’s arguments were against Joan’s “sins” – her sin of wearing pants and of refusing to marry. In my opinion, this is just more proof about how malleable and culturally-based the concept of “sin” is. Time has also shown that scare tactics aren’t based in fact, but are simply used to terrify people into one side or another of a political or moral argument.
This was a fantastic play. Joan is perfectly portrayed as sure of herself and yet definitely off her rocker a bit. The people around her are awed by her supposed power and secretly detest her at the same time. Even after her canonization, where all the characters revisit each other in a dream, Joan threatens to come back to life and all of her admirers quickly turn their backs on her. They love her, but only after she’s gone. She’s the sort of saint that is great to worship…now that she’s dead. One character even makes the statement that they would burn her again in six months if she came back to life. An interesting little ironic twist, I think.