by Tracy C. Davis
Tracy C. Davis is Barber Professor of Performing Arts at Northwestern University and president of the American Society for Theatre Research. Among her numerous books are George Bernard Shaw and the Socialist Theatre (1994), Playwriting and Nineteenth Century British Women (edited with Ellen Donkin, 1999), Theatricality (edited with Tom Postlewait, 2003), and Stages of Emergency: Cold War Nuclear Civil Defense (2007).
Joan the Maid grew in fame from the moment she left her village of Domremy in 1429. To French soldiers fighting to liberate their lands from English occupiers and establish the rightful succession of the Dauphin disinherited by the Treaty of Troyes in 1420, Joan was a providential force. To English and Burgundian soldiers who witnessed her lightning tactics in an era of ponderous warfare, Joan was a Medusa: they often froze at the sight of her or turned tail and beat a hasty retreat. Joan’s initiative brought the Dauphin to a coronation in Reims Cathedral, where he could be crowned (as Charles VII) with the same holy oil that had anointed kings ever since Clovis unified the Franks in the fifth century. Contemporaries claimed that she fulfilled prophecies in writings by the eighth-century Venerable Bede and twelfth-century Geoffrey of Monmouth, and indeed the martial prowess and tactical acumen shown by this untutored village teenager justified her reputation as the virgin who vanquished the English from France. Shaw echoes nineteenth-century views of her as a precursor of the Reformation, not because she spoke against the established church (indeed, she was a devout Catholic and loyal to the pope) but because her insistence that she acted upon direct instructions of angels was at odds with ecclesiastical authority and the ungrateful Charles VII.
In Shaw’s time, this iconoclastic cross-dressed leader with redoubtable strength of will was embraced by secular factions with markedly contrasting agendas. She represented a neo-medievalist eternal feminine as well as a modernist virgin warrior. For women’s suffragists, she was the champion of fairness and equity, a woman in breeches and armor who led battalions to do inspired work. For temperance advocates, she was an emblem of strength allied to moral purpose, unwavering in her fortitude and an inspiration to lesser mortals. For ultra-right xenophobes angered by the loss of Alsace-Lorraine in the Franco-Prussian War of 1871, she was an icon of French nationalism.
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Joan’s story never fell into obscurity, but during World War I (1914-18) it may have been put to the most diverse purposes in Britain and America. If Joan was at the front it was not as a warrior, or camp follower, but a Red Cross nurse, and if she was at home it was not just as a faithful patriot but also a factory worker deployed in the war effort. The US Treasury Department used her image to exhort women to “Save Your Country” just as “Joan of Arc Saved France” and buy war bonds. Her plated armor, sword held aloft, and eyes upraised were iconic for morale on the home front. US recruiters also used Joan’s image to inspire Catholic immigrants from diverse countries to feel patriotism for their chosen land, enlist, and fight a common enemy in Europe. During the war, Joan in dungarees inspired women to reject pacifism, using the idea of women laborers as a lever for universal conscription. Such a Joan was immune to charges of impiety and self-interest, and could never give in to a siege. As a martyr, Joan cannot be said to have come to a happy end, but that part of her story was set aside. Instead, like Abraham Lincoln, she came from a meager home and rallied others to a just cause with force of character and inspired oratory. Like men across the continent, she set aside herds and ploughs for bayonets and puttees, traveled to the front, and took up arms against an imperialistic occupying force.
Six months after hostilities ended, the Archbishop of Cambrai proclaimed in Orléans Cathedral: “We have triumphed over our adversaries because we have applied the methods of humanity, justice, and respect of consciences and convictions which were practiced formerly by the Maid of Orléans. ... Our enemies have been vanquished because they trod under foot their word and the prescriptions of international law.” Not only was Joan the symbol for just cause in war, her deeds of compassion—offering prayers for the dead of both sides, beseeching her enemies to spare themselves, and prohibiting looting—were remembered as the epitome of principled warfare. Though sold to the English as a prisoner and tried by an ecclesiastical (international) court, sentenced to life imprisonment and perpetual penance for her heresy, and burned at the stake when she refused to abjure breeches in a prison full of men, the aspects of her story that reflect badly on the principles of just imprisonment, fair trial, and expert representation of the accused were set aside in the interest of celebrating her life. A medal struck in 1919 depicted Anna Vaughn Hyatt’s equestrian statue of Joan installed on Riverside Drive in New York City, framed by the searchlights of two battleships in the Hudson River. It caught the spirit of the times: unified yet distant allies celebrated the role of technology in victory and propagandized with stirring imagery that overwrote new purposes on misremembered history.
Joan’s canonization, which had been expected on the 500th anniversary of her death in 1931, was moved up to 1920, partly as a gesture to mollify French Catholics alienated by Pope Benedict XV (an Italian, perceived as pro-Austrian, whose peace-seeking efforts were ignored by all sides in the war). Canonization tended to reinvest Joan as a mystic, rather than a political symbol, yet the contrasting interpretations of her during the 1920s—a schizophrenic or paranoic, occult clairvoyant, or brilliant military strategist comparable to Napoleon—continued to circulate. The pious regarded her as a heroine of conscience. She was a reminder to combatants of the prospects of a fiery death, and to all survivors of the wounds wrought by sacrifice and duty. The day that 300 mitered clerics gathered in the Vatican to hear her proclaimed a saint, Paris was subdued by strikes and the police forbade public celebrations, but in London the Catholic Westminster Cathedral staged a pageant featuring a mounted girl clad in armor and carrying a replica of Joan’s banner (the fleur-de-lis set with Jesus and Mary). Her procession of 3,000 women and children was headed by Boy Scouts who carried both the cross of St. George and the Papal banner. Crowds of all faiths were drawn to Joan’s shrine within the cathedral, decorated with laurel wreaths for victory, lilies for France, and roses for England. An unjust verdict, though perpetuated by both French and English bishops, had become a humiliation upon the English nation. The ancient rift between England and France was definitively healed by their allegiance in the recent war and when French glory was proclaimed in Westminster it was a gesture of international reconciliation and common cause.
In 1923, Shaw added his name to a worthy genealogy of playwrights, composers, and filmmakers—Shakespeare, Schiller, Verdi, Méliès, and Cecil B. DeMille—who told Joan’s story. Shaw’s Joan is a nationalist, an ideology typically associated with post-Enlightenment Europe. For nationalists, language, culture, and values are held in common by those with a shared heritage: nations are the basis of states and their borders should align. Nationalist sentiment joined together smaller administrative units into nations on the basis of common history, sometimes (as in the case of Norway or Italy) without a truly common language. Various ethnicities could join together on the basis of resistance to a common colonial power (as in the case of India or Canada) without a truly common history. In late-medieval France, a vast territory with strong autonomous regions were unified through re-conquest, administration centralized in the capital, and lords made subject to the crown to a degree unmatched for centuries on the rest of the continent. Like nineteenth- and twentieth-century nationalists, Shaw’s Joan represents the view that nationalism comes from below: it is not the state’s prerogative to impose it upon citizens but citizens’ heritage and birthright. The standing army forged in France by the end of the Hundred Years War (1337-1453) benefited from a peasantry tied to nation, no longer to feudal lords. Joan personifies the fidelity of such soldiers to an historical homeland, sacred sites and customs, and an indigenous language. She rationalizes external control as against God’s will, uniting an interpretation of dynastic right to succession with a claim to permanence, or transcendence, of the French people’s right to their territory and sovereignty. As she wrote to the Duke of Burgundy, enjoining him to attend Charles’s coronation and give fealty to the new king of France, they could make war together against the infidel English occupying their Holy Land. In 1923 this seemed like an unambiguous good. Neither Joan nor Shaw could dream of the uses to which extreme nationalism would be put in the next decade, as the German National Socialist Party allied supreme state power to racial prerogative.
– Reprinted courtesy of the Shaw Festival