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The Theater: Old Play In Manhattan, Oct. 15, 1951

4 minute read

Saint Joan (by George Bernard Shaw;* produced by the Theatre Guild) is often hailed as Shaw’s greatest play. Very likely none is greater; yet few are more uneven. Broadway’s first Saint Joan in 15 years can hardly help suffering from the mechanical flaws of the play, and never quite measures up to the best of it.

Joan’s story has been better told elsewhere. The point with Shaw is that he was telling more than a story. One of the play’s great virtues is that Shaw looked beyond the pathos and heroism of its events to the magnitude of its issues. He saw Joan, disobeying the church to follow her voices and her vision, as one who, like Luther, could not do otherwise. He saw, too, that in so acting, Joan, like Luther, was no longer Catholic but Protestant. And as her Protestantism is a menace to the church, so her nationalism, her urging allegiance not to a class but a country, is a menace to the peerage.

For that reason the Earl of Warwick buys her from the Burgundians and insists that she must burn. But the pro-founder issue is that between Joan and her judges. In the trial scene she comes up against not only all the power of the church but all the power of the church’s arguments. The grandeur of Shaw’s trial rests less, in the end, on how brilliant it is than on how basic. It is the eternal clash —in politics, society, art no less than in religion—between the institution’s claim to sovereignty and the individual’s.

Saint Joan gains in stature because—rather uncharacteristically—Shaw stresses what is most valid on both sides rather than what is most vulnerable. He portrays Joan not as a defiantly heroic figure but as a truly mystical one, acting from compulsion rather than choice. He portrays the church less in terms of ethics than of authority, as possessing a sort of spiritual right of eminent domain. All this endows the trial scene with a particular dignity and affirmativeness, and with the right resounding orchestration. In the main, Shaw resists his usual mocking passages for flute or oboe, those sour or sarcastic entrances of tuba or trombone.

Such sounds he reserves for the deliberately anticlimactic epilogue, when Joan’s apparition, on a visit to earth, learns that she has at last been vindicated, and will in the end be canonized. “Now tell me,” Joan asks amid the general rejoicing, “shall I . . . come back to you a living woman?” Horrified and appalled, her auditors can only mumble and fumble and slink away. It is a scene of lively Shavian comedy, but embedded in it is bitter realistic tragedy, an awareness that the Joans are glorified much less for being great than for being so conveniently dead.

Yet as a dramatic creation, Joan herself scarcely comes off. Shaw sought to make her real by making her realistic, by having her talk patois and slang and call the Dauphin “Charlie.” But by making her so much like other people, he did not lessen her mystery; he merely weakened her magnetism.

Under Margaret Webster’s direction, Saint Joan moves briskly along. Yet neither Joan nor her judges have enough glow or stature. Uta Hagen is simple, honest, on occasion fiery, but never conveys Joan’s warrior genius or saintly appeal. Alexander Scourby’s Bishop and Frederick Rolf’s Inquisitor are only half what Shaw’s are. It is Andrew Cruickshank’s worldling Warwick and, even more, John Buckmaster’s weakling Dauphin, that come closest to doing Shaw justice.

* For other news of Playwright Shaw, see CINEMA.

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