A concept called “the writer’s voice” has been on my mind ever since I saw Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan during last month’s Shaw conference. I love the play, and I was fascinated by Sarah Topham’s portrayal of the Maid of Orleans. “Luminous” and “radiant” are the words most often used to describe Saint Joan, and they perfectly describe Topham as well.
But several times during this performance I was bored – sleepy even. I’ve always vehemently defended Shaw against the critics who say that his characters are nothing more than mouthpieces for his ideas. But during that performance I started thinking there might be some truth in those complaints…
…until the next morning. On the way back to our hotel after breakfast, my sister and I ran into a Shaw friend, Peter Gahan, who’s a much more perceptive critic than I am. I mustered enough courage to make a guilty confession: several times during Saint Joan I’d found myself dozing off.
Peter’s response helped me feel less guilty. The problem – in his view – was that the production played down the personalities of Joan’s enemies. According to Peter, the arguments against Joan aren’t just abstract ideas: they’re closely tied up with the values and life histories of the men who wanted to burn her at the stake.
To put it a different way: What I heard during the play was a chorus of voices wanting to put Joan to death. What I should have been hearing were five or six distinctly different men arguing their own viewpoints about why Joan was a problem and what should be done with her.
In my next post I’ll suggest some ways to help readers hear your voice in your writing.