Shaw’s Saint Joan

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.

Saint Joan at the Shaw Festival

         Saint Joan at the Shaw Festival


3 thoughts on “Shaw’s Saint Joan

  1. Dick Dietrich

    Peter makes an excellent point, In an essay I wrote for THE SHAVIAN, I said something similar but focused instead on the stripping of personality from her persecutors by stripping them of their 15th C. clothing and putting them instead in such similar and drab clothing that they seemed more like a chorus of men speaking as one rather than individuals with individual reasons for persecution.

  2. Peter Gahan

    Yes, it seemed to me that not only were the other characters not clearly delineated, but the delivery of their lines was muted. The Archbishop should be imposing (Joan should be in awe of him, which makes her rebellion spurred on by her voices all the more telling), and Dunois should be something of a romantic military hero (in any other play, he would be the hero) There was no evidence that the producers understood that Shaw demands contrast both in his characters and also in the delivery of their lines. The one thing they must never do is taken on their speech rhythms from the previous speaker, yet the delivery of the lines here was very linear and monotone with little contrast. The pity is that we know that some of these, if not all, are very good Shavian actors.
    That said, I agree with Jean about Sarah Topham, and I would also say that I have spoken to several people who liked the production better than I did. For all but one of them, this was their first time seeing Saint Joan on stage. So the play obviously came across to some extent.

  3. ballroomdancer Post author

    Thanks so much for your comments, Peter! And I especially appreciate your pointing out that many people really did like the production very much.

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