A fresh theatrical production of St Joan claims that Bernard Shaw’s play is now “relevant to our time”. But the story of Joan of Arc is relevant to all time, and the Donmar’s drama (which will be streamed into 2,500 cinemas for all to see on March 14) portrays Joan as a feminist icon.
This too is nothing new. Joan has always been a striking role model for young women – illuminating the courage, affirmativeness, confidence and unwavering holiness of a young girl of only 17 who led the armies of France and faced her own martyrdom fearlessly.
Each age interprets St Joan in its own way, and predictably the current production – with the film actress Gemma Arterton playing Joan – duly reflects the fashionable views of our contemporary intelligentsia. Nasty male bankers, political warmongers and Daily Mail-reading nationalists are now the villains in a modernised setting, and the play’s director, Josie Rourke, seems to imply that were she alive today Joan would be leading the protests against Brexit and Trump populism.
Because we live in a secularised age, I feel that modern theatricals don’t quite understand what Joan was all about in the way that Shaw understood – and explained in his brilliant preface to his own play (first performed in 1924, soon after Joan’s canonisation).
Shaw, who was an Irish Protestant, claimed that Joan was the first genuinely “Protestant” saint, and that a core cause that she advanced was, actually, nationalism. Nationalism, says GBS, is basically Protestant. Joan thought French people should be French, rather than Catholic Europeans. “She objected to foreigners on the sensible ground that they were not in their proper place in France,” he writes, “but she had no notion of how this brought her into conflict with Catholicism and Feudalism, both essentially international.”
If we follow Shaw’s thinking, Joan of Arc would today be supporting the Front National in France (and the spirit of nationalism elsewhere), rather than disdaining the cause of the nation-state.
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