By Jean Anouilh Translated by Christopher Fry Directed by Astrid Pons Presented by Defiant Reality at the Rose Playhouse on 25 January 2014
In this gripping fast-paced medieval drama full of wit & humour, Jeanne d’Arc is surrounded by French, English and Spanish Inquisition judges, moments away from being burned at the stake. In a few seconds, she will be nothing but a pile of ashes at the foot of the stake.
But hark! Are we back in Domremy, where Jeanne was born? Is that Chinon & Charles the Dauphin on his throne? As death draws nearer, Jeanne’s life flashes before her eyes – and yours. Join us in reliving the key moments she wishes to witness one last time.
And in so doing, maybe light will be shed on why Jeanne d’Arc has become a positive symbol of faith, feminism and bravery. Here’s how little popular culture knows about her: the heresy she was burned for had nothing to do with her hearing voices.
A tremendous production of a play about one of the more difficult characters of history, in terms of the distance between her and most of us in the modern world. It was followed by an excellent Q&A with Helen Castor, who’s just published Joan of Arc (2014:1), in which she introduces Joan as “a protean icon: a hero to nationalists, monarchists, liberals, socialists, the right, the left, Catholics, Protestants, traditionalists, feminists, Vichy and the Resistance.” Protean, meaning “readily taking on various shapes or forms”, is a good word for this woman who has been interpreted in so many ways. There is, of course, an absence in this list of admirers: humanists. We’re unlikely to think highly of anyone who converts delusions into public policy, especially when that policy involves going to war (unfortunately, we have our own recent example of a leader who skimped on the evidence and relied on conviction to carry us into a disastrous war).
With this play and this translation, and with this company in this space, however, there was much to admire about Joan of Arc, as played by Maud Madlyn. Against the variability of interpretation she creates a character of terrifying constancy, driven by a single-minded purpose and illuminated by swivel-eyed ecstasy, standing solid in big black boots, grinning, shaking in her white smock, forever fingering her crucifix and twiddling her beads as if they provided continual orgasmic pleasure.
The production opens with her standing on a sliver of tree trunk, to the sound of crackling flames and muffled shouts of “burn the witch” as the rest of the cast circle her in judgement. Then we flip back to the trial and she tells her own story of how she came to lead an army against the English. George Collie plays the Earl of Warwick as a sardonic aristocrat and practical soldier who can’t quite believe he’s wasting his time with such a woman. He recognizes that one day there might be a statue of her in London, but for now she must be burned as a witch. He slumps in his chair, yawning, as Joan remembers the first time she heard a voice, telling her to be a good girl and always go to church.
The second time, it’s St Michael on the metaphysical telecom, telling her to present herself to the dauphin and save France from destruction. Okaaay. Her father (Philip North with a working-class northern accent) suspects she is meeting someone on the quiet, and reaches for his stick. She is comforted by her mother, until she too flips out at what her is claiming. Both parents thus channel what most of us in the audience must be feeling, and wondering how we would react.
Back to the trial, where it’s made clear to Joan what her position is:
We are your priests, masters, judges.
She then narrates how she came to lead the French army in battle, and while we may be gripped Warwick was snoring, before being roused:
Propaganda is black and white — say something staggering and repeat it often enough and it will catch on.
Anticipating Goebbels is one thing, anticipating Hume’s impressive atheism is another, as Warwick (I think) stresses that what she is doesn’t matter:
It’s her effect on those around her that matters.
Hume would argue that the ontological question of God’s existence is irrelevant: what matters is what believers do (see Blackburn 2008). And so what really matters is what anyone who happens to have an army can do. Warwick is one such man, and he’s impatient to get home, and so wants to rattle through the trial and get her burned.
Joan’s father wonders why God speaks to her, not him. It’s a not unreasonable question, and receiving instructions from angels does not constitute a reasonable answer, even at this period. He doesn’t really fancy the idea of his daughter going off with soldiers. A woman stays at home, and doesn’t lead soldiers on horseback. We can disagree with the first part, while still appreciating the second. His antipathy to Joan mixing it with soldiers is nothing to do with her being unable to take a beating — he is a disciplinarian of the old (medieval) school — and everything to do with protecting his genetic investment in her body. Hence both parents’ interest in her marriage arrangements to a suitable man and their objections to her becoming an army whore.
A Christian justification for belligerence that is not often heard these days is found in Matthew 10:34–35:
Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. / For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law.
The irony is that Charles — played brilliantly by Tristan Hyde as a long-haired, petulant youth, obsessively playing at cup and ball — has neither the cash to be a king nor the appetite for war expected of medieval male monarchs. He simpers:
I don’t like fighting.
When Joan eventually arrives at his court, he swaps places with an obliging chap on the front row in order to play a trick on the peasant girl, to fool her into approaching the wrong person. She makes straight for the seated king, which is supposed to be impressive, until we remember that, while exchanging clothes and a crown is easy, transferring status isn’t.
Egged on by her, he raises his voice dismisses his court, who actually leave the room, perhaps more in astonishment than in true dread. Anyway, it’s the first time he’s been obeyed, and he quite likes the feeling.
The French commanders are sceptical, to say the least, of Joan’s plan, even when she promises them that God is on her side:
Do you suppose the English don’t say their prayers? God is with the strongest armies.
Joan thinks God is with the bravest. All they have is this “wretched scrap of France nibbled by the English” and it’s about time they won the whole of France back for the king. She tells him:
Get your fear over first — that‘s the secret.
Joan gets her way and is soon “singing like a lark over the soldiers.” It all ends in tears, for her, and she is stubborn to the end:
My right is to say no and to go on believing…
This time it’s the English leaders who are sceptical:
You alone are divinely inspired? No one believes you…
The heavy guns are wheeled in as the Inquisitor arrives: charity is the theological, and nothing to do with the milk of human kindness. A final softly-softly attempt is made to get her to abjure her position:
We’ve put many to death in defence of the church, you’ve put many to death in defence of your voices.
She does sign the abjuration, with its central admission of “pretending to receive revelation.”
Charles blows hot and cold towards Joan — in the end, just cold, while she is warmed by the flames of Rouen:
Divine help is all very well, except when it isn’t there.
Given his attitude, he’s lucky to get the final scene, which flips back to his coronation: his paper crown for once is replaced with a real one.
Cast: Maud Madlyn (Joan of Arc), George Collie (Earl of Warwick), Pip Gladwin (Pierre Cauchon), Samuel Heagney (Promoter/Boudousse), Victoria Howden(Mother/Queen Yolande), Tristan Hyde (Charles le Dauphin/Capitaine La Hire/Brother Ladvenu), Lawrence Toye (Inquisitor/Archbishop), Phil North (Father/Robert de Beaudricourt/La Tremouille)
Q&A with Helen Castor
Suzanne Marie begins by pointing out a Joan of Arc connection to the Rose Theatre, which premiered the first part of King Henry VI on 3 March 1592, and which put Joan la Pucelle on stage with the lines:
Glory is like a circle in the water,
Which never ceaseth to enlarge itself…
Helen Castor began by stating an obvious but crucial point: women couldn’t lead soldiers in battle.
It’s unusual for there to be so much documentary information about such a person as Joan. There are extensive records of her 1431 trial, which was a deeply partisan affair: she was one side’s heretic, another side’s heroine.
The prosecuting theologians pressed Joan on the nature of her visions, and she was lured into describing them as physical beings with hair and clothes. They were clearly demons, since angels are spiritual beings.
Although described as a shepherdess, this was more romantic label than job description.
We can’t separate misogyny from the religious context. To have a teenage peasant girl rise to such prominence and guide a king was thought of as one possible miraculous way for God to work in the world. Again, for one side this works in her favour, for the other it works against her. Deuteronomy 22.5 declares that a woman in men’s clothes is an abomination.
Maud Madlyn describes how their production has changed from last November, when Joan was more childlike, to this run, where she is moved more by blind faith.
HC At this time, and for everyone, God is real and at work in the world. (Even today, there are many devout people who think along similar lines. For example, one relative of a survivor of the Jewish supermarket killings in Paris said, “Thanks to God she is alive and well.” The medieval mindset is still parasitizing modern minds.)
It took five centuries for Joan to be made a saint, but she’s a tricky case: she’s the only Catholic saint to have been killed on a judgement of heresy delivered by the Catholic Church. She can hardly be celebrated as a martyr by Christians, since she was killed by Christians.
Just a few weeks after her arrival at court, she was already referring to herself as “Jeanne la Pucelle” or “Joan the Maid” — an extremely important term. In one sense, Joan of Arc is just a stage name.
The story of Joan of Arc continues to fascinate, and remains, sadly, relevant in how it brings into relief attitudes towards female leaders. Only this month, there was another piece of misogynism as female leaders were airbrushed out of history (see The disannouncer). Perhaps Photoshop would have been put to work in the aftermath of Joan’s trial? (Although against this interpretation is the fact that Joan’s story was extensively documented.)