An Essay on George Bernard Shaws's Statement that ‘There Are No Villains’ in "Saint Joan"
‘Saint Joan’, which was written by G.B. Shaw in the period immediately following Joan’s canonization by the Catholic Church in 1920, and which was first produced in Great Britain in 1924, has sincerity and a sense of tragedy. It sticks mainly to recorded historical fact, although Shaw obviously has compressed incidents, and rearranged material in order to achieve dramatic effect. It is a chronicle play in six scenes and epilogue. In this play, Shaw is concerned with the question of Christian belief and its effect upon those who believe. He is primarily interested in showing the differences between Joan’s ideas of Christianity and that of the church. As pointed out by Shaw that in the given circumstances, there was no option before the church than to burn Joan as a heretic since she refused to do the instructions given by church. The play has variety, humour, interesting well-drawn characters, and the action progresses clearly and inevitably towards Joan’s trial. The play is a record of what mankind does to its geniuses and Saints.
ii. The Salient Features of the Trial Scene
Of the scenes in ‘Saint Joan’, the trial scene, which takes place in scene VI constitutes the climatic one because all the conflicts of character and idea of the play come together in it. This scene makes use of what is sometimes prosaically called ‘description by effect’. No direct illustration of Joan’s martyrdom could compare with the picture of its effect on the bigoted chaplain whose hatred of Joan has exceeded all the others. Ironically, he is the one most affected by her burning. Emotionally and intellectually, it is the most powerful scene in the whole range of Shavian dramas. Its artistic excellence has received high praise from the critics, but its fairness and justice to Joan has been questioned. In ‘The Preface’ Shaw has tried to assert the fairness of the trial, and declared that “Joan got a fairer trial from the Inquisition than any prisoner of her type gets now-a-days in any official secular court: and the decision was strictly according to law.” Shaw says that her judges might have committed an error of judgement, but certainly they did not act out of malice or prejudice. He absolves (declare free) them from the charges of corruption, hostility, and cruelty. It is a different matter that they committed an error in sending Joan to the stake.
iii. Historical Veracity
Shaw’s assertion that Joan got a fair trial has been controversial and a lot of historical evidence has been brought forward by medieval scholars, like Dr. Coulton and W.P. Barrett, to show that Joan did not receive a fair trial at the hands of holy Inquisition.
Cauchon, the Bishop of Beauvais, was not as free from personal motives as Shaw represents him to be. It was this Bishop who chose the twenty-two judges that were in charge of the trial. The English had specially procured for him the diocese of Rheims, from where he was turned out by the Dauphin and the Maid. It was thus personal interest of some discontented and ambitious individuals and the national jealousies of the English, which were really at the root of a trial represented by Shaw as a mere personal struggle between Roman Catholic authorities and a Protestant maiden.
The Promoter, too, had been specially selected for the trial. He was also turned out of his diocese by the French, and so was hostile to the Maid.
Shaw presents Joan’s trial as a continuous process, with Joan’s trial and execution taking place in a single day. But actually Joan had been a prisoner of Warwick for over three months and during that time she had been interrogated and spied by agents posing as fellow prisoners.
In history, the trial commenced on February 24, 1431 and ran for several days. It was postponed several times, once because of Joan’s illness from food poisoning and other times because various members of the court, convinced of her innocence, and showing sympathy for the Maid, had to be replaced or discharged.
The episode in which Joan was confronted with her executioner and told that fires had been ready, actually took place on May 23, 1431, when she was taken from prison to the cemetery of St. Ouen and exposed to diatribe and sermon for many hours. Dazed and frightened by the horrors shown to her, she recanted and signed the confession.
The moment when she tore up her signed statement in defiance of the court’s sentence, never actually occurred. When she was returned to prison after her experience at St. Ouen she was given a woman’s dress. Hearing that she was again wearing man’s clothing, Cauchon went to see for himself. It is recorded that she re-affirmed her faith in the voices at this time.
On the 28th of May the Court reassembled and pronounced her a relapsed heretic and turned her over to the secular authorities with the admonition “deal with her tenderly.”
Shaw sends Joan from the Courtroom to the stake in her male garb. Actually she was brought from prison in the executioner’s cart to the market square in Rouen clad in a long white robe. Platforms had been constructed for the eminent spectators to view the spectacle; one of the clergy, Nicholas Midi, preached an interminable sermon before she was tied to the stake. Then she was burned.
Evidence against her was admitted, but she was not allowed to see that evidence. This was against all judicial procedure. The case made against her was not explained to her. Questions put to her were ambiguous. They were put in such a way that she would have been convicted whatever her replies had been. She was threatened with torture. Her judges were many and she was alone without any advocate. The judges would all speak together in passion or anger so that she was forced to protest, “Good my lords, speak to me one at a time.”
iv. Shaw’s Judges Honest and Fair
But Shaw has shown in the play that her judges were fair and just. He has whitewashed the character of Cauchon, and has taken pains to show him honest and sincere. While Warwick is concerned with the political aspects of Joan’s case, Cauchon cares only that the girl be made to see what he considers is the error of her ways and become once more a true daughter of the Church. He tells Warwick that “my faith is to me, what your honour is to you” and declares that if there is a loophole by which Joan can be saved, he will guide her to it. Bishop Cauchon is distressed at the threat that The Maid presents to the Church and at the spread of what he calls “Nationalism”.
During the long and complicated trial, Cauchon does his best to ensure that the trial is a fair one and shows sincere disappointment when Joan condemns herself with her own words. Though he finally casts out The Maid in the name of the Church, he is determined to the end that she will be treated fairly and deplores the headstrong and unethical action of the English when they thrust the girl straight into the fire without observing any formalities. So the character and behaviour of Cauchon leaves no one in doubt about his honesty and sincerity. He tries Joan only on the grounds of heresy, and brushes aside the charges of sorcery and witchcraft or charges of political nature. He does not permit torture to be applied to her, and gives her ample time to recant. He makes all out efforts to save her soul.
Similarly the Inquisitor is also shown as just and fair. Like Cauchon, he has no patience with the innumerable petty charges at the trial, and by virtue of the authority of his office he reduces them from 64 to 12. He maintains a strong hand over the court proceedings and treats Joan with unfailing courtesy. He gives her chances to speak. The Earl of Warwick has been given no hand in the trial and John de Stogumber is a mere piece of impertinence, who fails to influence the course of events. Ladvenu, who is sympathetic to Joan, is allowed to speak freely and he advocates her case effectively.
There may be some falsification of history in the trial of Joan, but we must remember that the play is a work of art, and the playwright has every liberty to give imaginative treatments to the facts of history. That is why Shaw has shown Joan’s judges as pious and honest men guided by the best of their intentions. They were not villains. So “Joan’s murder was a judicial murder, a pious murder, a murder that is not committed by murderers.”
v. The Summing Up
Thus, in the play Joan has been given a fair trial, fairer than any prisoner of the type is likely to get in a modern court. Artistic merits of the scene are also beyond question. The trial is long but few would care to miss a word of it. Trials were always “good theatre”. There is every kind of dramatic conflict. Everybody agrees that the cases both of the church and the Maid have been presented with remarkable brilliance. Shaw has captured the very atmosphere of the Middle Ages in the play – the faith of the people in the religious institutions, the force of the Church, and the belief of the people in the miracles. Shaw might not be true to the letter, but he is certainly true to the spirit.
Shaw had studied the records of the trial and some of the remarks of Joan echo the words, which were actually spoken by her. The scene re-emphasizes the spread of Protestantism and Nationalism.