Sunday, September 13, 2009

G.B. Shaw’s Saint Joan as a Tragedy

"This shows how dangerous it is to be too good," is Shaw's legendary comment on the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. Undoubtedly, the same can be said of Joan of Arc.

In his detailed Preface to St. Joan, Shaw argues that "an irresistible force" in Joan met "an immovable obstacle" in the Church and "developed the heat that consumed poor Joan." Further, he states that he has tried to maintain his drama "at the level of high tragedy." He classifies Joan's burning as one among "judicial murders, pious murders" and points out that "this contradiction at once brings an element of comedy into the tragedy: the angels may weep at the murder, but the gods laugh at the murderers."

Interpretations of St. Joan are multitude. Critics like Louis L. Martz who, in his classic essay, "The Saint as Tragic Hero," see a "double vision" of tragedy in it while at the other end of the spectrum, we find certain other critics dismissing St. Joan as "a comedy, with more than a dash of melodrama in the scene describing Joan's martyrdom".

Harold Bloom disparages the play as "overwhelmingly Protestant" and asks plaintively if Joan is "anything except an embodiment of the Life Force". Louis Crompton applauds St. Joan as "one of the supreme statements of religious faith in a post-Christian world." but stops short of plumbing its essential tragic undercurrents. Charles A. Berst maintains that the play "incorporates both tragedy and comedy." but does not underscore the poignancy and the universality of the tragicomedy. William Searle suggests merely that in tackling the sainthood of Joan. Shaw the skeptic evolved "a highly original mystique of the role of imagination in history". In his meticulously researched book on Saint Joan, Arnold Silver delves into the "literary and Historical Context" of the play, gives an exhaustive scene-by-scene analysis of the play, appends copious notes and selected bibliography. However, he does not explore the tragic dimensions of the play and contents himself by extolling Shaw for creating out of "divergent emotions" as well as personal and historical "conflicts," "one of his most deeply fell and enduring masterpieces".

Feminist critiques of St. Joan abound. Let me give just a couple of examples. Allison, Carr and Eastman point out that "Shaw makes a large point of his pro-feminism in portraying Joan as a forerunner of emancipated women". Ellen Gainor takes great pains to establish that Shaw dramatizes in Joan "a character of both androgynous personality and masculine action", she even goes so far as to hint that Joan was Shaw's "Superwoman".

In her bird's eye review of the politics embedded in all the major plays of Shaw, Judith Evans echoes Shaw's contention in his Preface that Joan was "an early Protestant martyr" and a true tragic heroine. Judith postulates that Joan's voices, in "the secular language of Shaw," become "the voices of her own inspiration." or, "in terms of creative evolution, the voice of the will or the Life Force".

Indeed, if one adopts a post-colonial stance, it is quite possible to see Joan as a champion not only of Nationalism, but also of anti-colonialism. Clearly, St. Joan is a play with multiple facets, a veritable treasure-house of ideas and perspectives. Nevertheless, the core of the play, as Shaw underscores in his Preface is the tragic conflict between "an irresistible force" in Joan and "an immovable obstacle" in the Church. It is worthwhile, therefore, to reexamine St. Joan and try to understand the exact nature and scope of the tragedy embedded in the play.

At any rate, it is useful to review the salient features of Aristotelian tragedy and to apply them to St. Joan to see if the play measures up to Aristotle's vision.

Aristotle considers tragedy to be the dramatic representation of serious action, "something that matters, done by people who count e.g. King Oedipus's discovery that he has killed his father and married his mother. At its center, it has the tragic protagonist, who towers heads and shoulders above the rest of humankind, due to character and achievement.

The internal cause of the protagonist's tragic downfall is that the protagonist's character has a tragic flaw {Hamartia} which usually takes the form of pride {Hubris}. The external cause(s) of tragedy are the ironic reversals of fortune {Peripeteia} in the life and career of the protagonist. In combination, the internal and external causes — pride and ironic reversals of fortune — not only bring about the downfall {Nemesis} of the protagonist, hut also precipitate a catastrophe in the protagonist's milieu. Before the tragic end, however, the protagonist usually experiences a moment of self-knowledge {Anagnorisis}, which enables the protagonist to kick against the pricks, as it were, and triumph morally or spiritually over his misfortune. The audience witnessing the tragedy undergoes a therapeutic purging {Catharsis} of the emotions of pity and terror — pity due to their identification with and sympathy for the protagonist experiencing a tragic downfall and terror due to the feeling that "There but for the Grace of God go I!"

It is possible to make a case tor reading St. Joan as an Aristotelian tragedy and Joan as a tragic heroine. Joan, though she is a simple country lass, stands out above all others due to her honesty and humor. She has tremendous faith in her "voices" which, she is convinced, convey God's commands to her. Her faith remains unshaken — except for her brief recantation during her trial — through all her "miracles," victories and ordeals. Ironically, the other characters who interact with her accuse her of pride. "The old Greek tragedy is rising among us." warns the Archbishop. "It is the chastisement of hubris". And how can you say I am disobedient when 1 always obey my voices, because they come from God?" asks Joan abruptly.

The Archbishop declares, however, that "all the voices that come to you are the echoes of your own willfulness." and rails against her thundering. "You stand alone; absolutely alone, trusting your own conceit, your own ignorance, your own headstrong presumption, your own impiety". Cauchon believes the girl to be "inspired, but diabolically inspired". Even Dunois, her sole friend, thinks she is "a bit tracked". Joan s simple faith challenges the established Institutions — the Church and the Slate —so that they rise up against her in outrage and proclaim that this girl is insufferable.

In this play, the greatest forces of the age tensely clash over the Maid. The Catholic Church, the Inquisition, the Holy Roman Empire, Feudalism and Nationalism, Protestantism and Ecclesiasticism: these mighty institutions and faiths, embodied as stage figures, wage war to the death over the devoted head of a gallant girl. "What more do you want for a tragedy as great as that of Prometheus? Shaw observed "All the forces that bring about the catastrophe are on the grandest scale, and the individual soul on which they press is of the most indomitable force and temper".

There are ironic reversals of fortune in Joan's lite and career. After she raises the siege of Orleans and succeeds in crowning Charles in the cathedral at Rheims, she wants to press on to Paris and drive every Englishman out of France. One by one, however, everyone condemns or abandons her, so that her greatest moment of victory turns into one of bitter defeat. Much later, during her trial, worn out in body and spirit, she trusts the Church rather than God and signs her recantation, confessing "to the sin of disobedience, to the sin of pride and to the sin of heresy". She expects to be set free.

Ironically, she is condemned "to eat the bread of sorrow and drink the water of affliction" and to spend the rest of her life in prison. Outraged, she rises up in protest, tears up her recantation, realizes the Church's counsel is "of the devil," and reaffirms her faith in God. Not surprisingly, she is condemned as a heretic and burnt at the stake. Apparently, then, Joan's pride, along with the ironic reversals in her life, bring about her nemesis and has a catastrophic effect on all who witness her martyrdom. True, our hearts are wrung with pity as we sec her being abandoned and destroyed step by step. We may even exclaim in awe or terror, "There but for the grace of God go I!"

Nevertheless, as we watch the conflict between Joan's simple faith and the worldly power ot the Church and the State, we are not quite convinced that Joan is guilty of pride. Rather, those who accuse her seem to be on an ego trip. Moreover, she is so full ol innocence, energy and charm that we are compelled to echo the words ot the French captain in the opening scene: "There is something about her... Something... I think the girl herself is a bit of a miracle".

Moreover, the ironies surrounding her terrible end are not wholly tragic. With grim satisfaction, Warwick observes laconically "that it is all over." Ladvenu replies, with pungent irony, that "It may have only just begun". Later, when the Executioner declares, "You have heard the last of her," Warwick is compelled to remark wryly, "The last of her? Hm! I wonder!" The truth of the matter is that though Joan is burnt at the stake and her earthly life may be over, by a sublime irony, her career as a divine saint has just begun. This is borne out in the Epilogue too.

She has seen the Light. Hence, she threatens those who not only prefer to dwell in the darkness of their "cave." but also seek to perpetuate the status quo. The world has no choice but to get rid of her.

Yet another intriguing aspect of St. Joan is that there are no base villains. Once again, Henderson's observations are noteworthy:

One of the salient features of the play is Shaw's pre-eminent fairness, his unprejudiced presentation of the trial as just and legitimate. "There were no villains in the tragedy of Joan's death," Shaw has stated. "She was entirely innocent, hut her excommunication was genuine act of faith and piety; and her execution followed inevitably".

With his keen understanding, Shaw has discerned that the tragic story of Joan would be devoid of meaning altogether if it is read as one in which an innocent "Lamb" is slaughtered by evil 'butchers.' Instead, he presents Cauchon, the Bishop of Beauvais, the Inquisitor and all those with them in the long drawn-out sham of a trial as fools who act out of ignorance born of self-importance or pride. They are all, as Joan comments penetratingly in the Epilogue, "as honest a lot of poor fools as ever burned their betters." In terms of Plato's myth, they are prisoners who are so caught up with and certain of the shadows on the wall of their cave that they simply cannot see the Light, even when it comes down to them from above.

This is supported by a point discussed by Shaw himself in his lengthy Preface. He argues that inborn genius provokes fear and hate, whereas shallow abilities, especially in the realm or military leadership and politics, are welcomed and even praised. We readily reward and elevate the soldiers, while we gladly get rid of the rare seers and the saints in our midst. Or as Shaw says more pithily, "it is far more dangerous to be a saint than to be a conqueror".

"But Plato is employing allegory," cry the voices of dissent. "He is not expounding tragedy." Not so. Plato is simultaneously exploring a philosophical idea and delineating a tragic action. Plato might almost be relating in metaphor what happened to his beloved master, Socrates, thereby prefiguring and forecasting what would happen to a Christ or a Joan on the illusory stage of the world centuries later. In short, even though he does not call it tragedy, Plato is projecting his own vision of tragedy —a vision that is penetrating by its very simplicity.

Specifically, then, St. Joan is tragedy a La Plato. It is tragedy, under the aspect of eternity, as God sees it: the characters act out their different roles simultaneously, the Inquisitor, Cauchon, Ladvenu, Warwick and the others are all sinning in egotistic ignorance, the common people are all suffering in silence and Joan is martyring herself. The blindness in the play, therefore, is not mundane, but spiritual. The blindness is not in Joan but in Everyman, who fails to recognize the Word when it becomes flesh. "Must then,' cries Cauchon in the Epilogue, "a Christ perish in torment in every age to save those that have no imagination?"Such a reading places St. Joan squarely in the tradition of religious drama in English Literature, a worthy successor lo Milton's Samson Agonistes and a stunning predecessor to Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral. Also, it makes St. Joan universal and perennial.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks a lot

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