by Brenda W. Clough
Is it really possible to be a saint? What would we do if one arrived here, today? George Bernard Shaw knew the answer. We would kill her. At the very end of his great play St. Joan, the long-dead Joan even offers to come back from her martyrdom. Her associates beg her to stay dead. We cannot bear true goodness, cannot hear the true voice of God. It was this conclusion (I believe) that drove Shaw’s critics crazy when the play first came out in 1923.
This is the first play by Shaw that I’ve actually seen on stage. No, endless productions of My Fair Lady are not the same. A drama should be seen, not read on the page. I took in the Bedlam Company’s magnificent stripped-down staging of Shaw’s masterpiece at the Folger Shakespeare Library‘s theater. The conceit of this production is a very, very truncated cast. Have a look at this photo, from the production. There are three actors in it, and that is 75% of the cast. Yes, they’ve staged the entire play, with its 24-odd characters, with only four people! A stupendous actress, Dria Brown, plays Joan. Three men play everyone else. It’s a tour-de-force of theatricality, which I should have expected since these same people were responsible for Sense & Sensibility a few years ago. The fascination of watching actors shuffle into and out of roles never fails.
As a result, a three-hour play with almost no action (you do not go to George Bernard Shaw for helicopters descending from the flies or turntables for tap dancing) becomes absolutely gripping in these supremely expert hands. Shaw was a master of the language, and here you can watch it spin. He was one of the great dramatists, and here he is at the height of his powers. And the pure horsepower of this production brings Joan’s fate into sharp relief. Can we recognize God’s power when we see it? One of the characters asks this, in 1429. The epilogue reveals that Joan is canonized in 1920. Shaw wrote this play in 1923. It took the church more than 400 years to identify Joan as a Heavenly messenger. So the answer, Shaw notes, is no. We cannot recognize God’s saints. We cannot bear them. And remember, he wrote this between the wars. Surely his audience streamed out into the streets of London or New York, and wondered who was alive in that day, who speaks with God’s voice unrecognized. Like all great art, St. Joan is timeless. Because we can wonder the same thing.