George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950) lived through so much of the twentieth century, and so much of his writing remains startlingly up-to-date, that we sometimes forget his Victorian roots. The theatrical tradition he was brought up on was that of nineteenth-century barnstorming. When Shaw directed his own plays, actors would sometimes complain that the business he wanted them to perform was “stagy.” To which Shaw would retort, “You can’t be too stagy for the stage.” “My plays must be acted, and acted hard,” he once wrote to a colleague in a dispute over interpretation. Not that Shaw was unsubtle, or that he wants his performers reduced to mere shouting; no playwright is smarter about building his effects, making his characters traverse a wide range both vocally and emotionally. Shaw is a rich mine if artists don’t hesitate to dig for the ore.
Shaw subtitled Saint Joan (1923) “a Chronicle Play,” a clue to the nineteenth-century genre on which his drama is a Modernist take. Victorian theatergoers knew such plays well. Modeled on Shakespeare’s histories, they treated the life of some famous historical figure in a sequence of tableau-like scenes, not tautly organized in dramatic terms, from early stirrings to final defeat or death. Lavish sets — which in the nineteenth century meant a leisurely pace and multiple intermissions — and storybook-illustration costumes were a perquisite. In the twentieth century, the movies appropriated the genre: Think of George Arliss as Disraeli, James Cagney as George M. Cohan, or Elisabeth Bergner (on stage a famous Saint Joan) as Catherine the Great.
Shaw, being Shaw, uses the genre for his own purposes. Letting his gift for irony pepper his historical sense, he makes Joan both a proto-feminist and a portrait of his heroic ideal of the gifted individual. Along her way from her father’s sheep-cote to victory, and then on to her trial and execution by burning, she knocks against conventional ideas of women’s roles, of class distinctions, of religious dogmas, and of group identity. In order to discuss her, the French bishop Cauchon (Walter Bobbie) and the English general Warwick (Jack Davenport) have to invent the words “protestant” and “nationalist” — concepts which, for opposite reasons, make both men highly uncomfortable. In the midst of the medieval turf war between the natives of France and its English rulers, Shaw sees Joan as a catalyst, precipitating the arrival of the Reformation and the rise of national identities while remaining essentially unchanged herself. But even these changes don’t suffice to save Joan: The play’s famous epilogue demonstrates that, for all the fine words that gushed out when she was canonized in 1920, even our world isn’t yet ready for such an exceptional being.
Though a glorious temptation for actors and directors — the new Manhattan Theater Club revival is the work’s eighth on Broadway since the Theatre Guild gave the world premiere in 1923 — Saint Joan has never been an easy play to stage. Its length and wordiness, its capricious leaps into comedy, its elaborate demands, and its stately progression from scene to scene all have the potential to hinder the fiery magnificence of its greatest moments. More than any other Shaw play, it constantly leads up to speeches and encounters that make Shaw one of the necessary playwrights, but more than any other work of his (save a few late misfires), it often seems to take an unconscionable amount of time getting to those hair-raising moments. It must be cut, but there is always the danger of cutting too much. And it must be “acted hard,” as he said, but the danger of going over the top is equally always there.
Daniel Sullivan’s production recognizes the difficulties, as one might expect from a director of his long experience, but only erratically succeeds at finding solutions for them. His first unwise step is to frame the action, in Scott Pask’s set, with what look like the pipes of a giant cathedral organ. It adds nothing, and, although it doesn’t hamper movement, it feels cramped visually. Even Jane Greenwood’s costumes, though more brightly varied than the dangling organ pipes, seem to have followed a directorial instruction to keep the pageantry toned-down. The overall atmosphere is somberly low-keyed.
That would do no harm if Joan were there to set it alight, but Condola Rashad, who has shown fine mettle in other roles, comes off here as a strangely cautious, even hesitant Joan. It’s as if she, or Sullivan, had worried more about the risk of overdoing than about the diminishing returns that come with doing less. There are moments — one or two in the court scene with the Dauphin (Adam Chanler-Berat); another at the end of the cathedral scene — when the fierce Joan emerges, the one who knows her way and will not be stopped. At those moments you think, “Yes, unquestionably, Condola Rashad can play Saint Joan.” And then you mentally add, “So why doesn’t she stop worrying and do it?”
Sullivan has not helped her, or Shaw, by making some very eccentric decisions about the text. “I thought France would have friends at the court of the king of France; and I find only wolves fighting for pieces of her poor torn body.” I put it to you, female members of Actors’ Equity: If you were playing Joan, would you let the director cut that line? In another of Sullivan’s wounds to Shaw, he has deleted Chaplain de Stogumber (Robert Stanton) from the Epilogue. This riles me particularly because his scene provokes one of the best and most resonant lines in all of Shaw: “Must then a Christ perish in torment in every age to save those that have no imagination?”
Against those demerits, Sullivan’s production balances many merits — most notably several strong, well-spoken actors, in key roles, who can and do bring the play’s long rhetorical speeches to powerful life. Even these life-currents, however, remain erratic, because the scenes feel unshaped. A speech flares up magically only to have its energy, unmatched, fizzle out. Patrick Page (Baudricout/The Inquisitor), John Glover (Archbishop of Rheims), Chanler-Berat, Bobbie, and Davenport are among those giving capable performances. But except for Davenport, a newcomer to Broadway, these actors are all known quantities, from whom we’ve seen, and have a right to expect, great performances. Mere capability isn’t enough for a work of Saint Joan’s extraordinary stature.
To paraphrase another Protestant martyr burned at the stake, they should in this play light such a candle in our hearts as by God’s grace could never be put out. The Victorian grandeur that Shaw’s roles demand, and the bravery to give them that grandeur, in our half-hearted time, are needed to make this play live. If employed, they might amaze us by making it seem even more relevant. The Victorian political and religious conflicts that Shaw lived through were every bit as shabby and mean-spirited as ours today. He ignited them with fiery rhetoric so that, by its blazing light, we could see them for what they were.