The Shavian Web: Three Aspects of "Saint Joan"

Seminar Paper 1995 16 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature



1. Introduction

2. Shaw’s Attitude to History

3. Philosophical Tradition Shaping Shaw’s Ideas
3.1 The Victorian Heritage
3.2 The Hegelian Influence

4. Shaw’s Adaptations of History
4.1 Departures from History
4.2 Dramatic Effects

5.Questions Concerning the Genre

6. Joan and the Life Force

7.Aesthetic Considerations

8. Joan’s Value for the 20th century

9. Conclusion

10. Bibliography

1. Introduction

This paper concentrates on Shaw's understanding of history as it is manifest in his chronicle play Saint Joan. The attempted examination will be carried out along three aspects which are quite clearly discernible yet closely intertwined. Broadly speaking, these aspects could be called:

1. The historical; finding out how close is Shaw to the historical facts of which he was in full knowledge.
2. The dramatic; leaving aside the obvious "Stage Limits of Historical Representation" (Shaw's own wording in the Preface to the play) it shall be shown how Shaw exploits optimally the dramatic potential of Joan's story.
3. The didactic; this term being used for the sake of argument to cover Shaw's social, political and moral concerns.

In the following chapters these three aspects will be shown in their mutual relation whereby attention will be paid to the question of their eventual hierarchy. What was Shaw's main goal when writing Saint Joan ? Did he intend to tell what happened in France in the first half of the 15th century? Did he want to write a parable conveying pungent social criticism without having to be too explicit? Or did he just feel like writing a good play which Saint Joan undoubtedly is? In other words, I will try to work out the intentions underlying the interplay of the aspects mentioned above and show how these are determined by Shaw's weltanschauung, which is to say by his philosophical/religious conception of the creative evolution.

2. Shaw's Attitude to History

There is little doubt that Shaw understood himself not as a historian but as a playwright, this profession enabling him to express his ideas in a highly digestible way. "My business is to incarnate the Zeitgeist"[1] he proclaimed, and indeed his plays capture quite successfully the essential historical forces of his time. Nevertheless, Shaw's oeuvre includes several plays whose subject-matter is historical, reaching well back to ancient history.

Shaw described Saint Joan as a "chronicle play"; to create one meant for him to arrange history for the stage."[2] But what happens to the historical facts during this procedure? The adaptation "alter them at once, more or less.“[3] The two expressions Shaw uses for transforming history into drama, "arrange" and "adapt", are significant for understanding the Shavian approach. Any adaptation inherently involves a change, and arranging facts is more than just selecting them. And one could go one step further since even a mere selection involves certain decisions reflecting the intentions of the author. For Shaw, a mere presentation of the given facts, with whatever dramatic dexterity it might be carried out, was not enough. What he does in the play is to give his interpretation of Joan's story; this is in fact what each of the authors dealing with the theme before him had done in his or her own way, but by the course of history Shaw was privileged over the previous writers dealing with Saint Joan in two ways: he had access to the "historical truth" through Quicherat's documents; and Joan's canonization in 1920 opened an additional perspective from which her story could be viewed. Though this act was in principle only a perfection of the 1456 rehabilitation process, such intensive interest in her person nearly half a millennium after her time and the symbolical significance of proclaiming Joan a saint, offered Shaw an opportunity to give his opinion not only on the story of Joan's life and death but on modern history in general.

Shaw held that history was "an indispensable part of the education of a citizen."[4] But he was grossly dissatisfied with the way history was taught at schools. He proclaimed to have derived his knowledge and consciousness of history from the works of Shakespeare, Scott, Dickens, Dumas and others - i.e. from artistically transformed interpretations of history, and he hoped that his own plays would serve next generations in a similar way: "Familiarity with them would get a student safely through examination papers on their periods."[5]

3. Philosophical Tradition Shaping Shaw's Ideas

3.1 The Victorian Heritage

It is worth having a look at the tradition of thought which shaped Shaw's understanding of history. Though Shaw was rather reluctant to admit being indebted in his opinions to any particular historian or philosopher, his dramatic as well as essayistic output shows that a certain amount of influence in this respect is undeniable. One root of Shaw's attitude to history is to be found in certain streams of Victorian thinking, perhaps most notably in the writings of Carlyle (and one does not necessarily have to join George Orwell in his view that Shaw is ”Carlyle and water“[6][7] ). Typically for Shaw, the Victorian historicism, similar to the tradition of the Victorian drama, serves him both as a nourishing soil and as a springboard; the heritage is partly to be digested and partly to be recoiled from. Shaw accepts Carlyle's concept of history as a continuum where no essential distinctions between the past and the present can be drawn and he also shares his sense of relevance of the past to contemporary human experience. What Shaw could not accept was the Victorians' ardent belief in progress resulting from Darwin's evolutionary theory, as represented by Macaulay's conviction that the present is the best of times; this, incidentally, Carlyle contradicted. Such rifts in Victorian thinking contributed perhaps to Shaw's philosophical eclecticism and delight in paradoxes.

To avoid any misconceptions concerning Shaw's notions about progress, distinction should be made between the words "progress" and "evolution". In the preface to Saint Joan he expresses a rather skeptical view of any positive development of mankind in terms of moral and social improvement as opposed to mere mechanical progress. His skepticism relates not only to the progress from the past to the present but also to the prospects for the future: "We must (...) give up the notion that Man as he exists is capable of net progress."[8] From this statement and even more clearly from the distinction he makes between "Man as he is and Man as he might become"[9] it is apparent that Shaw in his skepticism does not reject the eventual possibility of progress. This is the point where his theory of the creative evolution comes into play. Shaw favoured the Lamarckian evolutionary concept since it operated with a will to change inherent to all organisms and thus provided a certain metaphysical air for the scientific reasoning of progress. Shaw’s doctrine of Life Force, inspired by evolutionary theories of Butler and Bergson as well as the notion of a Will to Life and/or Power propounded by Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, bears certain metaphysical or even mystical traits; Shaw himself admitted: "I am, and always have been a mystic."[10] It seems that Life Force was about the only thing on earth the Fabian Socialist was unable to give a rational explanation for: "Somehow or other, there is at the back of the universe a will, a life force."[11] This is for Shaw the driving force of the evolution but only those who are conscious of it can move mankind one step forward. Evolution is possible only when mankind overcomes its own limitations, when Man becomes a Superman. The down-to-earth biological side of this doctrine is presented at its clearest in Man and Superman and Back to Methuselah while in Saint Joan, so to say, Shaw provided the spiritual line.

3.2 The Hegelian Influence

Given the Victorian background to Shaw's philosophy I want to point out the second decisive factor of Shavianism, namely the influence of Hegel's dialectic idealism. Shaw's acquaintance with Hegel's teaching is already suggested by his defensive remark that his mind did not "work in Hegelian grooves".[12] Whatever Shaw might have meant by it, there are quite discernible Hegelian elements to be found in his works, of which Saint Joan is a fine example. Hegel's concept of history being the history of thought and of historical epochs as embodiments of ideas and religions goes well along with Shaw's method of dramatizing history by showing the historical institutions, their driving forces and the thoughts they stood for. It could also be argued that in Saint Joan Shaw accomplished a dramatic reconciliation of the Hegelian approach and the Carlylean thesis that "the history of the world is but a biography of great men" by way of representing the ideas by major characters on the stage.


[1] Quoted in J.L. Wisenthal: Shaw ’s Sense of History, Oxford, 1989, p. 140.

[2] Martin Meisel: Shaw and the Nineteenth-Century Theater, Princeton, 1963, p. 371.

[3] Bernard Shaw: Collected Plays with their Prefaces (later referred to as CCP), vol. I, London, 1973, p. 480.

[4] Bernard Shaw: Everybody’s Political What’s What, London, 1950, p. 180.

[5] See note 1, p. 73.

[6] This section is based largely on J.L. Wisenthal’s Shaw’s Sense of History (see note 1), esp. pp. 1-55.

[7] George Orwell: Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters, vol. I, London: Secker&Warburg, 1968, p. 119.

[8] Shaw, CCP I, p. 193.

[9] Ibid, p. 188.

[10] William B. Furlong: Shaw and Chesterton – the Metaphysical Jesters, Pennsylvania University Press, 1970, p. 83.

[11] William Searle: The Saint and the Skeptics, Detroit, 1976, p. 101.

[12] Robert Whitman: Shaw and the Play of Ideas, London, 1977, p. 119.


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Technical University of Berlin – Institu für Englische und Amerikanische Literaturwisenschaft
Shavian Aspects Saint Joan George Bernard Shaw Chronicle History Play Life Force



Title: The Shavian Web: Three Aspects of "Saint Joan"