Joan of Arc has been a dominant figure in both medieval studies and in culture more generally, especially following her late canonisation in the early twentieth century. The daughter of peasants, Joan of Arc managed to go from the fields of Domrémy to the court of the Dauphin Charles VII in a life that lasted only nineteen years. She first appears on history’s radar when she arrived at the siege of Orléans claiming that the voices she heard had instructed her to lift the siege and have the Valois Prince crowned on the French Throne, usurping the English child king Henry VI. Her success in these endeavours already ensured her place in history. After relieving the city of Orléans, she proceeded to lead armies wearing fitted armour and men’s clothing, eventually crowning the Dauphin at the cathedral of Reims in July of 1429. However, from here things went downhill. After a failed siege at Paris Joan was captured at Compiegne, tried (on behalf of the English) by the opposing Armagnac Inquisitional Courts and condemned to death. Joan confessed her alleged crimes both in public and private after a 3 month long interrogation, but relapsed by taking up male clothing again and “like a dog returned to her vomit” her heresy led her to be burned at the stake on the 30th of May 1431.[1]

The story of Joan of Arc is full of twist and turns, and the extraordinary narrative of her life has left a rich vein of historical interpretation to be tapped when representing her in the present day. Joan plausibly be portrayed in many different guises: warrior, mystic, heretic, saint, transvestite, virginal martyr etc., or even many of these simultaneously. This makes her a perfect figure for the stage. In the words of Joan historian Kelley Devries, “No person of the Middle Ages, male or female, has been the subject of more study [than Joan of Arc]”.[2]

The historical record of Joan of Arc’s appearances in English theatre begins with Shakespeare in 1590: she features as a character in the history play Henry VI Part I. To say the Bard’s representation shows Joan of Arc in a negative light would be an almost unparalleled understatement. Beverly Ellison Warner in her work English History in Shakespeare’s Plays, offers this condemnation of his characterisation of Joan:

It is the greatest of all pities that Shakespeare read his chronicles too closely, and in this instance especially, transferred from their naturally biased pages, a picture of Joan of Arc, so grossly untrue and unfair, that one is reconciled to the theory that he did not conceive the Joan of his drama[3]

It is likely that Shakespeare’s Joan of Arc, instead of being a constructed theatrical character, is rather a representation of the perception and propaganda that surrounded her in sixteenth century England. Shakespeare’s English historical sources, Holinshed’s Chronicles, were unsurprisingly unkind to Joan as a figure and there is a deliberate attempt to dismantle her peasant origins and question her virginal status. Take this exchange for example:

Shepherd: Fie, Joan, that thou wilt be so obstacle!
God knows thou art a collop of my flesh;
And for thy sake have I shed many a tear:
Deny me not, I prithee, gentle Joan.

Joan la Pucelle:  Peasant, avaunt! You have suborn’d this man,
Of purpose to obscure my noble birth.

Shepherd: ‘Tis true, I gave a noble to the priest
The morn that I was wedded to her mother.
Kneel down and take my blessing, good my girl.
Wilt thou not stoop? Now cursed be the time
Of thy nativity! I would the milk
Thy mother gave thee when thou suck’dst her breast,
Had been a little ratsbane for thy sake!
Or else, when thou didst keep my lambs a-field,
I wish some ravenous wolf had eaten thee!
Dost thou deny thy father, cursed drab?
O, burn her, burn her! hanging is too good.

(Henry IV Part I, Act V Scene IV)

Recently, the BBC’s Shakespeare series The Hollow Crown has revisited this portrayal of Joan and brought a new angle to it. As opposed to presenting her as a more traditional crone-like figure, the BBC has followed the trend of late twentieth century productions of Henry VI Part I by spinning the role of Joan a little more positively – although there has been considerable criticism over her rather inexplicable Yorkshire accent. The BBC’s Joan is much more true to history than the original figure conjured by Shakespeare; she is portrayed as a charismatic and assertive leader and is central to the events of the play. This change, without any altering of the script is our best indicator that stage representations of Joan of Arc as a figure have become more representative of the singularly impressive woman that she was.

We can see the development of Joan of Arc’s representation on the English stage by jumping back to the early twentieth century. There is a considerable difference between George Bernard Shaw’s portrayal of France’s most famous heretic in Saint Joan (1924) than in Shakespeare’s early malicious parody. This drama, widely hailed, along with Pygmalion, as one of Shaw’s masterpieces, draws heavily from the trial records. The play centres around Joan’s interrogation rather than her heroic actions and eventual martyrdom, which generally appear offstage. In 1913 Shaw visited Orléans and saw the fifteenth-century sculptured head of St Maurice, traditionally believed by the inhabitants of the town to have been modelled after Joan herself. “It is a wonderful face […] the face of a born leader,” Shaw wrote in a letter to his friend, the actress Stella Campbell, “I shall do a Joan play some day, beginning with the sweeping up of the cinders and orange peel after her martyrdom, and going on with Joan’s arrival in heaven… Would you like to play Joan and come in on horseback in arm and fight innumerable supers?”

It wasn’t until much later that, following the success of Pygmalion, Joan of Arc would be resurrected before an audience by Shaw’s script. On the 28th of December 1923 the play opened in New York to mixed reviews. The response was similar three months later when the show opened across the Atlantic, although as time progressed the play became more and more celebrated, as did Shaw himself: he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1925.

Shaw’s Joan demonstrates a huge development from Shakespeare’s crone and demonstrates how, in the early twentieth century,  a very different Joan of Arc was starting to emerge in the English imagination. At the core of Saint Joan Shaw places the anxiety of asking whether, if Joan of Arc were alive today, she would suffer the same fate at our hands that befell her in medieval France. Shaw’s Joan says in her final moments, “are none of you ready to receive me… how long oh lord, how long.”  Despite the plays title, humanity is the key to Joan’s characterisation in Saint Joan , she is not represented as an untouchable saint or historical icon, but as a human being. Her weaknesses are human weakness, particularly within the inquisitorial context. Joan signs a confession after the realisation that she is about to be burned alive and crumples to the floor. Historians have been critical of the play, and have been quick in particular to dismiss Shaw’s contention that Joan was in fact an early Protestant who faced impartial judges, but while these criticisms are valid, Shaw’s play is exactly that: a play. Saint Joan is not a history textbook, but an imaginative exploration of a young heroine condemned to die. Shaw’s angle was also influential, with subsequent twentieth century plays often mirroring Saint Joan’s interest in Joan of Arc’s trial over than her more militaristic achievements.

In 2007, the National Theatre put on a production of Saint Joan, casting the fabulous Anne Marie Duff in the title role at the age of 36, almost double the age at which Joan of Arc died. This role has frequently been described as the female Hamlet because of the  psychological exploration Shaw manages to stage, but also for the iconic stature of the role. The National’s revival was particularly interesting given its close temporal proximity to the London bombings of 2005, as it delved deeply into the psychology of religious fanaticism with greater urgency given the tragedy that had been wreaked on the city not long previously and the political aftermath of the attacks.

The human angle that Shaw brings to the character of Joan of Arc in Saint Joan was aptly suited for a nuanced production at this difficult point in time. In an interview with The Telegraph, Marianne Elliot, the director of the National’s production, said that she wasn’t interested in the figure of Joan as a saint “because she’s an angel, so why would I be worried about her? But when you read the play, you realise how real she was. She wasn’t impervious to pain.”[4] Joan is captivating as a result of her humanity and her ordinariness, certainly ironic when taking the title into account.

Exactly ten years on from Saint Joan’s run at the National, early this year the Donmar Warehouse staged a production of the play featuring the cast all in modern dress, with Gemma Arterton taking the lead under the direction of Josie Rouke. This was a production which emphasised Joan less as a fundamentalist, and more as an embodiment of a popular movement. Instead of great courts and castles, the action moulded itself around a boardroom. The financial crisis hits and Joan becomes a beacon of hope and stability. This once again demonstrates the malleability of Joan of Arc as a theatrical character, which enables various directors to fit her into their various contemporary moments. Producer Michael Holrod once wrote in The Guardian that “Joan of Arc ha[s] become public property. Hers was a voice that spoke to the imagination of artists, musicians and writers; as a symbol she represented the differing needs of successive generations.”[5] It is this quality that makes Joan of Arc, a teenager who died in fifteenth century France, so relevant to English theatre today.

Theatre doesn’t need to explain. It doesn’t need to be the definitive interpretation, it instead asks you to explore your own conscience and ask you what you would like to take from it. Joan of Arc has become pivotal to this. France’s national hero has found a place on the English stage and she’s here to stay. On International Women’s Day, of all days, this is certainly something to celebrate.

[1] Craig Taylor, La Pucelle, (Manchester University Press: 2006): 120

[2] Kelly DeVries, “Teenagers at War During the Middle Ages”, The Premodern Teenager: Youth in Society, 1150-1650, ed. Konrad Eisenbichler, (Toronto: Centre for Renaissance and Reformation Studies, 2002): 220

[3] Beverly Ellison Warner, English History in Shakespeare’s Plays, (Longmans: 1903)

[4] Jasper Rees, “St Joan Should Die on Stage”, The Telegraoh 7th July 2007.

[5] Michael Holroyd, “A Tragedy Without Villains”, The Guardian 14th July 2007.