(BTW/ highly recommended–the current run of Shaw’s St. Joan at Studio Theatre directed by 30-year-director Micheline Chevrier.)
Joan is very much a reminder of what was possible for remarkable young women of the 1400s, as well as the limits and limitations that brought her downfall and death. She was, in many ways, a ‘modern woman’ dressing in men’s attire and cutting her hair in a man’s style (c.f. Ellen) though those descriptive terms are more in flux these daze. Where there are acceptance and tolerance today, such was not possible for ‘male-looking’ women in those limited/limiting times from a gender point of view. (The director of this production makes this point by somewhat boldly and successfully casting her young actresses in male roles. This serves to remind us of how much the times have changed and removes/counter-argues some of the objections of authority figures in the play.)
Of Joan’s madness, well, today she might have her own religious tv show and followers. Or she might be medicated as schizophrenics (who hear voices) are today, thereby allowing her to move about freely in the world and nature she loved, instead of being locked up for the rest of her life–the threat made by the church in the play.
All this within the longer historical context of the recent Pope’s installation and no change so far on the policy of no women in the Catholic priesthood–a sore point, no doubt, for many female believers. So much for equal rights. True, Joan might have become an earnest nun today, by default, perhaps, though one on medication, if she got too publicly embarrassing or ‘big for her britches’.
But Shaw’s play is also about those saints and geniuses who take public oaths seriously and how these reflect their own deep personal beliefs and consciences, to say nothing of their consciousnesses. It is on those bases that these unique, inspiring individuals usually run into opposition with the laws and interests of whatever country and time, and the mostly (Shaw suggests) ordinary folk who’d only too happily choose to witness whatever resultant fall and public pillorying.
Are people less ignorant today in our increasingly e-dominated, dumbed-down, greedy, selfish, materialistic society? Oh, maybe she’d have her Twitter and Facebook followers and ‘friends’, and less privacy than a private religious trial in France of the 1400s. But there would also be a lot of enemies and just plain indifferent folks out there who’d still tune in to see her burn on the six o’clock news.
There are also those out there who don’t have much use for rebels and people who ‘rock the boat’ (cf., the Alberta and Canadian governments), who don’t line up and take oaths of secret loyalty promising never to expose or embarrass those who rule. Whistle blowers, true mavericks, and others who speak the truths of their own personal and inner experiences are generally still not welcome in places of power. No, Joan would most likely still be called mad today and hastily removed. She would be very distracting–a reminder of the possibilities, power, and influence of the passionate individual. Someone many women today would have no problem identifying with.
In heavily chauvinistic times, female troublemakers were more easily disposed of back then. And like JFK, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and a host of other outspoken individuals from his/herstory, gotten rid of when their ‘usefulness’ became ‘inconvenient’ to others and their evil, selfish, political and personal agendas. Notwithstanding the conflictful context she lived in and her belated vindication by the church, St. Joan remains, more importantly, a reminder of the terrible limits and limitations of less inspired individuals and of mundane society, as well as the insensitive harm both inflict upon the true, beautiful, honest, innocent, and good.