Utopianism, History, Freedom and Nature: Shaw’s Theory of “Creative Evolution” in Saint Joan
From Firenze University Press Journal: Rivista Italiana di Filosofia Politica
Shoshana Milgram Knapp, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
Anna Rita Gabellone, University of Salento
- Saint Joan Between History and Utopia
As we approach the centennial of Saint Joan: A Chronicle Play in Six Scenes and an Epilogue, we aim to offer a new reading of Saint Joan, one of George Bernard Shaw’s most criticized plays. Composed three years after the canonization of Joan of Arc in 1920, it premiered on December 28, 1923, at the Garrick Theatre in New York; on March 20, 1924, it was performed on the London stage with Sybil Thorndike (for whom Shaw had written the part) at the New Theatre in Saint Martin’s Lane.2
It has been the subject of debate ever since. The debate was further fuelled by the long preface Shaw wrote for the play in May 1924. To understand Shaw’s goals and to appreciate his achievement, this article proposes to take into account Shaw’s ideas (original to him, as well as learned from others) about the individual and society, history and thought, and the temptation to see and shape the future in the image of what might be called a “utopi-an vision.” During the writing of this play, Shaw was in Ireland with his wife Charlotte, who encouraged her husband in this project. For technical information about Catholicism and Joan’s background, Shaw consulted Father Joseph Leonard, an Irish priest and Vincentian scholar then teach-ing in London, who helped him in reconstructing the life of Joan of Arc (c. 1412 — May 30, 1431). This work was immediately at the centre of bit-ter controversy. A key issue was Shaw’s statement in the preface that there were “no villains in the piece.” But if Joan is a saint, how then can no blame be assigned to those who abandoned, accused, or executed her? If Joan is entirely innocent of heresy, is no one to be deemed guilty for her death? Yet in addition to not vilifying Bishop Cauchon, who put Joan on trial, Shaw appears to defend, rather than condemn, the institution of the medieval Catholic Church. For Shaw, among the most distinguished Irish playwrights of the twentieth century and one who described his family background as “Irish Protestant,” attacking Catholicism would have been too obvious.
He did not see Catholics as the villains, and he did not see Catholicism as the enemy. His attitude toward Cauchon and the Inquisi-tion does not denote conversion from Protestantism to Catholicism. Shaw, on the contrary, sought to explain a particular episode in history through the lens of his theory of “creative evolution,” which itself was a develop-ment of his ideas on history. The necessity for Shaw of an evolution of the human race is an aspect that he had addressed more directly in other works, from Man and Super-man (1903) to Back to Methuselah (1918–1920). Less salient in Saint Joan, this theme was nonetheless a key to the play, worthy of further investiga-tion and reflection. It is indeed not aligned with contemporary science but is part of the history of ideas. Shaw’s “vitalist” theory may initially come across as an eclectic mix of the ideas of Samuel Butler, Henri Bergson,Arthur Schopenhauer, Henrick Ibsen, and Friedrich Nietzsche. For this reason, it has frequently been dismissed as a consequence of the author’s eccentricity and not regarded as a way to explain the difficult relationship between humans and nature.
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