Joan of Arc in Opera and Theatre

By Jenny-Jinya Hefczyc

Shaw's "Saint Joan" in 1992 is performed by the Berlin Renaissance Theatre. Shaw's version of Joan is as an emancipated fighter: This interpretation was well received with the intellectuals of the twenties, however it was violently criticised by conservatives. 


The legend of Joan is a strong story - as if it was created for a heroic novel. It seems this still is not enough or the major poets. They are entranced by the fact that the heroine is a virgin and they write more about her personal message, which has little to do with the historical truth.


The history of the Maid of Orléans has inspired an army of authors over the course of centuries. More than 10,000 books and scientific works in which Joan plays the leading role are documented up to this day. Of course, many well known playwrights have also tried to bring the life and death of this unusual woman onto the stage: the most important ones being William Shakespeare, Bernard Shaw, Friedrich Schiller, Bertold Brecht and Jean Anouil. However, interpretations differ. For the authors, it was not so much about the factual representation of the truth, as it was about the way they each envisioned Joan. According to spirit of the times and the political or religious conviction of the author, Joan appears as a saint or whore, as a submissive servant of God, or  as an emancipated revolutionary.


The socialist George Bernard Shaw wrote  "Johanna" in 1923.
Pictures to his film are at the end of this side!

In his drama, "Henry VI," William Shakespeare describes Joan as a crazy magician who one cannot easily trust. In the first act she is introduced to the successor to the throne Charles with the words "The spirit of deep prophecy she hath,  exceeding the nine Sibyls of old Rome." The men meet her with a mixture of fascination and fear. Charles, who is impressed very much by her skill with fencing, calls her "ama zone" ; to the Englishman lord Talbot she is "a devil or devil's wife", or a "witch". The men in Shakespeare's drama are afraid of Joan for a good reason: she has magic powers. At night, she pulls the defenceless successor to the throne Charles into her spell and goes with him arm to arm in the darkness "as well as a pair of turtledoves in love". She bewitches the Duke of Burgundy with her words, leaves the Englishmen in the sting, and overruns the French. Her endless power is portrayed as the result of black magic. Now "help, her charms and amulets, and you which you warn me select minds, and signs me from future things give." [I couldn't find this passage in the play, but it really doesn't sound right] That Joan really is a magician assures her capture. There Shakespeare lets her say "too weakly are my old magic cheats."

The audience learns that she is not only in connection with dark powers, but also still has a bad character, at the end of the fifth act. Shortly before the combustion she denies own father: "Of wretched beggars! Decrepit farm-hand! I am descended from noble blood! You are not my father and my blood friend!" At the end Jeanne even still claims to be pregnant and not burnt. She doesn't even know whether Karl, the Duke of Alencon, or the King of Naples is the father.

**William Shakespeare: The English dramatist created the play "Henry VI"
during the years of 1589-1592. In it Joan appears as a witch and magician.**


Not everything in Shakespeare's work is historically accurate; Joan never claimed she practiced magical arts, she NEVER was Charles' lover, she never denied her father, and she was never pregnant despite the speech. (Comment by Jenny-Jinya; it should really have been made clear that Joan has simulated a pregnancy.) One may ask  why Shakespeare chose to make so many things up. "Henry VI," was opposed by his predominantly nationalist contemporaries. Shakespeare, born in 1564 in Stratford-on-Avon, lived in a time of European religious division. The Anglican Englishmen looked at the primarily Catholic French as enemies. Insane and the character-weak French national heroine fit well with this point of view. It's impressive that Shakespeare consciously took the British-national perception. The poet wanted to pursue a career. He came from a middle-class family, his father was a businessman who, in 1576, was in a financial crisis. William became at first a teacher, but he was not satisfied. At age 32, he managed to breakthrough. By catering to the spirit of the times he became the most famed stage author in London.

**Shakespare's "Henry VI" performed in 1980 by the Munich Studio Theatre (on top): Joan
owes her endless power of black magic.


Friedrich Schiller was not exactly truthful either. In his drama, "The Maid of Orleans," he portrays Joan as a classic heroine: virtuous, polite, and patriotic. A combative Jeanne d'Arc in men's clothes, without sex appeal, did not appeal to Schiller: His Joan appears in women's clothes. The only armour she wears is a helmet and breast-plate. Joan's virginity plays a key role in Schiller's drama. The Virgin Mary - who appears instead of the archangel Michael - says to her, "A pure virgin accomplishes every marvellous thing on earth if she resists the earthly love." As long as Joan kept her cleanliness, she had magic powers. The successor to the throne, Charles, does her without hesitating to the commander in chief; in the fight for Orléans the Englishmen quake before fright at the sight of her and cannot defend themselves any more. Joan's destiny takes a tragic turn when she looks into the English leader Lionel's eyes and falls in love. By having this romantic human feeling, she loses her strength. She cries, "What I have done! I have broken my vow!"

Now everything seems to turn against Joan. With the coronation in Reims she is betrayed by her father. Thilbaut d'Arc explains publicly that his daughter has signed a pact with the devil. Charles exiles Joan from his empire and later locks her away. At the end of the fourth act she manages to escape. With God's help she sprinkles her chains, and dies honourably on the battlefield. In the final scene she sinks, grievously injured, on her own flag, At the king's command, all flags are lowered softly onto her. Schiller doesn't speak of the pyre and witch's burning. The poet ,who was born in 1759 in Brookmar on the Neckar wants to describe in his "romantic tragedy" not the true history of the Jeanne d'arc, but a classical conflict. Destiny forces the heroine to decide between duty - the preservation of her virginity - and inclination - in this case love. According to Schiller's image the inclination must be overcome, so that the dignity of the person can come out. Joan is purified by exile and captivity and dies honourably on the battlefield. Why was abstinence so important to Schiller? One can only speculate. It is possible that the poet, when he wrote "The Maid of Orleans," was influenced by personal experiences. It is believed that he felt stormy affection for too many women. However, because of his unstable financial situation he was unable to court them. In 1787 he wrote to a friend: "I remain isolated forever in the world, I will nibble from all blessedness without enjoying."


**In Bertolt Brecht, "The Holy Joan of the Slaughterhouses"  (Die heilige Johanna der Schlachthöfe) from the year 1930 leads the heroine Johanna Dark into a class conflict in the meat factories of Chicago.**




The history of the virgin inspired the Englishman Bernard Shaw to write "Saint Joan" - a dramatic chronicle with six scenes and an epilogue. In the play the author, who was born in 1856 in Dublin, describes the history of Joan's visit with the commander of Vaucouleurs up to her execution. Shaw sticks to the historical facts, but shortens the history. She does not stay long at the court of the Dauphin, but is directly appointed the commander in chief and moves quickly to Orleans. Also, the author does not make the process and the execution last long. His Joan recognises quickly that the cancellation does not lead to her freedom, and they destroy the sheet with her signature.

Shaw's Joan is a strong woman: self-confident, quick, hard and at least as successful as her comrades-in-arms. The fact that she plays the role of the women's libber is no accident: Bernard Shaw fought publicly for the dismantling of social gender distinctions and for the emancipation of women. Five years after publishing "Saint Joan" he published "Signpost for the Intelligent Woman to Socialism and Capitalism." Shaw's progressive viewpoint was controversial in England of the 20s. In the fourth scene the chaplain expresses what Shaw's conservative opponents thought," to me, my healthy human mind says that this person is a rebel, and this is enough for me. She rebels against the church, because she claimed the divine authority of the pope. She must burn, but she still contaminates the whole municipality." Shaw's Joan is a revolutionary, and therefore she must die. At the end of the sixth scene she burns on the pyre, but not completely, her heart is not burned by the flames because it is immortal.

Victor Flemming: In 1948, he made the most famous film about "Joan of Arc" after a stage piece of Maxwell Anderson..


And so it is that she can appear 25 years old after her death once again. The last part of the drama, the epilogue, takes place in 1456 in the bedroom of Charles VII. In his dream, the king sees his brother, Martin Ladvenu, who says to him, "the judgment against the virgin has been lifted." Then Joan and a representative of the pope also appear from the year 1920 and explain that Joan has been canonised. With it all Prerau's settlements would be taken for a happy ending, but the story takes an astonishing turn: Jeanne wants to return on the earth. However, as people warn her: she is only burnt again. "We are not yet enough for you," explains her former comrade-in-arms Dunois. The epilogue ends with the desperate exclamation of the immortal virgin: "Oh the God to whom you have created this wonderful earth: How long should it be until she is ready to receive your saints? How long, oh God, how long?"



**Anouihl's Joan puts the childish naivety of the heroine in the foreground. By one dramatic trick the author gives the piece "Jeanne or the Lark" a happy ending. **


Bertolt Brecht has dealt thoroughly with the history of the Maid of Orléans. The life of the Jeanne d'Arc plays the leading role in the piece "a widely authentic Jeanne d'Arc to Rouen 1431." (Basis for the piece which Brecht wrote for the Berlin ensemble is a radio play by Anna Seghers.) Brecht describes here the questioning which Joan had to undergo. The statements of her voices and her order match word for word what was written down in the Episcopal protocol. Between the history-explaining narrations, Brecht lets the characters get a chance to speak. At the weekly market of Rouen, virginity is discussed. For example, Joan's "it means Lady Bedford has convinced himself personally that she is a virgin. It means that, besides, her spouse, our good duke of Bedford, by a specially invested opening in the floor also convinced himself." In another scene  a fish woman talks with a farmer. The fish woman says, "Misery that she is a witch where she is, nevertheless, against the Englishmen." The farmer says, "Your voices come from the devil!" The fish woman says, "Bah, what her voices say, it does not seem different than what all people say, namely the fact that the Englishmen from France have to go out."

These scenes seem at first like accidents, however, the first impression is deceptive. "The Voice of the people" plays a determining role in Brecht's stage play - it is the real explanation of the myth of the Jeanne d'Arc: The voices which the virgin heard were not those of the saints, but of the people. The farmers who talk in the last scene make this clear:

 "It was this way: First she ran up to the enemy, and was caught. And when she sat in her tower in Rouen, she heard nothing more from us and became weak like you and me. She has even recanted.


Peter Iljitsch Tschaikowsky made a musical monument to the French national heroine with the opera "Jeanne d'Arc" (1881.)

"But when she recanted, the simple folk in Rouen became so angry at her that they hit the heads of the Englishmen in the harbour until they were bloody. She found this out, nobody knows how, and thus won back her bravery. She recognised that the tribunal is no worse battlefield than the trenches of Orleans. And thus from her biggest defeat she gained our biggest victory. When her mouth fell silent, her voice was heard."

By this final scene, the socialist Brecht, born in 1898 in Augsburg and died in 1956 in East Berlin, gives the mission of Jeanne d'Arc a new meaning: France owes its freedom not to God, but to the people. In the most famous of his Jeanne d'Arc  operas, "Saint Joan of the Slaughterhouses," Brecht deviates quite far from the true history of the virgin. Johanna Dark lives in the working-class environment of Chicago. She fights not against English soldiers, but against lockouts, exploitation and hungry people - in short, against a capitalistic, inhuman economic system. In spite of this departure, there are many parallels in the 1929-published stage play between the historical and the modern Joan. Both believe in the justice of God and both have visions. Jeanne d'Arc heard voices and Johanna Dark dreams she will march at the head of an army through Chicago. "Before the morning, we will emerge from these neighbourhoods and reach the city of Chicago and with break of dawn, showing of our misery to all."

**Anouihl's Joan puts the childish naivety of the heroine in the foreground. By one dramatic trick the author gives the piece "Jeanne or the Lark" a happy ending. **


If it is a matter of reaching her purpose, the Joan of the slaughterhouse, exactly like her historical counterpart, does not shrink back from power. "I hear you saying that this never changes. The wrongs of this world will always exist. However, I say to you, one must march and not look back, and bring up tanks and cannons; and airplanes have to fly and warships run over the sea to win a plate of soup for the people." Exactly like Jeanne d'Arc, Johanna Dark asks the king for help. The "meat king," the owner of the slaughterhouse, also supports her fight at first, but later betrays her. Devoted "to the black straw hats" who stood firm behind her in the beginning, but hey likewise leave in the end. And thus the destiny of the Saint Joan of the slaughterhouses ends tragically. She dies of pneumonia at the age of 25 years. However, her legend continues to live.

Johanna Dark is still canonised, championed by "meat king". "We want to draw her up as a saint and refuse her no esteem. On the contrary we should show that humanity holds a high value with us." Also in the cynicism of this canonization there is a parallel between the historical Joan and the modern Joan. The church which burned Joan as a witch now praises her actions, the capitalist who oppressed her, in the last scene,  bury Johanna with tears of emotion in their eyes. The resemblance to the final scene of the Schiller's drama is certainly no accident... For the French Jean Anouilh, Jeanne d'Arc is the symbol for the freedom of France. Hence, "Jeanne d'Arc or the Lark" is a serious and patriotic stage play - especially if one considers that Anouilh published it in 1953, shortly after the Second World War. The author himself still called it a comedy. This has some credibility, as "Jeanne or the Lark" makes use of irony and black humour.

** Schiller's "Maid of Orleans" in a performance of the Berlin shimmer theatre (1984). When Joan falls in love and thereby loses her innocence, her strength dwindles. She dies not on the pyre, but on the battlefield. **


In the first act, Warwick wants Jeanne to be executed immediately, but the others present decide that she should have the opportunity to tell everything. And thus her whole life must be seen once again - from her childhood in Domrémy to the pyre. The flames already blaze,  Baudricourt falls on the stage and stops the execution. He explains that they have forgotten to play the coronation. The omission is corrected, and so the stage play ends happily. "The true end of the history of our Joan, the true end which never comes to an end, the only possible end is how books will over and over again paint and tell, even if our names are long-forgotten, that this is not the small obsessed girl of Rouen - this is the lark high in heaven, this is Joan to Reims in her radiance and fame."


** Friedrich Schiller: The German poet's prince was also fascinated by the heroic figure Joan. In 1801 he wrote his play, "The Maid of Orleans." **


The Jeanne d'Arc in the Anoulihs piece is a modern, enlightened and emancipated woman with a healthy mind, who does not believe in miracles. Beaudricourt and Charles , the successor to the throne, explain that it really doesn't matter whether God has sent them or not: "You say to yourself, she is nothing but a common farm girl. But accept it, that she really has the dear God on her side, and nothing can stop her. And whether God is with her or not, the question remains ... why should she not ask my soldiers what it is they need, in the end? They need a victory flag, a personality which gives them courage, and proves that God has not left them." Also, the big secret  which Joan entrusts to the successor to the throne loses its mystery with in Anouilh's work. The principal character merely explains to him how one can overcomes fear. "I simply acted as if I was not afraid. This is the whole secret, Charles." That Joan is a virgin plays no central role in this stage.


** Tschaikowsky opera, "Jeanne d'Arc," from the year 1989: Still today the work is performed, while a row of other operas about Joan have fallen into oblivion. **


Only once do the actors on the Hera discuss Joan virginity. The Englishman Count Warwick explains what the secret of the virgins is. "Virginity is an endowed and miraculous state. We men love this. Unfortunately, however, as soon as we meet one, we want to transform them immediately into a woman , and then we are disappointed when the miracle abruptly ends." One can assume from the fact that Jean Anoulih, who was born in 1910 in Bordeaux and was already at the age of 24, a known stage author, knew what his Warwick spoke of.

** Ingrid Bergman played the holy Joan in Flemming's film. The actress was promised the role, the film with his bombastic crowd scenes had Hollywood level. Six years later Ingrid Berman played Joan of Arc before the camera, this time under the direction of her husband Roberto Rossellini. (picture AKG) **