From Heresy to Sainthood. Joan of Arc's Quest for Identity in Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan

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ABSTRACT

Saint Joan by Shaw (1957) has been considered by many critics one of the playwright's finest literary and dramatic achievements. Other scholars point out that the play is a manifestation of the author's lack of historical insight and his inability to create an objective representation of Joan of Arc and her times. It remains astonishing, however, how many identities can this dramatic character be linked with. Dramatic characters, just like human beings in real life, not only possess identity (the self), but may also find themselves in a process of developing it. The context, defined by the group (the social) may eventually be affected by the character and the process is clearly visible in Shaw's play. Here, the phenomenon seems to well overreach the scope of the character's temporal frame. The disintegration within Joan's personality becomes the major drive of her quest. The interpretations of the aim of the pursuit may vary, but what is vital here is to see the way seemingly disparate ideas/identities (like a lunatic/a feminist/a heretic/a saint/a military genius/a virgin/an ignorant/a pioneer Protestant and others) are portrayed in one dramatic character and embodied by a teenage village girl who has become a favourite subject of artists and scholars alike for six centuries now.

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Shaw was a writer whose main preoccupation seemed to be a discussion of current social and political issues. When in 1920 the canonisation of Joan of Arc became front-page news, the playwright decided to dramatise the original reports of the heroine's trials with the aim to tell her story as it really happened. The outcome of these attempts, the 1957 play entitled Saint Joan, is thought by many critics to be one of Shaw's finest literary and dramatic achievements. Still others, however, believe that the play is a manifestation of the author's lack of historical insight and his inability to create an objective representation of the saint. The aim of this paper is to draw a picture of the main character's quest for identity that takes place within the dramatic text. Putting aside the author's evolutionary theories and the rationalism with which he inevitably endows his heroine, it is intriguing to see how many stages in her search for the self the main character goes through. It is vital to see the way an array of seemingly disparate identities can be portrayed in a dramatic character and embodied by a teenage girl who has become a favourite subject of artists and scholars alike for six centuries now.

Characters, like human beings, develop identity. Two major components of the idea are "self-concept", a system of beliefs an individual forms about her- or himself, and "social identity"--the category to which people assign themselves or to which they are assigned by others (Kopytko 2002: 93), in this case--the other characters of the dramatic work. The process of the search for identity is connected with both elements because, as O'Dair (1993) claims: "Characters ... develop ... a sense of self, within a context that is defined by the group; thus empowered, the character, like the individual, may affect the context in which he or she finds himself or herself" (O'Dair 1993: 289). Contrary to the notion of the ideological self in which, as Potter and Wetherell (1987) argue "people become fixed in position through the range of linguistic practices available to them" (Potter and Wetherell 1987: 109), the identity of the main heroine of Saint Joan is dynamically fluctuating, being constantly in a process of a quest, in order to aspire to an ideal imaginary self, that may seem impossible to be realised, even in the afterlife. To the duality of the notion of identity connected with the ideas of self-concept and the social self in the case of Shaw's play one should probably also add still another dimension, the author's own perception of the heroine, as he decided to precede the dramatic work with an extremely elaborate preface lecturing the readers of the play on what the historical as well as dramatic character is to him; that is the identity he ascribes to his heroine. …