Academic journal article West Virginia University Philological Papers

Keeping Up with the Joans: The Maid of Orleans in Literature and Film

Academic journal article West Virginia University Philological Papers

Keeping Up with the Joans: The Maid of Orleans in Literature and Film

Article excerpt

The cult of Joan of Arc has its roots in the political and social upheavals of fin de siecle France, during the same time period when film as a medium is birthed in Lyon by the Lumiere brothers. (1) The events themselves are coincidental, though film will quickly be used at the service of myth-making. Hailed by the French Right as the embodiment of the true French state, Joan of Arc's recreated legend galvanized a generation of artists who joined the growing chorus of Catholics demanding the canonization of Joan. Called Blessed by 1909, Joan became Saint Joan in 1920, a year after the end of the Great War and the defeat of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and almost five hundred years after her death. This study examines the role of literature and film in determining Joan's place in history and popular culture.

Until the nineteenth century when the Joan explosion manifested itself relatively few writers had chosen Joan as their subject. In 1429, two years before Joan's death at the stake, Christine de Pizan celebrated her life and exploits in her Ditie de Jehanne d,Arc. (2) As Maureen Quilligan points out, "hers is the only signed poem written during Jehanne d'Arc's lifetime explicitly to celebrate her miraculous deliverance of France. Christine herself saw Jehanne as proof of the rightness of her programmatic argument for the divine favor God had shown to women." (3) Quilligan argues that Christine's prophetic portrait of Joan accorded the Maid of Orleans with a legitimate female authority:

It cannot be entirely an accident then that the unique and singular female writer in late medieval France should so overlap the advent of a singular female warrior; although it is not possible to prove such things it does make sense to suppose that Christine's arguments, so highly visible to all court members, may have helped prepare them to accept a woman's authority. Her constant retelling of the Amazon myth, arguing for their legitimate domain in a martial realm in text after text, could very well have prepared the culture at court to see a woman warrior as something other than a monster. And this preparation would not have hurt Jehanne's chances for being well received by that court. (280) (4)

A less flattering British portrait was presented on the stage in 1590 in Shakespeare's Henry VI, in which Joan's dialogue is replete with double entendres and in which there is no doubt that Joan's exploits are the result of a satanic pact. (5) Almost one hundred and fifty years would elapse before Voltaire would take up Joan's story for his poem La Pucelle d'Orleans (1762). Voltaire's pen puts Joan's story at the service of his anticlericalism, and reduces her to a rustic incarnation with all too human lusts that must be sublimated for the cause of the state. Paradoxically, with the exception of Voltaire and a play Jeanne d'Arc a Orleans by Rodolphe Kreutzer performed at the Theatre des Italiens in Paris in 1790, the century of revolution is almost silent in its evocation of Joan, and completely silent in its evocation of Joan as a symbol for the creation of the new French state, preferring instead to identify Liberty with the image of Marianne.

Joan's transformation into the Romantic imagination began with Friedrich Schiller's 1801 La Pucelle d'Orleans, in which a tormented Joan struggles with her love for the British general Lionel and her duties to the mission given to her by the Virgin Mary. Schiller presents a conflicted Joan whose femininity is renounced at the expense of political triumph, but not without bitterness. It would this version of the Joan story that Tchaikovsky would later select for his 1881 opera La Pucelle d'Orleans, first presented at the Theatre Marie in Saint Petersburg.

Jules Quicherat's monumental five-volume compilation (1841-1845) of the complete texts of Joan's trial of Condemnation and Nullification written in Latin and Old French appeared at a time when France was once again in search of its political soul. …

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