Saint Joan’s Tragic Flaw: The Epilogue
Saint Joan is considered to be one of George Bernard Shaw’s greatest works. In the play, Shaw avoids many problems identified by critics as prevalent in some of his other writing. Some have criticized Shaw, claiming that he tends to portray unrealistic archetypal characters, rather than well-rounded believable individuals. His plays have also been described as lacking action and being too didactic. In Saint Joan, Shaw reduced the intensity of these previously criticized typically Shavian elements and thus, met with much critical success. However, in my view, the play’s epilogue is redundant and unnecessary. It essentially repeats and reinforces the events of the play without enhancing the drama. and serves to add historical facts which are either familiar to the audience or which could have been inserted skillfully into the body of the play with greater dramatic effect. It seems almost as if Shaw was afraid that his audience would not understand the play and he felt compelled to make his ideas clearer in the epilogue.
The action of the epilogue takes place 25 years after Joan has been burned. King Charles has a dream in which many of the characters of the play appear. These characters, including Joan, either explain their behavior that we’ve seen throughout the play or relate some historical fact that Shaw must have seen as necessary for the audience to be aware of. The first character that appears at Charles’ bed is Brother Martin Ladvenu, who in Scene VI participated in the trial of Joan. During the examination, Ladvenu makes every effort to save Joan from being declared a heretic and tries to give her the opportunity to be “saved.” He praises Joan when she answers a question well. In addition, he says to her, “Joan: we are all trying to save you. His lordship is trying to save you. The Inquisitor could not be more just to you if you were his own daughter.” He shows that he is earnest in his desire for the truth to come out, and for Joan to be saved. After Joan has been burned, he is one of the first to recognize that a mistake has been made. Describing her burning, he says “…she looked up to heaven. And I do not believe that the heavens were empty. I firmly believe that her Savior appeared to her…This is not the end for her, but the beginning.”
In the epilogue, Ladvenu’s main function is to relay the fact that Joan has been absolved and rehabilitated and that he was a primary mover toward such absolution. He says, “Twenty-five years have passed since Joan’s burning: nearly ten thousand days.” This is pure exposition necessary only to orient the audience. He continues, “And on every one of those days I have prayed God to justify His daughter on earth as she is justified in heaven.” This just illustrates that Ladvenu believes that Joan was unjustly burnt, repeating the same information that was conveyed with greater dramatic effectiveness in Scene VI. He goes on to give more historical information; the judges of Joan were declared corrupt and malicious. Having conveyed these facts, Ladvenu leaves and his entire appearance in the epilogue seems unnecessary and does not add dramatically to the play.
After Ladvenu’s departure, Joan herself appears to Charles, informing him (and the audience) that she is only in his dream, and not an actual ghost. Like Ladvenu, Charles announces historical data about himself; he has turned into a great fighter and he is called Charles the Victorious. In their conversation, Joan spells out information about herself that has been clearly illustrated throughout the play, without adding anything substantial. She says, “I was no beauty; I was a regular soldier. I might almost as well have been a man. Pity I wasn’t…But my head was in the skies; and the glory of God was upon me…” She continues on to state the obvious. “I shall outlast the cross. I shall be remembered when men have forgotten where Rouen stood.” Anyone reading or seeing the play knows that this is true.
Shaw’s pattern of giving historical information and explaining and summarizing characters’ behaviors continues throughout the epilogue. The next character to arrive in the scene is Peter Cauchon, the Bishop of Beauvais who like Ladvenu, participated in deciding Joan’s fate. He starts off by providing the facts of his life after Joan’s death. “Dead. Dishonored. They pursued me beyond the grave. They excommunicated my dead body: they dug it up and flung it into the common sewer.” Shaw’s intention may have been to show that society is too quick to judge and, as a result, goes to extremes beyond what is reasonable and necessary. Cauchon says, “The solid earth sways like the treacherous sea beneath the feet of men and spirits alike when the innocent are slain in the name of law, and their wrongs are undone by slandering the pure of heart.” This statement can be interpreted as a theme of the play since Joan’s story illustrates exactly the point that Cauchon is making. By explicitly stating such theme, Shaw undercuts the power of the preceding action and weakens the dramatic effect of the play. Cauchon continues on to summarize his action which we’ve already seen throughout the play. “…I was just: I was merciful: I was faithful to my light: I could do no other than I did.” As was with Ladvenu, the audience saw Cauchon behaving exactly the way he describes. Thus, his words add nothing to the play and are redundant.
Next to appear is Dunois, the Bastard of Orleans. Like all the others in the epilogue, he immediately explains his actions that we’ve already seen. He says, “Perhaps I should never have let the priests burn you; but I was busy fighting; and it was The Church’s business, not mine.” He had already made it clear that fighting the war was his priority in Scene V. Referring to Joan, he says, “The day after she has been dragged from her horse by a goddam or a Burgundian, and he is not struck dead: the day after she is locked in a dungeon, and the bars and bolts do not fly open at the touch of St. Peter’s angel: the day when the enemy finds out that she is as vulnerable as I am and not a bit more invincible, she will not be worth the life of a single soldier to us; and I will not risk that life, much as I cherish her as a companion-in-arms.”
Appropriately, following Dunois into King Charles’ dream is a soldier. We learn from Joan that the soldier had made an erstwhile cross out of two sticks and handed it to Joan when she was about to be burned. This cross made out of sticks is alluded to at the end of Scene VI. It is unnecessary to introduce the soldier in the epilogue. The only new concept brought forth by his appearance is his description of hell. He says hell is “Like as if you were always drunk without the trouble or expense of drinking. Tip top company too: emperors and popes and kings and all sorts.” This is reminiscent of Shaw’s Man And Superman, where Shaw explored similar themes definitively in the “Don Juan In Hell” sequence. Not many would argue that these ideas need revisiting and are especially unnecessary in Saint Joan.
The remaining characters that appear in the epilogue similarly rehash their earlier actions. John De Stogumber, the Chaplain, recounts his own cruelty and relates that he is now old, but is a changed man due to his experience with Joan. This is foreshadowed by the Chaplain’s extreme self-repulsion after Joan has been burnt. This abhorrence of his own action need not be repeated, as it is in the epilogue. In addition, the Earl of Warwick the makes his way in, asserting, “The burning was purely political.” This is a point that is also touched on clearly throughout the earlier scenes. Finally, a modern gentleman arrives and announces that Joan has been canonized. This fact need not be relayed to the audience, especially the audience of Shaw’s day, given the fact that Joan achieved sainthood only four years prior to the play’s first performances.
Following the modern gentleman’s announcement, all the characters pay homage to Joan. However, when she threatens to return to earth, they are all terrified by this idea. Shaw’s point here may be that the world is never ready to accept the truly divine. By stressing this point so overtly, Shaw is beating the audience over the head, once again undercutting the subtlety of the rest of the play.
Shaw’s repetition in the epilogue of the content and themes contained in Saint Joan, combined with the insertion of purely historical facts lacking in dramatic relevance, is a flaw in what is otherwise a brilliant work of art. Shaw’s need to explain his work, as evidenced by his lengthy prefaces to many plays, most likely compelled him to include the epilogue. However, the explicit explanations contained in the epilogue lessen the power of the action that precede it. As a result, an audience is likely to come away from the performance easily able to conclude what Shaw’s intentions were, rather than coming to the ideas that Shaw wanted to present by reflecting on the events of the play.