Sure, why not?
Manhattan Theatre Club has announced a Broadway revival of “Saint Joan” by Nobel Prize and Oscar winner George Bernard Shaw with direction by Tony winner Daniel Sullivan. Heading the cast as the famous heroine will be Condola Rashad, fresh off her Tony-nominated performance in “A Doll’s House, Part 2.”
Superficially, at least, the casting of Rashad, an African American actress, as the famous “Maid of Orléans,” the French teenager who gained political and military power as a self-proclaimed messenger of God and who was burned at the stake, would seem like precisely the kind of stunt non-traditional casting that I have condemned by subjugating the intent and art of a playwright to affirmative action and virtue-signaling. However, this is not a legitimate objection to this casting choice, and in fact the upcoming Broadway production is as close to a perfect example of how creative casting can enliven a production and deepen its ability to make an audience think.
Joan of Arc, of course, was not black. Nor was she Swedish, though Ingrid Bergman played her memorably enough in the most famous Hollywood version of Shaw’s play, She also didn’t speak English, and certainly not Shavian English. She spoke French. Ethnicity, race and color are not part of Shaw’s drama, however, nor are they relevant to what Joan of Arc did in life, and what she meant to her nation, its history and our shared Western culture.
How many public schools teach anything about Joan of Arc? How many U.S. students graduate completely ignorant of the historical Joan, not to mention Shaw’s version? Yet hers is one of the most remarkable stories in recorded history.
Joan of Arc was born around 1412, the daughter of a tenant farmer, Jacques d’Arc, from the village of Domrémy, in northeastern France. She was illiterate, as were most of her class and gender, but also was indoctrinated into the teachings of the Catholic Church by her mother. France was engaged in what we now call the Hundred Years’ War with England, and England had France by the throat. A forced treaty in 1420 disinherited Charles, French crown prince, and England’s King Henry V—there’s a famous play about him, too– was made ruler of both England and France. Upon his father’s death, Henry VI succeeded him as king in 1422. At this point England occupied much of northern France, and many in Joan’s village, Domrémy, were forced to abandon their homes under threat of invasion.
Thirteen year-old Joan began to hear voices in her head. Today we think the cause was tinnitus, but she was certain God was assigning her the mission of saving France by defeating the English, and installing Charles as its the rightful king. Joan took a vow of chastity, as part of her bargain with God; this allowed her to reject a marriage her father arranged for her when she was 16.
Around this time, Joan traveled by herself to Vaucouleurs, a nearby stronghold of those loyal to Charles. With her faith and her persuasive claim of being a holy messenger, she attracted a small band of followers who were convinced her sudden appearance was the the result of a popular prophecy coming true, and that she was destined to save France. Joan cut her hair short and dressed in men’s clothes to make an 11-day journey across enemy territory to Chinon, where the crown prince’s palace stood. She met with the young man, and convinced him that she was the Real McCoy (they didn’t use that phrase in France, of course) by allegedly telling him things only God would know. She also promised Charles that she would see him crowned king at Reims, the traditional site of French royal investiture, and asked him to give her an army to lead to Orléans, then under siege from the English.
Charles granted her request. Think about this for a bit. A strange teenage girl, dressed like a boy and claiming to hear voices, meets with the leader of a nation at war and convinces him to put her in charge of an army.
Joan set off for Orléans in March of 1429 dressed in white armor and riding a white horse. She led several French successful assaults against against the English, forcing their retreat across the Loire River. The victory was hailed by the French as a miracle, and I don’t blame them.
Joan and her followers escorted Charles across enemy territory to Reims, fighting and winning battles along the way, and finally having him coronated as King Charles VII in July of 1429. At this point, Joan’s story had become legend, and she was more popular than the King, which alarmed his advisors, and probably Charles too. In the spring of 1430, Joan’s army marched to counter the Burgundy allies of the English as they attacked the city of Compiégne. She won the battle and saved the city, but was was thrown from her horse. She was trapped outside the town’s gates as they closed. The Burgundians took her captive, and brought her to the English commander at Rouen.
Joan was tried to a for more than 70 charges, including witchcraft, heresy and dressing like a man. King Charles betrayed Joan, making no attempt to negotiate Joan’s release. He was afraid that his ascension to power with the aide of a proven witch might lead the public to turn against him. Yes, he was a weenie.
Joan was definitely not a weenie, but a year in captivity under constant threat of death seemed to break her. She signed a confession denying that she had ever received divine guidance. Then a couple of days later, she symbolically recanted her confession by again donning men’s clothes. This got her condemned to death. On the morning of May 30, at the age of 19, Joan was taken to Rouen and burned alive.
She became a martyr, of course. Twenty years later Charles VII ordered a new trial that cleared her name—dead Joan was a lot easier to manage than Live Joan. Pope Benedict XV canonized her in 1920, and she is the patron saint of France.
Small wonder “Jeanne d’Arc” inspired songs, books, plays and movies, and continues to today. Among other things, she is a feminist icon, and a beacon for young women who are told that they can aspire to great deeds and accomplishments despite the oppression of male dominated societies.
Shaw, as usual, was not interested in history, and the play is not concerned with leaving audiences with a sense of who Joan “really was.” His drama explores the themes of fanaticism, bravery, the power and isolation of the individual in society, civilization’s search for heroes, the power of faith, the imperfections and fecklessness of mankind, and what Joan means in the context of his time ( “Saint Joan” was written in 1923) and now ours.
There are many reasons a black actress could explore these issues in great depth. It is sometimes valuable to force an audience into thinking about a central character in a new way, and to obliterate past portrayals and assumptions left lingering by other productions. An African American actress certainly accomplishes that. In the end, what is important about Shaw’s Joan is that she was a woman in a man’s world, that she was young, that she was a true believer, that she prevailed under astounding handicaps, and that she was finally crushed by those in power.
Casting an African American actress as Joan of Arc is a terrific idea, as long as the actress is up to the challenge. The last, in the end, is how every instance of non-traditional casting should be judged.