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Fellows Find: Scholar explores eleventh-hour additions to George Bernard Shaw’s corrected proof of play “Saint Joan”

By Alex Feldman

Alex Feldman, an Assistant Professor in the English Department at MacEwan University, Alberta, visited the Ransom Center to consult the papers of George Bernard Shaw, Lillian Hellman, and Arthur Miller, among others. His research, supported by the Dorot Foundation Postdoctoral Research Fellowship in Jewish Studies, focused on the dramatization of historical trials specifically those of Joan of Arc and the witches of Salem, in twentieth-century drama. The Ransom Center is celebrating the 25th anniversary of its fellowship program in 2014–2015.

 

The Ransom Center’s cataloging card describes the volume on my desk as a “Rough Proof” of George Bernard Shaw’s play Saint Joan (1923). On the title page—the book is missing a cover—a faint pencil inscription in Shaw’s hand reads, “the old copy showing where the corrections come.” According to Brian Tyson’s account of the play’s development (The Story of Saint Joan), the revisions that appear in this copy date from Shaw’s holiday in Parknasilla, County Kerry, in September 1923, three months before the play’s New York premiere and six months prior to its first performance in London. The ink annotation below, made almost eight years later, reads, “This is an authentic ‘revise’ for the printer, or possible [sic] a copy of one made by me as a precaution against the loss of the other…”

 

What this copy and its corrections reveal is that a collective voice of great prominence in Shaw’s trial scene was added at a very late stage in the play’s composition. Here, in Shaw’s hand, “The Assessors” make their first appearance.

 

Sixty or so French and English clerics of assorted order and rank, the assessors fulfilled a quasi-juridical function at Joan’s trial, acting in a consultative capacity under Pierre Cauchon, Bishop of Beauvais, who presided over the proceedings, and Jean Lemaitre, vicar of the Inquisition at Rouen and Joan’s second judge. The likelihood is that, whether intimidated, coerced, or otherwise incentivized, many of the assessors could be counted on to lean, as Cauchon directed, in favor of Joan’s excommunication (and subsequent execution.) But their presence in Rouen and their substantial role in the trial did indicate a serious regard for procedural fairness. According to the trial transcripts, Cauchon, eager to present them as incorruptible, described the assessors as “ecclesiastical and learned men, experienced in canon and civil law, who wished and intended to proceed with [Joan] in all piety and meekness.” Shaw, by contrast, though he deviates from the melodramatic tradition that portrays the assessors as “malignant scoundrels,” presents them as a shrill chorus of righteously indignant imbeciles.

 

Here’s a representative interjection, which affords some insight into the rationale behind Shaw’s eleventh-hour additions to the text. Under Cauchon’s interrogation, refusing to disavow the heavenly provenance of her “visions and revelations,” Joan declares that she will continue to be guided by God’s will. “In case the Church should bid me do anything contrary to the command I have from God,” Joan declares, “I will not consent to it, no matter what it may be.” Here, in the proof copy, the following insertion appears (see below image):

 

THE ASSESSORS [shocked and indignant] Oh! The Church contrary to

God! What do you say now? Flat heresy. This is beyond everything.

 

The playwright isolates the objectionable detail—“The Church contrary to God!”—in case the audience has missed it, and offers it up to the spectator’s scrutiny once again, via the medium of the assessors’ protest. Here and throughout, the assessors perform a mediating function, clarifying, for Shaw’s audience, the nature of Joan’s heresy, as contemporary clerics perceived it. (See images below for further examples.)

 

The development of this choric voice, identifying and decrying Joan’s seminal transgressions, adds weight to the anti-Joan sentiment building throughout the trial among the clergy. The assessors’ interjections are crucial to Shaw’s establishment of his protagonist’s perceived theological-legal guilt (in the identification of her heresy), but they are also instrumental in advancing Shaw’s argument that the world is always unprepared for the saints in its midst. A rabble of censorious mediocrities, these men are not evil—“there are no villains in the piece,” Shaw insisted—but they do contribute to the sense that middlebrow opinion (ever the object of Shaw’s critique) and unthinking conformity to the conventional canons of belief create insuperable obstacles to the recognition of genius.

 

Related content:

Research at the Ransom Center: Modernism and Christianity in the collections

A Small Gem of Negativity: The Decline Postcard

Video: Helmut Gernsheim plays 20 Questions with George Bernard Shaw

 

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