Monday, February 19, 2007

Joan of Arc Part 2

Now I will write my impressions of the four Joan of Arc plays I have recently read. Although I am not connecting on a very immediate level with the whole Joan of Arc legend, and do not have anything to say about it that promises to contribute to the vast existing body of knowledge on the subject, there is always a fascination and thrill, you must understand, for people like me in declaiming on such classical stories as have continuous and widespread popularity among people with pretensions. When I was looking for these pictures, there were tens of thousands of images of the Maid to choose from: statues, movie stills, handkerchiefs, salt shakers, posters, medals. And yet in all my life I have never talked to anyone about this subject, or encountered one Joan enthusiast to my knowledge.

Anouilh--L Alouette (The Lark) 1952

(Note: the apostrophe on my home keyboard all of a sudden does not work. This is the one of course for quotation marks also)

I can only consider that I have half-read this, as I read the American adaptation by Lillian Hellman, which struck me as, at the very least, not getting the authorial voice of a midcentury French playwright and penseur accurately enough. Five years ago I would have made a day of going down to Cambridge, having lunch at John Harvard's ale house or one of those places that serious intellectuals and cool people never set foot in, buying a few liter-bottles of imported mitteleuropeen beer at the gourmet market and picking up a copy of the original. Now however I dashed into a second-hand store on the way to Brattleboro (I do like Brattleboro though. If it were a woman I would both desire to dance with it and feel that it was attainable to me to do so) for New Year s Eve dinner, wife and babies sitting in the still running car, grabbed the questionable adaptation and endured a witty observation from the bearded fellow at the cash register that I must have known what I was looking for. So you see how tenuously I am clinging to maintain the forms even of a provincial pseudo-intellectual.

Of the four plays delineated here, The Lark has the virtues of appearing to correlate most with the actual events of history, or such of them as seem verifiable, as well as being more about the actual figure of Joan (Arc?) herself in a more signifigant proportion than the other plays. Her trial forms the structure of the play, the great events of her career being recalled in flashbacks. The tone of the action and dialogue, while somber, is rendered rather gently overall despite the threatening and grisly circumstances; I wish I could trust my adaptress more, however. I did like that rather than ending with Joan reduced to a pile of cinders on the stage, in the translated version at least, there is a flashback to the hour of her greatest triumph, the coronation of the Dauphin at Reims. In this American version the play comes off as, if not affirmative, at least offering hope that life contains nobility, or the possibility of it, after all, which strikes me as an unusual and rather too neat position for a French artwork of that era. It is the sort of thing that would probably cause me satisfaction and comfort if I were to see it as a playgoer, and any theater that enables the likes of me to be comfortable...well, you know what must be said about that. If I ever make it back to a big city, I will have to keep my eyes peeled for a copy of the original. I know I can order it off the Internet, isn t urgent.

Schiller--Die Jungfrau von Orleans-1801

Though Schiller is, as far as I can tell, still regarded in the German speaking world as one of their very greatest authors--as high as number 2 in some polls--he is hardly read at all, and even that I suspect in a very desultory manner, in the Anglosphere. His power, or perhaps it is his Romanticism (the Germans going to much further artistic extremes in this movement than the English generally did) do not register strongly in English to my mind. Five to ten years ago again I probably would have tried to at least struggle through the original to try to get some feel of the poetry; especially as I love plays written in verse, which is a method I think is ripe for a revival, and which frankly I am surprised has lain dormant so long. It gives a dignity and a grandeur, and, if done at all skillfully, a pleasure, to one's story that is much harder gained by plainer dialogue.

To give an idea of how big Schiller is in Germany, there are I believe 7 or 8 museums dedicated to him, mainly in houses where he lived, which incidentally would not constitute a bad basic tour of that important and to my thinking still largely mysterious nation: 2 in Marbach-am-Neckar, where he was born, 1 (plus his grave) in Weimar, one in Jena, one in Leipzig, 1 in Dresden, one in a town called Bauerbach. Here is the Schiller-National Museum in Marbach. This is not just a Schiller museum, but an archive of German literature generally (I think; I cannot find any substantial information in English on this institution), but still, it is named after him, it is in his hometown, there is at least one large statue of him on the grounds. The edifice is certainly most impressive. In Portland (Maine), where I went to high school, there is a very dignified late Victorian statue of Longfellow presiding over one of the major intersections downtown. This might be the only real monumental-type public statue of a poet, I mean where he is elevated and large and dressed extravangantly and is sitting in an expensive chair and so forth, that I am aware of in the United States. I cannot think of any others at the moment. I am not going to argue that there ought to be more. Such things are as they are. Our American poets perhaps do not strike us as grand or good enough to be statue-worthy, but then again good monumental statuary has the effect of making people and events more likable. On the other hand, how many Schiller museums will Germany be supporting and how many Schiller monuments maintaining in a hundred years? It is hard to imagine as many as it does now.

But to address the play: the liberties and Romanticism--Joan's falling desperately in love with one of the English leaders, her dying in battle instead of the stake--as are noted in every modern critique of this play, become too much by the end to hold the reader's confidence. The first half, before one is certain where things are leading, is engaging enough. I like the extended emphasis on the heroine's family and village life, and the nature of the setting in which she receives her visions, which was passed over more quickly or disposed with altogether by the other authors. I think a more sober or tempered Romantic treatment would work well on this story. Although Joan is more brilliant than everyone she encounters, she is not an intellectual, nor learned, nor anguished, nor emotional, nor in way real way intimately accessible in point of her actual character. She has always been understood as a symbol of a number of desirable and usually impossible human qualities, which is the essence I suppose of true Romantic art, as well as religious iconography, which ought to be taken into consideration in any treatment of this subject. The play is not rated highly among Schiller's works, and I did not get much more out of it than what I have related, so I will let it go and move on to the next.

Brecht--Die Heilige Johanna der Schlacthofe (St Joan of the Stockyards)--1929

For those not familiar with this play, it is actually set in the meatpacking district and stock exchange of contemporary Chicago, and deals rather obliquely at best with the Joan legend. The Joan character actually resembles Major Barbara more than the Maid of Orleans, and the scenes of her proselytizing the wretched and the unemployed in exchange for a cup of soup are almost as if lifted from that other play, which, however, had the advantage over this one of being much funnier and having some cleverer ideas and twists of the plot. The various, neverending business scheming and manipulation of prices made my eyes glaze over pretty quickly, and reminded me of why the calls one increasingly hears from conservative and high-testosterone American critics for a new race of manly novelists to address the world of high-powered, ultra-competitive business rather than their own sensitive feelings and petty grievances is likely to go unheeded. The day to day action and conversation of the respectable business world, as well as its etiquette, its publications and the apparent inner lives of its protagonists are not simply uninteresting; most of this is deadly and inhuman, and as if willfully so. The realm of art has apparently not yet found the form or the attitude--or the necessity--to raise its players and issues to the level of high culture, such as great minds recognize when confronted with it. This is not something I am just throwing out. I have worried about this for many years, given the centrality and ascendance of business values in our society as well as the widespread sense that modern American would-be writers have holed themselves up in their bedrooms, terrified of and overwhelmed by the very vitality of their nation. Now I don't think it is wholly true that authors have ignored business altogether, though I concede the entrepreneur or corporate ladder climber is rarely depicted as a hero deeply admired by the author. And secondly, I have to say that the more time I spend as an adult around corporate and other self-consciously professional-type people, the Kafkaesque or absurdist approach to understanding the ethos of this world seems the most plausible option, which is I suppose what our author (Mr Brecht) is saying at some level too, though I wouldn't really know from reading him. I would be curious to see one of his plays performed sometime, in Germany (I have realized that I can best endure live drama, as well as opera, in the country and language of origin, in a setting that I can imagine to resemble that in which the play was originally performed; thus I enjoy the faux-Globe that was put up in London and the Statny opera-house in Prague [formerly in Austria, remember!], however inferior the experts assure me their actors and singers are, as if I could tell anyway). I am positive I would glean more of what I am supposed to be gleaning from that than from further reading in translations of this author. I am not of the school, as should be discerned by now, that lower and even minute levels of understanding, in inferior minds, of great works of art, are utterly worthless, least of all to the mind concerned, as some apparently hold.

Brecht still has his fans. Someone should get hold of her and have her write a guest piece about why she likes Brecht. I am old and conventional and not especially good-looking, so it's unlikely she would respond to me. (If my link doesn't work, which it probably won't, go to the meet-me page on and search for women with the keywords "Bertolt Brecht". There is only one).

Shaw--St. Joan-1924

This was the most enjoyable to read of the four, probably because it was the only one originally written in English. I thought the preface a very good piece of writing, both as an overview of Joan s career and for the many ideas about the type and quality of mind she possessed that duller or inattentive writers either missed entirely or grasped at inexactly or without succintness. George Bernard Shaw always had very distinct, pet ideas about the world, such as that well over 99% of the human population in any age and level of society were incontestable morons whose thoughts or troubles were of no real significance, and he could not resist topical jokes at the expense, as he imagined, of the lesser end of his audience (one of the English adjuncts at Joan s trial for example argues as proof of her heresy that she claims her saints spoke to her in French and not English). Pound, comparing his writings about his native Ireland to Joyce, thought it necessary to call him a ninth-rate coward. This type of declamation is a characteristic of a certain brand of hot and quick mind that I have always been envious of; for my own part I can only say that Shaw's work has not, compared to the other, the sensibility of the totality of a human being, or an atmosphere, of, shall I just say it, the spiritual influences at work in human society and culture. How far that is a matter of courage I do not pretend to know, but it probably has more to do with it than it seems at first appearance, or that most people--most bourgeois, certainly--would want to admit.

I would write more, but it has already taken me fifteen days to write this bloody report, and I can't even remember the damn play anymore. Granted, I was away for ten of those days, but come on. My life is slipping away while I try to write one coherent idea about what I am supposed to make of Joan of Arc. And I'm not done with her yet either! I am going to give this up and start on something else. This will all eventually lead somewhere if there is enough accumulated mass in it, that I believe.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Joan of Arc Part 1

Joan of Arc is one of the favorite female subjects in all Western art, particularly in the theater and its offspring the cinema, where Cleopatra has been about her only consistent competitor over the last 500 years. An Internet search turns up a great number of people living in places like Sacramento and New Zealand who identify fiercely with the story of this maid, who indeed devote a good portion of their life's energies to taking inspiration from her, studying her legend, collecting pictures of her, dressing like her at festivals, perhaps eating Joan of Arc brand brie, and the like. Morrissey even claims an affinity. She is, or has been at one time or another, claimed as a heroine by individuals desiring to represent Roman Catholics, anti-Roman Catholics, homosexuals, French nationalists, Romantics, anti-authoritarians, feminists and loyalists to the house of Valois, as well as innumerable artists and authors.

"Et Jehanne, la bonne lorraine/Qu'englois brulerent a Rouen..."

To the early 21st century mind--mine anyway--the obvious question that presents itself, there being no easy economic explanation for the most spectacular elements of the story, is 'What really happened?' or perhaps a little less prosaically 'What should I believe?' or 'What is important within that portion that I should believe?' It also occurs to me to ask, 'If I were myself to write a play or make a film or paint a picture about these events, what form would it take and what would I emphasize?' though I don't have any immediate sense of that inquiry's illuminating anything.

The story is evocative and spectacular from almost every angle. A teenage endless war that has resulted in the occupation of the heroine's country by a foreign army...a dispossessed, listless prince (whose mistress, at least, is renowned as the greatest beauty of her age)...the rustic teen becomes convinced she must seek the prince, procure a horse and a suit of armor and lead an army to raise the seige of Orleans...she persuades every male authority she encounters, including the Dauphin and the Archbishop of Reims, to acquiesce to her plans...she wins the intial battle...the Dauphin is crowned in the ancient ritual and hallowed cathedral of his forbears...the heroine is given up to the enemy, tried for heresy and witchcraft, acquits herself with brilliant and rational cogency before a formidable ecclesiastical court, and burned at the stake at the age of 19. This is a biblical-caliber career, partaking variously of qualities found in the lives of Jesus, Socrates, and Julius Caesar, often at the same time. It certainly makes the exploits of such modern icons of youth as James Dean and Jim Morrison look rather pitiful. It is generally acknowledged now that Joan was not by current international standards at all physically attractive apart from having remarkable eyes, the remarkableness of which appear to have been more otherworldly and mystical than sexy in nature. As well, despite the rampant speculation about her sex life during certain periods of historical inquiry, the present among them, there seems to be little concrete evidence that she was not as disinterested in the acts of bodily love, or even as virginal, as the traditional legend makes her out to be. Accepting even this has been a stumbling block to many, however.

Since the mindset of the Middle Ages began to erode from the active consciousnesses of thinking people, artists have sensed that the story of Joan possessed in it something central to the spirit of European civilization while being at the same time increasingly difficult to comprehend as "true" in any modern, scientific understanding of the idea of truth. The Joan character as remembered is among the foremost figures of history in three areas thought by the general public as well as by some serious minds, to be contradictory: war, religion, and rational elocution with regard to each. She is indeed such a singular figure in each of these areas, and her actions and movements within and between them so seamless and inexplicably and seemingly almost effortlessly correct, as to strongly suggest genius-like qualities, the possibility of which, if it frightens the mass of men and their leaders and causes them to seek the death or destruction of the possessor, also excites in them an irresistible fascination, such that the murder of such figures usually produces a sense of deep regret right away, though the sort of charismatic genius of great military and religious leaders is always meteoric in nature and never able to be recalled or captured perfectly.

I must admit, I have at this point in my life lost any sense, which I do think I possessed at one time, of what medieval Western European man understood, or experienced, by the invocation of the idea of God and saints and angels--the Church triumphant--quite distinct from the Church militant which one knew matter-of-factly as the primary institution of society, which makes it quite difficult to write anything pertinent about this story, or the age in which it took place, though even Shakespeare, as Shaw observed in his preface about Joan, could not shed himself of the mindset of a Renaissance English Protestant in this instance either. This is partly why I set myself these exercises however, tedious though my audience, if I ever acquire one, may find them. It is very rare for me to be able to read any book or episode of history long accorded veneration or importance and pronounce it rubbish on the spot, in the manner of Nietzsche or Ezra Pound, yet I want to be honest about what really appeals to me in it. Superior qualities and abilities--daring, vigorous energy, a clarity of intelligence and will that extends to and uplifts others outside one's self--the very definition of heroism--always appeals to sentient humans; but here it is combined with the very strong and almost necessary insistence that these abilities were only exercised under the submission to and direction of a superhuman agent, God or his saints in this instance. This is obviously a deeply appealing and reassuring idea to most people even today, that the great events and conditions of their lives are not being directed by ruthless egomaniacs answerable to nothing but the gratification of their own wills and intellects, but by some greater force--even if a dark force, I think--before whom all men, the powerful and the crushed in spirit alike, are the same, and who can therefore at any time be raised or inspired with abilities or motivations that had previously been inaccessible to them. This is also a purpose and effect of the highest classical art, music and literature of course, which is doubtless why for the likes of me they have come to be as a kind of substitute for religion. In this way I can reconcile Joan of Arc too as having existence both as legend and reason suggest her to to me. The legend, especially over time, always becomes more important than the literal truth, indeed becomes the de facto truth; at least, as far as art and history go, the real truth is never more than partially successful in destroying the legend, if the legend is important enough.