Saint Joan: Playing With Fire

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Twayne Publishers, 1993 - Literary Criticism - 129 pages
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In Saint Joan: Playing with Fire, Arnold Silver alternately views the last and perhaps best of George Bernard Shaw's major plays as great theater, historical re-creation, artifact of the prominent political struggles of the early twentieth century, and emblem of Shaw's own deep-seated personal and philosophical conflicts.
Like most other treatments of Joan, Shaw's is sympathetic to the young heroine. Silver discusses the major themes that arise out of this basic sympathy: the individual versus society, change versus stability, the limits of tolerance, the phenomenon of patriotism. Unlike other adaptations, Shaw's is also curiously sympathetic to the members of the Church tribunal who hear the charges of heresy against Joan and who ultimately condemn her to death.
Though Shaw insisted on the historical accuracy of his Saint Joan - and though his 1923 play is more faithful than any previous dramatic adaptation to the facts of Joan's life and her trial - it nonetheless reflects the preoccupations of Shaw and the times he lived in. These preoccupations - most prominent among them the legacy of World War I and the progress of the Russian Revolution - account for Shaw's torn sympathies and for many of the contradictions inherent within the play and between the play and its preface.
The ostracism Shaw experienced during World War I for criticizing the British government, his support of Irish independence, his wholehearted embrace of Lenin's repressive communist regime - all mingled with a complex personal response to Joan to color his dramatic interpretation. While Silver's study by no means limits itself to a consideration of these influences, it is among the few that explores them unabashedly, putting before the reader yet another lens through which the play can be seen and understood. Rounding out an analysis of the play's structure and characterization is an examination of the philosophical issues it raises, of its controversial epilogue, of its historicity, and Shaw's clash with the Vatican over a filmscript of the work.
Remarkably "un-Shavian" in that the playwright restrained himself from imprinting on Saint Joan the strong mark of his personality and his penchant for comedy, the play as a result "has far more veracity" than Shaw's other historical dramas, Silver writes. That it emerged out of "divergent emotions, destructive as well as benign, out of a personal set of conflicts as much as out of the historical ones of the fifteenth century," helped Shaw to "create in Saint Joan one of his most deeply felt and enduring masterpieces."

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Historical Context
The Importance of the Work
The Structure

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About the author (1993)

Arnold Silver is a professor of English at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

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