Wednesday, March 23, 2011

They weren't French - the blasphemous St. Joan

The central chant of The Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc culminates with a vision of the defense and subsequent betrayal of Christ by his disciples.

The defense:

MADAME GERVAISE: The master saviour did not want Peter to draw his sword against the soldier in arms: we mustn’t go to war…

JEANNETTE: So they had swords.

MADAME GERVAISE: They therefore had swords. (170)

The betrayal:

JEANNETTE: I believe, had I been there, I would not have forsaken him.

MADAME GERVAISE: Daughter, child, let us keep ourselves from the sin of pride.  We are made as others.  We are Christians like others.  We would have been like them.  We would have been among them.  We would have acted like them.  The Scriptures had to be fulfilled.  All forsook him.  Not one remained.  It had to be.  All forsook him.  We too would have forsaken him…  We are no better than the others.

JEANNETTE: They weren’t French.  They weren’t French knights. (171-2)

“They weren’t French” – this was, to me, the single most shocking line in Charles Péguy’s audacious play.  The nun, Madame Gervaise, a representative of orthodoxy, is similarly shocked – “You don’t talk like a good Christian, like an ordinary Christian.”  After all, Peter, the founder of the Church, is among the deniers of Christ.  But he was not French.

Joan and the nun debate the sin of pride, and the meaning of the cock that crowed with each of Peter’s denials, the meaning of religious courage.  Joan is, of course, unswayed.  We know how the story ends, with Joan on the bonfire and France liberated from the English.  The nun, Madame Gervaise, is in fact converted to Joan’s position – but the nun is French, and amply courageous.

I have never read, and have little idea, what George Bernard Shaw or Bertolt Brecht try to accomplish in their plays about Saint Joan.  They can’t be much like Charles Péguy, can they?  I can believe, though, that Péguy’s Jeannette becomes this Joan:

I had trouble, sometimes, mentally excluding the image of Renée Falconetti’s extraordinary performance in Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928).  Dreyer’s script is taken directly from the transcripts of her trial in 1431, so the film is structured a bit like this play – another debate with a saint, a frustrating exercise, since mystic saints seem to have their own rules of engagement.

Falconetti – this is really the key – captures the central strangeness of Joan, the sense that Joan is not quite of this world, that this wisp of a girl has an unearthly power, and that what is heresy or sin in other people is something else in her.

Péguy’s book is, like Dreyer’s film, a masterpiece, high level artistry.  I was tempted to write “a masterpiece, but a disquieting one,” which is wrong. A masterpiece, and therefore disquieting.

Still borrowed from imagesjournal.


  1. I suspect that Peguy would have said not only "They weren't French," but "They weren't from Orleans." That is where he was from, too.

  2. The last spoken line of the play is "Orléans, who are in the country of Loire."

    So, yes!

  3. Falconetti's like a Bernini statue come to life. So emotive without pandering to the emotions of the viewer. I'd follow her Joan to the bonfire although maybe not to the rack oddly enough. Great cinema for sure (thanks for the memory prod)...

  4. I only got to know the story of Joan of Arc from a childhood friend. i haven't as of now read it on my own. Has she been used as a symbol by the feminist movement yet, judging from her extraordinary nature?

  5. The problem with a feminist Joan of Arc - which is in some ways entirely logical, and I have no doubt has been used by someone - is that Joan's Catholicism is so central. Many feminists would really need a secular Joan of Arc.

    But then there's Brecht, and Shaw. Their Joans cannot have been particularly mystical or Catholic, can they? I should find out.

    Falconetti, in that movie - just as Richard says. It's her only film role. Indelible.

  6. It's not just her Catholicism, either, it's her subservience to the King. All that work so a man can be crowned, you know? Despite the seemingly obvious proto-feminism, she sits uneasily with the movement.

  7. Oh, sure, that makes sense. How interesting, then, how little of that sort of thing there is in Péguy.

    Three characters, all women. Christ's story is transformed into Mary's story. Barely a hint of politics outside the Church.

  8. I own a DVD of the Falconetti movie, though I've not watched it in years. That's the extent of my knowledge of Joan. But you have me interested in looking to the Shaw version now.