St. Joan of Arc as Seen by Shakespeare, Mark Twain and St. Thérèse
The Maid of Orléans will be a focal point of artists for generations to come but most will pale in comparison to William Shakespeare, Mark Twain and the Little Flower
I’m pretty sure boasting is not an activity many saints take part in but if they did, no other saint could strut around the pearly gates asking everyone if plays and stories about them written about them by such diverse authors such as William Shakespeare, Mark Twain and St. Thérèse of Lisieux.
Few saints have captured the imagination of so many artists as Saint Joan of Arc. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and Giuseppe Verdi both wrote operas about the saint. Voltaire and Coleridge both wrote poems of varying quality about her. But let’s be honest: having Shakespeare, Twain and St. Thérèse all writing plays and books about one saint is rather unique.
So let’s get into it.
Not many people remember that a play that is believed to have perhaps been Williams Shakespeare’s first play had Joan of Arc as the villain of the piece. Okay — he may not have portrayed her as Hannibal Lecter but she was definitely the antagonist and was painted as a religious fraud with base morals.
Yup. William Shakespeare. The Bard, who is believed by many to be Catholic, vilified the great saint (before she was declared a saint). In his play Henry VI, Joan is portrayed by William Shakespeare as a witch and perhaps even a woman of... loose morals… who is deservedly executed.
In order to stave off execution, Shakespeare had Joan pretending to be pregnant, thus justifying her condemnation and death.
Now, there may be reasons for this portrayal. First, Shakespeare may not have written it alone. He may have had co-writers. Second, at the time Shakespeare was writing, Queen Elizabeth was none too friendly toward Catholics. In fact, at the time, they were being persecuted violently. So a play that had Joan of Arc as a sympathetic leading character would probably not go over too well if the saint were portrayed as... well... a saint. So some give Shakespeare a wide berth on this one. Others say that being raised in England at the time he knew nothing but the English view of Joan of Arc as a warrior enemy of England.
On the other hand, Mark Twain's book on Joan of Arc is largely overlooked by history but in his own opinion it was his finest work. Okay, to be completely accurate it wasn't written by “Mark Twain.” It was written by Samuel Clemens, whose regular pseudonym was Mark Twain, but in this case he published his book under a different pseudonym: Jean François Alden.
Twain once said, “I like Joan of Arc best of all my books; and it is the best; I know it perfectly well. And besides, it furnished me seven times the pleasure afforded me by any of the others; twelve years of preparation, and two years of writing. The others needed no preparation and got none.”
Twain, as you can see, held a bit of a different opinion on St. Joan than Shakespeare. He wrote of her, “She rises stainlessly pure, in mind and heart, in speech and deed and spirit, and will so endure to the end of time.”
Unlike Shakespeare, nobody ever thought Twain as a Catholic. In fact, he was raised in a Southern culture that was deeply suspicious of Catholicism and its veneration of saints. In fact, he once stated that he had been taught ‘enmity toward everything that is Catholic.’” In fact, he had a complicated relationship toward all of Christianity.
But George Bernard Shaw, who also wrote a play called “Saint Joan,” once accused Twain of being “infatuated” with Joan of Arc and said he “romanticized” her. Let’s just say Shaw didn't romanticize her in his play. T. S. Eliot said that Shaw’s Joan “is perhaps the greatest sacrilege of all Joans: for instead of the saint or the strumpet of the legends to which he objects, he has turned her into a great middle-class reformer.”
Saint Thérèse of Lisieux
But the next author is one that really intrigued me. Saint Thérèse of Lisieux wrote the great The Story of a Soul, which I’ve read and re-read many times.
One cannot think of two saints being more different than St. Thérèse of Lisieux, also called the Little Flower, and Saint Joan of Arc. Yet, St. Thérèse had a great affection and admiration for Joan of Arc.
In fact, she honored Saint Joan with several poems and two plays. In her plays she starred as Joan and several photographs were taken of St. Thérèse dressed as Saint Joan for her first play that was performed in 1894. She actually performed the plays in her convent with other nuns and then later in a sequel:
I suspect Joan of Arc will continue to be the focal point of artists for generations to come but most will pale in comparison to William Shakespeare, Mark Twain and St. Thérèse of Lisieux.
This article originally appeared Feb. 5, 2020, at the Register.