I have long admired the program note that George Bernard Shaw wrote for Saint Joan, arguably his masterpiece.
With Robert Steven Ackerman’s Joan of Arc now being performed under the Gorilla Repertory Theater Company’s aegis at Fort Tryon Park — under the direction of my friend and colleague, Christopher Carter Sanderson, who commissioned the play — I felt it might be instructive to excerpt a bit of what Shaw wrote about his piece:
But this play is more likely to puzzle by its conflict with current fictions about Saint Joan than by its adaptation of facts to the stage. In any generally accessible work of reference, and in such well known books as those by Mark Twain and Andrew Lang it is stated that Joan’s trial was corrupt, her judges scoundrels, and the questions put to her devised to trap her into fatal admissions. For these slanders of the Church and the Inquisition there is not a shred of evidence in the records of the trial. Joan’s judges were as straightforward as Joan herself; and the law took its regular course. She was burnt for heresy because she was guided by her inner light to the position taken two hundred years later by the Society of Friends, for which women were judicially flogged mercilessly at the instance of the Church of England, and would have been burnt had they been Joan’s contemporaries. Her insistence on wearing male attire is still a punishable offence. The opinion of the court that her visions were temptations of the devil was quite sincere. Like all prisoners of war, Joan was tried by her political enemies Instead of by an impartial international tribunal; but a medieval Catholic court was far more impartial than a modern national one. How violently the English were prejudiced against her may be seen in the scurrilous popular representation of her in the XVI century play of Henry VI (supposed to have been touched up by Shakespear); but it was not an English court that excommunicated her; and she would have been burnt equally if the Hundred Years War in France had been a purely civil one. Not until the Church privileged her private judgment and classed her visions and her inner light as celestial by canonizing her in 1904-1920 was the verdict of 1431 really reversed. Thus it cannot be too clearly understood that there were no villains in the tragedy of Joan’s death. She was entirely innocent; but her excommunication was a genuine act of faith and piety; and her execution followed inevitably.
In the meantime, it would seem clear from what I can tell that Ackerman, who teaches theology at the Sacret Heart Academy and is known for his scholarship in Catholic moral theology, that Saint Joanis only one play on the topic of Joan of Arc and that Shaw’s was but one approach. Ackerman’s Joan of Arc, for example, is a monumental effort in the sense of 33 actors being strewn about the stage — and, indeed, there isn’t a traditional stage but rather the tradition of an outdoor and environmental theatrical experience, a pioneering and acclaimed Sanderson trademark.
Joan of Arc runs from July 9 through Aug. 2, Thurs.-Sat., 8pm, in the Pinegrove area of Fort Tryon Park — take the elevator upstairs from the 190th Street exit of the A train. All performances are free. For more information, call 212-252-5258 or visit www.gorillarep.org.
And now, 5 questions Robert Steven Ackerman has never been asked.
1) What’s the most perceptive question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
I like questions that focus on how I use language in my plays. More often than not, though, it’s the observations I most enjoy. During one of our developmental readings of Joan of Arc, an actor observed that he likes the way I use different poetic forms to set the scene and advance the plot. That affirmation came early in the process, so it helped reinforce what I was doing. My goal was to write a thoroughly modern play that is true to its medieval subject. Although the play is written largely in prose, I have used blank verse and free verse sparingly to create a world that is at once separate from our own world and at the same time speaks to our contemporary experience. I am grateful that my early training under the tutelage of Reed Whittemore, former Poet Laureate of the United States, gave me the confidence to attempt this.
2) What’s the most idiotic question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
Sometimes a question that seems idiotic or senseless is actually striving for something that the writer hasn’t thought about. Some of these questions have actually helped me to understand my own work better. Much of a writer’s work is done unconsciously — and these questions can help make that part of the creative process more accessible.
3) What’s the weirdest question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
So far I haven’t been asked any weird questions.
4) You’re having dinner tomorrow night with George Bernard Shaw. Do you two have anything to talk about regarding Joan of Arc or organized religion?
I believe that George Bernard Shaw and I would delight in talking about an incredible human being who was willing to defy the establishment in the face of death. Joan is a role model for all people. She acted as she believed. At a very young age, she was a fully actualized human being. I should note here that many accounts of Joan rely more on her status as a saint to drive the action than her exploits as a human being. In this play, I am exploring the human side of Joan — for example, to show that she was capable of experiencing romantic love and that she was afraid to die. It is a new take on Joan of Arc.
5) The massive size of the cast of your play — 33 actors, I understand — poses challenges and opportunities. Did you always envision the play as containing elements of spectacle or is that purely a directorial concept? How do you feel about it?
Originally I envisioned a cast size of around 15 actors. That turned out to be impractical. As the story began to write itself, the need for additional characters became evident. Although double casting is a viable option, we have decided to use a larger cast in the premiere. Christopher Carter Sanderson, the brilliant artistic director of Gorilla Repertory Theater who commissioned me to write this play and who is directing it, has been very supportive of this approach.
6) You teach theology at Sacred Heart Academy and your specialization is Catholic moral theology. How do you translate your academic background into drama without having it devolve into either proselytizing or preaching? In other words, how do you locate the drama in theology without demanding that the audience subscribe to it?
Preaching and art are unhappy bedfellows. I write plays and not sermons. So there was never any risk of proselytizing. Joan of Arc is a play for people of all faiths and no faith. It explores themes and values that I hope are of interest to all people.