Archive for January 5th, 2012

Happy 600th birthday, Jeanne d’Arc!

Thursday, January 5th, 2012
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Almost all little girls have a love affair with horses. They also seem to go through a Joan of Arc phase, too. I was indifferent to the equestrian sports – but I read all the books in my library on the illiterate virgin from Domrémy who gave birth to a nation.

So I was pleased to learn in my online peregrinations that today is her 600th birthday.  How the experts have determined her birthday when we’re not even sure of the year she was born, I can’t remember, if I ever knew.  The picture at right was made about half a century after her death; the only contemporary portrait made of her has not survived.

She may be a powerful reminder that events can be successful without turning out quite as we imagined.  Charles VII, the king whose coronation she engineered, appears to have been a truly nasty piece of work.  Having recently attended the exhibition of The Mourners at San Francisco’s Palace of the Legion of Honor, I enriched my appreciation for what a first-class creep he was:  “the mourners” adorn the tomb of John the Fearless, done in by the king-to-be in a particularly treacherous way.  Old habits die hard:  he did nothing more than a decade later to save his warrior and savior when she was captured by the Burgundians.  She burned at the stake in 1431.

We know her, not only as a warrior, patriot, and saint, but also as the heroine of two great plays:  Saint Joan by George Bernard Shaw, and Jean Anouilh‘s The Lark.

The most famous passage from Shaw’s play follows her agreement to sign a confession renouncing her “voices,” to live under permanent confinement.

“You think that life is nothing but not being dead? It is not the bread and water I fear. I can live on bread. It is no hardship to drink water if the water be clean. But to shut me from the light of the sky and the sight of the fields and flowers; to chain my feet so that I can never again climb the hills. To make me breathe foul damp darkness, without these things I cannot live. And by your wanting to take them away from me, or from any human creature, I know that your council is of the devil.”

Below is a 1957 Hallmark video of the play, starring that remarkable and generally underrated actress Julie Harris as Joan and the better known, for different reasons, Boris Karloff as Pierre CauchonLillian Hellman made the English adaptation and Leonard Bernstein composed the incidental music. (Otherwise you could watch Carl Dreyer‘s reverential and acclaimed The Passion of Joan of Arc, which I have always found a little like watching paint dry. Guess I’m a lowbrow.

I haven’t had a chance to watch the whole Anouilh play, but it looks pretty good in the bits I’ve seen. You’ll have to skip through Hallmark’s 2-minute cheesy commercial at the beginning, and a very blurry video version – but Harris is worth it, I think.