I knew this would be a lighter writing month due to my work schedule, but every April for the last few years I’ve participated in the Dramatists Guild’s End of Play initiative, and I didn’t want to pass it up this year. Last April I worked on The Sound of Many Oceans, and the year before that In the Presence of Things Unseen. Both of these sci-fi plays are available to read via New Play Exchange— or send me an email —> hello [at] byWilliamJMeyer [dot] com
This year I started my Joan of Arc play.
I’ve been fascinated with her since high school (obviously, not alone in that) and admittedly did not know much about her until starting this play just a few weeks ago, but I’ve wanted to write a project about Joan for a long while.
Joan is the Anglicized version of Jehanne— and it’s Jehanne which I use in my play— The Apostate.
From what I’ve read, Joan is the most documented person in our historical record up until the 16th Century, mostly owing to the transcripts of her two trials which featured a multitude of eye-witness testimonies.
The first trial damned her and is called The Trial of Condemnation— and the second trial, some twenty five years after her state-sanctioned murder, is called The Trial of Rehabilitation. This trial cleared her of heresy (i.e., cross-dressing).
The research is heart-breaking.
There are thousands upon thousands of books written about her. Twain said his Joan book was his favorite of his own novels. Then there are the famous plays, of course, by the likes of Shaw and others, including Brecht, so you might think this is a daunting undertaking to write a new play about Joan with such names in the line-up. But, there are so many texts about her, it’s kind of liberating to find my own path into the history as I continue to learn about her. In fact, I think everyone should write their own Joan of Arc play.
In The Apostate— Joan is a Medieval farm girl— what she was then, not the canonized saint seen from a distant future with its weight of accumulated iconography (at least, I hope). My focus will be her family, as well as contextualizing her calling within the Hundred Years War— the very need of her journey, often glossed over— at least in the politically opaque movies. I’m also exploring her spiritual life, also often disregarded, even when she is portrayed as rigorously pious but, it seems to me, only in reductionist “good girl” terms. I consider this a kind of ironic modernist hagiology, admitted only with a side of cynical condescension. Either that, or her character is held aloof as luminous— and therefore inhuman.
But my story isn’t about our devotion to Joan, it’s about Joan’s devotion to God.
I’m still finding the characters’ voices this early on, but here’s a work-in-progress sample from the first scene. It includes Jehanne (how Joan signed her letters), her younger brother Pierre, and their mother Isabelle.
I need to learn about Medieval French. Using modern French as a placeholder here and there. Stumbling in the dark.
Just looking at the movies for a moment, I’ve recently revisited several of these in the past few weeks, to make certain I don’t cover similar thematic ground, though naturally there will be points of intersection.
I’ve watched (in chronological order):
• The 1928 Carl Dreyer film with Maria Falconetti (did you know— we’re not entirely certain what this film’s original frame rate was? pretty interesting)
• The 1948 Victor Fleming film with Ingrid Bergman (based on a play in which an actress playing Joan is in conflict with her director on how to play the part— sounds compelling! but sadly all sections of the play-within-the-play were excised from the film version)
• The 1953 Bernard Girard tv episode of You Are There with Diana Lynn— featuring Walter Cronkite as your host
[Aside: I thought for years this was directed by Sidney Lumet, but this is an incorrect attribution. For reasons I have not been able to determine, IMDb lists Sidney Lumet as the director of The Final Hours of Joan of Arc, but the kinescope itself of this live tv performance lists Bernard Girard as the director. IMDb also lists Jeremy Daniel and Abraham Polonsky as the writers, whereas the kinescope credits Milton Geiger]
• The 1957 Otto Preminger film with Jean Seberg (based on the Shaw play, but with a Graham Greene script)
• The 1999 Luc Besson movie with Milla Jovovich (apparently originally set to star Sinéad O’Connor when Kathryn Bigelow was directing)
• And— I still want to see the 1962 Robert Bresson film with Florence Delay (I’m watching his Pickpocket for the first time later tonight)
Choosing a preferred actress from these productions may be contentious, and I'm sure everyone has their favorite for one reason or another, but of these listed mine is Jean Seberg. Yes, I do think it's important that Joan be short.
Of the above, only Méliès dares to include the saints Joan said spoke to her— Saint Katherine, Saint Marguerite, and Saint Michael. Granted, movies are generally pretty tepid on religious matters. At any rate, they are characters in my play, walking and breathing and acting on stage, the same as any character— I wouldn’t deny Joan the reality of her inner life. I’m using the trial transcripts and Joan’s description of events to guide the saints' involvement— they are seen and heard on stage by Joan alone— and the audience.
Another common omission is the journey between Vaucouleurs (where Joan was given an armed escort to cross enemy territory) and Chinon— some 320 miles away (Wausau to Chicago?)— where Joan met the Dauphin, Charles VII. Most of the movie tellings have Joan getting on a horse in Vaucouleurs and then— cut— dismounting in Chinon. Some skip Vaucouleurs altogether— teleporting Joan straight away from her farm in Domrémy to the court of the Dauphin. I understand why it’s so often cut, but in this story a couple stops along the way will have particular significance to this telling, regarding the tremulous union between church and state as we and Joan approach the inevitable Siege of Orléans with the mounting tension of Joan's developing understanding of the vise she finds herself in.
As far as theatrical inspirations, I’ve been watching some lectures on Macbeth's five-act structure. And, for some reason, feel like Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children is right to learn from for this work, though I don’t know enough about it yet to tell you why, other than I like it.
So, these last few weeks through April, I’ve written about twelve thousand words— seeing Joan depart from Domrémy and eventually identify the Dauphin in Chinon— Acts I and II.
If you look at the above digital drawing, my first attempt at a logotype for this play, I’d like to bring your attention to the Joan figure on the left. This is my echo of Clément de Fauquembergue‘s drawing (click here to see the original).
Clément was a secretary in Orléans, and as far as we know, the very first to depict Joan. He made this sketch in the margin of a city record in the year 1429, two years before Joan's death.
But here’s what intrigues me about his drawing—
Although this is the only surviving visual representation of Joan from her era, it was not made by an eye-witness. Clément created this drawing without ever having seen Joan the Maid.
This strikes me as some kind of statement on all of us who set out to know Joan through our writing or some other art— across, very soon, six hundred years of intervening obfuscation.
We have not seen her, we do not know her— all we have are other people’s words, and some of her own, from the trials and other sources (like records of purchase)— but inevitably, in the endless quest of drama, there are gaps— and such gaps require mortar if the house is to stand.
Try as we might to keep them unsullied by modern sensibilities, we do not exist outside of time— so invariably the gaps are filled with us.
Here's the Georges Méliès film Jeanne d'Arc (1900):