Bernard Shaw, who wrote music criticism for many years, claimed that the heart of his musical education consisted of sitting at the piano playing and singing the score of Mozart's "Don Giovanni."
That music - with its inimitable blend of the sublime and the sardonic - echoes through several of Shaw's plays, certainly "Saint Joan."
What is remarkable about this play is its balance. Certainly Shaw saw Joan as an heroic figure. He understood the martyrdom of someone who speaks unpleasant truths, having experienced it himself only a few years earlier when he criticized British actions in World War I.
But what makes the play great is his understanding of, even sympathy for Joan's enemies - the hierarchies she challenged, who had no choice but to be rid of her. It is easy to see them simply as villains, but Shaw appreciated their shrewd practicality and admired the cynical, efficient way they maintained order. (Shaw, after all, later adored Stalin and compared Joan herself to Trotsky.)
What unites these often conflicting points of view is Shaw's sparkling - if you will, Mozartean - language. One of the virtues of Michael Langham's production is that he has found actors who can convey both the drama of Shaw's ideas and the intense musicality of his writing.
These virtues are especially apparent in the great scene when the English leader Warwick, a hopelessly chauvinistic English monk and a cunning French bishop plot Joan's downfall. At times the humor in the scene has an almost Monty Pythonesque cruelty; its diabolism is performed elegantly by John Neville, Remak Ramsey and Louis Turenne.
There is similarly elegant work by Nicholas Kepros as the Inquisitor and Jay O. Sanders, as Joan's only ally, and, in smaller roles, John Franklyn-Robbins, Michael Stuhlbarg and Ivar Brogger.
As Joan, Maryann Plunkett has the requisite determination and energy. But her Joan is essentially earthbound, unmusical. She never soars.
Nevertheless this is the first production that justifies the existence of Tony Randall's National Actors Theatre.
Go along to the National Actors Theater's production of Shaw's "Saint Joan" which opened at the Lyceum Theater last night. Michael Langham's almost haughtily authoritative production - here is a man who deals with classics like a theatrical Sotheby's - gets almost everything right, except for one detail (the playing of the title role) which seems oddly wrong.
If you disagree with me on that last count you may have a great time. If you agree with me you'll only have a very interesting time. In either event, this "Saint Joan" is the best Shaw we have had around here for man a moon.
The essence, perhaps even the secret, of staging Shaw's "Saint Joan" lies, as Langham well knows, in realizing that you are not simply dealing with on play - some uplifting historical drama about the life of a saint - but also having to handle, on the same stage like a two-ring circus, the playwright's comments on his own play.
Shaw loved to write provocative Prefaces to his plays, exploring their politics, background and subtext, but here the Preface is virtually built into the play.
"Saint Joan" in any case stands quite outside the Shaw canon - being the only time Shaw attempted what we could call epic theater. The wily old playwright himself contended that the role of the Maid of Lorraine, written originally for Sybil Thorndike, would be as sought after by actresses as Hamlet is by actors.
And on that score Shaw wasn't all that far wrong. The temptation to be spunky, witty, incinerated to a frazzle, yet come back for a chirpy vaudeville encore has proved irresistible for generations of actresses. If it were only made into a musical she might have sung: "I could have burned all night!"
Shaw (yes, in that Preface) called Joan "the queerest fish among the eccentric worthies of the Middle Ages," and she is indeed fascinating - it is not for nothing she has been immortalized on stage by such varied hearts as Schiller, Anouilh, Brecht (well, sort of) and Martha Graham.
But Shaw's play is only ostensibly about Saint Joan. Oh, to be sure, he does his usual crowd-pleasing stuff demonstrating how much his immortal warrior-saint is like that strange little girl next door - such a cute, tousle-haired, farmyard Amazon!
However, his real concern is to demonstrate that Joan was historically, and symbolically, at the crossroads marking the oncoming Protestant rejection of the supreme moral authority of the Pope and Rome, with the rise of individualism, and also the rejection of the old complex feudal system of local lords in favor of nationalism and kings, with the rise of patriotism.
Thus the director has to do justice to the tragic-comedy of Joan here, yet also give full exposure to the political dialectic showing, in Shaw's view, how the Middle Ages moved on. It is not an easy trick - and to pull it off completely you need an exceptional Joan.
I have seen more than a dozen Joans in God's good time - the first was Ann Casson, Thorndike's own daughter, who gave a fascinating impression of what Shaw's anointed must have been like in it - and the quality that all the best of them had, from Celia Johnson to Siobhan McKenna, was radiance, hanging around their scrubbed faces like a halo.
Langham's Joan, Maryann Plunkett, while intelligent, witty, resourceful, even credible, lacks the radiance that would make you scale a castle battlement and dare scalding oil.
This apart, the staging handles the separation between Joan, Church and State with a fierce clarity, is notably well-cast and beautifully acted.
Some beautifully act better than others, of course. I have never seen a better Warwick than the mellifluous John Neville (the most underrated classic actor on the English-speaking stage), Remak Ramsay proves wonderfully apoplectic as the jingoistic Stogumber, while Nicholas Kepros shows a Jesuitical finesse as the Inquisitor.
Some of the others - Jay O. Sanders and Louis Turenne for example - are also admirable, and Langham has his company play that Shavian thrust/counterthrust between shock and anachronism with fine-tuned expertise. I liked also the handsomely adaptable settings by Marjorie Kellogg, the costumes by Anne Hould-Ward and the lighting by Richard Nelson.
I think this is the best overall production Tony Randall's critically beleaguered, not to say belabored, company has so far given us. Whether it will be enough to win a little modest praise from my firm-minded colleagues I would by now hesitate to guess.
But believe me - it is definitely well worth seeing. And by the time you do, the always dependable Plunkett may have recharged her radiance batteries and started to light up the play's few dull corners.
During the two seasons that the National Actors Theater has been presenting classics on Broadway there has been one consistently salutary note, the work of Maryann Plunkett. While the productions have been plagued by a variety of artistic ailments, Ms. Plunkett has gone about her acting with a clear-eyed determination and a talent that shines no matter what the surrounding pallor. She has demonstrated her versatility in a wide range of roles, from Elizabeth Proctor in "The Crucible" to Masha in "The Seagull," all of them leading to her impassioned performance in "Saint Joan."
In contrast to previous productions of this company, Michael Langham's revival (at the Lyceum Theater) is not undermined by gross miscasting, a factor that grounded the recent "Seagull." But, with the definite exception of Ms. Plunkett and a few others, the acting is erratic, and the production often takes a simplistic storybook approach to the play. The direction is on a plateau below the high standard that Mr. Langham has set in his productions at the Stratford Festival in Canada and as recently as last season in his version of "Heartbreak House" at the Hartford Stage.
There is something about the National Actors Theater that seems to afflict otherwise accomplished directors and actors with what might be called NAT-itis. Even such a distinguished classical actor as John Neville, cast as the cynical Earl of Warwick, contracts the malady, as does Remak Ramsay as a chauvinistic English churchman. In his pivotal role, Mr. Neville poses as if for a studio portrait, while Mr. Ramsay has made his character so boorish as to seem woodenheaded. The first scene of the play becomes unintentionally laughable as Edmund C. Davys, playing Baudricourt, blathers behind his beard about the pushy maid in the courtyard. But in other confrontations the production is less broad and more competent, and Shaw's voice is heard more clearly.
"Saint Joan" remains one of the author's most provocative (not merely philosophical) works, as he dramatizes the closeness between the heretic and the saint and the transforming power of simple faith. The politics of the play are complex and even seem to anticipate the alliance of European communities, as a natural step after feudalism and nationalism.
In an article in The New York Times at the time of the work's Broadway premiere in 1923, Luigi Pirandello accurately equated Joan with Shaw in "affirming her own life impulse, her unshakable, her even tyrannical will to live, by accepting death itself." As a skeptic, Shaw makes no grand pronouncements for the miraculous nature of Joan's voices, but places them in the fervor of her imagination. In this portrait Joan is both saintly and Shavian and the embodiment of all who assert their will against unjust earthly authority.
Ms. Plunkett strides into her role with an impudence to match her confidence. A plain-speaking country girl, her Joan is no diamond in the rough, but simply rough-hewn. Sentimentality is not allowed to intrude on the rigor of her characterization. The actress walks as if trying to be taller than she is and, surrounded by tall men, she seems to grow in stature, like Anita Hill testifying before a Congressional hearing.
Even as the men are dismissive of her, she remains firm in her resolve, and the rudeness of her remarks deflates their pomposity. Ms. Plunkett is not afraid to make Joan unlikable. But one believes in her as a moral force and as an inspirational commander in combat.
The actress is at her most sensitized in the scene at Rheims Cathedral after the coronation of the Dauphin, when it becomes evident that now she is considered expendable. With a fierce intensity she proclaims her devotion to her calling, "I will dare, and dare, and dare, until I die," a vow that is silently re-evoked as she is tried and condemned.
Around Ms. Plunkett are discordancies, as supporting players unpersuasively double in roles, lumbering from one rudimentary setting to another. The production lacks panoply as well as imagination. But several leading actors deliver finely modulated performances, especially Louis Turenne as the very political Bishop of Beauvais and Nicholas Kepros who is a model Inquisitor, fair-minded but unyielding in his obeisance to the rules of his office.
The two actors are exemplars of the author's belief that there are no villains in the play, only normally innocent people acting with good intentions. As Shaw insisted in his prologue, Joan and others are not killed by murderers. They are sacrificed as a result of "judicial murders, pious murders." It is that fact that gives Shaw's play its continuing tragic dimension.
To be sure, Bernard Shaw's "Saint Joan" stands or falls on the strength of the actress essaying the title role. But it also tests an entire ensemble, revealing its strengths and weaknesses as only a high-minded colloquy disguised as a costume drama can. For while Shaw surely loved Joan and canonized her himself three years after the church beat him to the punch, he also enjoined her for his own rhetorical purposes, and to succeed in that he needed a phalanx of worthy antagonists.
The National Actors Theater production of "Saint Joan" marks the play's eighth Broadway-caliber stand in New York since its premiere in December 1923. In the title role, Maryann Plunkett - a minor star before she joined the troupe and the sole light of its dismal first two seasons - has many affecting moments, and she grows into the role as the play progresses. Plunkett is a tremulous actress with a somewhat nervous, febrile quality that doesn't fully match Shaw's description of a calculating girl "of extraordinary strength of mind and hardihood of character." Despite the abundant, fierce lines Shaw gives her, Plunkett nearly always seems like a candle flame on the verge of extinction.
And yet the performance has appeal, for Plunkett is an ingratiating actress and she humanizes Joan in ways that make her quite accessible for a heroine who relies on the voices of saints and archangels to clear her path through earthly travails as she sets out to free France from the English. Her best foil - not surprisingly for those who've watched this fine actor over the years - is Jay O. Sanders' Dunois, the bastard warrior she wins over in the battle to reclaim Orleans.
She enjoys an entertaining relationship with the Dauphin (Michael Stuhlbarg), the effete twit she restores to the throne at Rheims as Charles VII. Though Stuhlbarg takes the Dauphin's callowness to an extreme, Plunkett seems to elevate the character and make him bearable. And she is at her best when the seemingly prideful Joan wonders plaintively, after her victories, why the people don't love her.
But the larger accomplishment of an ensemble performance should be credited to director Michael Langham, who stepped in this year as the company's artistic adviser. Some elements look like standard fare from a middling resident troupe, but at least it looks like a real theatrical company. Despite some staging choices that make the show look more like Shakespearean than Shavian comedy, this is essentially a facile, swift and self-assured production.
Several performances stand out: John Neville oozes nastiness as Warwick, and the ever-reliable Remak Ramsay splutters magisterially as the blood-lusting Chaplain de Stogumber. Nicholas Kepros' Inquisitor is a model of restrained, ratiocinated malice, provocatively countered by the sympathetic Ladvenu of Lorne Kennedy and the politically careful Beauvais of Louis Turenne.
But in look and demeanor, Edmund C. Davys is a far cry from the handsome and energetic Baudricourt that Shaw describes as the man Joan must first win to begin her mission, and several of the other performances never rise above mediocrity. Marjorie Bradley Kellogg has provided serviceable but uninspired, stony, medieval-looking decor that relies heavily on an overabundance of fog and spooky shafts of light Richard Nelson sends through them. Ann Hould-Ward's costumes are, as always, character-perfect and - in the case of the Archbishop, Bluebeard and Tremouille - gorgeous.
So no major fireworks here, but a competent and judiciously pared reading of a play whose rewards remain compelling (particularly in a version that runs just under three hours).
For the record, Plunkett follows Lynn Redgrave (1977 at Circle in the Square); Diana Sands (1968 at the Vivian Beaumont); Barbara Jefford (1962 with the Old Vic at City Center); Siobhan McKenna (1956 at the Phoenix and accounted the best of all); Uta Hagen (1951 Theater Guild production at the Cort); Katharine Cornell (1936 at the Martin Beck); and Winifred Lenihan (1923 Theater Guild production at the Garrick, transferred to the Empire).