Saint Joan chronicles the life, death, and legacy of Joan of Arc. George Bernard Shaw published the play in 1924, and won the Nobel Prize for literature the following year. You'd think the guy would be happy right? The Nobel is pretty much one of the most respected awards on Earth. Shaw didn't see it that way. He wrote to one of his friends, "The Nobel was a hideous calamity for me. It was really almost as bad as my 70th birthday" (source).
It's understandable why Shaw reacted like this. If a writer wins a Nobel Prize, it establishes him forever as totally legit and totally mainstream. Shaw, however, had built his career on being anti-establishment. He took pride in it. Many of his beliefs went against the mainstream of his day, like his belief in socialism. He felt that capitalism allowed rich people to keep all the money, and didn't he mind telling people about it. For years he was a member of the Fabian Society, a prominent socialist group. He was also an ardent defender of women's rights, which, unfortunately, was not a very popular point of view at the time.
With all that in mind, you might be able to glean why Shaw would be attracted to a historical figure like Joan. She made his rebelliousness look miniscule in comparison. Not only did she challenge the place of women, but her actions attacked the entire power structure of medieval society. By making the King in charge of everything, she took power away from the feudal lords. By saying she got her information directly from God, she challenged the power of the Church.
The irony that Joan was made a saint by the very same organization responsible for her execution certainly didn't slip by Shaw. It then makes it doubly ironic that a play that is so anti-establishment was the very thing that established Shaw forever.
Why Should I Care?
Armed with the power of her convictions (and occasionally a sword), Joan of Arc went up against every major establishment of her day. English invaders, the Catholic Church, a male-dominated society—you name it, Joan opposed it. She backed down for no one, convinced in her heart that her cause was just.
And you know what? Centuries later, we know that she was right. Hey, you don't get made a saint for being wrong about this kind of stuff (unless you're Val Kilmer, apparently).
By standing up for herself in a world that was totally stacked against her, Joan is an inspiration. As one of the first feminists, women can look to her example as she proved that she was just as capable (if not more) as the men. As a free thinker, she proved that divine inspiration was not just something the Church could hand out whenever it felt like it. And even if her example doesn't speak to you on those terms, Joan is still inspiring as a person who was willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for what she believed in.
Got it? Good. Now here's the thing: Joan was awesome, sure, but why read Shaw's play, and not just some history book? Who wants drama when you can read the facts?
The answer to that, dear Shmoopers, (aside from the fact that a lot of us prefer drama to the facts) is that Shaw's play will give you a rare glimpse into the minds and hearts of everyone who played a role in Joan's fate. Sure, it may not be the most accurate take on the story, but Saint Joan digs into the details of the tragedy, and brings the dusty story of Joan of Arc into the modern world.