The Story of Shaw's Saint Joan


142 pages
Contains Illustrations, Index
ISBN 0-7735-0378-1





Reviewed by Robert Seiler

Robert Seiler was Assistant Professor of General Studies at the University of Calgary.


This book purports to tell the “story” of how in 1923 G.B.S. constructed his most famous play — that is, how he worked his historical and religious material, the events of which were spread over a period of twelve months, into a performance of three and a half hours, without falsifying the facts. In chapter one, Brian Tyson examines the possible reasons why Shaw wrote this play about “the first Protestant.” These include the “play of politics following World War I” and the canonization of Joan of Arc on 16 May 1920. In the next chapter Tyson considers the “models” upon which Joan was based: Dame Sybil Thorndike, the actress who had been Shaw’s friend since 1908; T.E. Lawrence, the “spiritual leader and undisciplined military genius”; Mary Hankinson, an important member of the Fabian Society; and the figure depicted in Jules Quicherat’s account (1841) of Joan’s trial and rehabilitation. Tyson re-creates the actual writing of the first draft in chapters three, four, and five. In order to produce a vivid picture of Shaw at work, Tyson studies the original manuscript in Pitman shorthand, the typescript that Shaw corrected, Shaw’s Rehearsal Notes and Shaw’s unpublished correspondence, documents which are at the British Library, as well as the rehearsal copy of the play, which is at the Humanities Research Centre at the University of Texas. In chapter six he surveys the circumstances surrounding the first production of the play in the United States, Great Britain, France, and Germany, and in the last chapter he reflects on the impact that Saint Joan has had on drama for more than half a century, especially on T.S. Eliot and Bertold Brecht.

Tyson’s approach is expository rather than evaluative. Tyson is good in the early chapters, where he examines the facts and traces the development of the play in Shaw’s mind. He is not so convincing in the chapters (five and seven) where he reflects on the play’s meaning and on the influence the play has had upon twentieth century drama. Much more should be said to elucidate Shaw’s message: a saint must perish in every age to save those who have no imagination. Much more could be said about Shaw’s use of historical events to criticize the present through the past. But these are minor reservations. The prose is simple and straightforward. The book is remarkably free of misprints, the references are full enough for any scholarly purpose, and the index is ample yet convenient. Advanced students of drama in general and of Shaw in particular will find this narrative stimulating.


Tyson, Brian, “The Story of Shaw's Saint Joan,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed May 27, 2024,