“Earth, the Bedlam of the universe!
Where Reason . . . runs mad,
And nurses Folly’s children as her own.”
(Edward Young, Night Thoughts [1742-1745]).
Last fall I noted that the Folger Shakespeare Library was staging Anthony and Cleopatra with the African-American actress Shirine Babb in the lead female role. This morning’s mail brings notice that the Folger is about to host a performance of George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan, with the African-American actress Dria Brown playing the Maid of Orleans. You may recall that I objected to casting Ms. Babb as Cleopatra because it would encourage the popular delusion that ancient Egypt was part of Black Africa. This cannot be grounds for my objecting to the casting of Ms. Brown as Joan of Arc, since, as of yet, there is no popular delusion that medieval France was actually northern Nigeria. I know there are academics who have begun to squeak and burble about the multi-culti Middle Ages, but most men and women outside the lunatic asylum know that St. Joan was white, as were her horse, her armor, and her famous battle standard.
In fact, Schiller has one of his characters call her the “snow-white dove.”
Speaking of lunatic asylums, this production of Saint Joan is the work of the Bedlam Theater Company, very much a rising star in the bon ton. Bedlam is, of course, a state of extreme mayhem, such as might be found in a lunatic asylum that is governed by its inmates, and this explains its appeal to our jaded bon ton.
The word is, ironically, a corruption of the name Bethlehem. Eight hundred years ago, a priory was established in London with the name St. Mary’s of Bethlehem, and its monks soon thereafter opened a hospital for lunatics. The priory was abolished during the depredations of Henry VIII, but the hospital survived with its name contracted to Bethlem, or Bedlam. Thus, the name of the city where logos entered the world became the name of any place where no logos may be found.
I will say of Ms. Brown what I said of Ms. Babb. I have no doubt that she is a fine actress, indeed that her acting is fine in ways, and to degrees, that are completely over my philistine head. But I wouldn’t care to see her play Joan of Arc. Truth be told, I also wouldn’t care to see the Shavian take on the Maid of Orleans, being partial to the version by Schiller mentioned above.
Friedrich Schiller wrote his Maid of Orleans (1801) to correct the blasphemies that Voltaire had perpetrated under the same title, earlier in the previous century. Most published versions ended with the twenty-first canto. A longer prose version, published in English in 1758, concludes with a scene in which the Maid of Orleans is deflowered by her donkey (1).
In Schiller’s hands, on the contrary, St. Joan is a heroine, a nationalist, and a Catholic. She personified the Romantic repudiation of the appalling eighteenth century, which Thomas Carlyle, in his biography of Schiller, called “the barren realm of darkness” (2). She is among the great champions of particularism, of the view that France is a particular place, that the French are a particular people, and that the English army of Sir John Talbot had no business there.
To cast a Black actress as Joan of Arc is, of course, to advance the opposite view. It is to universalize the story of Saint Joan into a story of Everywoman and the human condition. It is to present Joan’s Frenchness as an accident, when the whole point of Joan’s life (and death) is that Frenchness is not an accident.
France is not just a chunk of real estate that Sir John Talbot can govern as well as anyone else, and the French are not just meat-sticks who happened to have French nationality assigned when they popped into the hands of their midwives. True or false, these are the propositions that Joan of Arc stood for, and ought to stand for. Universalizing this story is bedlam indeed.