Saint Joan, Major Barbara and Androcles the Lion
While “Major Barbara” and “Androcles” are forgettable takes on religious hypocrisy and “salvationism,” “Saint Joan” is a wonderful and straight account of the famous French warrior (I rank it with Candida and Man and Superman as my favorite Shaw plays). The special quality of the play is that Shaw writes it in a sincere effort to be objective and factual, thus providing human elements to the traditional “villains” of the story and also recognizing Joan’s own faults.
But the real value in this book comes from the prefaces he wrote to each play, which in some cases are longer than the plays themselves and in all cases revolve around GBS’s specific brand of atheo-communism. As always, I recommend reading the preface after its respective work (I’ll never understand why authors feel the need to discuss major characters, plot elements and themes before you’re supposed to have read the book. . . shouldn’t that be in the afterword/postscript/appendix?).
Even though I didn’t much care for the short and mostly trivial “Major Barbara” or “Androcles,” I greatly enjoyed their prefaces. In the former, Shaw defends his position that poverty is the greatest sin of all since all others stem from it, and thus it should be the first problem addressed in any civilized society. In the preface to “Androcles,” which is at least twice as long as the actual play, Shaw reviews all of the information we know about Jesus (going very thoroughly through each gospel and all of their discrepancies) and then explains in detail why he was not a divine prophet but rather a radical communist reformer. He then goes on to explain why we should take him up on his suggestions in the modern day. “Saint Joan’s” preface was the least impressive of them all, which is appropriate considering the play can stand on its own. Shaw essentially talked about how he arrived to believe that Joan was as he had depicted in the play.
I don’t agree with everything Shaw says even though I’m quite attracted by his intellect, wit, and clarity of thought. He’s certainly not the most humble of fellows, and I understand that he was pretty well loathed in his day mainly for this reason. But it’s hard to deny that the man was a first-rate freethinker and came up with not only some pretty original ideas, but also original ways in which to express them artistically. If nothing else, he had a very unique way of expressing his unique viewpoints, and it’s evident even in lesser plays like “Major Barbara” and “Androcles.”