By: Paulanne Simmons
Joan of Arc, also known as “The Maid of Orleans” and “St. Joan,” has been a source of artistic inspiration for centuries. As early as 1429, when the peasant warrior was still alive, Christine de Pizan wrote a poem eulogizing her. In 1801, Friedrich Schiller wrote Die Jungfrau von Orleans, a tragedy based on her life, which Tchaikovsky turned into an opera. Subsequently, George Bernard Shaw, Bertolt Brecht, Maxwell Anderson and Jean Anouilh all dramatized her life.
Martha Graham choreographed Seraphic Dialogue, in which Joan looks back over her life in a series of danced dialogues with St. Michael, her spiritual advisor. Rubens, Ingres, Daniel Gabriel Rossetti, Gaugin and Howard Pyle have all imagined the virgin visionary on canvas. Sculptures of the saint can be found in the Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris, Fairmount Park in Philadelphia, Place du Martroi in Orléans, Riverside Park, in New York City and Decatur Street/French Market in New Orleans. Films about Joan abound.
Nor is Joan of Arc absent from the domain of music. She not only appears in the lyrics of many songs; she is the central figure in Leonard Cohen’s “Joan of Arc,” and Elton John’s “Did Anybody Sleep with Joan of Arc?”
So it was probably inevitable that someone would finally write a musical about the French heroine.
This musical, Joan of Arc: Into the Fire, comes from the pen of David Byrne, lead singer of the Talking Heads and creator of another musical about a historic figure, Imelda Marcos, Here Lies Love. It is directed by Alex Timbers who directed Here Lies Love, as well as Love’s Labour’s Lost, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson (not coincidentally, all at the Public) and Peter and the Starcatcher, which traveled from California to off-Broadway, to Broadway, and finally ended up at New World Stages.
Given this creative pedigree, it’s not surprising the show is a rock musical. Happily, this turns out to perfectly suit the story of the martyred saint. There’s not much dialogue here. Nor does there need to be. Byrne’s score does a marvelous job conveying the passion of Joan’s faith and the pathos of her fate.
What’s not conveyed by the music is delivered by Steven Hoggett’s energetic choreography, Justin Townsend’s ecstatic lighting and an ensemble cast headed by the androgynous Jo Lampert as Joan.
Today, when women serve in the army and in combat, it’s difficult to imagine how extraordinary it was to the medieval world when a girl, inspired by her visions, dressed as a boy and took up arms to save her homeland from the English invaders. Both church and state were shocked and terrified. The fact that Joan remained recalcitrant only made it worse.
In this musical, Joan starts off very much a peasant girl, becomes an armed warrior, and ends up swaddled in bandages that cover only those body parts that would identify her as a woman. She is de-sexed and defeated.
But of course, we know Joan will live on in posthumous immortality. Sometimes faith, like the pen, is mightier than the sword.
Joan of Arc: Into the Fire ****
The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, www.publictheater.org, through April 30.
Photo: Joan Marcus