Jo Lampert, who plays Joan, is a wonderful singer, with a rich, loud, fleshy neo-pop sound. Photograph by Joan Marcus
Written by Joan Acocella
For centuries, Joan of Arc has been used for political purposes, and that makes sense. Born in 1412, in the middle of the Hundred Years’ War, Joan saw her country overrun—fields scorched, cattle slaughtered—by English soldiers fighting for dominion over France. At the age of thirteen, as she later reported, she started hearing voices: first Saint Michael, then other saints. In the beginning, they just said that she should be a good girl, and nice things like that. But, eventually, it seems, they told her—a peasant and a female and a teen-ager, who couldn’t read or write, who had never done much more than tend her father’s sheep—that she had been chosen to end the Hundred Years’ War.
Surprisingly, she did so. The French forces at that time were stalled at Orléans, on the Loire. If they allowed the English to cross the river and invade the South of France, they might lose the country. How Joan managed to persuade the French dauphin to give her men and horses and arms has never been properly explained, but she did, and many of the exhausted French soldiers were willing to accept this girl, waving a white banner, as an angel from Heaven. She inspirited them. They pushed the English back, and back, and eventually across the Channel.
In the meantime, however, Joan had become a nuisance to the authorities, as saints often do. Finally, in 1430, she was captured, and those who before had accepted her as a heavenly messenger now called her a witch. The Church put her through a four-month heresy trial and then took her out to the market square in Rouen, tied her to a stake, and burned her alive. She was nineteen and very frightened. She died screaming.
Since that time, she has been made to serve as an advertisement for the Roman Catholic Church, the organization that killed her. (She was officially exonerated at a “rehabilitation trial,” twenty-five years after her death.) Even greater has been the use that her country, and particularly its most conservative elements, has made of her. During the Second World War, the Vichy government put her image on its posters. Later, the far-right National Front stamped its publications with her face. At the same time, because she did a man’s job, and therefore wore a man’s clothes (armor, trousers), she has been put to less orthodox political purposes. The Saint Joan of Arc Anti-Defamation League has firmly corrected those—presumably many. “Johannic studies” is big business in academia—where she has been described as a transvestite or a lesbian or even a feminist.
Which brings us to David Byrne’s rock musical “Joan of Arc: Into the Fire,” which recently opened at the Public Theatre, under the direction of Alex Timbers. There are some bad things you could say about this show. At points, it displays that unearned conviction of righteousness that one tends to find in anti-establishment shows about religion. (Several times during “Joan” I expected to see Mary Magdalene, from “Jesus Christ Superstar,” amble in with her guitar, singing “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.”) Strangely, there was also a section that seemed to be making fun of the black church, which, if you want to get points for left-wing holiness, is not recommended. Finally, the show had a coda representing the rehabilitation trial, with Joan’s mother singing “Send Her to Heaven” to the assembled churchmen. The mother was played by Mare Winningham, of “St. Elmo’s Fire,” and it was nice to see her again, but her song was not a success. I’m not asking a rock musical for doctrinal correctness, but, really, everyone knows that it’s not churchmen who send people to Heaven. It’s God. As if the song knew that there was something wrong, it had a fake, sugary feeling about it. The number would do well to be dropped.
Especially since it immediately follows the burning, which is tremendous. The songs, performed onstage, are rousing. The choreography, by Steven Hoggett, who has done some delicate work in his time—for example, the 2014 Broadway version of “Rocky,” with fight scenes that had to look authentic without the actors’ ending up in the hospital—was mostly unison and mostly martial, but it took some sophisticated maneuvering to make an ensemble of ten men look like two armies going at each other. (Fortunately, the Public’s Newman Theatre stage is small.) Most of the cast were good actors, and the people who were featured—Terence Archie, as the English commander; Michael James Shaw, as Joan’s benefactor Baudricourt; and Sean Allan Krill, as the bishop—were very good.
Jo Lampert, who played Joan, is not an especially good actor, but that didn’t matter much because she is a wonderful singer, with a rich, loud, fleshy neo-pop sound. (She shouldn’t have been miked. She didn’t need it.) Also, she looks absolutely perfect. Other Joans of stage and screen—for example, Jean Seberg, in the Otto Preminger movie—have merely been gamine, but Lampert is truly androgynous. She looks like the young Alan Cumming. And the show rings change after change on this theme. When Joan first puts on her male attire, a blue leather jacket—she’ll later switch to a silver one (the costumes are by Clint Ramos)—she acts as though she’s been let out of jail. Later, when she is tortured, the weapon is femininity. Not once but twice she is given a virginity test (offstage, but still . . .), and on the second occasion Hoggett has her flipped upside down over the churchmen’s heads, in a sort of aerial rape. Most painful of all is the scene that precedes her burning. We see her, in her cell, battered and dirtied and wearing nothing but some gauze tape around her bosom and bottom, as if her female parts were wounds.
The show is very much of our time. More than about France, it is about changing gender: the freedom that this can bestow on those who do it, and the horror it can inspire in others. When the executioners set up the stake and bring on the flaming torches—and then the air is filled with smoke and, when it disperses, she is gone—all you can think of is how glad those people must have been to get rid of her. She may have enabled the French to win the war, but, once she did that, she was not convenient to have around.