The broad outlines of the Joan of Arc story are political. She came to the aid of a dispirited France during the Hundred Years War, crowning the Dauphin and inspiring the French to victory after her death as a martyr at English hands (National Geographic has a beautifully illustrated synopsis here). Hers is also a religious story: divinely sparked by saints, burned as a heretic, her innocence established by ecclesiastical tribunal, and canonized in 1920. And it is a feminist story, exciting and empowering little girls (as this list of children’s books demonstrates), and compelling actresses from Sarah Bernhardt to Ingrid Bergman and male artists from Shaw to Preminger; the London Telegraph notes that “the role of Saint Joan is considered the actress’s equivalent of Hamlet,” rightly pointing out that “each generation sees Saint Joan through the prism of its own moral preoccupations.”
Which brings me to Mother of the Maid, which we saw (thank you, Julie!) at the Public Theater on opening night. It stars Glenn Close, and is wonderfully acted and very moving and very smart. And here is the thing that makes this a retelling of the Joan legend for our time, and here is why it’s smart: it is not political, and it is not religious, and it is not particularly feminist. Instead, it’s a simple, relatively unadorned reminder of the urgent power of family.
I have read other reviews, and they tend to see this as a tour-de-force performance by Close in what is essentially an accessible vehicle — a sentimental weepy with strong female characters defying their societal limitations and bounds. It is that — but I think its core message and meaning is about respecting, revering, cherishing, and protecting family.
The Joan portrayed by Grace Van Patten is a teenager — semi-articulate, champing at the bit to have her own life her own way unfettered by the wise and well-intentioned guidance of a loving and frank mother. Their relationship, in all its rich complexity of pride and resentment, is the backbone of the play. But no less important or less complex are the relationships between husband and wife, father and son, sister and brother. They bicker, they joke, they anger, but they care deeply for and about each other. And as their collective family life is turned upside down by Joan’s celebrity — and then devastated by her trial and death — they cling closer, drawing strength and support from each other.
Because neither strength nor support are in the offing from the forces surrounding them. The play’s cast is tiny — seven actors in all — but convincingly represents the outer worlds of church, state, and military that at first adulate and then abruptly and absolutely abandon Joan.
Trained by my brother Martin, the most brilliant and compassionate theater critic ever, I always ask “Why this play now?” And the answer came to me the first time I sobbed during the performance, touched by the so-human, so-real, so-recognizable interplay between the Arc family members: this is an affirmation of what is right in the world, what is good, and what is to be deeply appreciated. Societal self-interest rules now, as it did then. Morals and principles crumble in the face of self-preservation and self-aggrandizement. But against that backdrop, we can be strong and noble and good and loving in the circle of our loved ones.
Isabelle Arc, as portrayed by Glenn Close, is earthy and vibrant and smart and brave. The real Isabelle, embodied in stone at the top of this post, lived into her seventies. She vigorously petitioned the Vatican to clear her daughter’s name — and won. Her message, brought to us by playwright Jane Anderson, is that we can prevail.
I needed to hear that.