The title of this piece, “The Death of Subtext,” is a subject I’ve contemplated for several years. The question was only when to write it.
I thought about it through several revivals of Sondheim’s Follies, as each time the show got more awash in lugubrious sentiment and further removed from the sardonic, drily unsentimental original. Or when Robert Carsen changed the 18th Century setting of Der Rosenkavalier to one around the time the piece was actually written (1912), thereby compressing two levels of intriguingly ambiguous metaphor into a single overly literal one.
But no—each time, I decided it wasn’t yet the ideal opportunity to consider this sad state of affairs. Not until the unspeakably vulgar adaptation of Saint Joan that recently concluded a run at Delaware Theatre Company (DTC) did I realize we’d reached the tipping point.
The concept of this reworked version of Shaw’s magnum opus sounded almost like a parody or a bad joke. Surely no one with even a modicum of taste would imagine that giving Joan of Arc’s “voices”—Saints Catherine and Margaret—an actual physical presence (and additional dialogue) would be a good idea?
Yet that’s exactly what happens here. A hack playwright named Chelsea Marcantel has undertaken a reworking that not only fails to add anything new or interesting to Shaw’s original, but instead consistently reduces and undermines it.
Full disclosure: Saint Joan is a favorite play of mine. But I’m not blind to its problems, notably that it’s very long and talky. Cutting it is the norm, and really, it’s necessary.
I’m also willing to consider more radically rethinking Shaw, as some very successful productions have (e.g., Bedlam Theater’s revelatory version that used a four-actor ensemble in place of Shaw’s very large one).
But what Marcantel has done here is wrong-headed in every way. In addition to the grotesque miscalculation of adding Catherine and Margaret to the dramatis personae, she has re-gendered a couple of roles, including Warwick, a key figure, as female. She has also tinkered with a number of passages in the original script.
There’s literally not a single moment in Marcantel’s adaptation where Shaw’s text gains from her intervention. There are many where her flat-footed, crude prose compromises the original.
One example among many, this one from the marvelous, audacious epilogue:
CHARLES: Did it hurt much?
JOAN: Did what hurt much?
CHARLES: Being burnt.
JOAN: Oh, that! I cannot remember very well. I think it did at first; but then it all got mixed up; and I was not in my right mind till I was free of the body. But do not go handling fire and thinking it will not hurt thee.
Shaw’s original text here seems simple enough, but there many nuances. The juxtaposition of “I was not in my right mind till I was free of the body” with her admonition to Charles to take care of himself is classic Joan—her spirituality gives way to a practical side which shows her concern for others. That last sentence also echoes and reinforces Martin Ladvenu’s revelation in the previous scene: he knows Joan to be holy because even as she herself was burning, she cautioned him to avoid the fire (“My Lord: a girl who could think of another’s danger in such a moment was not inspired by the devil.”)
In Marcantel’s rewriting/cutting, Joan’s final cautionary sentence is dropped. Instead, she offers a wry punchline about being burned at the stake: “But I don’t recommend it,” which diminishes the exchange, inserting a cheap joke where the playwright left us with something far more interesting.
Shaw very specifically shapes his play around the “backstage” action surrounding Joan’s assent from village girl to cult heroine. So, for example, it stands to reason that he would not make the coronation of the Dauphin as Charles VII a focal point, but rather its aftermath in Rheims Cathedral, after the pomp and circumstance is over and the crowds disperse.
At DTC, director Bud Martin can’t resist creating a dumb show (in every sense) of this moment…as well as one surrounding Joan being wounded in battle. Both make crudely obvious points of “big moments” far better left for audiences to imagine, as Shaw meant them to.
More generally, one of the great masterstrokes of Saint Joan is the seamless way the playwright introduces every character, plot point, and philosophical theme through conversation. Marcantel’s insertions instead make already obvious points by coarsely announcing them.
I’ve said nothing about the cast, directing and design, largely because the overarching conceit of this adaptation is so misguided as to undermine all other elements of the show. I’ll say simply that Clare O’Malley is a forthright, likable Joan lacking the necessary spark of spirituality; and Michael Doherty (as the Dauphin and others) frequently torpedoes his own performance with tiresome shtick. Dan Kern is very good in multiple roles, while the usually excellent Charlie DelMarcelle is surprisingly dull.
Mary Martello does droll work as the “Countess” of Warwick, but the gender-reversal of this villainous role in no sense improves on or illuminates Shaw’s original conception. Saint Joan is about a young female who finds herself swimming against the tide in a sea of compromised men, and nonetheless forever alters the course of history. Joan’s isolation in a sea of “maleness” underscores her power. To rejigger the play by adding additional female characters does not advance a more feminist or woke perspective—it dissipates it.
When will theater directors and writers realize that less is more? That we don’t need the obvious to be explained to us? How long, O Lord, how long?