George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan was first produced in New York City in 1923 and in London in 1924. Shaw published it with a long Preface in 1924. When word came out that Shaw, who was known as an irreverent jokester, was writing about a Christian saint and martyr, there were fears that he would not be able to produce something appropriate, but the early reception of the play was generally favorable, although some commentators criticized him for historical inaccuracy and for being too talky or comic. Over the years, the play, a rare tragic work in his generally comic oeuvre, has been seen as one of his greatest and most important.
It has been hailed as being intellectually exciting and praised for dealing with important themes, such as nationalism, war, and the relation of the individual to society. The play solidified Shaw’s reputation as a major playwright and helped win him the Nobel Prize in 1925. Being at least in part a tragedy, though with comic moments, Saint Joan is part of a shift in Shaw’s work from his earlier optimistic comedies to a more melancholy attitude, perhaps in part the result of his reaction to World War I.
Although he had been thinking about Joan of Arc as early as 1913, Shaw did not actually begin writing the play until 1923, three years after Joan’s canonization. He consulted many earlier works on Joan, including the transcripts of her trial. In fact, he modestly said that he had done little more than reproduce Joan’s own words as recorded in the transcripts; however, that statement is unfair to Shaw, who left a distinctive Shavian touch on the story of the martyred saint.