Monday, November 27, 2006
The little Latin books, medieval swords, dinner bells and film stills crowded in its cases aren't what mainly matter. What matters is the girlish, great, utterly improbable person they call forth, and the forces she deploys on her long, triumphant march into your mind.
Joan of Arc (1412-1431), dead while in her teens, didn't have much time. She made the most of what she had. That illiterate, sincere, cross-dressing young woman -- who talked to saints and angels, led an army into battle and helped liberate her land -- got as close to immortality as humans ever get.
Not all by herself, of course. Joan had a lot of help.
Her fame's the work of many hands. They're sort of like her army. Mark Twain, the Ringling Bros., Shakespeare, Voltaire, the United States government, George Bernard Shaw, Napoleon, Ingrid Bergman, many painters (good and not so good), Pope Benedict XV and Cecil B. De Mille all fell under her spell, and helped make her a celebrity for reasons of their own.
Mark Twain adored her. His daughter Suzy said he loved only two women, "Momma in the present, and Joan retrospectively."
Shakespeare trashed her. She wasn't English. In "Henry VI, Part 1," sweet Joan is presented as a "foul accursed minister of hell," and a pregnant one to boot. Joan, who wore men's trousers, and cut her hair short, and was burnt while still a virgin, was not the sort of woman who depended on good looks, or on men's adoration, but of course that didn't matter. "Patently pornographic" is how the exhibition's two curators -- Nora M. Heimann, who chairs the art department at Catholic University, and Laura Coyle, a former Corcoran curator -- describe the illustrations for Voltaire's "The Maid of Orleans," which they're too discreet to show.
Napoleon, who knew about self-promotion, had a medal struck with Joan on one side and himself on the other. His medal is in the show.
Shaw wrote a play about her. So did Friedrich Schiller. The great Sarah Bernhardt played her on the stage.
In 1909, in Harvard Stadium, Maude Adams appeared as Joan before an audience of 15,000. (A whirling barrel of bullets made the sound of rain; cannonballs rolled down wooden chutes produced the thunder.)
The Ringling Bros. spectacle of 1912 and 1913 had a costumed cast of 1,200, not counting the horses.
And don't forget the movies. There have been more than two dozen. De Mille's was released in 1917, Carl Dreyer's in 1928, and Luc Besson's "The Messenger" in 1999. Two others starred Ingrid Bergman. The Maid even had a bit part in "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure" of 1989.