Saint Joan Synopsis
McCarter play synopses are provided to help inform curious or potential audience members about the story content of our plays in production. They are fairly detailed in their description of a play’s events. Some may want to read the overview of the story of Saint Joan below before the performance, while others may skip the synopsis to avoid the revelation of plot points before experiencing the play in performance. The choice is up to you!
France, 1429 A.D, in the midst of the Hundred Years’ War. The English have been making aggressive advances on French territory, but the paramount concern at the castle of Vaucouleurs is that the chickens have stopped laying eggs. A steward tells Captain Robert de Baudricourt that the situation can be blamed on the Captain’s refusal to admit “The Maid” (Joan of Arc) who has been waiting at the door for two days and has supposedly bewitched the castle. Fed up with the whole affair, de Baudricourt agrees to see her. Once admitted, Joan swiftly demands a horse, armor, and soldiers: she claims that God has ordered her to free the French city of Orleans from the English blockade. De Baudricourt first dismisses Joan’s demands, but later acquiesces after consulting with his man-at-arms, Bertrand de Poulengey, who is inspired by The Maid.
Joan and the soldiers granted by de Baudricourt journey to the Dauphin Charles, the heir to the French throne. In the throne room of castle of Chinon in Touraine, the Archbishop of Rheims and La Trémouille are discussing the Dauphin’s debts when Bluebeard (the courtier-captain, Gilles de Rais) and Captain La Hire arrive with news that The Maid is coming to see Charles. The Dauphin enters and the men decide to test Joan’s powers by disguising and hiding him.
Joan enters, causing a stir with her short hair and men’s armor, and quickly identifies the real Dauphin. She tells him that she has been sent to free France from the English and crown him king. Later, in a private conversation, the Dauphin reveals to Joan that he is afraid of fighting and doesn’t want to go to war, but Joan gradually instills courage and patriotism in him. She succeeds in inspiring Charles with her persuasive rhetoric and faith, and he grants her control of the army.
Seven weeks later on the south bank of the Loire in Orleans the French army is stalled—the winds have prevented them from sailing up the river and to attack the English. Joan arrives confident and determined to move the mission forward even if it means taking a vulnerable path over a nearby bridge. Dunois, commander of the French defenses at Orleans, rejects this idea because he knows it will lead to certain death, and instead sends Joan off to pray for an East wind. As soon as The Maid leaves, the direction of the wind miraculously changes in their favor.
Across the river in the English camp, the Earl of Warwick, a nobleman and military commander, and John de Stogumber, his chaplain, discuss the recent series of miraculous French victories, attributing them to witchcraft and sorcery. Then Peter Cauchon, the Bishop of Beauvais, joins their conversation. He asserts The Maid’s powers come from the devil and that she is a heretic, not a witch. In a contest of wits and political rhetoric, Warwick offers that Joan’s “Protestantism” is a deep threat to the Roman Catholic Church and Cauchon artfully notes that Joan’s “Nationalist” inclinations threaten the feudal hierarchy system and the power of the aristocracy. De Stogumber, thoroughly confused by Cauchon and Warwick’s discussion, expresses his disgust with The Maid because she wears men’s clothes and rebels against the authority of the Church. Though the three men don’t agree on the exact nature of her offense, they are allied in the belief that Joan must be stopped.
After a number of decisive French victories, including the successful restoration of Orleans, Joan delivers the Dauphin to his coronation as King Charles VII at the Cathedral at Rheims. Dunois warns Joan that while she is adored by the soldiers and the masses, she has made enemies among many members of the court. Disheartened, Joan says that she will return to her farm, but only after she has taken Paris back from the English. The King, who is satisfied with their recent victory and eager to stop the fighting, is deeply dismayed. As Joan tries to convince the King to go back to war, she angers the Archbishop who tells her that if she attempts to expel the English occupying Compiègne, she will be disowned by the Church, the King, and the army. Joan, however, is empowered by the strength of God, and is determined to fight for the common people of France.
Nine months later, Joan is being put on trial for heresy, having been captured at Compiègne by the French forces from Burgundy who held her for ransom. Warwick paid the ransom and turned her over to the Ecclesiastical court at Rouen. Warwick, who is not allowed to be present at the trial, learns that Joan’s judges want to save her soul, but he believes that her death is a political necessity. Cauchon argues that the Church is not subject to political necessity.
Inside the court, the Inquisitor, who is in charge of the trial and of upholding and protecting Roman Catholic faith and morals, reduces the list of Joan’s offenses from sixty-four to twelve, declaring that the great issue they should be focusing on is The Maid’s heresy. Cauchon agrees, reminding the court of the danger of “Protestantism.” Joan is then brought in. She is chained and weak from her imprisonment, but her faith cannot be shaken, even at the threat of torture. Joan agrees to obey the Church but refuses to deny her own heavenly voices. The suggestion that the Church’s authority could run contrary to God’s command is appalling to the court. Joan tries to defend herself further, but Ladvenu, a young priest assigned as counsel to the Inquisitor threatens her by saying that the stake is ready for her immediate burning, and she grows scared.
Spoiler alert! If you would like to read what happens next in the story and how the play ends, click here.
Sensing her fear, Cauchon convinces Joan to confess that her voices have betrayed her. Then, triumphantly, the judges read the form of recantation prepared for Joan, which states that she renounces her voices and declares her devotion and obedience to the Church. She signs the document which saves her from death, but then learns she is sentenced to spend the rest of her life imprisoned in solitary confinement. Joan immediately denounces the recantation, choosing execution over the misery of darkness and solitude.
Twenty-five years later in King Charles’ bedchamber Joan appears to Charles in a dream, along with Cauchon, Dunois, de Stogumber, and a soldier that gave Joan a cross as she burned at the stake. All share what has befallen them in the intervening years and reflect on Joan’s death and redemption. A stranger then appears, and announces that Joan has been canonized as a saint and the men who surround her sing her praises as the dream ends.