Caught between the forces of the Church and the Law, Joan is the personification of the tragic heroine and the part is considered by actresses to be one of the most challenging of roles to interpret (see below). It is sometimes played by small petite women and sometimes by tall strong women. Because of the challenges of the role, it is often played by very experienced actresses who are much older than the age of the character, who was a teen-ager. As an interesting exception, for the movie version Joan was played by Jean Seberg who actually was 19 at the time of filming and who, according to the views of many critics, was not very good, due to her lack of dramatic experience.
The actual trial and burning of Joan in 1431 at the age of 19 was recorded in great detail by reporters of the day. Shaw studied the transcripts, decided that the concerned people acted in good faith according to their beliefs, and took a neutral point of view. He wrote in his long preface that There are no villains in the piece. Crime, like disease, is not interesting: it is something to be done away with by general consent, and that is all [there is] about it. It is what men do at their best, with good intentions, and what normal men and women find that they must and will do in spite of their intentions, that really concern us.
The play takes few liberties with the factual record of her short life, and the plotting of the story is straightforward. A simple peasant girl, she hears voices.
It begins by dramatizing her first pushy contact with authority, in the person of a lowly soldier to whom she gives news of these voices. She then talks her way into a visit to the court of the weak and vain Dauphin. There, she tells him that her voices have commanded her to help him become a true king by rallying his troops to drive out the English occupiers and restore France to greatness. Joan succeeds in doing this through her excellent powers of flattery, negotiation, leadership, and skill on the battlefield. Ultimately she is betrayed, and captured by the English at the siege of Compiègne.
The third act of the play deals with her trial and its inevitable ending. She acquiesces to the pressure of torture at the hands of her oppressors, and agrees to sign a confession relinquishing the truth behind her voices, so that she can live a life in permanent confinement without hope of parole. But then, pen in hand, and in a dramatic about-face, she changes her mind, hurling these last words at her jailers as she is led to the stake:
JOAN: "You think that life is nothing but not being dead? It is not the bread and water I fear. I can live on bread. It is no hardship to drink water if the water be clean. But to shut me from the light of the sky and the sight of the fields and flowers; to chain my feet so that I can never again climb the hills. To make me breathe foul damp darkness, without these things I cannot live. And by your wanting to take them away from me, or from any human creature, I know that your council is of the devil."'
But there is a coda, in which Charles has a dream in which Joan appears to him. She begins conversing cheerfully not only with Charles, but with her old enemies, who also materialize in the King's bedroom. The scene ends with Joan ultimately despairing that mankind will never believe in saints. Her final line is "O God that madest this beautiful earth, when will it be ready to accept thy saints? How long, O Lord, how long?"
Shaw was a famous pacifist, and there has been controversy over his approach, which was consistent with his anti-war speeches at the time of the First World War, a conflict in which he stated that Great Britain and its Allies were equally culpable with the Germans, and argued for negotiation and peace (which damned him in the eyes of many). His interpretation of the events in Joan's life and its times has upset some historians, many of whom regard the play as highly inaccurate, especially in its depiction of medieval society.
Shaw states that the characterization of Joan by most writers is "romanticized" to make her accusers come off as completely unscrupulous and villainous. Some writers claim that Shaw attempts to wrongly rehabilitate Cauchon, the powerful Bishop of Beauvais, and the Inquisitor, who were most instrumental in sending Joan to the stake. It is worth noting that Shaw takes no position on whether the sentence was just or otherwise. He does however dabble in psychological insight when he claims that Joan wore male clothing as a reflection of personal preference rather than out of necessity. Certainly the wearing of armor was never a female pursuit. The opposing point is made that Joan wore male clothes to protect herself from rape, especially towards the end of her life in the dungeon.
The playwright claims in his preface that she was most likely not physically attractive. He bases this claim on the fact that, at the time, no evidence had been found that Joan was beautiful. However, modern scholars have the advantage of recent translations into English of voluminous French transcripts, and have concluded that Joan was in fact "beautiful and shapely".
That Shaw was unquestionably an admirer of Joan is found in the fact that he placed a small statue of her in his garden, and left instructions for his ashes to be scattered nearby.
It is the to and fro thrill of words used in the art of debate that drives and elevates this play, and in fact is the mainstay of most of his work. Members of the world of literature, and audiences, appreciate that his creation is one of the greatest examples of theatre in the English language.
Other notable Joans include Judi Dench, Zoe Caldwell, Elisabeth Bergner, Constance Cummings, Ann Casson, Roberta Maxwell, Barbara Jefford, Pat Galloway, Sarah Miles, Ellen Geer, Jane Alexander, Lee Grant, Janet Suzman, and Eileen Atkins.