The role of Joan of Arc, as depicted by George Bernard Shaw in his play Saint Joan, is considered one of the most challenging parts an actress can play. The first to tackle this now famous role on the London stage was Shaw’s friend, the great actress Sybil Thorndike, who opened in the UK stage premiere of Saint Joan on 26 March 1924.
In fact, Shaw had written the play with the actress in mind, though it had received its world premiere on Broadway a year earlier with Winifred Lenihan in the role of Joan. In London, Thorndike took the role she was meant to play, with her husband, Lewis Casson, directing her under Shaw’s instruction at the New theatre.
Shaw’s play is based on the life, death and trial of Joan of Arc, the French soldier and national heroine who was burnt at the stake by the English in Rouen in 1431, at the age of 19. She was canonised by the Catholic Church in 1920. Shaw’s play, written three years later, was based on the detailed records of Joan’s trial, but Shaw was criticised by historians for giving what they considered to be an inaccurate depiction of the period. However, Saint Joan is still regarded as one of the playwright’s greatest works. He received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1925, two years after the play’s premiere.
Thorndike is regarded as one of the finest British actresses of the 20th century. After growing up in Rochester, she began her acting career as part of Ben Greet’s company, touring the US for four years, from 1904, in several Shakespearean roles. She went on to make her name as part of the Old Vic company from 1914-1918, playing major leading roles in King Lear, Cymbeline and many others. She continued to work in the West End between the wars, often directed by her husband in plays including Euripides’s The Trojan Women – which they later revived in 1937 – The Lie, Granite and Macbeth. She returned to the Old Vic company years later for its season at the New theatre in 1944, appearing in Peer Gynt, Shaw’s Arms And The Man, Uncle Vanya, Henry IV Parts I and II, alongside Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson.
Thorndike first caught the eye of Shaw when she understudied the role of Candida in 1908. After Saint Joan, she went on to play the title role in his Major Barbara at the Wyndham’s in 1929 and star in his one-act comedy Village Wooing in 1934.
The actress was made a Dame of the British Empire in 1931 and later created a Companion of Honour.
Since Thorndike, several actresses have recreated the role of Saint Joan in London, notably Olivier’s wife Joan Plowright in 1963, Frances de la Tour in 1984, and, at the National Theatre just last year, Anne-Marie Duff. Directed by Marianne Elliott, this latest production was a Laurence Olivier Award-winning success. Duff, who was nominated for Best Actress, had earlier in the year picked up a Critics’ Circle Award and an Evening Standard Theatre Award.