At the opening of The Maid of Orleans, as Schiller’s five-act verse tragedy is known in English, France is divided among three parties: English troops who have taken Paris and the north in pressing their king’s dynastic claim to the French throne, southern lands held by the Valois king Charles VII, and Burgundy in the middle ruled by Philip the Good. Philip is also a Valois but has sided with England because men of Charles VII murdered his father. Thibaut d’Arch, whom Schiller describes as a wealthy landowner, has three daughters: Margot, Louison and Johanna (Joan). In the initial scenes, Thibaut laments France’s division and the likelihood that war will soon come to his area. In advance of that probable catastrophe, he consents to the marriage of his two older daughters to their intendeds.
Joan, however, worries him. She is young and should be full of life, but she is not like the other young women. Raimond, her admirer, defends Joan, saying she loves the mountains and the outdoors, that she is attuned to higher things, that she could have come from another age. That’s precisely what worries her father, who has had a prophetic dream three times of her on the throne of the kings in Reims, wearing a diadem, with all bowing to her. It foretells a steep fall, he says. Raimond defends her, saying she is the most talented of all, that everything she creates pours forth happiness.
Joan has been on stage through these two scenes, but silent and still. She does not move until Bertrand, another landowner, joins the party and relates the curious story of how at the market earlier a Bohemian woman had pressed a helmet upon him before vanishing into the crowd. “Give me the helmet!” are Joan’s first words in the play. Bertrand replies that it is nothing for a maiden. She tears it from his hands, saying “Mine is the helmet, and it belongs to me.”
Bertrand says that a knight is about to tell the allied English and Burgundians that Orleans is prepared to come to terms. Joan counters immediately, “No agreements! No surrender! … The enemy’s fortune will shatter at Orleans … He is ready to be harvested. With her sickle the maid will come,/And mow down his proud stalks.” Bertrand says miracles don’t happen anymore, and Joan basically tells him to hold her beer.
The audience knows who has the better of that argument, but the art is in the telling, and in The Maid of Orleans Schiller is in full command of his material. The declaiming of his earlier plays is mostly gone, except when it gives particular power to dramatic moments, such as Joan’s rousing soliloquy at the end of the prologue. Schiller also allows Joan’s martial power to develop off-stage. He shows Charles VII on the verge of suing for peace to spare the people of his country greater sacrifice for a cause that is lost. He is a sympathetic king to a modern reader, concerned for the welfare of his subjects and unwilling to spend their lives to prop up his personal claim. His remaining allies are on the verge of deserting him for his reluctance to fight when news comes in that the French have won a battle at Orleans and the English are in full flight.
Under Joan’s leadership, the French proceed from victory to victory, and Charles is soon set to be crowned at Reims. Joan is there among the country’s highest nobility, all of whom defer to her because she has raised them high on the tide of war and brought their enemies low. Thibaut d’Arc’s dream has come true. And indeed it presages a fall. During one battle, Joan has seen the face of one English soldier, shown him mercy and fallen in love. She believes this act has made her unworthy of the divine favor that had brought the French victory. Accused of sorcery, she keeps silent rather than defend herself and is thought guilty. Falling further still, she is captured by the English and held prisoner by Charles VII’s mother, who has gone over to the other side entirely. Without Joan and her supernatural support, the French begin to lose again. With Charles on the verge of being captured, Joan bursts from her chains, rescues the king, turns the tide of battle, but sustains a mortal wound.
One thing that surprised me, reading through the play, was how ambiguous Schiller was about the source of Joan’s undoubted powers. The helmet she grabs is pressed on Bertrand by a mysterious woman who appears to be from a faraway country. Joan likes to be alone in the high pastures, her father says that she creeps out at the witching hour when sensible folk see company, and she is particularly fond of a “druid tree” that other people in the nearby villages avoid because of its reputation as the home of an evil spirit since pagan times. Given this background, Joan’s sudden martial competence and command over the spirits of men looks very ambiguous, even as Schiller clothes them in talk of Marian visions.
The Maid of Orleans was one of the most-performed plays of 19th-century German drama, but in recent decades it has fallen out of favor because of the fervent nationalism, even if it is French rather than German nationalism on display. English translations all seem to be from the 19th century, and I have not read any of them. Tchaikovsky’s opera of the same name was based in part on Schiller’s play. It premiered in 1881.