The Revolution Will Not Be Hashtagged: A misguided Joan of Arc at the Public Theatre
When you enter the Newman Theater at the Public, from now until April 30, the first thing you’ll see is a large canvas banner stretched across the stage, obscuring most of it from view. Hand-painted on it are the now familiar words of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell: “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” All around you you’ll see people with their phones out, snapping pictures of this topical centerpiece. Maybe you’ll even take one too. You’ll find your seat and look around, and now on either side of you you’ll see the same people looking down, away from the stage and into their phones, busy uploading their photos to Facebook or Instagram, busy adding the hashtag “#ShePersisted” and choosing the right filter for the revolution.
Then the lights will go down, the music will begin, and—if you’re anything like me—you’ll find yourself watching one of the most misguided, infuriating, artistically lazy and politically self-congratulatory pieces of theater you’ve ever witnessed. Ninety minutes later, the smoke that’s coming out of your ears will be so thick that it might as well be you, not Joan, tied to that infamous stake. And like Joan, you’ll start to despair: Is this the theater we’re to be force-fed from now on? Is this what our most powerful artistic institutions consider relevant, necessary, progressive? Are we doomed to a four-year-long maelstrom of art built on good intentions and bad decisions? What in god’s name is going on?
But more on God and Art later. Let’s start at the beginning.
Joan of Arc: Into the Fire began previews on February 14 at the Public Theater in New York, whose website describes the play as “a thrilling and provocative new show about challenging the powerful and believing in the impossible.” The show is a rock musical helmed by David Byrne of Talking Heads fame (book, music, and lyrics) and Alex Timbers (direction), the same team that created the disco spectacular Here Lies Love (about the life of Filipino first lady Imelda Marcos) at the Public in 2013. Actually, that’s not quite accurate: Byrne co-wrote the music for Here Lies Love with Fatboy Slim (with additional music by two other collaborators, Tom Gandey and J Pardo). This time, he’s on his own, and the results are shockingly flat. As actor after actor walked stolidly to the front of the stage, puffed up his chest and committed to keeping a straight face while singing with Les Miserables levels of sincerity such lyrics as, “We must have strength / We must be strong” (are those… different?), I couldn’t help but wonder who had kidnapped the brilliantly weird co-creator of off-kilter anthems like “Once In A Lifetime” and replaced him with Generic Contemporary Broadway Composer #278.
The unceasing banality of Joan of Arc’s score is, unfortunately, only redoubled in its theatrical storytelling. Yes, there are plenty of flashing lights and rotating set pieces—and enough thrust-your-fist-in-the-air-and-pose endings of songs to put one constantly in mind of another musical from the Public about some guy who once ran the U.S. Treasury—but it’s all, to quote Billy Flynn, razzle-dazzle. And rather tired razzle-dazzle at that: two long silk sheets stretched across the stage and billowed to create water? A light somewhere out above the audience blinking in Joan’s face when her voices speak to her? These images are obvious, stale — seemingly chosen hastily from a bag of well-worn stage clichés. And underneath them are the same plot points we all learned in history class: There was a French peasant girl. She heard voices from God. She led the French army. She got captured. She got burned at the stake. Eventually, she got sainted.
…Yes? And? Joan of Arc: Into the Fire gives us nothing new to consider in its retreading of this old story. It presumes the relevance and importance of its own material without doing any work to show us that relevance, to create a revelation in its audience as to why this story might in fact matter now. We are simply told that it does. The play seems to think it’s doing enough simply by putting a woman with a mic in her hand at center stage — oh, and of course by hoisting a banner that makes reference to a fashionable piece of contemporary politics. Truly, it’s all about that banner: hanging there in all its Instagrammable glory, its purpose seems to be to absolve Joan of Arc’s creators of all artistic and political rigor for the next ninety minutes. The correct progressive box has been checked, we can all feel very good about ourselves, and the show can go on. The haze of self-righteousness is thick in the theater: if you walk out in anything less than a state of liberal rapture, well, that’s your own fault.
Start to pick at Joan of Arc’s surface for even a moment, though, and its sheen of progressivism quickly muddies into something troubling. To begin with, there’s the simple fact that this purported feminist anthem involved a total of two women in its creation. Okay, if you count the casting director, Joan’s understudy, and the two names listed under “Artistic Associates”, there are six women in total credited in the program. But in terms of the brick-and-mortar making of the play, Jo Lampert, who plays Joan, and Mare Winningham, who plays her mother Isabelle (and only enters about five minutes from the play’s end for a single song — about which, more later), are literally the only women in the room. Not a single member of the creative team, design team, or onstage band is female. The cast, other than Lampert and Winningham, is an ensemble of eleven men.
Now, the cast breakdown I acknowledge as tricky and perhaps even justifiable. As a director, I understand the thorny issue of wanting to tell stories that portray a woman, often alone, standing against a world of men. Take Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure: in staging that play, it might be of paramount importance to you to see Isabella in the final act, facing down an entire stage full of corrupt male bureaucrats and calling for “Justice! Justice! Justice!” In terms of storytelling, you would be absolutely justified. And yet in terms of artistic responsibility, such a stage picture might needle you. It’s a conundrum: we can’t tell this kind of story on stage—arguably a very important kind of story to tell—and simultaneously achieve full gender parity.
But. We can and we should at the very least strive for representation in the room if not on the stage. Was it truly necessary that every artistic role on this production go to a man? Was no thought given to the value that women’s perspectives might have in the making of a play so desperate to prove its feminism?
Now, here’s the thing: though I believe the issue of gender parity is a legitimate one in our leading artistic institutions no matter the work at hand, I wouldn’t be asking the above questions with such vehemence if the play currently on stage at the Public Theater were not so disturbing in its actual under-the-surface politics. If I had in fact witnessed an act of feminism, a compelling and complex story of defiance and resistance, I wouldn’t be writing this at all. I’m not on a crusade to strip men in the arts of their jobs or their creative voices. If I believed in Joan’s god, I’d pray for a world in which all artists could tell any story, no matter its distance from their personal experience — a world in which radical imagination, real empathy, and respect and care for one’s material and one’s collaborators lay at the heart of every process. I am not taking issue with the team that created Joan of Arc: Into the Fire for being men, but I am taking issue with what they made, which is, at its heart, retrogressive and patriarchal.
Let’s begin with sixteen-year-old Joan’s first visit to the army camp near her village of Domrémy — you know, the part where she convinces a hardened but ultimately sympathetic captain to take her to Chinon so she can meet the Dauphin. In Joan of Arc, this scene features the first of two (count them, two) prolonged sequences in which men inspect Joan’s hymen to confirm her virginity. This first examination she submits to willingly (singing something along the never-heard-before lines of, “I’ll do what must be done”). The second one occurs after her capture by the English forces: it’s downright sickening, and involves poor Jo Lampert, stripped down to a Christ-like diaper and chest bandages, being physically manipulated by mustache-twirling priests, one of whom is stroking a speculum with fiendish delight. Now, I’m certain the director or choreographer of these scenes might rush to say, “Hang on! This is historically accurate! These things happened. And, you know, we’re not condoning them — we’re showing how terrible they are!”
…Are you, though? Personally, I don’t have a lot of time for the historical accuracy excuse — and even if I did, that would buy you one hymen-checking scene, not two. Then, no matter the intention behind these sequences, they still leave us as an audience in 2017 with the unproblematized message that Joan’s holiness stems from her “purity”: that, well yeah, she never fucked anyone, so maybe she really did talk to God! (There are various lyrics to this effect: a soldier in Joan’s regiment marvels over the fact that he and his comrades have seen her breasts and miraculously no one has raped her! She really must be holy.) The play is fascinated with its heroine’s vagina in a way that is both salacious and weirdly puritanical. And if it’s attempting to interrogate this kind of patriarchal fascination rather than simply enacting it, it’s failing.
Also uninterrogated is, well, God in general. Joan as a character is allowed no definition except her faith. She believes, therefore she is. (She has her one John Proctor moment of doubt and weakness — but not to worry, it doesn’t take her long to recant her recantation and go bravely to the stake.) Perhaps this is what exists in the historical record: a portrait of a girl driven by a certainty most of us will never experience, single-minded and exalted till the end. But dramaturgy alone does not a play make. The historical record is interesting, but it is not, in fact, drama. We need the story within the story, the human within the saint. To hearken again to another musical hero born on the Public stage, good old Alexander Hamilton captures our imaginations because he’s messed up. He’s complex and imperfect and plagued by conflict inner and outer. Joan is… well, a saint. Which, quite honestly, is about the furthest thing from a Feminist Hero that we need right now. Why does a man get to stand center stage in the full glory of his flaws, while a woman gets to stand there only when she’s flawless? Joan’s character (or lack thereof) plays neatly into the age-old tendency of the patriarchy to see women as (you guessed it) either Madonna or whore. The English soldiers in Joan of Arc constantly throw the latter label around; the Catholic Church, in its infinite magnanimity, eventually grants her something resembling the former (after, you know, five hundred years).
Speaking of Joan’s sainthood, let’s talk about her mother for a moment. In approximately the last five minutes of the show (after Joan has gone… into the fire), Mare Winningham, the second woman in the cast, enters. A projection tells us that this is Joan’s mother Isabelle, who has led a kind of pilgrimage from her hometown to plead for her daughter’s soul before the elders of the French Catholic Church. Winningham enters the stage meekly, while the entire male cast sits in a semi-circle of chairs facing upstage at her, all wearing flowing religious robes. She then sings a song that is undoubtedly intended to elicit the same response as Eliza Hamilton’s epilogue — a kind of cathartic denouement in which a woman’s loving, hopeful spirit redresses past wrongs and paves the way for a brighter future. The repeated refrain of this song is, “Send her to heaven”… And wouldn’t you know it? One by one, the judges Isabelle has come to entreat are moved! One by one, the men rise and join in this refrain—“Send her to heaven, send her to heaven”—until the lights go down.
So. We’re left with an image and a melody that is doing its level best to set off all the “uplifting” receptors in our brains — but what is it an image of? It’s an image of a woman forced to appeal to the authority (still there, still unchallenged) of a room full of men — a woman begging these men to legitimize the life and legacy of her daughter, another woman, whom they killed. And as each one rises, tearful and moved, to join in the song, the play seems to say to us, “See, they learned their lesson! They’ll do the right thing now. It’s okay.”
Nothing about Joan of Arc: Into the Fire is okay. And what is even less okay is that this play is surely not the last of its kind. The horror show of our current moment has spooked artists and art institutions to such a degree, that I fear we’re in for at least four years of theater that struggles desperately to obtain all the correct progressive merit badges, without in fact committing itself to a rigorous examination of its own aesthetic or principles. I fear we are entering an age in which the hashtag #NowMoreThanEver will plaster every season subscription brochure, sanctimoniously serving as the justification for lazy productions that are, in truth, no more necessary today than they were yesterday or they will be tomorrow. I fear our fear as artists — our fear of ever putting a toe out of line in the crafting of our progressive personas, of ever appearing as less than perfect in our civic engagement, of ever questioning our self-righteous assumption that art—all art—is simply a wing of social justice movements, of ever admitting our confusion or our doubt, of ever being wrong.
The cast of Joan of Arc: Into the Fire is bravely sweating through ninety minutes of sincere exertion every night. At the center of it all, Jo Lampert, who is deeply talented, is fighting hard to find some sense of real defiance, heroism, and freedom. But whenever she pounds her fist to the sky, it simply feels as if she’s hitting the glass ceiling. The play has tied her to a stake. She cannot fly, but bearlike, she must fight the course. As I left the Public Theater, my heart went out to these actors, these storytellers who are pouring themselves out in the service of something so fundamentally self-deceiving, so sure of its own relevance and so devoid of nuance and integrity. They deserve better, as does the audience. If the next four years bring us a spate of vapid, unexamined, #NowMoreThanEver theater, then I hope—I’ll even pray—that they also bring us an outpouring of messy, complex, rigorous work, work born of a multiplicity of perspectives and centering a variety of profoundly drawn characters, work whose politics is not a badge to be sported or a hashtag to be applied, but is inherent deep in the heart of a piece, be it a good story well told, or a non-linear, narrative-defying experience, brilliantly crafted.
If it’s art like that? We might just need it. Not more today, not less tomorrow, but always.