INSIGHT: Backstory of ‘The Mother of the Maid’ at Shakespeare & Co.
Mother of the Maid, a world premiere now playing at Shakespeare & Co through September 6, is penned by Jane Anderson, the Emmy award-winning writer of HBO’s Olive Kitteridge. Directed by well-known television and theatre director Matthew Penn (Law & Order, Damages, Blue Bloods) this powerful and dark comedy follows the tale of Joan of Arc, only seen through the eyes of her mum who is doing her very best to accept the fact that her daughter is different. Parenthood, religion, sexuality and politics all play a role; Founding Artistic Director Tina Packer stars as the Mother of the Maid.
May 30, 1431 – Vieux-Marché, Rouen, France
Geoffroy Thérage wiped the sweat off his brow. The day was warm, and the sun was high, and the heat from the torch he was holding didn’t seem to help matters. He should have enjoyed this day: Down with another witch. Every time he burned a heretic at the stake, he felt he was purifying his community and making it safer for his townsfolk. This day was different, though, and frankly, he didn’t sleep very well. He was nervous. He had a pit in his stomach. The executioner was having second thoughts about the execution.
Still, the show must go on.
Geoffroy stared at the young girl tied to the pole before him. She stared back, scared but defiant, clutching the makeshift wooden crucifix a prison guard made for her. To make matters worse, Father Martin Ladvenu and Father Isambart de la Pierre were holding crucifixes in the air for the condemned to stare at while she burned to death. She was passing with faith. Heretics don’t pass with faith. Men of the cloth don’t support them. This burning was different than the others, and Geoffroy Thérage knew it. It didn’t feel right. The woman tied to the stake may actually have been hearing the voice of God.
But Geoffroy had a job to do.
Without further ado, he set the bottom of the pole on flames and stepped back. Small fire would mean the victim would most likely die of carbon monoxide poisoning first. Higher flames meant a more painful death by fire. He chose the smaller, less painful flames. Either way, the girl attached to the pole went up in flames.
Moments later, Joan of Arc was dead.
She was 19.
Geoffrey wasn’t done. Kicking the ashes back, he noticed the girl’s heart was not burned. So he burned her ashes again. He didn’t want religious followers to look for her artifacts. So he burned her remains a third time.
Then the executioner dumped Joan of Arc’s ashes in the Seine River, cleansing his conscience as much as cleansing the pyre.
Joan’s father wept in the crowd, then succumbed to a heart attack shortly afterward.
Geoffroy Thérage would later say, “I greatly fear of being damned” for killing a holy person.
* * *
May 16, 1920 – St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome
Four hundred and eighty nine years later, Pope Benedict XV stood before a crowd of over 30,000 people. St. Peter’s Basilica was ornately decorated for the throngs of people who came to see Joan of Arc canonized. The miracles attributed to her were officially recognized December 13, 1908.
Pope Benedict XV had just led the Church through World War I, the war to end all wars, and his mission was peace. No one listened to him.
Joan of Arc had a mission, too. The Hundred Year War. Her mission, too, was peace. No one listened to her, either.
Saint Joan became sainted.
* * *
Joan of Arc. Mother Theresa. Gandhi. Anne Frank. With no money, no voice, and in the face of indomitable forces, some were able to rise above the face of brutal means and oppression and change the course of human history and awareness forever.
Mother of the Maid, a world premiere at Shakespeare & Company by Emmy Award-Winning author Jane Anderson, opened July 30, and tells Joan’s story in a light not yet told.
“We need to know the history of Joan, of course, but this piece is not a piece about history,” Anderson tells me. “It tells the story from the perspective of Joan’s parents and how to deal with a child with her ideology, her ideals. Imagine if you had a daughter in a world where there were no rights whatsoever for women, and she decided to go out and take on the English army. How would you deal with it?”
At the age of 13, Joan started seeing visions of Saint Catherine instructing her to defeat the English and free France from England’s domination from the Hundred Year War. The uncrowned King Charles VII let Joan dress like a man, take an army, and take on the British at Orleans. With no military training at all, Joan did what other armies failed to do, and became a national heroine in France to this day.
But what would you do if you were her parents? This is the question Anderson tries to answer. Even as Joan has risen as a world symbol of feminism, heroism, and saintliness, at the end of the day, she once was someone’s little girl. She was a peasant girl unable to read and write, who helped her father build stone walls. “All parents want their children to do better than themselves,” Anderson reminds us. Joan was a feisty, independent, go getter, in a society that had little toleration for feisty, independent women. Would her parents support her? How would you support a child with such rebellion in their blood? These are questions parents ask themselves every day, and for once, we get to stand in a pair of historically formidable shoes and see how the parents of one of history’s most historically formidable children would answer them.
A decade or so after Joan was killed, the Pope had a reconciliation hearing for her and proclaimed her innocence.
Anderson says much of the transcripts from Joan of Arc’s trial, her retrial and more, have been preserved because of her status as a heroine of France. She poured through the reconciliation hearing transcripts and read the testimony of Isabelle, Joan’s mother. In a world where women had no rights, were Joan’s parents accepting of their daughter’s mission?
The answer to that question jumped off the page for Anderson, as soon as she cracked open Isabelle’s testimony.
“I had a daughter once,” it read
Mother of the Maid
Directed by Matthew Penn
July 30 – September 6
Cast: Elizabeth Aspenlieder, Jason Asprey, Nigel Gore, Nathaniel Kent, Tina Packer, Bridget Saracino, Anne Troup