By Andrew John Lomas
Word Count: 1412
Summary: A translation from a French play about Saint Joan of Arc.
Charles Péguy (1873-1914) was a French poet, playwright, philosopher, journalist, bookshop owner, editor, publisher, typographer, and soldier.
His play Jean D’Arc, an enormous work in three parts, was begun while he was still a university student. The play follows Joan of Arc’s life from her calling to her condemnation and execution. And although Péguy projects some of his own concerns onto Joan, it is an historical play: it offers an interpretation of Joan and her times.
The original publication of the play was funded by Péguy, his family and friends, and was a spectacular failure—bundles of unsold copies were used as chairs by visitors to Péguy’s bookshop. Yet the work is now regarded as a classic (which is an encouraging turn for struggling writers). Perhaps even more remarkably: when Péguy wrote the play he considered himself a lapsed Catholic, an atheist, and fervent socialist. Yet Catholic and non-Catholic critics alike, both favourable and hostile critics, have acknowledged that the play is profoundly religious, Christian, and Catholic. Years later, Péguy did fully return to the Catholic Church.
Lieutenant Charles Péguy of the 276th Regiment died fighting in World War I in the Battle of the Marne, where the French halted the invading German army twenty kilometres from Paris.
Despite being accepted as a classic, Jean D’Arc has still never been translated into English. The text I have used to translate a brief excerpt is Charles Péguy, Oeuvres Poétiques Completes ( NRF, Bibliothèque de la Plèiade, 1941), pp.1070-1073. The extract is from the second part of the play, ‘The Battles’, and it crystallizes a major theme of the whole work. The context, in history and in the play, is as follows: The Hundred Years’ War was fought between the Kings of England, with their allies the Dukes of Burgundy, and the Valois dynasty, Kings of France. When at last an uncrowned Valois heir, Charles the Dauphin, was almost completely defeated, the peasant girl Joan of Arc arrived to revive French spirits and fortunes. From the heart of battle, she inspired the raising of the siege of Orléans, and soon afterwards the English were decimated at the Battle of Patay. The Dauphin was crowned Charles VII at Reims. Joan wanted an all-out campaign to drive the English from the land, but political intrigues at Charles’ court, and his own politic nature, prevented this. Instead, a half-hearted attack with insufficient forces was launched to take Paris, occupied by English and Burgundian soldiers, during which attack Joan was wounded in the leg by a crossbow bolt. This was Joan’s first major military defeat.
The excerpt here translated comes on the day after the defeat. Of the characters besides Joan, Regnauld de Chartres was Archbishop of Reims, and Raoul de Gaucourt was military governor of Orléans. The most important, Gilles de Rais, was a knight and leader in the French Army, who was made a Marshal of France. Much later, after Joan’s death, de Rais was—incredibly, but really—convicted and hanged as a mass child abuser and mass child murderer, with between eighty and two hundred victims. As far as is known historically, Joan never broke with or even quarrelled with de Rais, but de Rais’ dark future colors the portrayal Péguy gives, and he has de Rais represent the forces opposing Joan.
GILLES DE RAIS: Good day, madam. Good day, my lords.
REGNAULD DE CHARTRES: Good day, sir.
GILLES DE RAIS: Well, Joan, you’re recovering well from that wretched wound?
JOAN: I’m fine, sir.
GILLES DE RAIS: Those men of Burgundy are an evil lot! Still, Madam Joan, it’s also a little your fault that yesterday’s attack wasn’t successful.
JOAN: How so, sir?
GILLES DE RAIS: You don’t know how to speak to the soldiers.
JOAN: I don’t know how to speak to the soldiers?
GILLES DE RAIS: I’m sorry to have to tell you, Joan, but you just don’t know. I heard you address the men before the battle. You told them about the Good Lord Above, and all the saints in heaven. You told them about France, and her great dynasty of kings. And you told them of the benefits of peace, Joan.
Yes, these men whose life is war—who only live by war, who only live for war—who breathe war, who only joy in war—you go and lecture them about the benefits of peace.
Well, Joan, they have listened to you. Yesterday evening they quit the war raging about the walls of Paris and returned to their barracks—to enjoy the benefits of peace.
No, Joan, this is not what soldiers need to be told.
JOAN: What, then, is it necessary to tell them, good sir?
GILLES DE RAIS: One gathers the men out front of the city, and says:
“Men, your clothes are in tatters and you haven’t had enough to eat. Our good king owes you much, but he can’t do anything for you: he can’t even afford to pay your wages.
“Happily, though, you stand before the richest city in all the world. Within lies everything your hearts desire: gold and silver, silks and furs, grand and good revelry…
JOAN: “And women…”
GILLES DE RAIS: Ah, madam, it’s not necessary to mention them: the men are thinking enough about them already. We’re all always thinking enough about them….
“Gorgeous silks and furs”, you say, “grand and good revelry…. You’ll find it all just over these walls: honour, glory, riches. Let’s go get them, my soldiers—or haven’t you got the guts?!”
Is silent for a moment
Sir, listen well. Do you know what he is, the one who speaks like this?
GILLES DE RAIS: He is a fine captain, who speaks thus.
JOAN: No, sir. He who speaks like this, he is the vilest of men.
GILLES DE RAIS:
Alas, Joan! It is incredibly difficult to be the vilest of men, and sometimes I wonder if it’s even possible. For myself, I have often tried, but I must confess that I just don’t know how to do it.
Continues without humour
In the meantime, please deign to pardon those, like myself, who have the victory of our king more to heart than you.
He exits to the left
RAOUL DE GAUCOURT: The Marshal doesn’t look happy. When he jokes like that…it’s a bad sign.
REGNAULD DE CHARTRES: He has taken offense, with a deadly hatred. And I tell you madam, if you had been a good leader, you wouldn’t have uttered those last words.
JOAN: I said what I think, my lord.
RAOUL DE GAUCOURT: Listen, Joan: I assure you that I have no great love for de Rais. When he gets that look on his face, one daren’t contradict him; he scarcely seems human. Nevertheless, he wasn’t altogether wrong in what he told you.
You imagine, Joan, that everyone is as pious, as compassionate, as good as you. This is a grave mistake. If you only knew what life is really like…. But you’re a child, you don’t know life, you don’t know the world.
Men are not worth much, Madam Joan. Men are ungodly; they are cruel, ravagers, thieves, liars. They love debauchery. It’s sad to say, but that’s the way they are. And during the fifty years of my life amongst them, that’s the way they’ve always been.
JOAN: My lord, men are as they are. But, as for us, it is necessary for us to focus on what we need to be.
RAOUL DE GAUCOURT: And we, Madam Joan, we “superiors” have our weaknesses, too. Even you, you’ll end up burnt out by it all, my child.
JOAN: It may be that I’ll end up burnt out. But for now I’m right in what I say, and what I say is this:
“If it is necessary, in order to save France, to utter those words Sir de Rais has spoken before me…”
RAOUL DE GAUCOURT: Take care, child: don’t say words that would be irreparable.
JOAN: The day I tried to patch over these words, would be the day I was in the wrong; and I renounce now, when I know I’m right, any such reparations. Here is what I say, and what I will truly think till the end:
“If it is necessary, in order to save France, to utter those words Sir de Rais has spoken before me…I would rather…that France wasn’t saved.”