The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

Calling All Armed and Fanatical Pacifists: Collective Security, The League of Nations, and Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan

Charles Andrews
Whitworth University

This essay contributes to interwar literary scholarship through two related interventions. First, it calls for greater attention to Bernard Shaw as an interwar writer by focusing on the politics of his play Saint Joan (1923). Though this play is often seen as a paean to visionary leadership within Shaw’s attempt to rescue Jeanne d’Arc from both historical calumny and religious idealization, I argue instead for the play’s contribution to debates about the legacy of the Great War and the fledgling League of Nations. Thus, the second intervention of this essay is its discussion of collective security and antiwar internationalism as vital elements of the British peace movement. Examined as a play about war prevention through international collaboration, Saint Joan becomes a text for expanding both our appreciation for Shaw as an interwar writer and for peace studies approaches to the space between.

Keywords  George Bernard Shaw / Saint Joan / League of Nations / pacifism / World War I

In November 1914, George Bernard Shaw published the first of his several essays on the Great War, attacking the many hypocrisies, inanities, and regressive ideologies he found endemic because of the conflict.1  His “Common Sense about the War” appeared as a supplement to the New Statesman, the periodical closely associated with Beatrice and Sidney Webb as well as the Fabian Society more broadly. The blockbuster success of the supplement was unprecedented—it eventually sold 75,000 copies—and its controversial claims stoked journalistic fires for months to come.2  Shaw had long been known as a provocateur, espousing his revolutionary socialism through essays, speeches, and theatre using a mode Charles A. Carpenter proposes as “Educate, Permeate, Irritate” (xviii).3 His “Common Sense” provoked friend and enemy alike, as evident in fellow Fabian H. G. Wells’s accusation that Shaw was “an elderly adolescent still at play” and that the war doomed the British public to having “this Shavian accompaniment going on, like an idiot child screaming in a hospital” (qtd. in Pullman, viii). Even less friendly fire came from Harold Owen, whose book-length response Common Sense about the Shaw (1915) is sanctimoniously dedicated “To the memory of the heroic dead who have fought and died for us whilst fools at home contend.” Owen denounces Shaw not just for being a homebound fool, but also for the “public crime” of disrupting faith in the justness and righteousness of the war—unpardonable, because it undermines the value of soldiers’ deaths (23). Robert Lynd later said that the public saw the war as “between the Allies on the one hand, and, on the other, Germany, Austria, Turkey, and Bernard Shaw” (qtd. in Weintraub, Journey 56). Thus, Shaw’s critique of war during a time of extreme patriotism elicited more than the usual outrage over his political heresies, and he faced accusations that he sympathized with the German enemy and—possibly worse—was a pacifist. As he looked back on these years in 1933, Shaw described the public view of himself as “a pro-German, a Pacifist, a Conscientious Objector, & everything that an enemy of his country could be without being actually shot a traitor. Nothing could be more absolutely wide of the truth” (qtd. in Weintraub, Journey xiii).

Shaw’s reputation as a rollicking controversialist was, during his lifetime, perhaps even greater than his literary fame. The sixty-two plays he wrote during his long life—a life that spanned from the middle of the 19th to the middle of the 20th centuries—firmly establish him as a monument of modern theatrical art, the most important playwright for the English stage since Shakespeare (though Shaw was always quick to identify himself as distinctly Irish and pugnaciously skeptical of Shakespeare’s preeminence). Yet despite this legacy, Shaw has been less central to scholarly discussions of interwar literature and politics than he might deserve. Devoted interest in Shaw among single-author specialists, drama critics, and fin de siècle experts far outweighs the attention paid to him among scholars who focus on interwar, intermodernist, or non-dramatic literatures. His voluminous writings in genres literary, journalistic, critical, and political through the entire first half of the 20th century ought to make him a source of great interest for scholars of culture between the wars. To be sure, his views (and manner of expressing them) were resolutely idiosyncratic—but this idiosyncrasy should not be mistaken for isolation. As I hope to indicate here, Shaw’s political thought during the interwar years operated within a network that included a host of leading intellectuals passionate about finding alternative solutions to the military violence that had proved so devastating during the Great War. His contributions to these debates about war prevention were much discussed, and his provocations can help us deepen our understanding of the range of ideas offered by the many people engaged with the interwar peace movement, broadly and loosely defined.

Situating Shaw within a movement—even one as tenuous as the conglomerate known for convenience’s sake as “the British peace movement”—can be difficult due to his relish for contrarianism. The “pacifist” label, for instance, has had a tenacious grip on Shaw since 1914, despite how poorly it suits him.4 Alfred Turco, Jr., sorting through the muddled views about Shaw and war, claims that Shaw’s “attitude toward war and peace can be simply summarized” as the following: “Although war is a human abomination that no amount of romanticizing or heroics can justify [… in Shaw’s own words] ‘when war overtakes you, you must fight’” (165).5  Part of the ongoing confusion has to do with Shaw’s rhetorical style, encapsulated by Ian Wise’s suggestion that Shaw “wasn’t a pacifist…But he often spoke like a pacifist” (18–19). His willingness to express unpopular views in order to irritate and educate meant that he regularly challenged the underlying violence of British society. In his preface to Plays Unpleasant (1898), for example, Shaw explains the defining forces of his Irishness and socialism, and he avers, “As a humane person I detested violence and slaughter, whether in war, sport, or the butcher’s yard” (7). This self-description links his vegetarianism to a broader sensibility of nonviolence and human virtue—sounding not just “like a pacifist,” but perhaps like a proto-Gandhi.

What distinguishes Gandhi’s nonviolence from Shaw’s antiwar internationalism, however, is a difference that reveals much about the interwar peace movement debates. Situated closer to the Gandhian view were absolute pacifists such as Aldous Huxley, whose conversion to the pacifist left in the mid-1930s stimulated a totalizing program of personal, physical, and spiritual health along with his theories of collective political action against war.6  Serving as the “thinking committee” for the newly formed secular pacifist Peace Pledge Union (PPU), Huxley explained, “What may be called the theology of pacifism is one which many non-Christians will have little intellectual difficulty in accepting. Mankind is one, and there is an underlying spiritual reality...War is the large-scale and systematic denial of human unity” (Pacifism and Philosophy 58, 28). This belief in human oneness and war’s fundamental denial of that “theology” bears much in common with Gandhi’s promotion of satyagraha, the holding fast to truth that sustains nonviolent political action.7

The spiritualism that Huxley promoted as essential to pacifism was not universally shared by peace groups, but his challenge that pacifism was distinct from other, more loosely held “antiwar” values remained a dividing line. His conviction that all humanity is one opposes what Huxley called “the tribal religions of nationalism” but also international collective security, which “is merely calling the old bad system by another and prettier name” (28–29). Thus, the avowedly pacifist groups such as the Peace Pledge Union, the War Resisters’ International, and the Fellowship of Reconciliation saw themselves competing not only with belligerent forces but with internationalist groups such as the League of Nations Union and the Union of Democratic Control. Shaw and other Fabian Society collaborators including H.G. Wells and Leonard Woolf, though sharing with absolute pacifists the fundamental goal of war prevention, believed that the pacifists were merely utopian and that internationalism forged a more realistic option.

A wrestling over the terms “utopian” and “realist” is noticeable throughout interwar political debates, especially with regard to war prevention and governmental strategies. Leonard Woolf’s monumental study International Government (1916), commissioned by the Fabian Society, became a foundational work for the infrastructure of the League of Nations.8  In his introduction, Woolf wrote, “If we are really to transform that ‘some sort of international organization’ into a definite international organization which will commend itself to the disillusioned judgment of statesmen and other ‘practical’ men, we must build not a Utopia upon the air or clouds of our own imaginations, but a duller and heavier structure placed logically upon the foundations of the existing system” (4–5). Turning the vague hopes of internationalism into something practical was, for Woolf, a matter of identifying the currently operating international systems—in maritime law, commerce, public health, etc.—and transferring those realities into a broader vision of supranational government capable of rationally arbitrating disputes rather than leaving war as the only option. In sympathy with Woolf, H. G. Wells published In the Fourth Year: The League of Free Nations (1918), a slim book that argues for a “concrete realization” of an international League against the objections of partisan nationalists (1).  Sounding a refrain that he would echo for next thirty years, Wells insists that individual nations must sacrifice a small part of their autonomy for a peaceful internationalism:

Existing states have become impossible as absolutely independent sovereignties. The new conditions bring them so close together and give them such extravagant powers of mutual injury that they must either sink national pride and dynastic ambitions in subordination to the common welfare of mankind or else utterly shatter one another. (110)

For Wells, Europe is at a crossroads, facing “more and more plainly a choice between the League of Free Nations and a famished race of men looting in search of non-existent food amidst the smouldering ruins of civilization” (110). To avoid this catastrophic future is a matter of the gravest political realism, and it is the utopians who refuse to face these facts. Shaw was an early contributor to these discussions, and continued writing about the League and internationalism into the 1940s.9

Shaw’s place in discussions of the League and antiwar internationalism has been far less recognized than his peers such as Woolf and Wells, despite his numerous publications about these topics, including his laudatory introductory essay to Woolf’s International Government. This neglect is partly due to the more intent and sustained focus on his socialism.10 But, his uneasy place in the peace movement also stems from the strain in his thinking that affirmed totalitarianism and violence. His claim to detest violence in its myriad forms and desire to avoid a sequel to the Great War did not amount to total renunciation of killing when done for the right reasons—a willingness that grew increasingly troubling through the 1930s as Shaw celebrated the rise of authoritarian states. Matthew Yde has offered the most thorough documentation of this worst side of Shaw: a deep-seated commitment to totalitarianism that welcomed the “liquidation” of lazy, infirm, criminal, or politically oppositional citizens.11 Shaw, according to Yde, “was all too willing to shed blood in his longing for utopia…and uncompromising in his view that those who do not conform to the standard the new society demands must be exterminated if they cannot be reconditioned” (4). Bloody visions of world governance motivated what Jay Winter calls the “major utopias” of the 1930s, the ideologies such as fascist internationalism that sought a certain kind of global “peace” through the elimination of dissent and whose basic activities were to “uproot, cleanse, transform, exterminate” (4). Winter contrasts those heavily documented “major utopias” with lesser-known peacemaking activities of the 20th century, “imaginings of liberation usually on a smaller scale” that he terms “minor utopias” (5). Pacifist organizations such as the Peace Pledge Union and No More War Movement were clearly minor in this sense, and I would suggest that antiwar internationalism—though still minor compared with Stalinism—tried to establish itself as pacifism’s larger scale rival to the violent, major utopias. Shaw’s temptation toward the violent forms of major utopia, however, should not diminish the importance of his contributions to peaceable alternatives. Without disregarding his totalitarian sympathies, I work against an overly reductive version of Shaw’s thought that makes fascism, eugenics, or authoritarianism his unified driving forces.12 Just as Shaw must not be mistaken for an absolute pacifist, he should not be construed as a simple mouthpiece for fascism.

The contradictions in Shaw’s political thought are emblematic of contradictions found throughout the interwar peace movement. Even the League of Nations, as Mark Mazower points out, was not free from the taint of a false peace. Mazower notes that the League “embodied a paradox: it spoke the language of the brotherhood of man but existed as the result of a military victory” (154). Despite Wells’s protestations to the contrary, in hindsight the League looks rather similar in structure with Metternich’s Concert of Europe from 1815, “the instrument of a triumphant alliance of Great Powers and a means to preserve their domination of Europe” (ibid.). It is telling that Britain’s prime minister David Lloyd George, seemingly unaware of the irony, announced in September of 1918 that he was “for a league of nations. In fact the league of nations has begun. The British empire is a league of nations” (qtd. in Mazower 128). If the League’s vision of international peace amounted to simply another form of imperial domination, it is small wonder that pacifist hardliners refused to accept it.13

Even so, with all of its flaws, antiwar internationalism imagined possibilities for a better world than the one that had fallen into the pit of the First World War. The League of Nations emerged from the Paris Peace Treaties in 1919 and was “unceremoniously wound up at a final ceremony in Geneva in 1946,” but its promise as a practical, non-utopian form of international war prevention was a vibrant source of intellectual and political energy through the interwar years (Mazower 141). By considering Shaw’s pivotal role in the context of internationalist thought, we might have another view not only of Shaw but of the interwar peace movement. Though there is a significant body of scholarship by historians and political theorists examining and assessing the League of Nations and other supranational efforts to prevent war, far less has been written by literary scholars about the relationship between interwar literature and antiwar internationalism.14

My analysis of Saint Joan in the context of Shaw’s writing about war prevention through collective security emphasizes nuances and ambiguities between the rather extreme poles in his politics. Through the play, Shaw attacked the chauvinism of nationalists whose warfare was selfishly counterproductive (rather than contributing to superior social evolution) and affirmed through his heroine Joan the inauguration of a modernity that could enable better international organization. Thus, Saint Joan embodies many of the conflicting energies within the peace movement, with pacifism, internationalism, and totalitarianism all clashing in the bleak anticipation of another war.

Fighting for a “Hegemony of Peace”

Within peace studies scholarship, debate remains about whether international collaboration and supranational governance qualify as political theories of the peace movement proper. Martin Ceadel, for instance, argues that absolute pacifist groups such as the Fellowship of Reconciliation and Peace Pledge Union should be distinguished from more general “social movements” whose aims were not explicitly “to tackle the problem of international war” (Semi-Detached 5). Specifically regarding the League of Nations Union (LNU), Ceadel writes, “Whatever social functions it may incidentally have fulfilled within inter-war [sic] Britain, its raison d’être and constant priority were to support an experiment in international organization” (Semi-Detached 5). Not solely an antiwar group but sharing a general opposition to war and hope for alternatives, the LNU thus qualifies only as peace movement adjacent in Ceadel’s study. Other scholars, such as Cecelia Lynch and David Cortright, have been much more comfortable including the LNU among peace groups with the understanding that even though its social aims were broader than ending war, its foundation was still in war prevention. Lynch observes that “the LNU ties to political elites were the strongest of any peace group in Britain or the United States to date,” though tension arose since “many rank-and-file LNU members took both a more pacifist stance and a critical line toward the government than did the leadership” (31–32). There were also conflicts between explicitly pacifist groups and more generally internationalist antiwar organizations. As Cortright describes this history, pacifist “purists” after World War I positioned themselves against internationalists, “narrowed [pacifism’s] definition to the unconditional rejection of war in all its forms,” and enabled this “restrictive meaning” to become “standard in both scholarly and popular discourse” (10). The result, according to Cortright, was that the “narrow definition of pacifism left most of the peace community out in the cold,” including internationalists who “remained an important force, especially in Britain, where the LNU attracted widespread public support” (10).

The most significant measure of that widespread support was the so-called Peace Ballot mobilized by the LNU in 1934 and 1935. Nearly 12 million British adults were surveyed in a campaign conducted by an astonishing half a million LNU volunteers (Cortright 76–79). The results of this incredible turnout gave strong evidence for a series of related points. Nearly ninety-six percent of respondents advocated remaining in the League of Nations, and overwhelming majorities also encouraged arms reduction and controls based in international agreements (Cortright 78). Disarmament and international partnership were unequivocally favored, but the ballot’s final question was also revealing in clarifying that consensus did not exist around absolute pacifism for the British public. In a two-part question, respondents were asked, “Do you consider that, if a nation insists on attacking another, the other nations should combine to compel it to stop by: (a) economic and non-military measures? (b) if necessary, military measures?” (ibid.). For the first part, regarding an international non-military response, the ballot found nearly 87 percent in favor. For the second, nearly 60 percent also affirmed military force—“if necessary.” It was presumably that qualifying phrase that invited this seeming discrepancy, but the basic sense is clear. Overall, the public view was that war should be prevented, that international cooperation was crucial, that non-military ventures were preferred, but that military force conducted through collective security measures was an acceptable last resort.    

Shaw’s position within these competing visions of war prevention might, at first, seem hard to categorize. Though staunch patriots accused him of pacifism for writing “Common Sense about the War,” this charge leaves the impression of some rather poor close reading. Just as controversial as his criticism of British righteousness was a rather un-pacifist section featuring a tongue-in-cheek appeal for treason: “No doubt the heroic remedy for this tragic misunderstanding is that both armies should shoot their officers and go home to gather in their harvests in the villages and make a revolution in the towns” (What Shaw 17). To end the war, Shaw pointedly suggests, the working class enlisted men must mutiny and put their energies toward a utopian vision of agricultural labor and social restructuring. This suggestion is presumably just rhetorical, a reductio ad absurdum similar to the bitter irony of such works as Siegfried Sassoon’s “Fight to a Finish” which encourages soldiers to finish the war completely by killing not only the enemy but all the cheering civilians, hypocritical politicians, and “Yellow-Pressmen” they encounter during their welcome home from war (77). More serious, though, is Shaw’s argument that war could be deterred, if not eliminated, by a thoroughly egalitarian socialism that includes a far larger military organization: “I myself steadily advocated the formation of a formidable armament, and ridiculed the notion that we, who are wasting hundreds of millions annually on idlers and wasters, could not easily afford double, treble, quadruple our military and naval expenditure. I advocated the compulsion of every man to serve his country, both in war and peace” (What Shaw 21).15 On the one hand, this argument sounds archly conservative, a right-wing accusation that “hundreds of millions” in governmental spending are lost on “idlers and wasters” when they might be better spent on defense. On the other, Shaw subtly attacks a root cause of war: If wars are traditionally fought by the poor on behalf of the wealthy, mandatory conscription would have a leveling effect, perhaps even becoming a deterrent since all social strata would be forced to serve. Some causes might require war to defend them—“In short, the Junker case is not worth twopence: the Democratic case, the Socialist one, the International case is worth all it threatens to cost”—but violent defense must be the last resort of an internationally cooperative, democratic-socialist society (What Shaw 39).

The position Shaw advocates, though delivered in his infamously outrageous voice, was shared by many antiwar internationalists throughout the peace movement, and it matches the basic presumptions of the British public revealed in the LNU’s Peace Ballot. His stance was what Martin Ceadel calls “pacific-ist,” the view that

war can be not only prevented but in time also abolished by reforms which will bring justice in domestic politics too…its image of the international system is of a society, possessing norms and institutions comparable to those of the domestic sphere. Pacific-ism rules out all aggressive wars and even some defensive ones (those which would hinder the political reform for which it is working), but accepts the need for military force to defend its political achievements against aggression. (Thinking 5)16  

Ceadel’s terminology has not been popular among peace researchers, if nothing else for the awkwardness of writing, reading, and pronouncing “pacific-ism.”17 However, his careful distinction between this type of antiwar sentiment and the more utopian, absolutist pacifism of, for instance, radical Anabaptist Christians, is worthwhile, a way to identify how figures like Shaw remain oriented alongside the peace movement even while advocating policies such as universal mandatory conscription.

Among the several overlapping groups of antiwar, antifascist artists and intellectuals in Britain, there were conflicts over pacifist and internationalist approaches to war—even when the basic goal of war prevention was shared. Shaw’s friend and sparring partner Gilbert Murray, a highly respected classics professor at Oxford, established a contentious position defending British Foreign Secretary Edward Grey and the decision to go to war in 1914 against both Shaw and Bertrand Russell.18 Murray wrote a statement in 1915 on behalf of Jane Addams’s Women’s Peace Party:

I believe that in order to secure the rule of Peace and Public Rights in Europe certain safeguards must be obtained and certain reparations must be made. And therefore, as I believe it was the duty of my country to declare war on 4 August 1914, so I believe that it will be her duty, both to herself and to humanity, to scrutinize earnestly, though I hope generously, the proposed terms of Peace. (qtd. in Carpenter, “Shaw and Bertrand Russell” 42)

He would continue defending this stance—the cause of war was right, but the peace terms are equally vital—for decades, reminding readers of his book The Problem of Foreign Policy (1921) that he had supported the war (8), but he also strenuously supported the Covenant of the League of Nations because it “attempts to meet and check all the visible and predictable causes of war” (115). Despite sharp, public exchanges with both Russell and Shaw—including the depiction of himself in an unflattering portrait as Adolphus Cusins in Major Barbara (1906)—Murray remained on friendly terms with them, as well as retaining strong connections with Bloomsbury despite his condoning of the Great War. As Jean Mills has documented, Murray was a “beloved and respected close friend” of Jane Ellen Harrison, the outspoken pacifist and Cambridge classics professor, whose writings on peace deeply influenced Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas (74). In the early 1930s, Murray would contribute to Leonard Woolf’s anthology of antiwar internationalist thought The Intelligent Man’s Way to Prevent War (1933), a volume whose title deliberately echoed Shaw’s The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism (1928).19 In his introduction to the collection, Woolf observes that “a discussion of the League of Nations, disarmament, arbitration, international co-operation, and the prevention of war will seem to many people at the moment academically utopian” (17), but he insists that even at this late date, “in the teeth of this nationalist blizzard,” it is preferable to court the better views of the general public who seek to prevent war through realistic means (18). While Shaw’s expression of pacific-ism was unique, its basis in antiwar internationalism was shared by a network of intellectuals and artists committed to correcting the course after the folly of the First World War.

Undergirding the pacific-ist hope for a world eventually free from war was an optimism about social evolution that echoes throughout many of the antiwar internationalist writings of the period. Casper Sylvest has shown that even though “liberal internationalism” contains a diverse range of individuals and movements, there remained among liberal internationalists a shared purpose “to graft progress, order and justice on to the domain of international politics” (9). This kind of evolutionary model can be found among the early architects of the League of Nations, as in Frederick Whelen’s speech given at Woodbrooke in August 1920 for a series arranged by the LNU where he described the “League in Being” in terms both realistic and aspirational. Whelen also makes clear that the League’s “Covenant does not prohibit war or anywhere state that war must never occur” though he hypothesizes that if League guidelines are followed, “war should be gradually eliminated as a method of dealing with international disputes” (153).

Shaw might seem an unlikely figure to share in this sort of liberal optimism, but among his biggest enthusiasms was a commitment to a self-fashioned theology that bore as one of its concomitant features an antiwar, internationalist politics. His massive play cycle Back to Methuselah, subtitled “A Metabiological Pentateuch,” is a sweeping paean to old age and asceticism, beginning in Eden in 4004 B.C. and ending with a fully evolved humanity in 31,920 A.D.—what he called “a Bible for Creative Evolution” (Methuselah 70). Superficially, the cycle seems less invested in current politics than on Shaw’s secular theology of an evolutionary Life Force. But, in the book-length preface he published with the plays in 1921, Shaw claims that the recent war “was fundamentally nothing but an idiotic attempt on the part of each belligerent State to secure for itself the advantage of the survival of the fittest through Circumstantial Selection” (Methuselah 55).20 What was needed, rather than this crassly Darwinian approach to politics, was a mature evolutionary theology: “If the Western Powers had selected their allies in the Lamarckian manner intelligently, purposely, and vitally, ad majorem Dei gloriam, as what Nietzsche called good Europeans, there would have been a League of Nations and no war” (Methuselah 55). The evolutionary maturation of humanity did not occur in time to prevent war, and its ruinous self-destruction was the result of its primitive reliance on survival of the fittest. The League of Nations would have emerged, Shaw claims, from the creatively, purposefully-driven evolutionary development of world politics. Shaw extrapolates from his preferred evolutionary biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck a progressive developmental politics that refuses to dominate through killing and instead matures into some higher existence. The bad alliances and misguided treaties that caused and now perpetuate war are vulgar Darwinian manifestations of human development, and Shaw’s educational mission in Methuselah is to awaken among Europeans the possibility of supranational government to help people evolve beyond warfare.  Sharing the optimism of the nascent League, Shaw argued that the key to this supranational government was an arrangement in which “England, France, and Germany solemnly pledge themselves to maintain the internal peace of the west of Europe” (What Shaw 59–60). His name for this entente was the “Hegemony of Peace.”

For this hegemony to prevail, rigorous planning and clear-eyed realism would be necessary—precisely the sort of thinking Shaw affirmed in Leonard Woolf’s International Government. In the introduction to that volume, Shaw wrote: “Let us not deceive ourselves with good-natured dreams. Unless and until Europe is provided with a new organ for supernational action, provided with an effective police, all talk of making an end of war is mere waste of breath. There is only one alternative to government by police and that is government by massacre” (“Introduction” xiv–xv).21 Shaw aligns himself with Woolf’s arguments, pressing for a realistic politics in which “arbitration” is not a fantastical nicety but occurs within “a Supernational Legislature, a Supernational Tribunal, and a Supernational Board of Conciliation” comprising permanent members rather than “private philanthropists on a holiday” (“Introduction” xvii). Woolf, Murray, and many other foundational figures in the early League of Nations shared this affirmation of political structures that could sustain antiwar internationalism, even Shaw’s notion of collective security that could “organize a balance of military power against war” (What Shaw 71). The uniquely Shavian flourish is his claim that this power balance “can only be done by a combination of armed and fanatical Pacifists of all nations” (What Shaw 71). With this hyperbolic, seemingly self-contradictory prescription, Shaw articulates the nature of the world order he imagines—prepared for war but manifestly restrained by pacifism—a prescription that, I argue, frames the antiwar internationalism of Saint Joan.

Saintly Heresies for the Modern World

Saint Joan was written in 1923; first performed in 1924, it became Shaw’s most successful play during his lifetime. It has attracted a host of commentators due to the wealth of social, political, and historical implications emerging from its feminism, engagement with Irish politics, historical revisionism, Catholic theology, and even Shaw’s fascination with T.E. Lawrence.22 Far less attention has been paid to its relationship with antiwar literature, though as long ago as 1947 Katherine Haynes Gatch claimed Shaw’s own statements about the play were “reminiscent of” his commentary in “Peace Conference Hints” (1919) in which he discussed Woodrow Wilson’s persona as “the failure and martyrdom of a great political idealist” (238). Gatch expresses her claim tentatively and provisionally, and I would not wish to limit Saint Joan to just an allegory for Wilson’s demise, but I do believe that we might see the play in a fresh light by considering its thematic resonances with antiwar internationalist politics.

Saint Joan emerged as part of the constellation of Shaw’s major plays written during and just after the Great War, though its connection to those works may not be readily apparent. Heartbreak House (written 1917–1918) deals most directly with the First World War, offering a Chekov-inspired view of England’s “golden afternoon” before the war and concluding in an air raid. The Back to Methuselah cycle followed in 1918 through 1920. Richard F. Dietrich has argued that Saint Joan is part of Shaw’s theological drama: “Immodestly no doubt, but desperately, Shaw began to write a new Bible: Back to Methuselah…constituting a new Old Testament, and Saint Joan…a new New Testament” (132). Shaw would return to the beliefs he expressed in Methuselah for the rest of his life, and he would ultimately have his ashes scattered at his home in Ayot St. Lawrence beneath a statue of Jeanne d’Arc. But beyond these spiritual and philosophical connections among his plays, the connection to the League of Nations may seem tenuous. Saint Joan is, after all, mostly a period piece set in the 15th century that transfers to the Hundred Years’ War Shaw’s fascination with anarchic outsiders, extracting Jeanne d’Arc from both her defamation by Shakespeare and her canonization by the Church in 1920.

Many of the play’s individual lines and scenic circumstances, however, bear a strong relationship with the war that has just past and with contemporary discussions of the new political order. Among critics who have viewed Saint Joan in light of Shaw’s political writing, Lagretta Tallent Lenker gives the most striking claim for its contemporary relevance:

Shaw uses the shift from feudalism to Nationalism and from Catholicism to Protestantism as an analogy for what he saw as the next step in modern human progress—the advent of a multinational world where global interests supercede those of individual countries and a more tolerant and open religious community where respect, love, and peace are key—a practical league of nations. (180)

This statement is more of an aside than a guiding thesis to Lenker’s argument—she cushions her comment with a tentative “perhaps” and moves quickly through five of Shaw’s plays to show how they "make war on war”—but it intriguingly links Shaw’s historical narrative with his political analogues. Following from Lenker, I would argue that the internationalism in the play emerges not allegorically but suggestively, in the ways that Saint Joan explores Shaw’s political interests through an historical subject but with insights resonant in the world of the early 1920s.

No audience can miss the fact that Saint Joan is a war play, alone among Shaw’s theatrical works in presenting battlefield precursors and aftermaths as well as discussions of military tactics.23  Michael Holroyd observes that Shaw wrote the play quickly, “filled with relief at having lifted himself free from the post-war debacle and entered a previous century to fight another war against English imperialism,” and this uplift may be felt in the inspiring tone of Joan’s actions and clarity of purpose (Lure of Fantasy 78). “It is,” Holroyd quips, “as if she goes into battle flourishing with her white banner a fluttering copy of What I Really Wrote about the War” (Lure of Fantasy 78). In Shaw’s portrayal, Joan is “the heroic example of an undiscovered modern leader, the warrior-saint he had sometimes thought of dramatizing as Cromwell and Mahomet” (Lure of Fantasy 78). As Shaw struggled to convince his public that international government and a socialist society were necessary next phases of political evolution, he found release for these frustrations in a heroine undaunted by the obstructions of powerful institutions and capable of directing warfare valiantly and purely without the muddle of ideologies that soured the Great War.

The violence of that real war, now in its post-treaty phase, resonates in several key places in Saint Joan, such as the famous debate in scene four (the “Drama of Ideas section”) between English and French ecclesial and military leaders, each of whom have a vested interest in seeing Joan destroyed (Lenker 180). The French Bishop Cauchon meets an English chaplain called de Stogumber and his compatriot the Earl of Warwick—a secret gathering to discuss plans for handling Joan now that she has enabled the French victory. The Englishmen desire retribution for her military victories, and the Frenchman seeks vindication for the Church, the powerful institution Joan has defied by claiming direct access to the will of God unmediated by clerical authority. Warwick is more battle-hardened, though the clergy are no less averse to blood so long as it is spilled within the niceties of canon law, and Warwick presses the church to act swiftly by burning Joan for heresy. Cauchon resists, slightly, reminding Warwick that the Church itself does not perform such killings, but merely pronounces “religious” judgements: “When The Church cuts off an obstinate heretic as a dead branch from the tree of life, the heretic is handed over to the secular arm. The Church has no part in what the secular arm may see fit to do” (61). This technical difference—presented as an obvious moral evasion—skewers leaders who avoid taking responsibility for the deaths they cause.

Shaw generates much dramatic interest from the men’s competing reasons for working toward a shared goal, each upholding the principles of their national affiliation and institutional allegiance. Their debate also reveals, however, the corrupting influence of militarism enveloped by duty. Warwick is closer to the front lines than the priests, more officer than politician, and he confesses that his willingness to expedite Joan’s killing has something to do with his soldiering experience: “I must apologize on my own account if I have seemed to take the burning of this poor girl too lightly. When one has seen whole countrysides burnt over and over again as mere items in military routine, one has to grow a very thick skin. Otherwise one might go mad: at all events, I should” (62). Commenting on this line, Jean Chothia notes that “The terrible slaughter of the War of 1914–18 shadows Warwick’s statements about war” (62). Chothia’s suggestion presumably means that the violence of the First World War is reflected by the image of a French countryside repeatedly on fire. There is an even greater resonance with the recent war, however, if we view Shaw's portrayal of Warwick as a commentary on combatant leaders.  Warwick is not a sociopath or killing machine; rather, he is fully aware that military training has conditioned him for a "thick skin" that prevents madness and increases his willingness to kill. The point here is not just that burning countrysides is a matter of “mere military routine”—as horrific as that may be—it is also crucial that Warwick reveals himself to be the “enlightened” warrior who accepts wartime horrors as an unpleasant part of a job that must be done. Warwick is monstrous not because he sadistically thrives on violence but because he coolly relates the insanity he would experience if he did not maintain emotional toughness when committing violent acts. Warwick assumes that Christian inquisitors must also operate with this sort of toughness, ready and willing to kill in the course of the day’s work but insulated from the emotional toll this would take on an untrained civilian. Whether military leader or ecclesiastical enforcer, violence is a fundamental tool for conducting business, and Shaw exposes this violent core not through shocking images of warfare but through the reasoned arguments of men serving corrupt institutions.

Not only does this scene reveal the extent of the violence within social institutions, it shows how violence arises to quash threats to the existing power structures. If Joan is Shaw’s embodiment of his ideal revolutionary, the discussions among her enemies depict the array of forces that seek to maintain a status quo. For Cauchon, the central problem with Joan, one that inspires uncontrollable outrage, is her refusal to submit herself to the Church:

She acts as if she herself were The Church. She brings the message of God to Charles; and The Church must stand aside. She will crown him in the cathedral of Rheims: she, not The Church! She sends letters to the king of England giving him God’s command through her to return to his island on pain of God’s vengeance, which she will execute.…Has she ever in all her utterances said one word of The Church? Never. It is always God and herself. (63)

What seems to be chiefly upsetting to Cauchon is Joan’s individual action, blessing the French king and confronting the English, all while neglecting the Church as mediating authority and, in effect, displacing Cauchon’s power. The discussion among the French and English men at the camp shows a dense thicket of political maneuvering that enables the basic functioning of institutional power, while Joan slices directly through this politicking with success and to her eventual peril. Cauchon is of course affronted by the check on his power, but he predicts greater social calamities to come should others follow Joan’s course in believing that they have direct access to God:

What will the world be like when The Church’s accumulated wisdom and knowledge and experience, its councils of learned, venerable pious men, are thrust into the kennel by every ignorant laborer or dairymaid whom the devil can puff up with the monstrous self-conceit of being directly inspired from heaven? It will be a world of blood, of fury, of devastation, of each man striving for his own hand: in the end a world wrecked back into barbarism. (64)

This apocalyptic vision articulates with great force the position of the intelligent powerbroker, akin to the capitalist who fears a rising proletariat out of reach from protection against themselves. What is fundamentally missing in Cauchon’s prognosis is that—unlike himself, the other priests, and the English lords—self-regard and self-preservation are not the driving force in Joan’s heresy. Descent into an anarchic, post-civilization nightmare results, according to Cauchon, from a proto-Darwinian survival of the fittest culture that lacks the facilitating bonds of established institutions. Shaw suggests through Joan’s crusade something other than a quest for domination. Her mission is instead a Larmarckian ascension into higher political development characterized by personal humility.

Joan’s heretical individualism is thus depicted as an evolved politics, superior to the moribund ecclesiastical and feudal systems that fight only for their own preservation rather than the higher order of religious-political arrangement that Joan symbolizes. In perhaps the most famous moment from Warwick’s discussion with Cauchon, the lord and the bishop resolve to “sink our differences in the face of a common enemy,” and each man names the particular “heresy” the other is fighting by confronting Joan (67). Warwick says that Joan’s insistence upon direct communication with God is “the protest of the individual soul against the interference of priest or peer between the private man and his God. I should call it Protestantism if I had to find a name for it” (68). Cauchon agrees, and identifies in Warwick’s fear a similar affront to the peerage in Joan’s direct communication with the king: “To her the French-speaking people are what the Holy Scriptures describe as a nation. Call this side of her heresy Nationalism if you will” (68). Warwick replies: “Well, if you will burn the Protestant, I will burn the Nationalist” (68). This moment in the play resists being read as simple political allegory since, after all, the vision Cauchon offers is that of a unified supranational organization with courts for handling grievances and civilized means for addressing inequalities. Cauchon’s frequent warnings about a bloody future may seem hyperbolic and self-serving, but his description of the wages of nationalism ring true for the 1920s world after the Great War: “The Catholic Church knows only one realm, and that is the realm of Christ’s kingdom. Divide that kingdom into nations, and you dethrone Christ. Dethrone Christ, and who will stand between our throats and the sword? The world will perish in a welter of war” (68). Self-serving and extreme, but not entirely wrong, Cauchon’s predictions about the cost of nationalism would find much favor with proponents of the interwar peace movement who identify a loss of Christian virtue and increase of patriotic devotion as primal sources of global war.

But there is a twist to this logic in Shaw’s portrayal of Joan. Joan’s particular version of the nationalist “heresy” suggests a bridge toward the internationalism that might make war less likely, rather than the feudalistic imperialism of her current age in which the Church blesses perpetual war. Against dynastic leaders like the Earl of Warwick, Joan argues that “God made [the English] just like us; but He gave them their own country and their own language; and it is not His will that they should come into our country and try to speak our language” (19). Joan’s reasoning is that God has effectively ordained a particular national status and does not want that order corrupted through invasion and imperialism. This vision is distinctly international rather than simply nationalistic. It is not that God solely ordains France for the French and seeks a national uprising. Rather, God has called Joan to restore international order through repelling the conquering invaders—returning them to their rightful place in England. She says, “We are all subject to the King of Heaven; and He gave us our countries and our languages, and meant us to keep to them. If it were not so it would be murder to kill an Englishman in battle; and you, squire, would be in great danger of hell fire. You must not think about your duty to your feudal lord, but about your duty to God” (19). This speech articulates a notion of international just war, a system of justice only possible between warring nation-states. If the English and French are not separated as opposing nations, but rather are a universal group, then armed conflict would be unjustified killing rather than the justified killing between declared enemy combatants. Joan exhibits a paradoxical mixture of military-religious fanaticism and careful restraint.

Joan’s nationalism is expressly demotic—a grassroots, vernacular nationalism as opposed to what Benedict Anderson calls the “official nationalism” of bureaucratic states (86). The French churchmen and diplomats debate the value of Joan’s service to their cause in Shaw’s clever undercutting of the French position. Though we may side with Joan, we do not simply side with France, since French leaders are just as reluctant to affirm Joan’s revolutionary impulses. Her fighting for French people is valuable to the religious and political authorities insofar as it does not strip them of their power. Shaw displays support for popular revolution rather than the simple transfer of power from English to French institutional leadership. The Archbishop of Rheims scandalizes the Constable of France, La Trémouille, by endorsing Joan’s so-called miracles for their spectacular and inspirational possibilities rather than for their spiritual authenticity. These discussions evoke the stereotype of enlightened clergy who only endorse supernatural elements for the sake of gullible parishioners. As the Archbishop says:

Could you make our citizens pay war taxes, or our soldiers sacrifice their lives, if they knew what is really happening instead of what seems to them to be happening?...the Church has to rule men for the good of their souls as you have to rule them for the good of their bodies. To do that, the Church must do as you do: nourish their faith by poetry. (32-3)

In its raw form, we see in this scene the messy production of religious and governmental spectacle. The lies that build the church and state are exposed and upheld self-consciously by the leadership. Political and religious exigencies are the driving forces toward Joan’s execution for heresies against both faith and dynasty—her so-called “Protestant” mysticism which values the individual seeker over church dogma and her efforts for nationalism rather than dynastic feudalism.

But compared with leaders like the Archbishop and the constable, Joan’s position is paradoxically more immersed in ancient spiritualism and in modern politics. Though a figurehead for the Catholic Church, the Archbishop admits to being nourished by Aristotle and Pythagoras rather than by divinity and the enchanted world. Cynical and rationalistic, he appears modern—unlike Joan, who hears the voices of St. Margaret and St. Catherine guiding her through battle, trial, and death. Yet the cause she fights for is really the developed nationalistic modernity which provides a more rigid system for reducing warfare and ascertaining the righteousness of violent conflict. Joan and the Archbishop are foils at the verge of modernity. We find these two characters on the growing rim of what Charles Taylor calls the “nova of unbelief” which is the condition of late 19th- and early 20th-century modernity (377). While Joan seems to be the representative of the still enchanted, premodern world, Shaw’s surprising turn is to have a pious mystic become the agent of rationalistic modernity—the builder of the modern nation.

This unexpected position is displayed most clearly at her trial where the Inquisitor dismisses the original sixty-four charges against her as mere “trumpery issues” (90). He admits his reluctance to join the case since it initially seemed political rather than religious, the trial of a war prisoner not an enemy of the Church. But the Inquisitor’s supposed separation of Church and politics is belied by his description of the true dangers of heresy: “Heresy begins with people who are to all appearances better than their neighbors. A gentle and pious girl…may be the founder of a heresy that will wreck both Church and Empire if not ruthlessly stamped out in time” (92–93). So the argument goes: Joan’s charismatic leadership is a gateway drug, a seemingly innocuous first step toward utter disintegration of the reigning institutions. The Church will dissolve and with it the Imperial realm. Joan’s real crime is the revolutionary restructuring of the public sphere comprising religion and politics. This restructuring allows common people to become national community, producing a horizontal comradeship versus the vertical order which puts God above the ruler overtop his subjects.

As part of that flattening out of the political order, Joan directly interacts with King Charles in an early scene that reveals the King’s reluctance to participate in military affairs of state and emphasizes Joan’s call for a new social order protected collectively by force. Charles confesses to Joan his aversion to violence—“I don’t want to kill people: I only want to be left alone to enjoy myself in my own way. I never asked to be king: it was pushed on me”—a revelation of weak passivity which Shaw scorns (38). Joan argues with Charles that he is merely afraid and that she can inspire courage necessary for fighting. “There is some good in thee, Charlie,” Joan says, “but it is not yet a king’s good” (39). Simple withdrawal from political exigencies, even distasteful ones such as war, cannot lead to the better social order Joan envisions. Charles responds with a speech deeply relevant for 1920s audiences, observing that “one good treaty is worth ten good fights. These fighting fellows lose all on the treaties that they gain on the fights. If we can only have a treaty, the English are sure to have the worst of it, because they are better at fighting than at thinking” (40). Charles’s goal, should he have to enter the melee, is shrewd negotiation that gains more by diplomacy than can be attained by physical force. To this tactic, Joan largely assents, but she qualifies his statement: “If the English win, it is they that will make the treaty; and then God help poor France!” (40). International negotiation, careful strategy, and the bonds of treaties thus signal a way forward from the dark ages of warfare, but even with these higher order politics, military victory takes primacy. Shaw’s international pacific-ism echoes in the tension between Charles and Joan’s positions.

The theatrically controversial epilogue of Saint Joan contains the most overt development of internationalist themes.24 This epilogue occurs in King Charles’ dreams, where the spirit of Joan appears and summons other dead and sleeping souls towards international peace-building. All of her former persecutors appear and praise her, beg her forgiveness, and celebrate her recent canonization. But this adulation dissipates when Joan offers to return to life and resume her crusade, and the men decline her offer. Cauchon observes that “The heretic is always better dead” (135). Political necessity keeps Joan locked into place, a figurehead for new peace and order but not a viable participant in the revolution she desires. Sainthood serves to absolve Joan and commemorate her, but it also saps her of revolutionary politics, making her a museum piece not an armed fanatic. The epilogue offers Shaw’s biting contemporary critique—medieval people merely burn troublemakers while we canonize them, rendering their politics impotent. An English soldier who gave Joan a homemade cross while she burned returns in the epilogue and becomes a figure for international collaboration between two warriors. Joan and the soldier, two lower-class combatants, share fundamental respect lacking in her relations with the political and ecclesial elite. The soldier’s soul comes from hell, briefly reprieved for his good deed to Joan, and he cheerfully assures her that after “fifteen years’ service in the French wars[,] Hell was a treat after that” (128). But even this soldier deserts her in the end, and Joan’s final line suggests that she feels her own impotence: “O God that madest this beautiful earth, when will it be ready to receive Thy saints? How long, O Lord, how long?” (136). Joan the fanatic can never rest easily with Joan the saint, and the title of the play becomes an ironic condemnation in the play’s epilogue. Shaw’s audience is therefore hailed, called into Joan’s ranks to receive the saints on earth and build the just social order she initiates. The paradox Shaw offers us is that an international community of peace might only be achievable through an armed fanatic’s fervor coupled with a pacifist’s restraint.

In Geneva, Patriotism Perishes

It is a common narrative of the interwar period that the postwar recovery of the 1920s gave way to a mood both darker and more urgent as authoritarianism and patriotic zealotry erupted more forcefully than they had in 1914. During what Richard Overy memorably calls “the morbid age” of the thirties, that optimism for antiwar internationalist efforts such as the League of Nations crumpled into despair mixed with frantic urgency (1). Leonard Woolf’s comment about the “nationalist blizzard” in 1933 was more thickly described in Storm Jameson’s antiwar internationalist anthology Challenge to Death (1935) which included contributors such as Viscount Cecil—Nobel Peace Prize winner and League engineer—who had also contributed to Woolf’s The Intelligent Man’s Way to Prevent War. Jameson’s introductory essay “The Twilight of Reason” attacks “the theology of nationalism” in which “war has a sacramental value,” urgently calling for rationalism and cooperation in this tense moment as belligerence is building (1). Mary Agnes Hamilton, in her contribution called “No Peace Apart from International Security: An Answer to Extreme Pacifists,” writes: “Each nation can be made safe only if and when responsibility for common order, and the power to maintain it, are handed over by the separate nations to an international authority which can then look after and safeguard the great common interest of them all—peace” (269). Versions of this argument against war and for international collaboration can be found among most of Jameson’s contributors who include Vera Brittain, Winifred Holtby, J.B. Priestly, and Rebecca West. Even more despairing in its tone about the League was Wells’s The Shape of Things to Come (1933), a futurology that begins in the present—called here “The Age of Frustration”—and includes a chapter “The Impulse to Abolish War: Why the League of Nations Failed to Pacify the World.” Wells’s narrator blames the League for being a “hasty improvisation” and the LNU for failing to realize that internationalism badly done was worse than an internationalism never attempted, because this failure impugned all future possibilities as hopelessly errant (107).

Shaw’s writings on internationalism and the League during this period show a different sort of failing—not despair and urgency but an exasperation that seems out of touch with the politics of his age. After the roaring success of Saint Joan, he wrote no more drama for six years. His public acceptance was signaled most obviously by receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1925, a blessing Shaw felt to be decidedly mixed (he asked that the prize money be given to Scandinavian playwrights). In a gesture that registered both his political vindication and his unwillingness to let controversies die, he published in 1931 his collection What I Really Wrote about the War. Included in this volume were his original volley, “Common Sense about the War” as well as a final, more recent essay on “The League of Nations,” first published in 1929 as Fabian Tract number 226. That he closed What I Really Wrote with this essay indicates the inseparability of his war writing and his internationalist political theory. Though his devotion to the League had waned in the decade between the Treaty of Versailles and his attendance at the annual League of Nations Assembly in Geneva in 1928, his desire for alternative political structures remained fervent.

Shaw begins his pamphlet on the League by noting that he has been criticized for attending such an assembly since it is a sham, a lot of grandstanding about shared governance and national submission to international collectivity without any real intention to allow for this reconfiguration of power. Shaw undercuts this criticism by saying that simple war prevention through joint arbitration should not be mistaken for the League’s sole purpose. He grants that war prevention will not result from the League in its current condition, and he attempts to go one better than his critics, saying, “roughly and generally it is a fact that the Pacifist oratory at the Assembly is Christmas card platitude at best and humbug at worst” (What I 415). What he finds most valuable about the League is not its grandest, most utopian aims of eliminating war but rather its broader, somewhat looser benefit: “The really great thing that is happening at Geneva is the growth of a genuinely international public service, the chiefs of which are ministers in a coalition which is, in effect, an incipient international Government” (What I 415). This statement is so integral to his argument that the original pamphlet highlights it with bold font.25   He follows with a memorable aphorism: “In the atmosphere of Geneva patriotism perishes” (What I 415). However, with a characteristically Shavian flourish, he adds: “A patriot there is simply a spy who cannot be shot” (What I 415).

Though a side benefit of the League of Nations may be its capacity to prevent war, Shaw is adamant that it exists for more capacious purposes, saying that the question of war and peace “is now rather the main drawback to the League than its raison d’être” (What I 422). Though the League has been associated with two substantial antiwar policies—the Locarno Treaties and the Kellogg-Briand Pact—these multinational agreements to renounce war as a tool of foreign affairs include terms that are their own undoing.26 So long as “the Powers might go to war at any time ‘in self-defence’” there will be no serious renunciation of war (What I 422). Shaw recognizes that all nations entering a war claim for themselves the moral high ground of self-defense, and admitting that the League does not need to intervene in self-defensive warfare means that the League will not intervene in war at all. What the League can provide, at its best, is not the total elimination of war, but, “In short, the League is a school for the new international statesmanship as against the old Foreign Office diplomacy” (What I 419). All nations that make use of the League as a sounding board for grievances will be on better footing than those that rush to imperialist ventures and “survival of the fittest” conflict resolutions.

With this vision of the League as a flawed but useful arbiter of international disputes, Shaw would construct his “political extravaganza” Geneva, subtitled “A Fancied Page of History.” His friend and early biographer Archibald Henderson asserts, “Geneva was the inevitable and logical outcome of his studies of the League of Nations” (651). It is both a farce and a problematic coda to Shaw’s incendiary reflections on the current political scene. In the play, the hopelessly incompetent Intellectual Co-operation Committee of the League of Nations—chaired in reality by Gilbert Murray—seeks to unite aggrieved people from Russia, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, and Spain with their national leaders. A Commissar preaching the Soviet party line debates with the English Sir Orpheus Midlander, a parodic composite of Eric Drummond and Austen Chamberlain. Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco eventually share the stage in character versions that are simultaneously satirical and quaintly idealized. As Shaw explains in his program note for the first London production, “Instead of making the worst of all the dictators, which only drives them out of the League, I have made the best of them, and may even challenge them to live up to their portraits if they can. I hope they like it” (Complete Plays 650). From our current historical vantage point, this suggestion that fascist leaders might enjoy and learn from a Shavian comedy sounds like unconscionable self-delusion.

As such, Geneva remains a disturbing play. Its antisemitism, Nazi/Fascist sympathy, and romanticized Stalinism made it unsuccessful in its day—despite frequent rewrites with increasingly critical portrayals of the despots, the play was a flop (Weintraub, “Strongman” 15). And yet, for all its flaws, its fantasy of a thriving Hague has some value for anyone desiring alternatives to intractable warfare. Its narrative momentum builds toward a fourth act showdown among the world’s dictators, thinly veiled caricatures of Mussolini, Hitler, et al. At the end of act three, several characters challenge the Judge of the International Court, complaining that he has no power to bring the dictators into a courtroom, much less bring them to heel. The League Secretary asks, “But the dictators? Bombardone [Mussolini]? Battler [Hitler]? How can you make them come? You have not a single soldier. Not even a policeman” (Complete Plays 711). The League is felt to be impotent, even by its supporters, since it cannot bring violent force to bear upon its policies. But the Judge replies that there is another force at its disposal, the power of celebrity, fascination, and a world arena that can lure megalomaniacs better than physical coercion: “If the Hague becomes the centre of the European stage all the soldiers and police in the world will not keep them away from it…Where the spotlight is, there will the despots be gathered” (Complete Plays 711–12). In Shaw’s imagined version of the Hague, its centrality to European political discourse makes it self-sustaining, a space for public accountability that, at the very least, functions as an obstacle to war and imperialism. Even in this fantasy version, the League of Nations is not idealized as omnipotent, but it is clear that Shaw still places some hope, as late as 1938, in the possibility of curbing despotism, airing grievances, and curtailing war under its auspices. Its final scene is a chaotic exodus of the dictators returning to belligerence, but the Judge has the final word: “They came, these fellows. They blustered: they defied us. But they came. They came” (Complete Plays 759). Obliquely optimistic, the conclusion of the play leaves room for future political possibilities when even the most desperate, self-absorbed, and ideologically vile leaders can be restrained through internationalism.

Alongside this image of alternative political organization, Joan of Arc’s single-minded charge toward modernity seems pure and uncomplicated, a fantasy of the visionary leader making the world right rather than myriad nations, leaders, and egos fumbling toward international community. It should not go unremarked that Shaw’s imagination from 1914 of internationalism governed by “armed and fanatical pacifists” returns in 1938, put into the mouth of his Hitler figure, Ernest Battler: “I am a man of peace; but it must be a voluntary peace, not an intimidated one. Not until I am armed to the teeth and ready to face all the world in arms is my Pacifism worth anything” (Complete Plays 729). Shaw claimed that Geneva was a chance to educate dictators by portraying them in their best possible lights, but there is a fine line between representing Hitler’s best aspirations and simply being duped by his rhetoric. In praising rearmament as a tool for peace, the Maid of Orleans and the Fuhrer share in Shaw’s pantheon of Supermen. The play was popular enough in the Third Reich that, as Glenn R. Cuomo documents, "in 1941 the Chemnitz Theater had gone so far as to choose a performance of Heilige Johanna to commemorate the eighth anniversary of Hitler's 30 January assumption of office" (450).27 There is a troubling appetite for authoritarianism that persists in Shaw’s ideal of a charismatic, uncompromising leader, but at the same time, he insists that international courts and supranational governments are superior to monomaniacal nationalism. Tracing the human developmental line from Joan into a better version of modernity, Shaw suggests, we might enable a world that, if not free of war, at least makes war less likely. Antiwar internationalism proposes states that remain armed, collectively working toward each other’s security, but all chastened by fanatical pacifism.    


1 Leading up to the war, Shaw had not been silent about militarism, giving a speech, for instance, in November 1913 promoting his idea of a “Hegemony of Peace” and publishing “The Peace of Europe and How to Attain It” in the Daily News on January 1, 1914 (Holroyd, Pursuit of Power 344).

2 J. P. Wearing gives the sales figure in his introduction to Bernard Shaw on War (xiii). The most thorough chronicle of contemporary responses to “Common Sense about the War” remains Stanley Weintraub, Journey to Heartbreak, chapter three, “The Storm over Common Sense.”

3 Carpenter’s formulation borrows from prior Fabian slogans. The first British socialist organization, the Social Democratic Federation, used the motto “Educate, Agitate, Organize,” but the Fabian Society “soon matured into anti-catastrophic gradualists,” broke away from the SDF, and replaced “Agitate” with “Permeate” (xvii).

4 The editorial headnote for Shaw in the tenth edition of the Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume E ("The Victorian Age"), persists in telling students that among his other radical beliefs, “He was courageous enough to be a pacifist in World War I” (872). For additional examples of Shaw being labelled a pacifist, see Wisenthal and O’Leary, What Shaw Really Wrote about the War, 301n4.

5 After his brief visit to the Western Front and foray into war journalism, Shaw insisted that both pacifism and ardent militarism die at the front, and carrying on with the unpleasant yet necessary business of fighting is the only concern of soldiers. See “Joy Riding at the Front,” in What Shaw Really Wrote, 194–211.

6 For discussion of Huxley’s political conversion, see David Bradshaw’s “introduction” to The Hidden Huxley.

7 During the height of his involvement with the PPU, Huxley had become enthralled by Gandhi’s ideas as distilled through Richard B. Gregg’s The Power of Non-Violence (1934). Gregg was an American who visited Gandhi in India during the mid-1920s and wrote several books attempting to translate Gandhi’s philosophy and practices for western audiences. Though much of the PPU leadership was generally unenthused about “Greggism,” as it was called, Gregg’s writings on nonviolence continued to be read, and the 1960 edition of The Power of Non-Violence contained an affirming foreword by Martin Luther King Jr. See Gregg, The Power of Nonviolence (this third edition removed the hyphen from the prior editions’ “non-violence.”) For the most thorough account of the lineage between Gandhi, Gregg, and King, see Kosek, Acts of Conscience. For a succinct description of Gandhi’s influence on peace activism more broadly, see Cortright, Gandhi and Beyond.

8 The Fabian Society was dedicated to the League of Nations from its earliest inception. In addition to Woolf and Shaw’s writings on Fabian internationalism, H. G. Wells published several works promoting the League including In the Fourth Year: Anticipations of a World Peace (Macmillan, 1918), British Nationalism and the League of Nations (League of Nations Union, 1918), The Idea of a League of Nations (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1919), and The Common Sense of World Peace (L. & Virginia Woolf, 1929). A thorough bibliography of League materials can be accessed through an online archive managed jointly by the League of Nations Archives and the Indiana University Center for the Study of Global Change (2002). 

9 In his preface to Geneva, published in 1945, he praises England’s stalwartness during the Second World War, noting that his adoptive country “took on Hitler singlehanded without a word to the League of Nations” (Complete Plays 626).

10 Gareth Griffith’s Socialism and Superior Brains is the first major consideration of Shaw’s politics. Griffith counters judgements such as E. J. Hobsbawm’s that among the three great post-Chartist political thinkers in England—William Morris, the Webbs, and Shaw—Shaw’s work has aged the worst and lacks significance today (Griffith 2). Griffith discusses Shaw’s engagement with war but is primarily interested in his socialism. See also James Alexander, Shaw’s Controversial Socialism.

11 See also Arnold Silver, Bernard Shaw: The Darker Side, and Stanley Weintraub, “Shaw and the Strongman.” For much of the history of Shaw criticism, his late-in-life, unwavering support for Stalin is a sore spot, an acknowledged failure arising from blinkered enthusiasm, diminished mental clarity, and ignorance about the facts of Soviet tyranny. Yde, by contrast, argues that from at least as far back as Shaw’s major essay The Quintessence of Ibsenism (completed in 1890), a totalitarian vision animates most of his writing, complete with “biocratic” supremacy that predates Nazism and explains his enthusiasm for Hitler, Mussolini, and Mosley (as well as the violent despots of the left) (14).

12 Yde’s argument is forceful and well-documented, a welcome challenge to a history of criticism that virtually ignores Shaw’s totalitarian fixations, but Yde also affirms at the end of his introduction that the version of Shaw he presents “does not claim to be the whole truth about Shaw, but only a partial truth that has been for too long unconsidered…By no means would I expect or want this neglected version to become the dominant version” (24).

13 For additional discussion of the League’s complicated relationship with imperialism, see Manela, The Wilsonian Moment and Pedersen, The Guardians.

14 The politics of Bloomsbury, and Virginia Woolf in particular, are noteworthy exceptions to this neglect, and there is a substantial scholarly literature in American studies focusing on Woodrow Wilson and the Wilsonian era, but often research in British modernism employs “internationalism” as a form of “cosmopolitanism.” See Froula, “War, Peace, and Internationalism.”

15 Statements such as these put Shaw directly at odds with pacifists like Romain Rolland whose famous tract Au-dessus de la mêlée (Above the Battle) “Shaw disparaged as elitist and escapist” (Pharand 209).

16 According to Ceadel, A. J. P. Taylor coined the terms "pacific-ist" and “pacific-ism” in a “casual footnote” in 1957.  When reviewing Ceadel's Pacifism in Britain (1980) in the London Review of Books, Taylor acknowledged the debt and wrote that "pacific-ist" and "pacific-ism" "were terms ‘which I gladly lend him'" (Thinking 102).

17 Cortright commends Ceadel for his parsing of peace movement concepts but notes that “pacific-ism” is “awkward, confusing, and difficult to write or pronounce” and eschewed it in his own writing (11). I share Cortright’s concern about the word “pacific-ism” itself, but retain it for this essay due to its conceptual rigor—a distinction that at times is blurry in Cortright’s lumping together of non-pacifist internationalist groups with absolute pacifist antiwar organizations.

18 This relationship is documented in Carpenter, “Shaw and Bertrand Russell.” See also Carpenter, ed., Bernard Shaw and Gilbert Murray.

19 For connections between Shaw and Woolf’s books, see Wayne K. Chapman, “Synthesizing Civilizations.”

20 The most thorough examination of Shaw’s theology can be found in Baker, Shaw’s Remarkable Religion. For a reading of the play that asserts its proto-fascist utopianism, see Yde, Bernard Shaw and Totalitarianism, chapter 4.

21 Woolf’s book originated as a pair of essays commissioned by the Fabian Society, the first published as a New Statesman supplement—the same format as Shaw’s “Common Sense about the War” (Holroyd, Pursuit of Power 366).

22 For a sample of these readings, see Hadfield and Reynolds, Moran, Franke (115–30), and Weintraub, Public Shaw and Private Shaw. Stanley Weintraub’s Saint Joan Fifty Years After compiles the best criticism of the play, much of which attends to Shaw’s historical accuracy and response to the Catholic Church’s relationship with Jeanne d’Arc. 

23 Shaw’s screenplay for his never produced movie version of Saint Joan even included sections devoted to visualizing battles. See Saint Joan: A Screenplay. These scenes appear in a different form in the 1957 film version directed by Otto Preminger and scripted by Graham Greene.

24 William Irvine calls the epilogue “a vulgarization and a lengthy elucidation of the obvious,” and directors have frequently found it problematic (qtd. in Weintraub, Guide 105). Producers of the play at the 1981 Canadian Shaw Festival tried to cut it but were overruled by the Shaw estate. To fulfill the letter but not the spirit of the law, the audience was given an intermission between the final scene and the epilogue after which actors read this section at lecterns while wearing their street clothes (Chothia xxxiii). Other producers use the epilogue as a frame, like the Preminger/Greene film version which intersperses the epilogue throughout the narrative.

25 A digitization of this text is available through the London School of Economics digital library.   

26 On the history of the Kellogg Briand Pact, see Hathaway, The Internationalists.

27 Cuomo offers the fullest account of Shaw's reception in Nazi Germany.  See also Chothia (xxxi–xxxii).

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