|Joan of Arc: Into the Fire (Photo: Tammy Shell)
I'm speaking to you Alex Timbers and David Byrne with respect to your new show Joan of Arc: Into the Fire. You are both talented artists and your previous collaboration, Here Lies Love, was a favorite of mine but this musical is a massive misfire and we need to talk about it.
I could complain about the scuba fabric costumes, the nonsensical flashlights on stage, or the songs sounding like Here Lies Love rejects with lyrics that don't go anywhere. But the real tragedy for me is this could have been a kickass, feminist musical with a strong leading female character but you ended up going about it the worst possible way. You made a musical with no perspective that oddly feels like a Catholic Church sponsored event. This production fails to be either empowering or revelatory. Worse, one might argue you utterly failed to give Joan of Arc a voice in her own musical.
Into the Fire follows the same old routine of women being punished by authority without any counterbalance. Violence against women by the church. Violence against women by the state. But what about the woman herself? Despite Joan singing a large number of songs the musical does not actually crack into Joan's personality in any way.
By fixating on Joan's religiosity, she fails to be independent or individuated. Any personal passion she might have is supplanted with that of her religion's passion. She has no agency of her own. She acts on the will of God. The terms of her voice/power/existence are defined by religious faith. Though there may be tension between her view of that religion and the church's, rehashing the Reformation in 2017 seems like a strange way to spend your musical theater energy.
Focusing on Joan's canonization fails to bring a spark either. In the Catholic church, you can saint the ladies but they can only intercede with the dudes (Father, Son) and the ghost (the Holy) on your behalf. Saints have zero power of their own. The Catholic Church: not the best place to look for 21st century feminism, team.
If you're not interested in feminism in 2017 why are you making a Joan of Arc musical? Even trying to see your point of view Tim-Byrne (Byrne-bers?), are we meant to be outraged by these virgin checks and hence their inclusion? They are cheap and lazy ways to use violence against women to create faux-rage without having to do the work of unpacking the real harm at issue or god forbid frame anything with a female gaze.
As women watching this violation (note: it’s off-stage but it’s explained to us it’s happening--spoiler, her hymen passes the test twice) we are not furious for the act but annoyed that you’d think this is shocking to us. There is still a culture of purity and control when it comes to female sexuality today. But we already know that. We live it every day. Tell us something we don’t know. Rather than point out the "problem" you just discovered exists, you perpetuate it.
In case you think this is just how things were in 1431 and you had to hymen check to tell the story faithfully and accurately, that is bullshit. I'm here to tell you there's a great queer musical retelling of Joan of Arc called JOAN by Lucy J. Skilbeck that stars LoUis CYfer (Lucy Jane Parkinson) who is an award-winning drag king. It NEVER once required a speculum on stage.
|JOAN (Photo: Field & McGlynn)
Honestly, Tim-Byrne (and anyone else reading) if you find yourself making a musical with a speculum in your hand, just stop.
What makes Skilbeck's JOAN so powerful is that her Joan reframes the story to our time and makes us think about history and the present together. Joan's call to action is borne from the death of her mother by the English invaders, a love of country, and a sense of duty with only a small helping of religious fervor. She acts with her own agency and not as that of a religious puppet.
Each song in JOAN is sung by men who wish Joan to be different from what she is--Joan's father, the King of France, and the English prosecutor (all roles are also played by Parkinson in drag). We experience the tension between these voices of family, state, and law in conflict with Joan's own wishes which she speaks directly to us about. There is no question who this Joan is or why she is relevant to us today. She wears a Tank Girl t-shirt with a partially shaved head and dreadlocks. She relishes wearing men's clothes as she leads the army. A brief attempt to wear women's clothes sits on her so awkwardly, as does a conventional heterosexual coupling. There is an altogether too familiar mismatch between how she presents herself to the world and how the world expects her to be. In the end, this Joan chooses to be true to herself which means society wants to destroy her.
This is not a historic problem from 1431. This is happening today all across America where transgender people are harassed, beaten, and killed for being trans or LGBTQIA couples shunned, harmed, or denied equal rights and protections. We are fighting for gender equity and against a gender binary and often these fights are with our own government, our families, and friends. There's a lot in the story of Joan of Arc that could be relevant to our conversations today but your Into the Fire chooses not to participate in that dialogue at all.