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This Play about Joan of Arc Got this Historian Thinking She Was at a Marine Le Pen Rally

I walked into the new musical at Manhattan’s Public Theater last night and a Marine Le Pen campaign rally broke out onstage. This was unexpected not only because The Public is the company that brought us Hair and Hamilton, but because I had gone to the theater to see a new rock musical by writer/composer/lyricist David Byrne who describes this play as a contemporary look at oppression. The banner that stood in for a curtain seemed to promise a mainstream view of oppression.

She was warned.

She was given an explanation.

Nevertheless, she persisted.

We settled into our seats, comfortably cocooned within an upscale bubble of New Yorkers who recognize those lines as Senator Mitch McConnell’s silencing of Liz Warren. I had not come to write a review, just to enjoy some good music.

What does it cost to be free?1

I whipped out my pen and began scribbling on the back of my program.

Our people will be free

And France will be united

The English will be gone

The production values were absolutely stunning: sets, lighting, staging and choreography dazzled even the jaded, New York crowd. But in place of the nuanced, thoroughly modern take on revolution and patriotism that blew me away when I sat in the same building two years ago watching Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, last night I watched the romantic nationalism of Schiller’s William Tell and of Byron’s dream that Greece might yet be free.

Many bodies make one nation

And we pull together or we fall apart

It is nothing short of astonishing to encounter this sort of nationalist rhetoric on a contemporary New York stage. Stylistically, the musical is a child of its moment; the English and French soldiers, princes and prelates are interchangeably of African and European complexion, a recent trend that already feels as unremarkable as the music. What is remarkable is the unironic presentation of nationalism at a time when a new wave of nationalism parties is contesting elections across Europe, and governing India.

Byrne’s French nation is a simple entity, untroubled by ethnic or linguistic variegation. There is no hint of the 15th century patchwork of polities, peoples and languages that actually existed in the lands we know as France. Nor do Burgundians appear on stage to complicate the story. We see only the popular will to defend France from English occupation, and Frenchmen lacking the gumption to take up the sword until a girl stands up to lead them.

For honor, God, and country

France will rise and be free,

You can’t kill an idea

Victory will come

God will give it to France

For Bryne’s Joan of Arc, war is the necessary tool that it was for George Washington, Bolivar, and Garibaldi. It is not that she fails to see the price in dead and mangled bodies, only that she never doubts that it is a price worth paying. At least, she never doubts it until she faces death as a heretic at the stake.

Bryne is far from deft in his handling of heresy, eternal salvation, and the Church. He seems to have not quite decided how to portray the Bishop, but he gives us a power-mad King of England and a childishly selfish Dauphin. The strongest character on the stage is Robert de Baudricourt(David St. Louis), a brave, honorable realist. And Mare Winningham’s performance as Joan’s mother is wonderful.

She appears in the postlude to plead her daughter’s case before an ecclesiastical court assembled to exonerate Joan, 25 years after she was burned at the stake. Backed by the cast, Winningham sings an ode to France, the eternal nation.

Send her to heaven

That’s where she belongs

Her soul is clean

And what you see before you

A people who are free

Send her to heaven.

1 Lyrics are as I noted them down during the performance and included only those lines that I wrote down, written as I heard them.