Gilles de Rais, a young man of 25, very smart and self-possessed, and sporting the extravagance of a little curled beard dyed blue at a clean-shaven court, comes in. He is determined to make himself agreeable, but lacks natural joyousness, and is not really pleasant. In fact when he defies the Church some eleven years later he is accused of trying to extract pleasure from horrible cruelties, and hanged. So far, however, there is no shadow of the gallows on him.
Saint Joan (1923) by G B Shaw
Costume design by Anthony Holland circa 1940
On the surface, Shaw's brief character gloss seems uncontroversial enough. However, there is something slightly awry about that "accused of". Works of literature are not written in a void. Just as the Bluebeard trope is absolutely typical of that time, so is the uncertainty about whether Gilles was actually guilty of the horrors he was accused of and executed for. The play was written in 1923, inspired by Jehanne's canonisation in 1920. As we have seen, her elevation to the sainthood led to a renewed interest in Gilles de Rais, and speculation about his own possible innocence. There was even talk that he, too, should be a saint. Shaw would have been well aware of the controversy and, in that uncharacteristically mealy-mouthed "accused of", one does feel he was hedging his bets.
In fact, Bluebeard, or Gilles de Rais, features little in the play. He is conspicuously absent in the Epilogue, in which various characters, both living and dead, appear in a dream to Charles VII. The dead characters discuss their experience of the afterlife - for instance, the soldier who held up a cross made of sticks to Jehanne, to comfort her as she burned, has been consigned to Hell, but is allowed a day's holiday every year for his one good action. If Shaw had been disposed to have Gilles make an appearance, what could he have said of the posthumous condition of his soul? Would the atheist/mystic playwright have placed him in a theoretical Heaven or Hell? Setting aside complex considerations of Christian theology, that would depend on whether he was innocent or guilty, and Shaw does not seem to have had a firm opinion on that.
The Epilogue takes place in 1456, when Jehanne's rehabilitation trial had declared her innocent of heresy and unjustly burned. Please note how the news is announced to Charles VII: "Rejoice, O king; for the taint is removed from your blood, and the stain from your crown." Shaw understood completely the political reasons why Jehanne (and Gilles) had to die: if his two preeminent generals had been dealing with the Devil, then the King owed his throne to witchcraft.