She's Mom To A Headstrong Teen — Who Happens To Be Joan Of Arc

Oct 20, 2018
Originally published on October 20, 2018 10:03 pm

Joan of Arc is an emblem: a saint of the Roman Catholic Church, the inspiration of so many novels and films and George Bernard Shaw's iconic play Saint Joan.

She was also once a real teenage girl. She did farm work. And she had parents, who loved her and were with her until her end — when she was burned at the stake in 1431.

Glenn Close plays Joan of Arc's mother, Isabelle — a strong, steely, loving woman — in Jane Anderson's new play, Mother of the Maid, now at New York's Public Theater through Dec. 23. The show also stars Grace van Patten (as Joan) and Dermot Crowley (as Joan's father).

"I'd never been asked to play a 15th-century peasant woman," Close says. "So I knew it was going to be a challenge."

She (and her dog) spoke with NPR about playing mom to a teen visionary.


Interview Highlights

On the background reading she did for the role

I was fascinated by the research I did, and kind of amazed by how little I knew about Joan. There are some wonderful, wonderful books out there. The one that really astounded me was a translation from French – I'm ashamed that I don't remember the woman's name [likely Regine Pernoud] — but it's all the interviews they did for Joan's [posthumous] second trial, where they overturned her first, very rigged trial. ...

Her mother actually testified in front of the pope. And the last line of the play, "I had a daughter once," was from one of the things that Isabelle Arc said. Anyway, I can go on and on 'cause I did a lot of reading about it. There's a wonderful book called The Waning of the Middle Ages that brilliantly describes what darkness was like, what sounds were like, the fact that with much fewer social strictures, people had more child-like reactions to things. You know, it's fascinating.

On Isabelle realizing that she can't protect Joan

That's another reason why I wanted to do this play, because I think in the world today there are a lot of mothers who can't protect their children. And I think as a parent, it's the most agonizing thing you can go through.

On Isabelle's role in creating both the person and historical figure of Joan of Arc

Yes, and I think that the fascinating thing about Joan that you read from people who grew up with her [is] that she was an exceptional child. And the thing that I loved about all the firsthand accounts was how often they used the word "gladly." She gladly worked in the field, she gladly went to confession, she gladly helped her mother weave. So that to me means there is somebody who had a life force, who had a positive — who looked out on the world positively.

But I think her mother — lived to be 80. She went and pled her daughter's case in front of the pope. That's an exceptional woman too. You don't — a peasant, uneducated ... she taught herself how to read ... So that is an exceptional woman. And so somewhere in Joan was aspects of her mother, yes.

On her own dog, Pip

We have backstage here a wonderful green room with three big sofas. And he just — he knows the drill. He knows by the sound of the applause coming over the system that it's intermission, and he'll come and wait at the door. So sweet! And he just brings so much happiness into the building.

On how theater "keeps her in the game"

Absolutely. The game for me is honing my craft even more. And it's joyous for me, and it's problematic — you have to solve a lot of problems of timing, of diction, of movement, of thought. That if you aren't clear in a thought, the audience isn't going to be clear on a thought. It's immediate, of the moment. It's creating a community in real time that's experiencing the same thing. And it can be electric. And I think in a world where we're getting more and more inured to whatever is stimulating or not stimulating us, to go into a room and be told a story, and to be able to react on a human level, altogether is a very comforting and powerful thing.

Sarah Handel and Ed McNulty produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Joan of Arc has become such an emblematic figure - a saint of the Catholic Church, the inspiration of so many novels and films and, of course, George Bernard Shaw's iconic play. We might sometimes forget she was a real teenage girl who was burned at the stake in 1431. She did farm work, and she had parents who loved her and were with her until her end. Glenn Close plays Joan of Arc's mother Isabelle - a strong, steely loving woman - in Jane Anderson's new play, "Mother of the Maid," now at New York's Public Theater.

GLENN CLOSE: (As character) Isabelle's grateful to have a daughter as healthy and hearty as her Joan. She's grateful for her sons, who are healthy and hearty as well. She's grateful that the English haven't slaughtered them all, like they did the LeBecks. Nancy LeBeck was Isabelle's best friend. They gossiped and laughed while they spun. Isabelle badly misses her friend. And, sometimes, she wishes her Joan would be a little more chatty.

I'd never been asked to play a 15th-century peasant woman, so I knew it was going to be a challenge.

SIMON: A 15th-century woman who doesn't like that term peasant, as we learn in the play, and when she's called that by French nobility.

CLOSE: Oh, yes. Well, she says that they're poor.

SIMON: It's refreshing, among other things in this play, to see Joan as a real teenager, willful, moody. Nowadays, she'd be checking Instagram. Do you think Isabelle believes in her daughter's visions, or she just loves and accepts her?

CLOSE: The way I'm playing Isabelle is that she thinks it's just a phase. But when it comes back that the bishop believes her - bishops were like kings back then - that Isabelle, who was, on record, an extremely religious woman - that she then believes as well. And she has to believe that the saints and God will protect her daughter.

SIMON: Is this a role where - you researched or you one of those actors who says, just show me the lines? I'll put it all...

CLOSE: No, I was fascinated by the research I did and kind of amazed how little I really knew about Joan. There's some wonderful, wonderful books out there. What - the one that really astounded me was a translation from French. I'm ashamed that I don't remember the woman's name, but it's all the interviews they did for Joan's second trial, where they overturned her first very rigged trial.

SIMON: And this is where her mother...

CLOSE: Her mother - yes...

SIMON: ...Walked all the way to Paris.

CLOSE: Her mother - yup - actually testified in front of the pope. And the last line of the play, I had a daughter once, was from one of the things that Isabelle Arc said. Anyway, I can go on and on because I did a lot of reading about it. There's a wonderful book called "The Waning Of The Middle Ages" that brilliantly describes what darkness was like, what sounds were like, the fact that with much fewer social strictures, people had more kind of childlike reactions to things, you know? It's fascinating.

SIMON: Is Isabelle torn between the mother's instinct to protect her child and a mother's knowledge that, at some point, you can't protect your child?

CLOSE: Absolutely. And that's another reason why I wanted to do this play because I think, in the world today, there are a lot of mothers who can't protect their children. And I think, as a parent, it's the most agonizing thing you can go through.

SIMON: I had a real emotional reaction seeing your play, the scenes where Joan meets her fate. I'll put it that way. And, of course, in Shaw's play - which I'm sure you would agree is great - she - Joan is confident, determined and spiritual and faithful and resigned. But that's not the way we see Joan with her mother, is it?

CLOSE: No.

SIMON: That's...

CLOSE: And, in reality, when you read the eyewitnesses of her horrible journey to the stake, she was desperately afraid. She was crying and crying out to Jesus. And can you imagine how terrifying? She was only 19 years old.

SIMON: I didn't know about Isabelle until I - confess - entered the public theater, or she just - she'd just been a reference that I had seen. You see the play, you understand in many ways the figure that we now identify as Joan of Arc, we have to thank her mother, Isabelle, for. And I just don't mean by giving birth and giving her a loving childhood. I mean by putting her name into the history books.

CLOSE: Yes. I - and I think that the fascinating thing about Joan that you read from people who grew up with her - that she was an exceptional child. And the thing that I loved about all the first-hand accounts was how often they used the word gladly. She gladly worked in the field. She gladly went to confession. She gladly helped her mother. We - so that, to me, means there is somebody who had a life force, who had - who was a positive who looked at - out in the world, positively. But I think her mother lived to be 80. She went and pled her daughter's case in front of the pope. That's an exceptional woman, too. You don't - a peasant, uneducated, and she learned herself - she taught herself how to read...

SIMON: You're talking like the play.

CLOSE: Yeah (laughter).

SIMON: Yeah.

CLOSE: So that is an exceptional woman. And so somewhere in Joan was aspects of her mother, yes.

SIMON: This is not the most important question I've ever asked. Your dog, Pip...

CLOSE: Yeah. Of course, it's important.

SIMON: Well, maybe it is the most important question then - has joined us in the studio. Pip seems to go everywhere with you, right? He was at the theater with you....

CLOSE: He does, yes.

SIMON: He's at dinner with you.

CLOSE: Yes (laughter).

SIMON: Does he ever - backstage, does he ever make his presence known?

CLOSE: Very rarely. We have backstage here a wonderful green room with three big sofas. And he just - he knows the drill. He knows by the sound of the applause coming over the system that it's intermission, and he'll come and wait at the door. So sweet. And he just brings so much happiness into the building.

SIMON: Is live theatre something that keeps you in the game?

CLOSE: Absolutely. The game, for me, is honing my craft even more. And it's joyous for me, and it's problematic. You have to solve a lot of problems of timing, of diction, of movement, of thought that - if you weren't clear in a thought, the audience isn't going to be clear on a thought. It's immediate, of the moment. It's creating a community in real time that's experiencing the same thing, and it can be electric. And I think in a world where we're getting more and more inured to whatever's stimulating or not stimulating us, to go into a room and to be told a story and and to be able to react on a human level, altogether, is a very comforting and powerful thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF STORY OF M SONG, "JOAN OF ARC")

SIMON: Glenn Close in "Mother Of The Maid" now at New York's Public Theater. She's also in the new film "The Wife."

(SOUNDBITE OF STORY OF M SONG, "JOAN OF ARC") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.