The plays action begins in a room in Vaucouleurs, the castle of Captain Robert de Baudricourt, military commander, in the spring of 1429. Baudricourt is berating one of his servants, who has just informed him that there are no fresh eggs to be had that morning. Baudricourt is convinced that someone, perhaps this servant himself, has stolen the hens-as well as the cows, for there was no fresh milk to be had the day before. The servant informs Baudricourt that, on the contrary, the cows have stopped giving milk and the hens have stopped laying eggs ever since the captain refused to grant an audience to “The Maid.” The girl is still at the castle, still insistent upon seeing Baudricourt. “She is so positive,” the servant says of her, noting that all the captains host are encouraged by her. Exasperated at the girls stubbornness, Baudricourt summons her to him.
“The Maid” is, of course, Joan. Immediately upon meeting Baudricourt, she asks him to supply her with a horse, armor, and troops for a military expedition to Orleans, where the Dauphin (a title for the eldest son of the King of France or heir to the throne; in this context, the future King Charles VII) is being besieged by the invading English armies, thus being kept from assuming the throne. Baudricourt is shocked by her plans; he is even more shocked when the girl tells him that her plan is actually the will of God. She tells him she has already secured the aid of Bertrand de Poulengey (whom she casually calls “Polly”) and John of Metz (whom she similarly calls “Jack”), as well as other soldiers and servants of Baudricourt.
Still astonished, Baudricourt dismisses Joan and summons de Poulengey. He questions him about Joan. He suspects “Polly” of harboring untoward intentions toward the young lady. Polly insists that there is nothing improper about his interest in Joan. “There is something about her,” he tells Baudricourt, pointing out that Joan has inspired hope in French soldiers when neither the Dauphin nor La Hire, one of his military commanders, can. He wonders if supporting Joan in her quest to rid France of its English invaders, and to see Charles crowned as king, may not simply be the most practical course of action. Polly calls Joan “the last card left in our hand. Better play her than throw up the game.” When Baudricourt questions Joans sanity, Polly only replies, “We want a few mad people now. See where the sane ones have landed us!”
After a further interview with Joan, Baudricourt-seemingly, hardly able to believe it himself-agrees to give the Maid his support. He warns her that defeating the English will be more difficult than she expects, but Joan is confident that she will be able to beat the “goddams,” as the English soldiers are called: “One thousand like me can stop them. Ten like me can stop them with God on our side.” She says she will teach them that they belong in England, just as the French belong in France. As Joan departs, Baudricourts servant returns to make the unexpected report, “The hens are laying lie mad, sir.” Baudricourt can only conclude, “She did come from God.”
Scene I presents, on a small scale, many of the themes that will occupy the play on a larger scale by its conclusion. For example, much of what seemingly persuades Baudricourt to support Joan is her appeal to nationalism. Recall that, in the preface, Shaw called Joan an early advocate of nationalism, a social and intellectual movement that, by definition, undercuts all claims to catholicity (or universality), including any claims of a “catholic” Church. Nationalism cannot be catholic; it is particular and specific. As Joan says, “God made [the English] just like us; but He gave them their own country and their own language.” Nationalism also stands in contrast to medieval feudalism: instead of vassals owing loyalty to their feudal masters, people now owe loyalty to their country, their nation. Joan summarizes the position nationalism occupies between feudalism and catholicism when she states, “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.”
The first scene also loudly announces Shaws theme of the salvific nature of imagination. Even the description Shaw gives of Joan in his stage directions heralds this theme: Joans “eyes [are] very wide apart and bulging as they often do in very imaginative people”-and also, doubtless, indicative of her status as a “Galtonic visualizer” (see Shaws preface). While de Poulengey does not give credence to Joans reports of visions of and conversations with the saints, he cannot deny the practical effects her inspiration and motivation are having on French soldiers. He cannot deny, “There is something about the girl.” As Shaw said in the preface, the truth of the visions does not have to be granted in order to grant the truth of the visions outcomes, or the commonsense appeal of Joans policies and goals. “Her words and her ardent faith,” says Polly, “have put fire into me”-and that fire is exactly what the French need in their current situation. Imagination-the ability to see more and to see truly than others-will be the key to Frances salvation from English domination. Joan herself puts it plainly: when Baudricourt says, accusingly, that the voices she hears conveying Gods will come from her imagination, she replies with great assurance, “Of course. That is how the messages of God come to us.” The playwrights unspoken warning is: Let those who ignore the divine message mediated through imagination beware! The rest of the play will show who is able to respond, and who is not, and what eventually happens to each.