Henri-René Lenormand’s artistic development drew much inspiration from his father, René, who was a composer. The work of both father and son was often unappreciated, especially by art patrons who were suspicious of the avant-garde.
Henri-René was an only child, born, raised, and educated in Paris, although he and his family spent considerable leisure time in the Norman countryside. Later, Lenormand traveled frequently and widely, visiting, either alone or with family, such places as Scotland, Polynesia, Russia, the United States, and Holland. These travels apparently made him sensitive to a kind of moral and cultural relativism.
Lenormand received his early education at the prestigious Lycée Janson Sailly. He went on to earn a degree in English literature from the Sorbonne, but he was greatly influenced by readings in other literatures as well—especially the works of Friedrich Nietzsche, Edgar Allan Poe, Fyodor Dostoevski, and later Swedish playwright August Strindberg and Austrian psychologist Sigmund Freud. These writers’ ideas heightened Lenormand’s tendency to somber moods and thoughts and enhanced his notions, stimulated by travel and introspection, that some men are intellectually and morally superior to others—and therefore have greater moral freedom.
In 1905, Lenormand published a collection of stories and a play, La Folie blanche. Although he later published a bit more fiction, he soon committed himself to writing for theater. He married actress Marie Kalff in 1911 and was drafted into the army in 1915 but was deemed physically unfit (because of dysentery). He spent most of the years between 1915 and 1920 in Switzerland trying to regain his health. Here, he wrote most of the plays that were produced in Paris soon after the war. By 1924, he had established a worldwide reputation and oversaw productions of his plays in several countries.
He became active in movements against censorship of the arts, which had affected some of his works. As Lenormand grew older, his life and his ideas became darker and reflected personal and professional disillusionment. For example, his marriage was not stable, and he was apprehensive about the threat that cinema presented for the theater. He produced no plays after 1938, turned to teaching (he taught in the United States for a time), and died in 1951—having devoted several years to writing his memoirs.