Jean Anouilh Essay - Critical Essays


The young Jean Anouilh arrived in Paris during one of the richest periods of French dramatic activity since the seventeenth century. Recently rescued from the commercial doldrums by a “Cartel” of four brilliant directors, infused with new life from abroad (German expressionism and the ground-breaking work of Luigi Pirandello, French drama in the late 1920’s and the early 1930’s enjoyed a genuine renaissance. Jean Giraudoux, previously known as a diplomat and a rather esoteric novelist, was charming even the crowds with his ethereal yet somehow earthy speculations on politics and love, joining such established talents as the Freudian Henri-René Lenormand, the neo-Shakespearean Jean Sarment, and the highly inventive Armand Salacrou, who was just then beginning to hit his stride as a singular interpreter of life as lived in a world of broken (and inevitably breakable) dreams. Receptive to such influences, Anouilh soon joined his perceptions to his innate sense of theater to forge a dramatic style that was uniquely and unmistakably his own, very much of its time yet destined, at its best, to prove timeless. Today, only the work of Giraudoux has achieved anything even approaching the staying power of Anouilh’s finest efforts. Salacrou, at one time Anouilh’s closest competitor, fell far behind him during the postwar years and never managed to regain his stride. Sarment and Lenormand, even their best works now hopelessly dated, are all but forgotten except by students of the interwar French theater.

To a large degree, the abiding strength of Anouilh’s dramaturgy resides in its basic theatricality, a polyvalent sense of play and playing that recalls and renews the most playful moments in the works of Molière and William Shakespeare. In the words of critic John Harvey, Anouilh discovered the secret early in his career, after The Ermine, when he ceased “toiling” at his material and began “toying” with it instead.

The Ermine, although the first of Anouilh’s plays to attract widespread recognition, is perhaps the least innovative in its presentation, its originality residing primarily in Anouilh’s announcement and treatment of themes that would soon come to characterize his theater. Cast in a naturalistic mold, The Ermine contrasts the wealthy Monime with the underprivileged, ambitious Frantz, who will stop at nothing, even murder, in order to win her hand. Monime, however, does not decide that she loves Frantz until after he has claimed responsibility for the crime and turned himself in to the authorities. Such hopelessness, usually polarized between rich and poor, would continue to haunt Anouilh’s would-be lovers throughout the rest of his career as a playwright.

Although the masterful Thieves’ Carnival had already been written by the winter of 1936-1937, it was Traveller Without Luggage, produced during that season by the illustrious Pitoëffs (Georges and Ludmilla), that truly secured Anouilh’s reputation as a dramatist. In total control of his material for the first time, Anouilh moves deftly and playfully between satiric farce and near-tragedy only to conclude, with a self-mocking coup de théâtre at the end, that the concept of tragedy has long since outlived its usefulness. A similar undercutting of tragedy characterizes Anouilh’s memorable treatment of time-honored classical themes in Antigone, whose heroine consciously gives her life in vain. Both plays, however, were among the first to be classified by their author under the heading of “black” plays, perhaps because they are too bleak and pessimistic to be considered wholly tragic.

Closely related to the “black” plays are the early “pink” plays, ostensible comedies in which, as the author has observed, there are nevertheless woven fine strands of black. Even when cast in the comic mode, Anouilh’s personal vision remains profoundly pessimistic, hinting at the corrosive effects of life-as-lived and the frequently intolerable burdens of the past. Dinner with the Family, about a married man who rents a house for one evening and hires actors to represent his family in order to impress his would-be second mistress (or wife), is at once the most frankly theatrical and the most successful of the pink plays and remains one of Anouilh’s finest achievements.

Owing mainly to the resonant, if ambivalent, success of his Antigone, Anouilh in the 1940’s acquired a reputation as a “writer-thinker” whose plays merited serious evaluation for their “ideas” alongside the works of such consciously philosophical dramatists as Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre. Anouilh, who had never made any claim to writing anything but playable theater, was miscast in such company, and his “ideas,” in consequence, were frequently found wanting. His strongest plays, however, do express a worldview by no means incompatible with Sartre’s existentialism or Camus’s speculations on the Absurd. Like Sartre, Anouilh presents characters “in situation” and totally at the mercy of their own actions, with no deity available to rescue them (except in the most blatantly contrived of self-consciously theatrical situations). Long since corrupted by conflicting interests recalling those of Sartre’s bourgeois salauds, the world inhabited by Anouilh’s characters is a disquieting place, with communication among mortals (let alone love) as impossible as in Sartre’s Huis clos (1944; No Exit, 1946), and for most of the same reasons. Dehumanized by poverty, conditioned by their aspirations to expect a world of satisfactions that simply does not exist, the have-nots among Anouilh’s characters, spiritual descendants of Frantz in The Ermine, experience an awareness of the Absurd not unlike that of the murderous Martha in Camus’s Le Malentendu (1944; The Misunderstanding, 1948).

Anouilh’s work, however, differs profoundly from that of Sartre and Camus in that ideas are secondary in importance to the prime value of dramatic art; never presented solely on their own merits, the ideas to be found in Anouilh’s theater are of interest to the author only insofar as they help him to present, or the audience to understand, the motivation of his characters. It is therefore more than a bit hyperbolic to see in Antigone, as did a number of commentators at the time, a reactionary counterpoise to the existentialist, politically liberal stance of Sartre’s Les Mouches (1943; The Flies, 1946). Given Anouilh’s lack of religious belief, it is wholly natural that Antigone be disabused of the faith that supposedly motivates her actions, just as the “sainthood” of Becket in Anouilh’s later play will be attributed to wholly aesthetic, nonreligious, and “human” standards of behavior. A number of critics also erred in their assumption that Creon, the pragmatist, emerges somehow as the hero of Antigone; there are simply no heroes in Anouilh’s theatrical universe, and the playwright’s main point throughout the play is to stress the eventual futility of all human action.

During the years following World War II, Anouilh expanded his repertory to include such new categories as the “shining” or “brilliant” (Pièces brillantes), “grating” (Pièces grinçantes), and quasi-historical (Pièces costumées) plays. An offshoot of the prewar Pièces roses, or pink plays, the Pièces brillantes offer a particularly sophisticated form of satiric comedy, or comic satire; in the view of critic Lewis Falb, the plays resemble the diamonds recalled in their title in that they are sparkling, many-faceted, yet cold and hard at the center. Perhaps best known of the Pièces brillantes is Ring Round the Moon. Recalling the ludic wit of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest: A Trivial Comedy for Serious People (pr. 1895), Ring Round the Moon features twin brothers intended to be played by the same actor, with split-second entries and exits. Also notable among the “brilliant” plays are The Rehearsal and Mademoiselle Colombe.

Trenchant social satire, never far from the surface in any of Anouilh’s plays, rises to a featured position in the “grating” plays, presumably so named because they are designed to set one’s teeth on edge. Featuring intentionally disagreeable characters often presented in broad caricature, the “grating” plays recall such early “black” plays as The Ermine and Restless Heart in their treatment of the necessary compromise between aspirations and reality. Ardèle and The Waltz of the Toreadors, linked by common featured characters, are perhaps the most notable of the earlier grating plays; others include Ornifle, a generally weak reworking of the Don Juan theme, and Poor Bitos, a biting political satire juxtaposing World War II and the French Revolution. Anouilh’s finest plays during the 1950’s, however, were two of his somewhat misnamed “costume” plays, historical at least in setting, which are about as close as he ever came to writing true “plays of ideas.” Both The Lark and Becket remain thought-provoking as well as highly playable, inviting the audience to speculate on what might have been going on in the characters’ minds as they performed the actions now duly recorded in the pages of history.

Like Albert Camus in his Caligula (wr. 1938-1939, pb. 1944; English translation, 1948), Anouilh made no claim to a faithful re-creation of history, or even to writing “historical” plays. As with Camus, history serves as little more than a pretext—a fecund source of potentially fascinating theatrical characters. Earlier in his career, Anouilh, like Giraudoux and several others just before him, had appropriated the characters and setting of classical mythology to make some very contemporary theatrical statements, of which Antigone is the best; during the 1950’s, history came to serve him much as mythology had done earlier. Devoid of faith and admittedly uncomfortable with the concept of sainthood, Anouilh in The Lark and Becket revisits the lives of two saints in order to present them in wholly human terms. As seen by Anouilh, Joan of Arc and Thomas à Becket are heroic figures, high-principled to be sure, but hardly otherworldly. Joan, offered a reprieve, pragmatically chooses martyrdom in order to provide a shining example for posterity; Thomas, denied the consolation of true belief, has adopted instead an aesthetic standard of behavior that dictates that he do the best possible job at whatever he is supposed to do, even at the cost of his life. Remarkable in their affirmation of basic human dignity, The Lark and Becket remain among the finest of Anouilh’s efforts, equal or superior in vigor to such comparable efforts as Maxwell Anderson’s Joan of Lorraine (pr., pb. 1946) or T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral (pr., pb. 1935).

Some ten years after the success of Becket, Anouilh resumed work on a new cycle of “grating” plays that he had in fact begun even before Becket with The Fighting Cock, the latter a dark-edged comedy satirizing, among other things, the “postmodern” drama of Samuel Beckett, Eugène Ionesco, and the early Arthur Adamov. By the late 1960’s, however, Anouilh had himself assimilated many of the perspectives and techniques of the newer dramatists and had begun incorporating them into his own work. Les Poissons rouges, generally considered to be the finest play in the new cycle, dispenses with chronology in order to present various stages in the protagonist’s life, all compressed into the space of one particularly trying day. A parallel cycle of “baroque” plays, often featuring some of the same characters, has proved somewhat less successful, but the strongest of them, such as Dear Antoine, have been well received in production.

Traveller Without Luggage

Frankly derived from such sources as Giraudoux’s Siegfried, which deals with an amnesiac veteran of World War I, and Jean Cocteau’s La Machine infernale (1934; The Infernal Machine, 1936), a playful reworking of the Oedipus legend, Traveller Without Luggage nevertheless served notice of a new and highly innovative talent. Gleefully exploiting the conventions and resources of the stage, at times assuming the spectator’s familiarity with his obvious sources, the young Anouilh both charmed and disconcerted his audiences by proving, at least in theatrical terms, that there is in life no problem too large to run away from.

In skillful parody of the Oedipus legend, Anouilh presented as his protagonist an amnesiac veteran known only as “Gaston,” who is presumably in search of his own identity. Unlike Oedipus, however, Gaston will resolutely—and successfully—turn his back on the overwhelming evidence at hand.

Institutionalized for eighteen years since the Armistice, Gaston has been interviewed by nearly three hundred families in search of a missing son or brother, and even as he meets with the prosperous, respectable Georges Renaud, there are supposedly five or six other families just offstage, eagerly awaiting their turn. Considerable tension soon develops between the mounting evidence that Georges Renaud has at last found his brother Jacques and Gaston’s increasing revulsion against the character of Jacques as revealed. Jacques, it seems, was for the eighteen known years of his life a most disagreeable fellow who shot birds out of trees, crippled his best friend by pushing him down a flight of stairs, and eventually slept with his brother’s wife. In further parody of the Oedipus material, Gaston keeps asking questions in relentless pursuit of the hideous truth; quite unlike Oedipus, however, he will feel no constraint to live with what he has learned. Over the years, Gaston has apparently envisioned himself as a tabula rasa about to acquire the imprint of a joyous childhood, and he will certainly not stop now. Ironically, the cold obstinacy with which Gaston refuses to accept his identity amply proves, to the satisfaction of both the audience and his fellow characters, that he is in fact Jacques Renaud.

Crucial to the developing action is the figure of Georges Renaud’s wife, Valentine, whose abiding love for the seemingly unlovable Jacques has survived the eighteen years of his absence. Anticipating by several weeks her husband’s planned interview with the “living unknown soldier,” Valentine entered the asylum disguised as a laundress, and...

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