Anouilh, Jean (Vol. 13)
Anouilh, Jean 1910–
A French dramatist, screenwriter, editor, and translator, Anouilh has written plays ranging from tragedy (pièces noires), to sophisticated comedy (pièces roses), to art for art's sake (pièces brillantes), to black humor (pièces grinçantes). He often uses idealistic heroes and heroines whose romantic dreams are contrasted with harsh reality. Several of his plays have been drawn from history for the modern theater; most notably L'alouette, based on Joan of Arc's life, and Becket. His satiric Pauvre Bitos mocks a Liberation magistrate as the revolutionary Robespierre. Antigone, his most popular play, is based on classical mythology. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed.)
Leonard Cabell Pronko
Anouilh's view of life and man's place in the universe has remained essentially unchanged throughout his career. The later plays clarify and elaborate upon ideas presented in the early ones. To be sure, there is a certain development and a shift in focus as the author matures. But it is noteworthy that Anouilh's basic concepts are present from the beginning and have not changed fundamentally in the course of almost thirty years. If this has led to some degree of repetition, it is to be regretted, but that very repetition tends to give a certain unity to Anouilh's theater. He has developed what we might call a personal mythology, composed of characters, situations, and language which are peculiar to his world and reflect effectively his view of life.
The development of Anouilh's themes makes it possible to divide the plays into several periods, based upon fundamental similarities among the plays of the various groups. (pp. 3-4)
The plays of the first group—those written during the thirties—stress the plight of man trying to escape from his past, sometimes succeeding but more often than not, failing. (p. 4)
The real drama of L'hermine, as in every one of Anouilh's serious plays, lies in the conflict between the hero's inner world and the exterior world he faces. The latter imposes upon him certain conditions that he feels are diametrically opposed to the person he considers himself to be....
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The controversies which arise about [Jean Anouilh's] plays stem from the fact that he escapes clear-cut identification. This is due not to obscurity in his oeuvre or deviousness on his part but simply to the Protean aspect of his plays. They are variations on given themes, and as such they give the impression that they constitute contradictions. This apparent inconsistency may originate in the ambiguous behavior of the protagonists. But it is simply a fact of life that ambiguity is an integral component of man's plight in relation to himself and others; thus to ask that an image of man be in clear and unambiguous focus is to ask for comforting falsehood. Besides, if man is a "disconsolate but gay animal," as Anouilh asserts, won't he be a paradox to himself?
The isolated works of some authors give evidence of those authors' characteristics, but a particular play of Anouilh reveals at best only a few elements of his work, never his total make-up. Any one of his plays can only be judged as one hue in the spectrum of his oeuvre. It is interesting to discover that a reading of all of Anouilh's plays reveals a yearning on the author's part to treat each piece as a step in a progression. This interpretation is supported by the presence in newer plays of lines quoted from preceding plays. And as one notes in novels of Balzac or Faulkner, mere names in earlier parts of Anouilh's work appear as full-fledged characters in later...
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A mainspring of Jean Anouilh's work has been a savage indictment of society, despite his belonging to the political right (although there is, to be sure, the phenomenon of right-wing anarchism). His work has had an abundance and diversity that puts it in the first rank. Anouilh was famous before the war for L'hermine (1931, The Ermine), Le voyageur sans bagage (1936, Traveler without Luggage), and La sauvage (1934, The Savage). In these, the Anouilh hero, obsessed by youthful idealism and rejecting the compromises of ordinary life, appeared in various guises. Antigone gave the Anouilh hero (or heroine, in this case) the prestige of an ancient myth. Creon, who accepts the demands society makes on the individual, is not an entirely contemptible figure, but the play is naturally dominated by Antigone herself, whose unreasonable behavior is seen as reasonable.
This conflict (close to the one we find in Montherlant) between personal purity and the demands of society tended, after the war, to disappear in Anouilh's work in favor of a savage pessimism that rejected any alternative. His early division of his plays into the pièces noires and the pièces roses gave way to a uniform atmosphere of sourness and asperity. Ardèle, ou la marguerite (1948, Ardèle, or the Daisy) was a pitiless debunking of all respectability and all enthusiasm. A sexuality of...
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[Ring Round the Moon] is a typical bittersweet Anouilh confection: a dizzy farandole laced with bitterness, sarcasm, despair, capriciously manipulated into a deliberately preposterous happy ending. It is the precise fairy-tale method: after monstrous cruelties, a magically blissful forever-after. But as Anouilh handles them, the lacerating ironies and heart-splintering witticisms are meant to remind us how painful, indeed deadly, this game would be if it were real; how grateful we must be to the theater for being merely theater. Life in this comedy is present by its absence: we are allowed to luxuriate in an elegant distaste for living that goes up in epigrammatic fireworks, in outrageous plot twists turned as anodyne as wild beasts domesticated by art. (p. 62)
John Simon, in New York Magazine (copyright © 1975 by News Group Publications, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of New York Magazine), July 21, 1975.
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John H. Stroupe
There is now general critical agreement about Anouilh's Becket. Formerly docile to the random quality of life, willing to play whatever role is offered him, without an honor of his own to value, agnostic if not atheistic, Becket determines finally to consummate his life in the role of Archbishop of Canterbury. His heightened sense of aesthetics tells him that the role he embraces to give meaning to his existence must finally protect the honor of God at all costs…. [His] is not a death which draws on adamant convictions about the truth of the church's position in the conflict. His criterion is an aesthetic view of human morality, and what gives his role authenticity, what makes its artificial behavior timelessly Becket's own behavior is his selection of death as the means to unadulterated selfhood. What has not been examined critically within the play, however, is one of the central methods by which Anouilh links the many aspects of the quarrel between church and state, between Becket and Henry: the use of continuing familial imagery. For enemies refer to each other as father, son, or brother. Members of the church deny kinship, and the parental nature of societal structures is emphasized throughout the play.
The familial strand is at its most determinate in the form of the genealogy of the two central protagonists, for it initially sets each in his place in the world. Henry, hedged around by rank, race, and ancestry, is the...
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