“I have no biography,” wrote Jean-Marie-Lucien-Pierre Anouilh around the age of thirty-five to one of his earliest critics, “and am quite pleased not to have any.” Going on to sketch in such bare essentials as a year of law school and two years in advertising, with some desultory work in films, Anouilh observed that he had discovered the theater at an early age and had fortunately (he claimed) never had to resort to journalism. Thus did Anouilh drape about his life a screen of privacy that more or less protected him for the rest of his life. To an even greater degree than in the case of most prolific authors, Anouilh’s work was his life, and vice versa.
Anouilh’s “life in the theater” began in late 1929 or early 1930, when he succeeded the scenarist and playwright Georges Neveux as secretary to the eminent director Louis Jouvet, who had “discovered” and developed the playwriting talents of Jean Giraudoux, by then France’s most eminent dramatist. Almost at once, Anouilh began to try his hand at writing plays, initially without much success; later he withdrew certain of his early efforts from circulation, and they remain to this day in a limbo perhaps well deserved. One of the few anecdotes attaching itself to the playwright’s early life holds that on Anouilh’s marriage in 1932 to the actress Monelle Valentin, Jouvet “gave” the young couple some opulent stage properties left over from his production of Giraudoux’s...
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Active as a dramatist for fully half a century, Jean Anouilh (a-noo-ee) arguably is the best known and most performed French playwright of his generation, his work often straddling (and sometimes crossing) the traditional French boundary that separates literary from commercial theater. Pessimistic in their outlook, often dazzling in their presentation, Anouilh’s plays were almost always memorable, notable for their consummate “theatricality.” Initially recognized and hailed as a “serious” playwright, Anouilh went on to disappoint many of his earliest supporters by appealing to a wider, less sophisticated audience. Anouilh’s work also frequently drew controversy because of the author’s implied conviction that his art was somehow above politics. Notwithstanding, a number of Anouilh’s plays remain in the worldwide dramatic repertory.
Jean-Marie-Lucien-Pierre Anouilh was born June 23, 1910, in Cérisole, near Bordeaux, on the Atlantic coast of France. His father was a tailor, his mother a violinist of presumably modest talent who often played in hotel and casino orchestras. Notoriously secretive about his private life, the mature Anouilh once claimed that he had “no biography” and was most pleased not to have any. It is clear in any case that Anouilh was attracted to plays and playwriting from adolescence onward. Completing his secondary education in Paris, Anouilh befriended the future director Jean-Louis Barrault, a classmate at the Collège Chaptal; after a year and a half of law school, he worked briefly as a copywriter for an advertising agency, earning extra money writing jokes for motion pictures as he attempted to write plays. In 1931 he succeeded the playwright and scenarist Georges Neveux as secretary to the eminent director Louis Jouvet, who had fostered and developed the playwriting talents of Jean Giraudoux, at the time France’s leading playwright and in many ways Anouilh’s immediate professional ancestor. It was during his brief tenure with Jouvet that Anouilh wrote The Ermine, produced early in 1932 to mixed but generally favorable reviews.
A few lesser plays followed. It was Traveller Without Luggage, written during 1936 and performed the following spring, that first established...
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