Jean Anouilh Biography

Jean Anouilh was both an optimist and a pessimist. More than anything else, his works are characterized by those two extremes, which are often placed in direct conflict with each other in his plays. His most famous work is Antigone, written in 1942 as a response to the Second World War. In it, Anouilh takes the structure of the classic Greek tragedy and creates a modern parallel about the struggles of man against the state. The lack of gray area may have prevented his works from being fully appreciated during his lifetime, but the reputation of his plays has grown in the last three decades. And why not? Anouilh’s stories are about individuals who represent hope, beauty, love, and faith in the face of oppressive, often insurmountable forces.

Facts and Trivia

  • Before finding success as a writer, Anouilh studied (and later abandoned) law and had a brief career in advertising.
  • Anouilh attended secondary school at the College Chaptal, where one of his classmates was French actor-director Jean-Louis Barrault.
  • Despite his current reputation, many of Anouilh’s early plays bombed. It took nearly a decade of writing dramas before he crafted what some believe to be his masterpiece, Antigone.
  • Anouilh’s difficult personality often put him at odds with other artists and luminaries. His adversarial nature truncated his brief working relationship with French theatrical legend Louis Jouvet.
  • Anouilh was fond of grouping his plays according to colors (often evoking central themes or genres). He even created a separate category for his failed works.

Biography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 924

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...

(The entire section contains 924 words.)

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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 Anouilh as a major playwriting talent. Based in part upon real news stories, drawing also upon Giraudoux’s Siegfried (pr. 1928) and upon the Oedipus legend, Traveller Without Luggage proved to be an effective blend of comic and tragic elements, with a number of memorable scenes. It also continued Anouilh’s presentation of themes such as the impossibility of true love or friendship and the ironic contrast between the real and the ideal in life as it apparently must be lived. Though far from original, Anouilh’s characteristic themes escaped banality through the author’s lightness of touch, infused by an instinctive sense of theater worthy of Molière or William Shakespeare.

With the success of Thieves’ Carnival, followed by that of Dinner with the Family, two distinctly comic efforts, Anouilh proceeded to advance his own case with nontraditional classifications of his plays as they began to appear in print. In place of the traditional “tragedy” or “comedy,” Anouilh’s efforts were billed as “black” plays or “pink” plays, later to be augmented by “shining” and “secret” plays. Besides calling attention to the playwright’s professed originality, such classifications served to underscore his deep conviction, amply expressed within the plays themselves, that such concepts as tragedy and comedy were quite unthinkable in a world increasingly devoid of meaning. Accordingly, the “black” plays contain many comic moments, and the “pink” plays, although humorous, remain haunted by the author’s chronic pessimism.

Antigone, written and first performed during the Nazi occupation of Paris, brought true fame to Anouilh even as it embroiled him in extreme controversy. Like Giraudoux and many other, lesser French playwrights of the interwar and wartime years, Anouilh here used the characters and structure of Greek myth toward the expression of contemporary concerns. The third of his “black” plays, Antigone presents a heroine who proceeds toward her death without illusions, sheer obstinacy replacing the faith of her Greek model. Creon, meanwhile, emerges as a tough-minded pragmatist obliged by his position to put politics ahead of personal concerns. Although quite consistent with Anouilh’s earlier portrayals of the conflict between the ideal and the real, Antigone gave rise to vigorous criticism from those who saw the play as political allegory tilted toward the Vichy government, presumably symbolized in Creon. Anouilh, meanwhile, claimed total disinterest in politics, a most difficult position to maintain under the circumstances.

In addition to provoking political controversy, Antigone served to focus attention, perhaps inappropriately, upon Anouilh as a serious, thought-provoking playwright whose works might be considered alongside those of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, both intellectuals who had turned to the theater in order to express their ideas. Anouilh, who had never sought to write anything but playable theater, no doubt felt miscast in such company and during the decade that followed World War II seems to have gone out of his way to distance himself from the “thinker-playwrights” with increasingly spectacular, at times unabashedly commercial efforts.

During the last quarter-century of his life and career, Anouilh tended to turn out episodic, quasi-autobiographical plays of the sort associated in the United States with Neil Simon, participating increasingly in the planning and execution of their production. Even amid widespread disenchantment with the course that his career had taken, Anouilh’s plays continued to attract audiences and occasional favorable criticism. Among his more remarkable later efforts was The Arrest, dealing with the “total recall” of an aging, dying gangster. The play’s debut coincided with a memorable Paris revival of Anouilh’s Antigone.

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