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.


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“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.

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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 Siegfried (pr., pb. 1928; English translation, 1930) to furnish their otherwise bare apartment; not too long thereafter, with Siegfried scheduled for revival, Anouilh and his wife returned home to find their flat stripped clean of furniture. Anouilh, meanwhile, was beginning to attract favorable attention with his attempts at playwriting; a sale of film rights to Hollywood around 1934 proved sufficient to assure his financial independence—despite the fact that the play, Y avait un prisonnier, was never filmed and has since been repudiated by its author.

Following the runaway success of Traveller Without Luggage in 1937, Anouilh settled into the life of the professional playwright. Divorced from Monelle Valentin, who had borne him one child, Anouilh around 1953 married an actress known professionally as Charlotte Chardon, with whom he had three more children....

(The entire section contains 2442 words.)

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