Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6058
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 she maneuvered the unsuspecting Gaston into an amorous encounter. Horrified to learn that he has thus been tricked, Gaston remains unmoved by Valentine’s unquestioning love and acceptance—even after the revelation that Valentine had loved Jacques first and had subsequently married his older, established brother only for reasons of financial expediency. Georges, for his part, remains understanding, perhaps even forgiving, but for Gaston that is not enough. Oddly, the affair with Valentine appears to strike him as the least forgivable of Jacques Renaud’s many recorded dastardly deeds, and he remains resolutely “pure,” indeed even priggish, in her presence. Valentine, whose love for Jacques has long since been stripped of illusions, urges Gaston to return to the human race, accepting both himself and her. As proof of his identity, she asks him to look for a scar on his back, the remnant of a lover’s quarrel shortly before Jacques’s departure for the front, when Valentine suspected Jacques of infidelity and jabbed him with a hatpin.
The device of the scar, surely the most obvious of Anouilh’s allusions to the Oedipus legend, ironically becomes the agent of Gaston’s eventual and unabashedly theatrical deliverance. The scar is there, and Gaston bursts into tears (offstage) when he sees it in the mirror, but it is not long before he craftily turns Valentine’s love against her, using the scar as evidence to “prove” that he is in fact someone else. Like the amorous female Sphinx in The Infernal Machine who has told Oedipus the answers to the riddle in the hope of winning his affections, Valentine finds herself thrust aside by the machinations of an overweening masculine ego. For Gaston, though, there will be no eventual reckoning or even recognition. In place of tragedy, Anouilh seems to be saying, there is for most people only tedium, made bearable at best by a seemingly limitless capacity for self-delusion.
The controversial ending of Traveller Without Luggage, alternately criticized or misconstrued by observers, merely suggests that modern man, his back to the wall, will either seek refuge in daydreams or lie, cheat, and steal. Gaston in effect does both, exchanging his “real” life for one chosen after his fancy. Had Anouilh sent Gaston off to a literal castle in Spain, he could hardly have made his message more explicit; the English country house with “marvelous ponies” will surely do in a pinch. Far from being “rescued” by a deus ex machina in the person of the little English boy who needs an adult “nephew” in order to claim his inheritance, Gaston has in fact chosen the thoroughly human hell of anonymity, rejecting Valentine’s promise of a life (likened to a full page of writing) “full of spots and crossed-out words, but also full of joys.” Gaston’s refuge, if such it may be called, is hardly preferable to that of the ostrich.
Nearly forty years after the first performances of Traveller Without Luggage, the play’s—or Gaston’s—basic premise was intriguingly and rather effectively questioned by Eugène Ionesco in a play suggestively titled L’Homme aux valises (pr., pb. 1975; Man with Bags, 1977). In Ionesco’s play, the anonymous protagonist trudges through at least forty years of recent history lugging two heavy suitcases that he doggedly refuses to put down for fear of losing them, and with them his identity. Oddly replicating Valentine’s appeals to Gaston, Ionesco makes the point that while identity and heredity may be cumbersome, they are all that one can confidently claim and are at the very least a point of departure for one’s actions; without them, one might as well be dead.
Curiously, the theatrical season of Man with Bags, 1975, also brought forth a new play by Anouilh titled The Arrest, itself a thought-provoking coda to Gaston’s concept of identity. Its title no doubt an intentional double entendre embracing cardiac arrest as well, The Arrest expands to two hours the final moments in the life of an aging gangster, fatally wounded in a motor accident while fleeing the police. Indebted for its structure to Salacrou’s L’Inconnue d’Arras (1935), which dramatizes the last thoughts of a suicide, The Arrest poses a new, pertinent, and most intriguing question: Is not the deepest (and most futile) human need that of being “understood”? Breathing his last, the hoodlum Frédéric Walter asks many questions about his life, and is fortunate enough to have them answered by the avuncular Inspector, who, like Victor Hugo’s Javert in Les Misérables (1862; English translation, 1862), has devoted his life’s work to learning the habits and lifestyle of one particular criminal. As Walter prepares to die, the Inspector helps him to “understand” himself far more effectively than any parent, child, wife, mistress, or psychoanalyst ever could. As the Prayer of St. Francis implies, it is far more human to seek to be understood than to understand, and Frédéric Walter is surely no saint. Unlike Gaston, however, he both seeks and finds the truth about himself in highly memorable theatrical terms.
Dinner with the Family
Written soon after Traveller Without Luggage, although not staged until some four years later, Dinner with the Family is perhaps the strongest and most memorable of Anouilh’s “pink” plays, with a highly entertaining restatement of the author’s characteristic themes.
Like Gaston of Traveller Without Luggage, Georges of Dinner with the Family longs for, and seeks to re-create, an idyllic life quite different from the one that he has found himself obliged to lead. A young man of some means, he has rented a charming country house for one evening in order to impress a young woman with whom he has fallen in love; to represent his parents, he has hired an aging actor and actress who at first appear to need a considerable amount of coaching in their roles.
As the action proceeds, the various threads of Georges’s dream begin to unravel, if never quite completely. His parents, it seems, are very much alive and very demanding of Georges’s time and money, as are his wife, Henriette, and a rather sympathetic mistress named Barbara, who happens to be the wife of Georges’s best friend, Robert. It is Barbara who precipitates much of the early action by warning Georges, in a telephone call, that Henriette has threatened to rid the house of freeloaders—his parents included—if Georges does not return at once. As in Traveller Without Luggage, considerable tension develops between the protagonist’s aspirations and the somewhat more sordid reality of his life. Georges, however, is a considerably more sympathetic character than is Jacques/Gaston; he is portrayed throughout as a fundamentally decent man whose sustained attention to the needs of other people has hampered his own emotional development.
Counterpointed by the presence of the two professional actors, who frequently offer their opinion as to how a particular scene should be played, the various levels of reality and artifice in Georges’s life remain in delicate balance throughout the play. His marriage, it seems, was arranged by his parents as a solution to their own financial woes, and they have in fact been sponging off him ever since. His wife, although she professes to love him, may well be incapable of love, and Robert (with his wife) has joined the small army of freeloaders even as he has come to envy and detest his erstwhile boyhood friend. The only sane or sympathetic character in the lot is Barbara, who loves Georges deeply and without illusion. A close spiritual descendant of Valentine Renaud, Barbara alone can see, or will admit, that Georges’s life has been nearly devoured by the demands of his family and other hangers-on; in the final analysis, she loves Georges enough to grant him his right to freedom. Isabelle, the charming young woman with whom Georges has fallen in love, may well represent his last chance to “reclaim himself,” and Barbara will not stand in his way.
Criticized in its time as false or at the very least incredible, the ending of Dinner with the Family, although frankly contrived, now seems prophetic of a later generation in which “fresh starts,” if not the rule, are at least no longer the exception. Today it seems almost plausible, if still humorous, that Georges be reunited with Isabelle for their long-delayed evening meal, sometime after which they will go off to the mountains and raise bees. Georges, in fact, may well be the first member of the dropout counterculture to have been portrayed sympathetically on the stage.
The best-known and most frequently performed of Anouilh’s many plays, rivaled only by The Lark and Becket, Antigone is certainly one of his strongest efforts, as relevant and resonant today as it was when it first appeared onstage.
Near the last in a long (and sometimes distinguished) line of French plays with a classical setting that began to appear in the late 1920’s, including Giraudoux’s Amphitryon 38 (pr., pb. 1929; English translation, 1938) and Électre (pr., pb. 1937; Electra, 1952), Antigone is an even stronger and more original play than it must at first have seemed. Understatedly theatrical in presentation, intended to be played in inconspicuous modern dress, Anouilh’s restatement of the Antigone-Creon debate remains one of the theater’s most powerful and memorable portrayals of the inevitable conflict between youth and age, between uncompromising idealism and the weathered voice of experience.
Displaying his usual sure sense of theater, Anouilh replaces the traditional Greek chorus with a single dinner-jacketed male figure, recalling the Stage Manager in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town (pr., pb. 1938). The Chorus, as he is known, steps forward on a stage full of characters to explain, in urbane tones, the role and function of each character in the drama that is to follow. As the action progresses, the Chorus will continue to serve as both the narrator and commentator, with a suitable coda at the end. Given Anouilh’s reluctance to make public statements, the words and thoughts of Antigone’s Chorus are often quoted, no doubt with some justice, as being those of the author himself.
To a somewhat greater degree than Anouilh’s earlier efforts, Antigone expresses the author’s singular, profound, but often overlooked capacity for “poetry.” Eschewing the overblown rhetoric of certain of his predecessors and contemporaries in the theater, Anouilh was nevertheless highly skilled at the creation of poetic imagery, often expressed in a simple, highly memorable conceit or metaphor. In Antigone, particularly in the title character’s dialogues with her governess and with her fiancé, Hémon, such imagery helps to establish Antigone as a character and fix her in the spectator’s mind. As her language shows, Antigone combines the strength of such characters as Valentine and Barbara with the impossible idealism generally associated with the author’s male protagonists, making her more than a match for the toughened, world-weary Creon.
By far the most memorable feature of Antigone is the stylized yet credible debate between Antigone and her uncle, whose thankless task it has been to clean up the mess created by Oedipus and his family. In one scene, anticipating numerous more modern family quarrels, Creon accuses his niece of resembling her father in her refusal to leave well enough alone; her branch of the family, he observes, tends to ask too many questions and make trouble for everyone. Politically bound to leave one of her dead brothers unburied in order to keep the peace, Creon astonishes the headstrong, idealistic Antigone by informing her that he was unable to tell the two bodies apart and that he honestly does not care which was which; after all, he concludes, both boys were venal scoundrels quite different from the heroes envisioned by their adoring younger sister. Thus disabused of any true motivation for her actions, Antigone nevertheless perseveres in defying Creon’s orders, telling him that her “role” is to say no to him and die. Anouilh thus casts in purely heroic terms the refusal hitherto exemplified in the attempts of Gaston and Georges to escape the sordid pettiness of life. Although hers will be a hollow victory, exemplified in death, Antigone at least achieves a grandeur of sorts by refusing to accept her uncle’s “adult” world of smoke-filled rooms, trade-offs, and compromise.
First performed during 1944 with World War II still in progress, Antigone initially drew both praise and blame from both sides of the political fence. There was little doubt in anyone’s mind that Antigone represented the uncompromising, if barely visible, spirit of Free France, or Creon as those who collaborated with the Germans, if need be, in order to keep the country running. Disagreement arose, however, as to which of the characters was more sympathetically presented, and there were those who saw Antigone’s martyrdom as sufficiently “meaningless” to render Creon, by default, the true hero of the piece. Antigone, however, typical of Anouilh’s theater in general, seeks less to make a statement than to reflect the many ambiguities of life itself. Today Antigone still speaks eloquently of youth and age, idealism and compromise, to spectators yet unborn at the time of its first performance.
Ardèle and The Waltz of the Toreadors
No doubt somewhat disconcerted by the freight of meaning attached to Antigone by numerous well-intentioned spectators, Anouilh during the postwar years appeared to turn his back on “serious” playwriting, preferring instead to occupy himself primarily with comedy and satire. The “shining” plays all date from this period, as do the first of the “grating” plays. Two of the more successful among the latter are Ardèle and The Waltz of the Toreadors, linked by the common, slightly ridiculous character of General Saint-Pé. An aged version of Georges and other would-be romantic lovers in the earlier “pink” plays, the General has never quite relinquished the dreams of his lost youth, even as he has outwardly accepted all the “necessary” trade-offs, substituting assignations for idylls and bottom-pinching on the stairs for stolen kisses in the garden. In Ardèle, the envious General declares a family crisis when he learns that his hunchbacked sister Ardèle has fallen in love with his son’s hunchbacked tutor. A “ridiculous” love such as theirs cannot be allowed to survive, he proclaims. Presumably the love itself survives, but the lovers, alas, do not, choosing double suicide as the only “reasonable” alternative to the corrupt perversions of “love” that they have observed in the behavior of the General himself, his deranged wife Amélie, and other members of the family. Throughout the action, Anouilh steers a tight course between broad farce and melodrama, avoiding bathos through his use of pasteboard caricatures in place of more fully rounded characters. A similar approach obtains in The Waltz of the Toreadors, in which the General, even more cynical than before, attempts reunion with a woman who briefly crossed his path nearly twenty years earlier. During the years since, the General has had several more brief encounters with Ghislaine but has thus far resisted the temptation to leave Amélie and elope with her.
Arriving at long last to claim the General as her own, Ghislaine confronts him with purported evidence of his wife’s infidelity. After much slapstick and stage business, the charges turn out to be true, but by that time Ghislaine has fallen irretrievably in love with Gaston, the General’s painfully shy male secretary. By the final curtain, four of the characters have threatened or attempted suicide, yet all remain alive to contemplate a future fraught with compromise and disillusionment. As in Ardèle, Anouilh in The Waltz of the Toreadors avoids bathos through the judicious use of caricature; here, however, both the General and his ostensibly insane wife emerge as more fully rounded and therefore credible characters than in the earlier play. The General, very much a weathered version of Anouilh’s post-Romantic heroes, elicits the spectator’s sympathy as he wonders precisely what has gone wrong in his life, where and when. His wife Amélie, equally credible, has chosen to express her love through jealousy, feigning invalidism for more than a decade in order to keep her basically compassionate husband from deserting her. Grim and unrelenting in its satire of contemporary marriage and morals, The Waltz of the Toreadors is nevertheless highly playable and has been successfully filmed.
With the notable exception of Antigone, Anouilh achieved his greatest worldwide success with two of his “costume” plays—both of them drawn, loosely and somewhat ironically, from the recorded lives of saints. Making no claim whatever to interpret history (a process that he likens to the permanent dismantling of a favorite toy), Anouilh frequently discards or distorts such data as do not happen to suit him, altering chronology if need be in order to render playable the stuff of legend. In both The Lark and Becket, Anouilh is considerably less concerned with what happened than with what the characters might be able to tell the contemporary audience about itself. His presentation of Thomas à Becket, for example, shaves at least ten years off Becket’s real age and deliberately exploits the nineteenth century myth, long since corrected, of Becket’s Saxon ancestry. Such distortions, however, serve in the final analysis to create highly entertaining, thought-provoking theater.
Anouilh’s mature sense of the theatrical serves him well indeed in The Lark, in which several different characters (including Joan herself) take turns narrating (and commenting on) the action in the manner of Antigone’s one-man Chorus. As in the earlier play, the action is assumed complete and immutable as the curtain rises; all that remains to be seen is the particular form that the retelling will take. The characters, who at first appear to be actors rehearsing a play-within-a-play, debate among themselves as to how the action will be presented; it is Cauchon who decides that Joan’s entire career must be reviewed, rather than only her trial and execution. The action then proceeds in chronological order, interrupted only by the “testimony” of the various participants and witnesses. The scene of Joan’s martyrdom, although realistically portrayed, is interrupted in quasi-cinematic style to present an opulent, triumphant final scene depicting the coronation of the erstwhile Dauphin at Rheims.
For critic Lewis Falb, The Lark remains a weaker play than Antigone precisely because it lacks ambiguity. In The Lark, he claims, the boundaries are too well defined to allow for true dramatic tension or suspense; unlike Antigone, Joan is far too obviously right, and she seems to know as much. Nevertheless, The Lark remains an impressive effort, frequently revived in production and one of the more memorable plays devoted to the life and death of Joan.
Anouilh’s growing fascination with the adaptation of “cinematic” techniques for the stage, adumbrated in the final scene of The Lark, takes over almost completely in Becket, by far the longest and most technically complicated of his many plays. Indeed, the text of Becket often reads more like a scenario than a play, with abundant flashbacks, rapid scene changes, and highly specific instructions as to how a particular line is to be delivered. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that Becket has been equally successful in its well-known film version, which is extremely faithful to the play.
Ranging freely across the conventions of the murder mystery, spy fiction, and broad political satire, Anouilh in Becket presents a highly convincing and entertaining portrayal of a close friendship gone sour—with repercussions far beyond personal loss. Containing some of Anouilh’s finest, most memorable dialogue, Becket shows the audience “not a saint, but a man,” a character closely descended from such other demanding protagonists as Antigone and Joan. Inner-directed, secretive, at times seemingly heartless, Anouilh’s Thomas is a shrewd political manipulator and pragmatist who carries both in his heart and on his sleeve the defeat of his beloved Saxon people. The defeat, it seems, has made it impossible for Becket to believe in anything except himself and in the strict code of personal conduct that has somehow ensured his survival. When asked by the king if he believes in right and wrong, Becket replies enigmatically that he believes certain actions to be more “beautiful” than others, having long since chosen an aesthetic standard of behavior in the absence of ethical or moral imperatives. When the king, irritated by the clergy, impulsively names Becket chancellor, Becket is at first awed by the responsibility but soon warms to the task, proving himself to be a most adept and manipulative politician with an instinctive sense of power. As he tells the king, his personal code dictates that he do the best—or at least most “beautiful”—job he can at whatever he is called on to do. Such apparent loyalty will eventually rebound on the king, who, seeking to control the clergy by appointing his own man—the somewhat underqualified Becket—as Archbishop of Canterbury, finds that he has unwittingly provided himself with the most formidable and indomitable of adversaries. Becket, committed as usual to performing any appointed task to the best of his ability, dedicates his skills to defending an embattled Church against the Crown. As presented by Anouilh, Becket’s apparent change of allegiance is most readily understood by the audience, but not by the king.
Closely balanced between comedy and pathos (or perhaps even pathology), Anouilh’s Henry II is one of his most masterful if least admirable creations. Weak, petulant, self-indulgent, and henpecked by his wife and mother, Henry emerges as a most incompetent and impulsive ruler, a compulsive womanizer with more than a trace of latent homosexuality. Trembling with rage, he responds to Becket’s apparent defection with all the hysteria of an abandoned mistress, seeking mindless vengeance even as he hopes against hope for an eventual reconciliation with his erstwhile friend and boon companion. Anouilh, in whose work the lack or loss of close friendship has always loomed large, achieves remarkable results in his attribution of the king’s vengeance to a friend’s perceived betrayal. As the king lies almost paralyzed with unrequited love for Becket, unable even to give orders, his henchmen decide to “rescue” him by assassinating Becket, their movements eerily orchestrated by the gradually amplified “beating” of the king’s heart.
Unwieldy and expensive to produce, perhaps a shade too long and discursive, Becket is nevertheless a superb play. Together with Antigone, The Lark, and Traveller Without Luggage, and perhaps the strongest of the pink and grating plays, it secures Anouilh’s international reputation as one of the century’s most versatile and significant dramatists.
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