Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1431
Anouilh, Jean 1910–
French playwright, best known for Beckett, The Lark, and Waltz of the Toreadors. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-18.)
[Jean] Anouilh first came to attention in America falsely labeled as a playwright of the French Resistance; he has lately become a playwright resisting modern France. Always disposed toward traditionalism in his forms and techniques, Anouilh is now trying to dramatize the anachronistic quality of his own position. His recent plays are about the conflict between the past and the present, and the importance and futility of maintaining traditional values in a world which no longer cares. He is evolving into a stringent critic of contemporary life; yet he remains a popular Boulevard dramatist, proving that, in France at least, commercial drama does not have to scrape before the public's values any more than it has to express the public's failure of nerve. Thus, even when Anouilh's work is shoddy, his sap still flows free.
Robert Brustein, "Settling for Half: The Fighting Cock by Jean Anouilh" (1959), in his Seasons of Discontent: Dramatic Opinions 1959–1965 (© 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965 by Robert Brustein; reprinted by permission of Simon and Schuster, Inc.), Simon & Schuster, 1965, pp. 101-04.
[Jean] Anouilh cherishes no illusions that an ideal social order will ever descend upon this earth, [and] he is in the same way pessimistic about the political situation. Taking refuge in extreme conservatism, he rejects all hopes for the future; his only hopes seem to lie in individuals who are true to themselves…. In his most recent plays, Anouilh sees France crawling with worms. He would like to plot a takeover by a strict oligarchy that would stop the decay of his country. He would trust the scrupulousness only of what he calls an "active minority" of extreme conservatives who would set a plague on all political houses and lead France back to her pristine grandeur—to the pre-progressive, pre-scientific, preegalitarian days. Anouilh would teach this minority of Frenchmen two concepts: honor and moral rigor. By dying for something incomprehensible to the masses, a small "race" of men—the "active minority"—has earned the respect of the majority throughout the ages. Having been bitterly disillusioned in his youthful yearnings for true democracy, Anouilh feels that it is in the world of the past that hope now lies (but he discovers this only a posteriori), with its clear separation of rich and poor, with each class (or "race," as he refers to them) adhering to its own tradition and ideals…. Anouilh, however, is shrewd and realistic enough to know that any fellow conspirers he might be lucky enough to find would ultimately abandon him; that any absurd little oligarchic "underground" plot would fail; that the romantic idealist will have to stand alone in denouncing the worm-riddled world to the walls of his ancient castle. Quixotism and inflexibility have no place in the modern world, Anouilh realizes, and political truths are relative. (pp. 24-6)
The majority of Jean Anouilh's dramatic works have been grouped under adjectives descriptive of the dominant tone or the distinguishing characteristic of the plays in each category. In plays classified as "black," "pink," brilliant," "jarring," and "costumed," Anouilh treats an assortment of themes that range from the soul of man to the world of men, from the heroism of the individual to the mediocrity of the masses. Some of the plays are heavy and dismal, some are light and fanciful, but all reveal the author's profound and often painful insight into the human condition. (p. 29)
Anouilh's heroes love honor not for honor's sake. but for the sake of an idea of honor which they have created for themselves…. The concept of an honor to be defended unto death is basic to Anouilh's plays. The theme, which recurs clearly and frequently, is linked to the playwright's championing of nonconformity, purity, and refusal to compromise. For Anouilh, those who defend wealth and material possessions cannot defend a concept of honor…. Anouilh's heroes reject all concepts of compromise and conformity. In the hero's world every action or sentiment of honor is starkly delineated and labeled; there is no gray area offering refuge and the opportunity to avoid justification of one's life. (pp. 37-9)
Through his heroes, the solitary Anouilh satisfies his pressing need to express and reveal himself; it is as though he himself were standing on the stage before us, speaking harshly and impulsively, seeking not pity, but recognition of ourselves as the cause of his torment. We are the ones who perpetuate society's corruption and injustices; we are the ones who stifle the pure instincts of youth and idealism; we are the ones who debase professions and careers by our venality and our brutality. We have created the horror that surrounds us and that makes us grow old without having understood the symbolism of the immobile skylark. (p. 45)
If in the pièces noires society triumphs over the absolute ideal and compels the heroes to seek a tragic form of escape, in the pièces roses Anouilh's characters escape black reality through fantasy, illusion, and changing personality. It is as if the author felt that the world, with its fiendish problems, lacked and needed the sense of humor that he attempted to provide in "pink" situations…. The overall levity of the "pink" plays is maintained through the first two pièces brillantes, L'Invitation au château (1947) and Cécile, ou l'Ecole des pères (1949), but is counterbalanced by the weight of ugly reality in the second two, La Répétition, ou l'Amour puni (1950) and Colombe (1951)…. The "jarring" plays [pièces grinçantes] are in some ways similar to the "black" plays, but now Anouilh has shifted his attention from the "heroic race" to the "mediocre race" and its compromise with life. The effect of these plays is "jarring" because two irreconcilables—comedy and tragedy—clash on a battlefield strewn with the cast-off armor of humanity's defense mechanisms…. The pièces costumées, together with Pauvre Bitos (1956), the last of the "jarring" plays, make up the list of historical plays written by Anouilh. L'Alouette (1953) tells the story of Joan of Arc; Becket (1959) relates the tragic friendship between Henry Plantagenet and Becket; La Foire d'empoigne (1962) deals with Napoleon and Louis XVIII. (pp. 68-104)
Anouilh's plays are stylized to the extent that a conflict between illusion and reality, between an ideal and a compromise, is artificially constructed. At the same time, however, there is room for enough improvisation to satisfy the needs of a particular troupe or a particular audience. A footnote to Act IV of La Répétition reveals Anouilh's appreciation of improvised techniques: he invites considerable shearing or complete cutting of this longish act by directors and actors who may find it to be out of keeping with the rest of the play. Anouilh, the technician, "plays" with his characters. He feels that his dramas can be improvised, remade constantly, changed and rechanged. His theater, like the old Italian comedy, is not static, even though fixed character types appear and reappear in the plays. (p. 123)
Anouilh's plays have sometimes been called "ballets." The term is warranted, for frequently his plays are conceived as light, fantastic dances, with music an intrinsic part of them. The music for L'Invitation au château, composed by Francis Poulenc, serves, as did the music for the commedia dell'arte scenarios, both to link the developments of the play and to add comic effects…. Thus, several of Anouilh's plays may be characterized as "charades with music," which, in essence, is a description of the unspoken parts of the commedia dell'arte. In fact, most of his plays give the clear impression that the dramatist is manipulating his stock characters in various ways, guiding them through a comic or tragic obstacle course of his own creation. The "pink" marionettes succeed, to the cheers of the audience; the "black" ones go down in defeat, and the audience weeps, but the following play brings them to life again in the eternal charades of stereotyped marionettes. (pp. 126-27)
Although sensitive to the problems of the world, Anouilh offers neither a practical solution nor a message that might at least help us manage our hateful world. He is undoubtedly deeply concerned with the unhappy human condition, yet declines the palliatives that the world serves on a platter for mass consumption. Anouilh prefers ideals of his own making, according to his own recipes; if they are indigestible for many, they are nevertheless spiritually nutritious for a few—those few whose childlike image of a beautiful life prevents them from adapting to the relentless infernal machine. (p. 138)
Alba Della Fazia, in Jean Anouilh, Twayne, 1969.