Jean Anouilh Anouilh, Jean (Vol. 3) - Essay

Anouilh, Jean (Vol. 3)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Anouilh, Jean 1910–

Anouilh, an award-winning French playwright, employs traditional forms and techniques to examine man's condition in a universe devoid of reason. Although he is often harshly critical of contemporary society, he is nevertheless a popular Boulevard dramatist. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-18.)

I cannot say that Anouilh's sense of desolation precipitates a completely satisfactory drama. Nihilism stands between the author and a complete dramatic experience. In his plays—Waltz of the Toreadors only a little less than in his tragic Antigone—the parts are greater than the whole. They are often fascinating, but they don't fit together; this nay-saying writer is too busy thumbing his nose at life to give any genuine significance to its failures, just as he is often brilliant in lighting up elements of human behavior without creating human beings. We do not know Anouilh's principal characters, the General and his wife; we know only the former's amorous animation and the latter's animus against her husband. Nor does the conduct of the characters have any relation to their environment, their status, their past, or their present.

Anouilh is no Chekhov even with the Chekhovian materials of [The Waltz of the Toreadors]. And apparently he knows his limits…. Such work is sufficient unto the day, but only unto the day. Our belated discovery of Anouilh should not encourage us to overestimate a talent that will always be precarious and will always require the pyrotechnical skill of a harlequin to conceal its aridity.

John Gassner, "Anouilh's Valse Triste: A Minority Opinion," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1957 by Harrison-Blaine of New Jersey, Inc.), February 11, 1957.

The vogue of Anouilh, both in his native France and in England, is largely the result of his ability to interfuse a disenchanted viewpoint with as much theatricalism as his subject can afford. In this combination of the real and the theatrical, of truth and art there is always considerable fascination. In [Mademoiselle] Colombe, Anouilh went further toward making theatre out of the realities of character and environment than in Thieves' Carnival, Ring Round the Moon, or Antigone. Moreover, in Colombe Anouilh made much of the very tension between personal relations and make-believe….

Actually Anouilh is less provocative in this play [Waltz of the Toreadors] than he has been in others such as Antigone and The Lark. But his concentration on human perversity is more rewarding here because it is less artificially theatrical. He keeps his focus exclusively on human relations and private life, and he takes a more balanced if still bizarre view of the contradictions of the heart. He gives a wry account of the difficulty of renouncing romantic aspirations and resigning oneself to the calm of age; he writes poignantly about the absurd rage of the heart and the folly of the blood. Farcical yet moving, mocking yet sympathetic The Waltz of the Toreadors stands between extremes of dramatic experience….

The Waltz of the Toreadors is undeniably fascinating in its twists and turns of action and emotion. But it is also fundamentally deceptive when it wins approbation as a masterpiece rather than as a clever contrivance only now and then galvanized into life. Even Anouilh's pessimism is only half genuine here. It is far from offensive because the highly cultivated author expresses it with attractive whimsicality, but we must not make the mistake of assigning any challenging properties to the author's viewpoint. He is cheerfully hopeless in this play and it is right that he should be. It is obvious that not tragedy but tragicality becomes his largely pinchbeck characters. A good deal of their grief is pose, as is the author's romantic-antiromantic attitude. If there is a valse triste in The Waltz of the Toreadors it was put there by a showman, not a philosopher.

John Gassner, in his Theatre at the Crossroads: Plays and Playwrights of the Mid-Century American Stage (copyright © 1960 by Mollie Gassner; reprinted by permission of Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc.), Holt, 1960, pp. 245-52.

In Becket, as in so much else he has written, Anouilh stands at the fringes of feeling and thought, trains romantically colored lights on the realities of alienation or failure, and sprinkles the human scene with irony as a substitute for conviction. And, I might add, as a solace and confirmation for the sense of defeat rather than as a stimulus or challenge. The difference between Becket and some earlier plays by Anouilh is that the large dimensions of costume drama and spectacle simply smother any subtle and oblique artistry of which he has proved capable in other plays, while the huge labor of a history play promises the playgoer a work of epic stature which Anouilh, the suave Parisian, does not provide and may be constitutionally incapable of providing. If nothing else, Becket is useful as a means of measuring the talent of one of the most highly regarded playwrights of our time.

John Gassner, in his Dramatic Soundings: Evaluations and Retractions Culled From 30 Years of Drama Criticism, introduction and posthumous editing by Glenn Loney (© 1968 by Mollie Gassner; used by permission of Crown Publishers, Inc.), Crown, 1968, p. 499.

Like a superb couturier of the theater, Anouilh divides his plays into styles, cuts and colors: the "rose" plays, the "black" plays, the "brilliant" plays, the "irritating" plays, the "costume" plays. His 1952 "The Waltz of the Toreadors" is one of the irritating plays—that is, one of the plays in which Anouilh smiles, laughs, weeps and grimaces at "human" folly.

In this play you see before your very eyes the theater of the West at a pitch of civilized polish—the heir to every virtue except the disquieting virtue of genius. Fair enough; in such plays, well produced, an intelligent audience is literally entertained—that is, held up, supported, maintained in a firm and friendly admonitory grip, like a child being held by a sage and cynical uncle who talks seductively of the bittersweet pleasure-pains of life. It is great fun, this eloquent caressive scolding, the almost lecherous scolding of a seducer who thrillingly tells us: "What darling fools you mortals be!"

Jack Kroll, "Darling Fools," in Newsweek (copyright Newsweek, Inc., 1973; reprinted by permission), September 24, 1973, p. 127.

To a degree, Anouilh is a journeyman dramatist: he makes no claim to exalted artistic stature. He desires to do little more than purvey material for enjoyable theatregoing. But that is only a disguise: Anouilh possesses an artistic individuality, deep-rooted in his personality and in the nature of the French nation, especially that of the Third Republic's middle class. For that reason, he just doesn't go away! I for one have often thought he should, because he repeats himself endlessly and some of his more recent plays betray a rancidness, almost a vileness. But his skill rarely fails him; he is devilishly clever….

Anouilh is a romantic idealist whose idealism plagues him. He yearns for purity, nobility, moral courage, glory, but discerns little but pettiness, chicanery, deception and vice. Life riles him because it isn't consistent; he abhors the bulk of humanity because it professes virtues it doesn't practice. There is something comic in this and a great measure of "fun," but though he is able to laugh at it, it upsets his vitals. He is a sentimentalist become bitter because everything he beholds, everything that has happened to him since he first conceived of the loveliness of experience—especially in matters of love—has proved false and vain.

Oh, if it were only not so, Anouilh's plays seem to wail—beauty not despoiled, grandeur not debased, purity not debauched. But since it is so, we must make the best of it in humankind's shabby fashion, bedecking ourselves in social courtesies, official pomp and at best in common-sense compromise. Once in a long while some splendid gesture or leap of the soul, like a lark in the sky, momentarily redeems us.

This makes Anouilh both a conservative and a cynic. He will not budge from his safe position—"agin" everything except the Ideal. He endures life with a grimace of disgust, a salty chuckle, an ache of regret, and above all with sharpedged practical shrewdness. The latter feature produces his formidable stage craftsmanship.

The Waltz of the Toreadors is an acidulous bonbon, a despondent farce. Within its coruscating invention, its delightful trickery, its rib-tickling skepticism, there also dwells something subtly tender, softly sighing. The colors of Vuillard and Bonnard surround it; a fragrance of old-time corruption, elegance and bourgeois crassness, decorum and dissoluteness emanates from it. An echo of sweet romance as the French from 1875 to 1900 dreamed of it—a kind of domestic or village romance—wafts through it.

Harold Clurman, in Nation, October 8, 1973, p. 349.