Jean Anouilh Anouilh, Jean (Vol. 8) (Contemporary Literary Criticism) - Essay

Anouilh, Jean (Vol. 8) (Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Anouilh, Jean 1910–

A leading French dramatist, Anouilh has also written screenplays and worked as an editor and translator. He has divided his plays into several categories: the pièces noires ("black plays"), presenting evil as the triumphant force in life, and the pièces roses ("rosy plays"), presenting the triumph of good, are two of these categories. To Anouilh, the pièces noires and pièces roses correspond to the genres of tragedy and comedy. Two other categories used by Anouilh to describe his plays are the pièces brillantes ("brilliant plays") and the pièces grinçantes ("annoying plays"). Drawing from historical sources, including Greek, French, and English, Anouilh has created for the modern theatre, in a modern idiom, works such as Antigone, L'Allouette (a drama based on the life of Joan of Arc), and Beckett, which have become masterpieces of the modern theatre. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed.)

Anouilh is a psychological dramatist, although not in the modern pseudoscientific sense; he is also the chief contemporary exponent of tragedy in the drama. Most of his tragedies are based on classic themes; they are simultaneously a modern expression of the Aristotelean tragic principle and a sensitive approach to the portrayal of psychological processes.

To Anouilh humanity is made up of two kinds of people: the anonymous mass of normal and rational nonentities who accept the banality of daily existence, and the heroes. The first group is motivated chiefly by a desire for happiness, not the ecstasy of the saint but the petit bonheur of the unambitious. This is the race which populates the earth and performs the daily drudgery which is the price of human existence…. (p. 331)

The second group rejects this banality. Where the ordinary man realizes the imperfection of the human lot but nevertheless grasps at the petty happiness that is offered him, the hero has the courage to say "no." It is this second race which supplies the world with saints, martyrs, Caesars, artists, assassins, prophets, and above all with tragic heroes; for the man who refuses to say "yes" to life thereby condemns himself to a tragic end. These are "those you imagine stretched out, pale, a red hole in the forehead, a moment triumphant with a guard of honor, or between two gendarmes…." It is not that the hero deliberately chooses this path; he is condemned to it by the nature of his personality. He can no more escape tragedy than the ordinary man can escape banality. The ordinary man and the hero belong to different species, and they are condemned to perpetual misunderstanding, suspicion, and enmity; human existence is an eternal struggle between heroism and happiness. Out of this antithesis Anouilh fashions his dramatic conflict. It is significant that he includes all his Greek plays in the two collections he entitles "pièces noires"; to him classic mythology is indissolubly linked with tragedy and death.

In Anouilh's first pièce noire, Eurydice (1941), it is Orpheus who assumes the role of nay-sayer and chooses death for himself and Eurydice rather than compromise with banality. This is not the ordinary classic interpretation of the myth, nor is it the interpretation put upon it by most modern dramatists; yet it preserves the essence of the classic myth: a man and a woman are separated by death, the man defies Death itself to win her back, but loses her when he cannot resist the temptation to gaze straight into her soul. (pp. 331-32)

[Orpheus] prefers no life at all to a life which demands compromise as its price….

Antigone (1942) treats the same basic theme, but utilizes a different technique. Like most other modern Antigone plays, it is based on Sophocles; the period and décor remain that of classic Greece. But there is an anachronistic, modern element which serves to give the action an aura of timelessness. The drama is played in modern dress; Creon wears evening clothes, and the palace guards wear battle-jackets and carry automatic rifles. Such incidental anachronisms aside, the plot roughly follows Sophocles. (p. 333)

Like Antigone, Médée (1946) is laid in an ostensibly classic setting modified with modern details and vernacular. The story follows Euripides' Medea; the major change in plot is that Anouilh's Medea dies at the end of the play to provide a more spectacular climax. Some of Anouilh's anachronisms are startling: Medea is converted to something like a gypsy who travels about in a ramshackle caravan and is forbidden entrance to the local village…. The celebration which marks the betrothal of Jason and Creusa is a good deal more like a Bastille Day than a pagan orgy; there are street dances, music, fried-food stalls, free wine, and a fireworks display as a climax. Medea's nurse is converted into a garrulous old French peasant, with a rough peasant craft and a healthy zest for living…. Thus Anouilh reclothes his characters for the modern audience: the sorceress of Colchis becomes a pseudo-gypsy and her nurse a rustic gossip out of Balzac.

But Anouilh's Medea, like Orpheus and Antigone, is a heroic personality who moves in a realm apart from the rest of mankind. Her dominating passion is her love for Jason; for him she stole from her father and killed her brother, for him she committed all the other bloody crimes for which she is now treated as a pariah. To Medea this love is an absolute passion; it admits of no limits, and no other considerations have the slightest influence on her actions. When this love is betrayed there is no resignation in her heart to fill the vacuum, and she can think only of blood, revenge, and death. After thus establishing Medea as a Dionysian, virtually psychotic character, Anouilh then creates Apollonian foils to throw the character Medea into relief. Jason and his father-in-law Creon, and to some extent the nurse, are reasonable beings who have accepted the imperfections of existence; they have said "yes" to life where Medea has said no. (p. 334)

The essence of tragedy as it was understood by the ancients was that a noble hero came to his downfall through an inherent fault in his character; usually this flaw consisted of an excessive fervor or self-confidence. When the classic tragedy demonstrates that hybris brings its inevitable nemesis, it is merely reiterating that the Dionysian personality carries within itself the seeds of its own catastrophe. This is precisely the nature of the catastrophe which arrives to the heroes of Jean Anouilh: fanatic idealists who will accept no compromise, they come to destruction because they are born into a world in which compromise is the price of existence. Most of the other tragic heroes of modern drama are not tragic in this sense; they are destroyed only because they could not achieve their ends. Anouilh passes beyond this modern pseudo-tragedy to arrive at the essence of the tragic situation, and his technique proves itself in the unmistakable emotion of katharsis the spectator feels at his plays.

Anouilh himself distinguishes between true tragedy and catastrophic melodrama in a curious passage he inserts into the middle of Antigone. While Creon muses over the mysterious burial of Polynices, the chorus comes forward and analyses the situation with a remarkable scholarly detachment. "It's nice, the tragedy. It's calm, restful. In the melodrama, with those traitors, those desperate villains, that persecuted innocence, those avengers, those Saint Bernards, those glimmers of hope, it's horrible to die, almost by accident as it were. You might have escaped, the good young man might have arrived in time with the gendarmes. In the tragedy you can relax. In the first place, you're at home—after all, everyone's innocent! It isn't that there is someone who kills and someone who is killed. It's just a question of arrangement. And then, most of all, the tragedy is calm because you know there's no hope, no dirty hope; you're caught, you're caught after all like a rat, it's all on your shoulders, and all you can do is cry out—not groan, no, not complain—to bawl at the top of your voice what you have to say."

Tragedy should speak to us, as it spoke to the Greeks, as a living and contemporary human drama; the action should appear to involve persons like ourselves who are seen in predicaments we can understand. If this feeling of timelessness is not present, if we feel we are viewing a "historical" drama, we cannot believe the tragedy is our tragedy, and the drama degenerates into mere spectacle. Anouilh's dramas, written in modern vernacular and filled with the objects and figures of our own daily life, achieve a universality in time which would be impossible in a mere sterile imitation of the external apparatus of classicism. (pp. 334-35)

Donald Heiney, "Jean Anouilh: The Revival of Tragedy," in College English (copyright © 1955 by the National Council of Teachers of English; reprinted by permission of the National Council of Teachers of English), Vol. 16, No. 6, March, 1955, pp. 331-35.

[Of] all the playwrights … in our modern times, Anouilh has the surest sense of the stage. His skill is breathtaking, and one cannot withhold admiration. Within the bounds of the genre—fantastic comedy—I know of nothing more accomplished in range and dramatic skill than the first act of Léocadia (Time Remembered); and that skill is evidenced even in the difference which exists between the reading and the stage effect of the play. Owing to the fact that the old Duchess, a key character in the play, has to unfold at the beginning the elements of the plot which make the play plausible, the reading might be a trifle slow, but with the characters on the stage this first act becomes a bewildering display of moods in the course of which the audience is tossed about between fantasy, amazement, wild laughter and sheer pathos at the extravagant love of the old Duchess for her nephew or at the plight of young Amanda having landed in what undeniably looks like a mad-house.

Of course, Anouilh's theatrical skill is widely recognized, and people fall back for denigration on questions of ethics and generally end in describing him as a nihilist, a pessimist, or, even worse, an amoralist. These strictures may have some validity if his characters are judged not from the auditorium but from the study or the drawing-room. It is true indeed that Antigone is a thorough nihilist, a little girl obsessed with the idea of death…. [However, the] nihilism of Antigone or of Eurydice is more symbolic than realistic; it is more the expression of a belief or an attitude towards life than an attempt at projecting life objectively on the stage. Besides that, Antigone has an element of topicality or of historical truth which cannot be dissociated from the characters and the actions of the play. But for the rest, for amoralism and promiscuity, these things exist, and our problem is surely not to condemn them as aspects of behaviour which we regret in life but as elements which are part of a dramatic picture meant to produce, through acceptance or rejection of what happens on the stage, a rewarding aesthetic experience. (pp. 170-71)

There are plays, and they are not the best or the greatest, in which the didactic or the moralizing elements are explicit; they illustrate beliefs or ideas passionately held. As far as one can see, Anouilh holds no religious or philosophical belief which he tries to put forward in his theatre. His plays are not, like Sartre's, above all a means to illustrate certain beliefs; they are rather the direct projection of his amused, detached or aggrieved observation of the comic or sad human saraband which is life. The morality is part of the aesthetic experience. (p. 174)

Anouilh does not opt for non-being, since he starts from being in the world, but it is obvious that the purity of which he dreams is not of this world and that death and silence are the only possible aims of anybody longing for ideals so opposed to life. Death, of course, becomes for him not another aspect of Being, but non-being or a kind of ideal Platonic world in which only purity exists and in which the particulars, categories or universals regain the transcendence and immutable fixity of ideas. (p. 175)

One might feel that by now Anouilh has overstated or is labouring his theme; yet it is obvious that there is at the very core of his dramatic work a real experience of soiled idealism and of absurd cruelty imposed by life on purity, and it is that experience which confers imaginative truth upon his attractive or repulsive characters…. By now the dream of disillusionment threatens to become a stifling nightmare, the mocking wit, the brilliant satire of the early plays seem to be tapering off into sheer savagery, as in Ardèle, Colombe or La Valse des Toréadors, and one might at times feel inclined to repress a polite yawn or a sigh of impatience at the prolonged family resemblance of his characters; yet one could never say that he has lost his humanity or that his dramatic skill has degenerated into mechanicalness. Admittedly, the machinery is at times slightly shrill, as-in Colombe or La Valse des Toréadors, yet in spite of that, the old General's plight and his desperate attempts to find a way out of his limitations remain very real, and so does the broken happiness of the two lovers in Colombe. (pp. 175-76)

The pessimism of Anouilh is … the revolt of a sensitive being appalled and wounded by the cruelty of life and expressing man's despair at never being able to know his true self or to meet another self in a state of purity…. His heroes and heroines are alone, and when they hope to escape from their loneliness through another they generally realize that there is no escape, that life soils everything and that unless they choose to live a lie, death is the only solution—or failing death, the acceptance of suffering as a refining fire which will consume the dross into the ashes of a life devoted to an ideal. (pp. 176-77)

The degradation of being without money and of being compelled to reckon all aspects of human life and above all of human happiness in terms of money is what seems to haunt Anouilh's early dramatic career and is the theme of his early plays. (p. 177)

It is obvious that Anouilh can blend fantasy and realism with perfect skill and can easily transport us into realms where anything can happen…. He lacks [, however,] the depth of vision and the imagination to realize that the tragic character, the hero or the being who embodies myth, is something essentialized and something which cannot be entangled in a trivial form of petty, homely realism which must not be confused with tragic irony or the grotesque element…. (p. 192)

Anouilh excels in fantastic comedy, a genre which enables him to give free rein to his inventiveness. He is never hampered by realism, which he uses skilfully in order to build up character. Whenever necessary, as in Le Voyageur sans Bagage or La Valse des Toréadors, he brings about an ending merely to fit the characters, in the same way as Molière did at the end of Tartuffe when he brought in the king's power. He is keenly aware that the theatre is not a photograph of life or a place to display pedestrian realism, but a place where, behind the footlights, conventions preside and acting is what counts. His characters, his main ones at least, are both real and unreal, sophisticated personae or masks standing for certain human traits and miserable wretches plagued with all the weaknesses of men. The blend of reality and fantasy enables him to convey, midst laughter or a frozen grin, the most startling ideas and the strangest freaks of human behaviour. Although he is not strictly speaking a poet, there are in his plays beautiful moments expressed in true poetic language which rises beyond character into a world of its own. His language, less poetical, less rich, less precious, has a greater range than that of Giraudoux, and is certainly a subtler and more pointed instrument in satire and biting comments against vulgarity or social weaknesses…. It is the human reality and not systems or concepts which Anouilh is after, and that is why his characters, full of human contradictions, are emotionally alive. It is in fact not what they think, but above all what they feel which is the main factor and the link between a family of characters all involved in similar problems. (pp. 202-04)

Joseph Chiari, in his The Contemporary French Theatre: The Flight from Naturalism (© 1958 by Joseph Chiari), Rockliff, 1958 (and reprinted by Gordian Press, 1970).

Anouilh puts ["The Waltz of the Toreadors"] into the category of what he calls 'grinçante', literally 'grating' or 'grinding' of teeth or possibly more affectionately 'gnashing' them. (p. 43)

[This] is one of Anouilh's plays in which the finer feelings come into view far more prominently than in the more cut-and-dried, 'black' or 'rose' works. Teeth-gnashing implies some kind of torment, and there is genuine torment—or there should be—in the scenes … of the military ball of Savnur….

It is in [the] depth of morality that Anouilh shows with St Pé that puts him alongside other heroes of the absurd—the rational absurd of Camus as opposed to the other, so called 'absurd' writers like Ionesco and Adamov…. Although between Sartre and Camus, the more weighty, serious moralists, and Anouilh, some would say the epitome of froth, there is held to be little in common, there are many affinities. What is fate, what is soul, what is identity, what is real, what is truth: all these questions keep, or should keep, jumping out at us between the sleights of hand, the ingenious stage-craft. (p. 44)

Garry O'Connor, in Plays and Players (© copyright Garry O'Connor 1974; reprinted with permission), April, 1974.

Anouilh's characters have always suffered from anguish; they have always engaged in the game of illusion, contemplating themselves before a mirror and thus introducing themselves to their other personalities; they have always fallen within the tradition of the marionette theatre of the old Italian commedia dell'arte. When writing such plays as Le bal des voleurs (1932), Le rendez-vous de Senlis (1937) or Léocadia (1939) Anouilh stressed the role of pure fancy and frolic in the creation of fantastic situations; he showed his creatures how to "escape" reality on flights of courage or folly. His dramas were a fascinating mixture of parody, comedy of manners and of character, psychological portraiture, fantasy, detective stories, with touches of vaudeville every so often. His theatre was sensitive, original and deeply moving.

The same cannot be said of L'arrestation. Anouilh uses the same techniques he has used for the past forty years—with felicity in the early plays, but not so with the latest ones. No new dimension has been added in L'arrestation…. The repetitious nature of the platitudinous plot is sad. The interminable flashbacks as the characters live out the various stages of their lives add to the chaos, confusion and general boredom of the play.

Unlike Rimbaud and Genet, who retired from writing after creating their masterpieces, Anouilh just keeps grinding out one play after another. Unless he lives a new experience, unless he digs deeply into himself, I doubt very much that another masterpiece will be forthcoming. He should feel elated since he has given the world some very great plays. (p. 829)

Bettina L. Knapp, in Books Abroad (copyright 1976 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 50, No. 4, Autumn, 1976.