Jean Anouilh Anouilh, Jean (Vol. 13) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Anouilh, Jean 1910–

A French dramatist, screenwriter, editor, and translator, Anouilh has written plays ranging from tragedy (pièces noires), to sophisticated comedy (pièces roses), to art for art's sake (pièces brillantes), to black humor (pièces grinçantes). He often uses idealistic heroes and heroines whose romantic dreams are contrasted with harsh reality. Several of his plays have been drawn from history for the modern theater; most notably L'alouette, based on Joan of Arc's life, and Becket. His satiric Pauvre Bitos mocks a Liberation magistrate as the revolutionary Robespierre. Antigone, his most popular play, is based on classical mythology. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed.)

Leonard Cabell Pronko

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Anouilh's view of life and man's place in the universe has remained essentially unchanged throughout his career. The later plays clarify and elaborate upon ideas presented in the early ones. To be sure, there is a certain development and a shift in focus as the author matures. But it is noteworthy that Anouilh's basic concepts are present from the beginning and have not changed fundamentally in the course of almost thirty years. If this has led to some degree of repetition, it is to be regretted, but that very repetition tends to give a certain unity to Anouilh's theater. He has developed what we might call a personal mythology, composed of characters, situations, and language which are peculiar to his world and reflect effectively his view of life.

The development of Anouilh's themes makes it possible to divide the plays into several periods, based upon fundamental similarities among the plays of the various groups. (pp. 3-4)

The plays of the first group—those written during the thirties—stress the plight of man trying to escape from his past, sometimes succeeding but more often than not, failing. (p. 4)

The real drama of L'hermine, as in every one of Anouilh's serious plays, lies in the conflict between the hero's inner world and the exterior world he faces. The latter imposes upon him certain conditions that he feels are diametrically opposed to the person he considers himself to be. (p. 6)

In Le bal des voleurs (1932), Le rendez-vous de Senlis (1937), and Léocadia (1939), all Pièces roses, we see one or more of the protagonists escaping, to some degree at least, from the past and also from the present. But their only means of escape is flight into a world of fancy created in each instance by the characters involved, or made possible by the circumstances. The Pièces roses in themselves neither assure us that one can successfully escape from reality for any length of time, nor do they tell us the contrary: that man cannot escape. However, when placed beside the Pièces noires, with which they are contemporaneous, the fugacity of such a solution becomes apparent, for we can see that the dreams in which the characters lose themselves are not a valid answer to the problems with which we have seen them confronted in the Pièces noires. One might even wonder whether Anouilh has not sought to satirize in these "rosy" plays those facile writers of entertainment who treat the problems of life in a superficial way. (p. 14)

If the characters of the Pièces roses are unheroic in their compromise with happiness and their refusal to accept life as it is, they at least possess the noble desire for the purity of life that dares to be what it is without excuses. But they are satisfied with a happiness that Anouilh later satirizes as illusory and unworthwhile. (pp. 16-17)

The dramatic conflict in these plays of the first period, from L'hermine to Léocadia, is between the hero's inner image of what he most believes himself to be, and the environment and past that impose upon him a character that is at variance with his imagined "true self." The struggle for freedom ensues, and the hero inevitably returns to his former misery, or at any rate, does not deny it or forget it, for to do so would be to become untrue to a part of himself. The power of one's environment and past is so strong that it pulls apart those who under other circumstances might have had some chance for happiness together. The opposition between environments is usually made in terms of wealth and poverty. In all these plays, wealth means happiness, but a happiness at the expense of insensitivity to the suffering of others, for the wealthy have been protected from real life, and know nothing but the surfaces. (p. 17)

Although the hero is not clearly defined yet in the plays of the first period, he is established as the person who is opposed to the compromises of life; whose first purpose is the quest for purity through fidelity to what he considers his truest self. This purity is usually expressed in terms of childhood—that period of freedom and spontaneity before we learned the games of pretense and hypocrisy. It is another version of the Garden of Eden, Baudelaire's green paradise which represents a positive value of the past. The hero would like to cling tenaciously to the purity represented by such a vision, and consequently he tends to reject the adult world. Throughout the plays of Anouilh we hear of the hero refusing to grow up, or regretting his lost childhood. Unfortunately, this innocent paradise is not our only past. Superimposed upon it is the miserable past of man afflicted with sin, represented in most instances by the intolerable world of the poor. The hero attempts to escape from the latter and to return to the former. (pp. 18-19)

When the protagonist goes beyond the limits of his role, forgetting his past, as do Gaston and the characters of the Pièces roses, we feel he is not being true to all the aspects of his being, which includes his past as well as his aspirations in the present. The protagonists of the Pièces roses are not of a heroic stature. They are not like those who, refusing to escape into a world of dreams, face reality as it is, at the same time denouncing it and remaining aware of its limitations. (pp. 19-20)

[Anouilh's next four plays] lay more stress upon the author's fundamental ideas than had his previous plays. Eurydice (1941), Antigone (1942), Roméo et Jeannette (1945), and Médée (1946) place the heroic individual in the center of the stage as he faces reality and says no to it. The feeling of death is ever-present, and every one of the heroines goes down morally victorious. The central struggle is no longer between the protagonist's past and his aspirations. It has shifted to something more universal: the inner world versus the entire outer world, which is the only one recognized by society. The revolt against the past is only part of a larger revolt, and in Antigone there is no past against which to revolt, for Antigone creates herself only in the present. (p. 21)

Eurydice (1941) still shows some preoccupation with the escape from a sordid past, and in this respect it belongs to Anouilh's first period. But insofar as this escape is only part of a larger refusal of the compromises of life, and insofar as Eurydice treats with greater emphasis and clarity the essential notions only suggested in the first group of plays—enlarging upon them and imbuing them with a new universality—it belongs to the second period. (p. 22)

Eurydice shows, as does La sauvage, that man cannot successfully escape from his past. This theme is expressed much more clearly and forcefully in the later play. The past includes not only the persons and circumstances with which man has had dealings, but all past events—even those that seemed alien. The stranger that one happened to look at from a distance leaves an indelible imprint, because one cannot help reacting to even the most objective stimuli. (p. 23)

In Antigone (1942) there is no past weighing upon the heroine: she has chosen her role. As she tells her sister Ismène: "You chose life, and I death."… And, indeed, Antigone goes to her death, thinking it is the only answer that one can give to life if one is to remain true to oneself. She represents the universe of childhood—the kingdom of the ideal judged through subjectively chosen values. Her revolt is gratuitous; without direction; unmotivated in terms of a past. Her action arises only from a deep-felt necessity to become what she believes to be her truest self. (pp. 24-5)

Antigone's refusal of happiness is also her refusal of life, for the two terms are equated. "I want to know how I'll go about it, to be happy also," she cries out to Créon. "You say that life is so...

(The entire section is 3292 words.)

Marguerite Archer

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The controversies which arise about [Jean Anouilh's] plays stem from the fact that he escapes clear-cut identification. This is due not to obscurity in his oeuvre or deviousness on his part but simply to the Protean aspect of his plays. They are variations on given themes, and as such they give the impression that they constitute contradictions. This apparent inconsistency may originate in the ambiguous behavior of the protagonists. But it is simply a fact of life that ambiguity is an integral component of man's plight in relation to himself and others; thus to ask that an image of man be in clear and unambiguous focus is to ask for comforting falsehood. Besides, if man is a "disconsolate but gay animal," as...

(The entire section is 3162 words.)

GaëTan Picon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


A mainspring of Jean Anouilh's work has been a savage indictment of society, despite his belonging to the political right (although there is, to be sure, the phenomenon of right-wing anarchism). His work has had an abundance and diversity that puts it in the first rank. Anouilh was famous before the war for L'hermine (1931, The Ermine), Le voyageur sans bagage (1936, Traveler without Luggage), and La sauvage (1934, The Savage). In these, the Anouilh hero, obsessed by youthful idealism and rejecting the compromises of ordinary life, appeared in various guises. Antigone gave the Anouilh hero (or heroine, in this case) the prestige of an ancient myth. Creon,...

(The entire section is 559 words.)

John Simon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Ring Round the Moon] is a typical bittersweet Anouilh confection: a dizzy farandole laced with bitterness, sarcasm, despair, capriciously manipulated into a deliberately preposterous happy ending. It is the precise fairy-tale method: after monstrous cruelties, a magically blissful forever-after. But as Anouilh handles them, the lacerating ironies and heart-splintering witticisms are meant to remind us how painful, indeed deadly, this game would be if it were real; how grateful we must be to the theater for being merely theater. Life in this comedy is present by its absence: we are allowed to luxuriate in an elegant distaste for living that goes up in epigrammatic fireworks, in outrageous plot twists turned as anodyne as wild beasts domesticated by art. (p. 62)

John Simon, in New York Magazine (copyright © 1975 by News Group Publications, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of New York Magazine), July 21, 1975.

John H. Stroupe

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

There is now general critical agreement about Anouilh's Becket. Formerly docile to the random quality of life, willing to play whatever role is offered him, without an honor of his own to value, agnostic if not atheistic, Becket determines finally to consummate his life in the role of Archbishop of Canterbury. His heightened sense of aesthetics tells him that the role he embraces to give meaning to his existence must finally protect the honor of God at all costs…. [His] is not a death which draws on adamant convictions about the truth of the church's position in the conflict. His criterion is an aesthetic view of human morality, and what gives his role authenticity, what makes its artificial behavior...

(The entire section is 832 words.)