Jean Anouilh Anouilh, Jean (Vol. 21) - Essay


(Drama Criticism)

Jean Anouilh 1910-1987

(Full name Jean Marie Lucien Pierre Anouilh) French playwright.

The following entry provides an overview of Anouilh's works from 1954 through 1999. For additional information on his career, see DC, Volume 8.

One of France's foremost dramatists, Anouilh wrote more than forty plays in a wide variety of modes, including tragedy, farce, and romance. Central to his work is a skeptical, often bitter view of the human condition. Discovering and remaining true to one's self in a world of compromise is a theme that continually resurfaces in Anouilh's work. His protagonists typically strive to maintain their integrity in the face of pervasive corruption; however, success in this endeavor often requires existing in a fantasy world or dying for one's convictions.

Biographical Information

Anouilh was born in Bordeaux on June 23, 1910. By the age of nine he was already writing plays in imitation of Edmond Rostand; at sixteen he completed his first long play. He briefly studied law at the Sorbonne in Paris, then became a copywriter in an advertising firm. During 1931 and 1932 Anouilh worked as the secretary to the Comédie des Champs-Élysées theatre company. Le voyageur sans bagage (1937; Traveller without Luggage) firmly established Anouilh in the theater, and for the next several decades his works were staged in Paris with great regularity, even during the German occupation of France during World War II. After the war many of his plays were produced in London and New York. During his career Anouilh won many awards, in both France and America. Several of his plays have been adapted for film and television. Anouilh died of a heart attack on October 3, 1987.

Major Works

Anouilh rejected traditional classifications of his works as tragedies, farces, or romances; instead he categorized his plays as pièces noires (black plays), nouvelles pièces noires (new black plays), pièces roses (rosy plays), pièces brillantes (brilliant plays), pièces grinçantes (grating plays), pièces costumées (costume plays), and pièces baroques (baroque plays). Anouilh's earliest plays were produced during the 1930s and generally fall in the categories of pièces noires and pièces roses. As the labels suggest, the former plays are dark in tone and explore evil and deception, while the latter include fantastical elements and convey a light-hearted mood. Among the major conflicts Anouilh addresses in both groups are those between wealth and poverty and the burden of the past as it relates to the present. Beginning in the 1940s Anouilh composed a number of plays, classified as pièces noires, that adapt Greek myth to modern settings. These include Eurydice (1941; Point of Departure), Antigone (1944), and Médée (1953; Medea). Antigone was the most popular of the three and remains one of Anouilh's most highly respected works.

Following World War II Anouilh's output was dominated by pièces grinçantes and pièces brillantes. The pièces grinçantes are marked by black humor, while the pièces brillantes convey a less bitter tone and employ witty dialogue. In these plays the conflict between good and evil is not as sharply defined as in Anouilh's early work. Among his later plays are pièces costumées, which are based on historical personages, and pièces baroques. When using history as a background for his drama, Anouilh drew upon figures of heroic dimension. For example, L'alouette (1953; The Lark) dramatizes the life of Joan of Arc, and Becket; ou, l'honneur de Dieu (1959; Becket; or, The Honor of God) concerns Thomas à Becket. The theatrical elements of Anouilh's work come to the forefront in his pièces baroques. For example, Cher Antoine; ou, l'amour raté (1969; Dear Antoine; or, The Love that Failed) the central character is a prominent playwright and the story unfolds as a play within a play. By stressing the artificiality of the theater, Anouilh probes the relationship between reality and illusion and works to create a dramatization of ideas rather than a representation of reality.

Critical Reception

Although Anouilh was among the most successful “boulevard” playwrights, having enjoyed many well-attended productions of his works in the Paris theater district, critics have debated his importance in contemporary drama. Some have faulted Anouilh for repetition of theme, for a lack of intellectualism, and for his reliance on theatricality. Others note, however, that Anouilh's strength as a playwright lay in his mastery of stagecraft, which makes his works entertaining, while they at the same time investigate serious themes. Commentators contend that Anouilh's work reflects the classical theater of Molière in its comic portrayal of human folly and misery and the experimental theater of Luigi Pirandello in its overt use of theatrical devices to explore the nature of reality and illusion.

Principal Works

(Drama Criticism)

L'hermine [The Ermine] 1932

Y avait un prisonnier 1935

Le voyageur sans bagage [Traveller without Luggage] 1937

Le rendezvous de Senlis [Dinner with the Family] 1938

La sauvage [Restless Heart] 1938

Léocadia [Time Remembered] 1939

Eurydice [Point of Departure; also translated as Legend of Lovers] 1941

Antigone 1944

Jézabel 1945

Oreste 1945

Roméo et Jeannette 1946

L'invitation au château [Ring around the Moon: A Charade with Music] 1947

Ardèle; ou, la Marguerite [Cry of the Peacock] 1948

La répétition; ou, l'amour puni [The Rehearsal] 1950

Colombe [Mademoiselle Colombe] 1951

La valse des toréadors [The Waltz of the Toreadors] 1952

L'alouette [The Lark] 1953

Médée [Medea] 1953

Ornifle; ou, le courant d'air [Ornifle; also translated as It's Later Than You Think] 1955

Pauvre Bitos; ou, le dîner des têtes [Poor Bitos] 1956

Becket; ou, l'honneur de Dieu [Becket; or, The Honor of God] 1959

L'hurluberlu; ou, le réactionnaire amoureux [The Fighting Cock] 1959

La grotte [The Cavern] 1961

La foire d'empoigne 1962

Le boulanger, la boulangère, et le petit mitron 1968

Cher Antoine; ou, l'amour raté [Dear Antoine; or, The Love that Failed] 1969

Les poissons rouges ou mon père, ce héros 1970

La culotte 1978

Alba Della Fazia (essay date December 1963)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Fazia, Alba Della. “Pirandello and His French Echo Anouilh.” Modern Drama 6, no. 3 (December 1963): 346-67.

[In the following essay, Fazia finds parallels between the plays of Anouilh and those of the Italian dramatist Luigi Pirandello.]

“I can just hear a critic whispering into his neighbor's ear that he has already seen this in Pirandello,”1 anticipates The Author in the opening scene of Jean Anouilh's recent play La grotte—a plotless play which has yet to be written and which depends largely on audience cooperation, according to Anouilh.

La grotte's point of departure is a fait accompli: the...

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Alba Amoia (essay date 1994)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Amoia, Alba. “The Heroic World of Jean Anouilh.” In Twentieth-Century European Drama, edited by Brian Docherty, pp. 109-23. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994.

[In the following essay, Amoia provides an overview of Anouilh's heroic heroines and contrasts these female characters with their unimpressive male counterparts.]

Women are the dominant figures in the theatre of Jean Anouilh, around women rotates the axis of his world of heroism, and to women does the author ascribe the epithet, ‘flowers in the midst of garbage’.

The cast of Anouilh's preeminent female characters ranges from the uncouth and sublime ‘lark’ (Joan of Arc) to...

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Harold Clurman (review date 5 October 1964)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Clurman, Harold. “Traveller without Luggage, The Committee.” Nation, New York, N.Y., (5 October 1964): 202.

[In the following unfavorable review of the 1964 New York production of Traveller without Luggage, Clurman argues that the play “shows some of the salient features of Anouilh's personality and an attitude which were to place him in the front rank of French playwrights between the late thirties and the fifties.”]

Since Jean Anouilh's Traveller without Luggage has suffered, as have many other French plays in the past, in being transferred from the boulevards to Broadway, I shall not dwell on its production at the Anta Theatre. The cast...

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Anca Vlasopolos (essay date December 1986)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Vlasopolos, Anca. “The Perils of Authorship in Le voyageur sans bagage.” Modern Drama 29, no. 4 (December 1986): 601-12.

[In the following essay, Vlasopolos explores the reasons for the relative obscurity of Traveler without Luggage.]

Despite its respectable history in performance, Anouilh's Le voyageur sans bagage has received little critical attention.1 Regarded as Anouilh's first mature play, Le voyageur sans bagage is seen as heralding the existential themes of Anouilh's greater theater.2 Perhaps critical neglect of the play has had to do with the historical position of this between-wars drama. Focused on the...

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Criticism: Eurydice(Point Of Departure)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Carrington, Ildikó de Papp. “Recasting the Orpheus Myth: Alice Munro's ‘The Children Stay’ and Jean Anouilh's Eurydice.” In The Rest of the Story: Critical Essays on Alice Munro, edited by Robert Thacker, pp. 191-203. Toronto: ECW Press, 1999.

[In the following essay, Carrington considers the role of Anouilh's play Eurydice in Alice Munro's short story “The Children Stay.”]

The classical myth of Orpheus and Eurydice tells the story of the young lovers' marriage, Eurydice's accidental death, and Orpheus's grief-stricken descent into the underworld to bring his beloved wife back into the world of the living. A poet and a musician,...

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Michael Spingler (essay date fall 1974)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Spingler, Michael. “Anouilh's Little Antigone: Tragedy, Theatricalism, and the Romantic Self.” Comparative Drama 8, no. 3 (fall 1974): 228-38.

[In the following essay, Spingler asserts that Anouilh's use of the chorus in Antigone functions to “establish the play's essential theatricality” and reinforce his perception of romantic theatrical techniques.]

The loss of a tragic sense in the theatre is a major concern of many modern dramatists and critics. In his Antigone, Jean Anouilh suggests that the reasons for this decline may be located within one of the fundamental developments of modern tragedy, that is, the replacement of action by...

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W. D. Howarth (essay date 1983)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Howarth, W. D. “Anouilh's Antigone: An Analytical Commentary.” InAnouilh: Antigone, pp. 22-47. London: Edward Arnold, 1983.

[In the following essay, Howarth provides a close reading of Antigone and surveys critical and popular reaction to the play.]

Though longer than Sophocles' original, Anouilh's is not a long play, and structurally the two works are very similar. Like the Greek tragedy, Anouilh's Antigone is not divided into acts, and is written for continuous playing without interval. Moreover, it respects in large measure the Greek convention referred to above, according to which there were seldom more than two principal characters...

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W. D. Howarth (essay date 1983)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Howarth, W. D. “Antigone in 1944.” InAnouilh: Antigone, pp. 47-52. London: Edward Arnold, 1983.

[In the following essay, Howarth details the critical reception of Antigone in wartime France.]

The study of the reception of Anouilh's play in 1944, and of its relationship to the political situation which existed, first under the German occupation and then after the liberation of Paris, has become much easier since the publication of an important monograph on the subject by Manfred Flügge1. Quite apart from the unusually broad range of Dr Flügge's enquiry, which sets Antigone in the general context of political attitudes...

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Marilyn V. Schuler (essay date 1985)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Schuler, Marilyn V. “‘Goddess’ vs. ‘Gyn/Ecologist’: A Comparative View of Antigone and La folle de Chaillot.” In Myths and Realities of Contemporary French Theater: Comparative Views, edited by Patricia M. Hopkins and Wendell M. Aycock, pp. 141-51. Lubbock: Texas Tech Press, 1985.

[In the following essay, Schuler finds parallels between Anouilh's Antigone and Jean Giraudoux's La Folle de Chaillot.]

Antigone and La Folle de Chaillot, both critical successes in France and the U.S. during the 1940s, are usually viewed as expressions of Resistance against Nazism and the Occupation of France during World War...

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Criticism: La RéPéTition; Ou, L'Amour Puni (The Rehearsal)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Gilman, Richard. “Versions of Dishonesty.” Commonweal (8 November 1963): 194.

[In the following negative review of the 1963 New York production of The Rehearsal, Gilman contends that “we are supposed to be left with a troubled but gratified sense of how the world really goes, but what we are actually left with is a sense of how to use the theater exquisitely for the purpose of simulating art.”]

Art, Picasso has remarked, is the lie that leads to truth. All theater “lies,” the way all art does, pretending to be real in order to trap a hitherto unheard-of truth in the space between the pretense and reality itself. But in the commercial theater,...

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Eric Bentley (review date 25 January 1954)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Bentley, Eric. “Good Play, Well Done.” New Republic (25 January 1954): 20-1.

[In the following review, Bentley praises the sets and acting in the 1954 New York production of Colombe.]

Optimistic plays are very depressing. “Too bad reality is different,” you say in the lobby. It takes a pessimistic play to cheer you up. When you say “Life isn't as bad as that” you are half way to declaring that everything in the garden is lovely. The great tonic of the Broadway season is Mademoiselle Colombe by Jean Anouilh, a tale of the futility of boy's meeting girl.

It is a production of many pleasures Boris Aronson's sets alone...

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Richard Hayes (review date 12 February 1954)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Hayes, Richard. “The Stage.” Commonweal (12 February 1954): 471-72.

[In the following review, Hayes provides an unfavorable assessment of the 1954 New York production of Colombe.]

Mlle Colombe, the fifth of Jean Anouilh's plays to achieve the condition of an American failure, has provoked a fresh rash of critical speculation on the international dissimilarities of theatrical taste. A small quantity of this analysis has been responsible and illuminating, but too much of it sententious and niggardly, designed to reinforce a heedless public in its indulgent prejudices. Myself, I suspect one need not go so far afield in determining the cause for this...

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Criticism: La Valse Des ToréAdors (The Waltz Of The Toreadors)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Clurman, Harold. “Theatre.” Nation, New York, N.Y. (8 October 1973): 349.

[In the following review, Clurman gives a mixed assessment of the 1973 New York production of The Waltz of the Toreadors, deeming the drama “the play which reveals most of Anouilh's essential traits in perfect balance.”]

The Waltz of the Toreadors, produced in Paris in 1952 and a failure then, perhaps because it was not sufficiently cut and also because the author himself directed it, has since been successfully done in London and New York. It is, in my view, the play which reveals most of Anouilh's essential traits in perfect balance.

Anouilh is a...

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Eric Bentley (review date 5 December 1955)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Bentley, Eric. “Theatre.” New Republic (5 December 1955): 21.

[In the following review, Bentley unfavorably compares Anouilh's portrayal of Joan of Arc in The Lark to George Bernard Shaw's conception of the Catholic heroine.]

In 1890 Shaw complained of Bernhardt as Joan of Arc: “she intones her lines and poses like a saint.” At the time, Joan was hovering uncomfortably between heaven and earth. Subsequently she was split in two: one half sent to heaven by the church and called, indeed, a saint, the other half brought rudely down to earth by our playwrights. It is this second Joan—named “natural man” by Miss Hellman's inquisitor—which...

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Richard Hayes (review date 23 December 1955)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Hayes, Richard. “The Stage: The Lark.” Commonweal (23 December 1955): 304-05.

[In the following review, Hayes elucidates the differences between the historical accounts of Joan of Arc and the dramatic representations of her in Anouilh's The Lark and George Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan.]

“Some nights, when I am feeling depressed,” Jean Anouilh has written of Joan of Arc, “I try to be rational and I say: the situation—social, political and military—was ripe for the phenomenon of Joan; a little shepherdess, one of the countless little shepherdesses who had seen the Virgin or heard voices, and who happened to be called Joan, came to fill a gap in...

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Harold Clurman (review date 27 May 1961)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Clurman, Harold. “Theatre.” Nation, New York, N.Y., (27 May 1961): 467-68.

[In the following review, Clurman derides the acting in the 1961 New York production of Becket and asserts that the play is “intellectually (as well as historically) skimpy; of true religious sentiment there is barely a trace, and its morality is without real commitment.”]

Readers may have noticed that I frequently omit discussion or appraisal of actors from my notices. In view of my belief that acting is the crucial ingredient of the theatre as theatre, my failure to comment on the acting of many of the plays I see must seem peculiar.

The reason for this...

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Emil Roy (essay date December 1965)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Roy, Emil. “The Becket Plays: Eliot, Fry, and Anouilh.” Modern Drama 8, no. 3 (December 1965): 268-76.

[In the following essay, Roy underscores the differences between T. S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral, Christopher Fry's Curtmantle, and Anouilh's Becket.]

Within the last three decades the martyrdom of Thomas Becket has furnished dramatic material for notable plays of T. S. Eliot, Christopher Fry, and Jean Anouilh.1Murder in the Cathedral (1935) and all of Fry's work including Curtmantle (1961) stem directly from Eliot's determination to have a poetic drama. Although Anouilh's play Becket, or the Honor of God...

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Jesse C. Gatlin Jr. (essay date December 1965)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Gatlin, Jesse C., Jr. “Becket and Honor: A Trim Reckoning.” Modern Drama 8, no. 3 (December 1965): 277-83.

[In the following essay, Gatlin investigates the role of honor in Becket.]

What is honor? A word. What is in that word honor? What is that honor? Air. A trim reckoning! … Honor is a mere scutcheon.

—Falstaff in Henry IV, Part I

Honor travels in a strait so narrow,

Where one but goes abreast.

—Ulysses in Troilus and Cressida


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Further Reading

(Drama Criticism)


Atkinson, Brooks. “Lark in London, Tells Life of the Martyr.” New York Times (13 May 1955): 21-2.

Unfavorably compares The Lark to George Bernard Shaw's St. Joan.

Gill, Brendan. “Enemy Country.” New Yorker (1 October 1973): 59.

Mixed review of the 1973 New York production of The Waltz of the Toreadors.

———. Review of The Waltz of the Toreadors, by Jean Anouilh. New York Times (17 January 1957): 17-18.

Laudatory assessment of the 1957 New York production of The Waltz of the Toreadors.

Nichols, Lewis. Review of...

(The entire section is 197 words.)