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.
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.
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.
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.