Jean Anouilh 1910-1987
(Full name Jean Marie Lucien Pierre Anouilh)
One of France's foremost dramatists, Anouilh wrote over 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, to be successful in this endeavor often requires existing in a fantasy world or dying for one's convictions. 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.
Anouilh was born in Bordeaux on 23 June 1910. His father was a tailor and his mother was a violinist. By the age of nine Anouilh was already writing plays in imitation of Edmond Rostand; at sixteen he completed his first long play. Although from this time on he never showed an interest in any career other than play writing, he did briefly study law at the Sorbonne in Paris. He soon left school and found work as a copywriter in an advertising firm, supplementing his income by composing publicity materials for films. In 1929 Anouilh collaborated with Jean Aurenche on Humulus let muet (Humulus the Mute), following it with his own Mandarine later the same year. Around this time he married the actress Monelle Valentine. The marriage produced a daughter, Catherine, but the couple eventually divorced. During 1931-1932 Anouilh worked as the secretary to the Comédie des Champs-Élysées theater company. In the latter year his three-act play L'Ermine (The Ermine), written sometime earlier, was staged at the Théâtre de l'Oeuvre. It had only a brief run but was admired by critics as a promising work. His 1935 play, Y avait un prisonier (There Was a Prisoner) enjoyed greater success, and Anouilh sold the film rights to Hollywood. Le Voyageur sans bagage (Traveler without Luggage), produced in 1937, 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 in 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, including the 1955 Antoinette Perry (Tony) Award for Le Bal des voleurs (Thieves' Carnival) and the 1956-57 New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for La Valse des toréadors (The Waltz of the Toreadors). Several of his plays have been adapted for film and television. Anouilh died of a heart attack at the age of 77.
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 costumees (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. In two of the pièces noires, for example, the protagonists attempt to deny their pasts. In Traveler without Luggage, an amnesia victim escapes his previous identity as a cruel, wealthy man by claiming a young orphan as his kin, while in La Sauvage (Restless Heart) a young heroine realizes that she cannot be free of her base, poverty-stricken background and runs away as she is about to be married to her upper-class suitor. In Thieves' Carnival, one of Anouilh's pièces roses, a band of thieves misrepresent themselves as noblemen to an aristocratic woman, who allows the deception to continue for her amusement. Anouilh furthers the illusion and explores the theme of appearance versus reality by setting later scenes at a masked ball. As the play concludes the thieves must assume their true identities when the woman finds that her pearls are missing and calls a halt to the charade.
Beginning in the 1940s Anouilh composed a number of plays, classified as pièces noires, that adapt Greek myth to modern settings. These include Eurydice, Antigone, and Medée (Medea). Antigone was the most popular of the three and remains one of Anouilh's most highly respected works. Based on Sophocles' classical tragedy, the play concerns Antigone's burial of her dead brother in direct defiance of an edict by the ruler, Creon, who is also her uncle. By placing sacred law above civil law Antigone faces a sentence of death. This play was first produced in Nazi-occupied France, and many critics interpreted the conflict between Antigone and Creon as representing the conflict between the French Resistance and the occupying forces. Because Anouilh created convincing arguments for both characters, some viewed Antigone's refusal to compromise as an affirmation of Resistance efforts, while others found in the rational, pragmatic speeches of Creon an indication that Anouilh favored the Nazi collaborators. Many now regard Antigone as an illustration of Anouilh's belief that one must refuse compromise at all costs, even in the face of death. In all of the playwright's works based on myth, the protagonists favor death over the capitulation of their ideals.
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. Some critics have noted that as Anouilh aged, so too did his protagonists, and their outlook on life was tempered by an acceptance of human faults. The plot of The Waltz of the Toreadors, one of Anouilh's most acclaimed works, centers on General Leon Saint-Pé and his infatuation with a woman he had danced with eighteen years earlier. The couple's love had remained unconsummated because of the general's commitment to his marriage; when the two meet again, the woman falls in love with a younger man. As is characteristic of the pièces grinçantes, this play has sardonic overtones, as Anouilh explores the disillusionment and pettiness that occur in the aftermath of lost love.
Among Anouilh's later plays are pièces costumees, 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 (The Lark) dramatizes the life of Joan of Arc, and Becket, ou, L'Honneur de Dieu (Becket, or, The Honor of God) concerns Thomas àBecket. Both plays employ spare sets are reminiscent of Antigone in their focus on protagonists who remain true to their sense of honor even when confronted with death. The theatrical elements of Anouilh's work come to the forefront in his pièces baroques. In Cher Antoine, ou, L'Amour rate (Dear Antoine, or, The Love that Failed) the central character is a prominent playwright and the story unfolds as a play within a play; and in Ne reveillez pas Madame (Don't Awaken Madame) the protagonist is an actor. 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.
While 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. Lewis W. Falb comments: "Although not as intellectual as some other twentieth-century French dramatists, Anouilh is unquestionably a master playmaker, one of the most accomplished craftsmen in modern French theater—indeed, in world theater. We respond deeply to the humanity of Anouilh's writing as we are dazzled by the brilliance of its form, for his work is both a synthesis of and a contribution to the most creative elements in modern drama."