Active as a dramatist well past the age of sixty-five, Jean Anouilh wrote nearly fifty plays in roughly as many years, among them five or ten true masterpieces that more than suffice to assure him a position of high distinction in the history of French drama.
Achieving distinction in his mid-twenties with such memorable successes as Traveller Without Luggage and Thieves’ Carnival, Anouilh soon thereafter consolidated his reputation with the thought-provoking Antigone to become the preeminent dramatist of wartime and postwar France, reaching both a serious and a popular audience. Among the most instinctively “theatrical” of playwrights, Anouilh proved equally skillful at comedy, melodrama, near-tragedy, and satire, adopting for his efforts a new, if tongue-in-cheek, system of genre classification: In the standard collections of his theater, the pieces are duly classified as “pink” plays, “black” plays, “shining” plays, “grating” plays, and so on. During the 1950’s, he added, with considerable success, a new category: “costume” plays based, if somewhat less than faithfully, on the characters and incidents of history. Both The Lark, which re-creates the life and death of Joan of Arc, and Becket, studying the tortured relationship between Thomas à Becket and Henry II, achieved great success worldwide, as did a subsequent film version of the latter, featuring Richard Burton in the title role and Peter O’Toole as the king.
Increasingly involved in the staging and direction of his plays, Anouilh wrote little new for the theater during the 1960’s. A subsequent phase of his career, beginning around 1970, brought forth several new plays deemed generally inferior to Anouilh’s prior standard, with a tendency toward repetition, yet eminently stage worthy thanks to the author’s personal involvement in their production.
For reasons difficult to fathom, Anouilh’s plays have fared somewhat less well in English translation than might have been expected, with appreciably better success in Britain than in the United States or Canada. At times ill-served by his translators, even down to the titles of his plays, Anouilh was perhaps too irretrievably Gallic in thought and expression to reach an American audience. Even in America, however, he is destined to be remembered as the most talented, versatile, and representative French dramatist of the mid-twentieth century.
Beynon, John S. Anouilh: “L’Alouette” and “Pauvre Bitos.” London: Grant & Cutler, 1984. Perceptive, even exhaustive analysis of particular efforts.
Carrington, Ildiko de Papp. “Recasting the Orpheus Myth: Alice Munro’s The Children Stay and Jean Anouilh’s Eurydice.” Essays on Canadian Writing 66 (Winter 1998): 191-203. Examines the way in which Munro’s characters are recast from Anouilh’s Eurydice in order to reject his conception of a pure, fated love.
Della Fazia, Alba Maria. Jean Anouilh. New York: Twayne, 1969. Notable for thematic criticism and for the few bare facts then available concerning the author’s life.
Falb, Lewis W. Jean Anouilh. New York: F. Ungar, 1977. Explores Anouilh’s life and works. Index and bibliography.
Grossvogel, David I. The Self-Conscious Stage in Modern French Theatre. New York: Columbia University, 1958. Explores the history and criticism of twentieth century French theater. Bibliography and index.
Guicharnaud, Jacques. Modern French Theatre: From Giraudoux to Genet. 1961. Rev. ed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1972. Examines critical playwrights and prominent themes of modern-day French theater.
Harvey, John. Anouilh: A Study in Theatrics. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1964. Provides invaluable insights into the author’s distinctly “theatrical” concept and execution, comparing him to previous masters of the stage.
Howarth, W. D. Anouilh: Antigone. London: Edward Arnold, 1983. Thorough analysis includes index and bibliography.
McIntyre, H. G. The Theatre of Jean Anouilh. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble, 1981. Embracing nearly all of Anouilh’s career, an admirable assessment of the author’s skills and accomplishments. With regard to the later plays, McIntyre properly discerns continuity where other critics have seen only chaos.
Pronko, Leonard. The World of Jean Anouilh. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968. Offers good background studies with useful analytical chapters.
Thody, Philip. Anouilh. London: Oliver & Boyd, 1968. Offers good background studies with useful analytical chapters.
Witt, Mary Ann Frese. “Fascist Ideology and Theater Under the Occupation: The Case of Anouilh.” Journal of European Studies 89 (March-June, 1993). Information on Anouilh during the World War II years.