(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

Jean Anouilh likes to divide his plays into three categories of material and treatment, and to date he has maintained a fairly even balance of productivity among the classifications he has designated. Included in his pieces noires, as he calls his more somber dramas, are those based on themes taken from classic Greek sources or from history: LEGEND OF LOVERS, the retelling in a modern setting of the Orpheus and Eurydice story; ANTIGONE, a thinly veiled allegory of France during the German occupation; MEDEA, and THE LARK, which deals with the martyrdom of Joan of Arc. On the evidence of these plays it would be possible to make out a good case proving that Anouilh is the leading tragic dramatist of his generation in France; however, he is better known in this country and in England for his pieces roses and pieces brillantes, his lighter works of tender feeling, artifice, and wit which do not fall into any of the conventional classifications of drama. Neither comedy, farce, fantasy, nor romance, they contain elements of all four. RING ROUND THE MOON, listed among the pieces brillantes, is a typical example.

RING ROUND THE MOON is the title given by Christopher Fry to his adaptation of Anouilh’s L’INVITATION AU CHATEAU. Although this version in English has considerable merit and unmistakable charm in its own right—a Cinderella theme treated in the manner of Oscar Wilde—Fry has caught little more than the mannered grace and brittle style of the original. His treatment, aptly described as “A Charade with Music,” is a work of surface brilliance, poetic overtones, and sly wit, and as an engaging divertissement it provides an entertaining evening in the theater. Anouilh’s play, on the other hand, is more serious in its ironic implications, depth of feeling, and insight into the muddled human situation, matters presented against a background that seems always on the point of dissolving into the make-believe atmosphere of a fairy tale.

This effect is characteristic of Anouilh’s art, for he holds that the primary business of the theater is to create an illusion and a mood. The world of his plays is a moon-struck region of imagination and invention in which the logic of things as they happen is seldom the daylight logic of the actual or the commonplace. In spite of the fact that this world is as circumscribed and meticulously detailed as Proust’s, it lends itself to effects of unabashed theatricality appropriate to a Cloud-Cuckoo-Land in which the fantastic becomes the real, art is also artifice, and no clear line divides the rueful from the comic. Since Giraudoux no writer has been more successful in combining the irresponsible with the serious, the improbable with the real. Such stock situations as the confusion of identical twins, contrived or ridiculous misunderstandings between lovers, affections abruptly transferred, and the play within a play abound in Anouilh’s dramas because he dares to be original in an old-fashioned way. He works within a stage tradition that goes back through the comedy of manners and the commedia dell’ arte to Plautus, Terence, and Menander.

A twofold theme of deception and self-deception provides the dramatic...

(The entire section is 1321 words.)