Jean Anouilh

The French playwright Jean Anouilh (1910-1987) was an accomplished craftsman. His plays, from the frivolous and fanciful to the serious, exploit the artificiality of the theater to elucidate his views of the human predicament.

Jean Anouilh was born in Cérisole, near Bordeaux, on June 23, 1910. His father, a tailor, and his mother, a violinist in an orchestra, undoubtedly imparted to their son respect for craftsmanship and a love of art. Anouilh received his primary and secondary education in Paris, where he later studied law for a year and a half. In 1929 he went to work in an advertising agency, for which he wrote publicity and comic film scripts for 2 years. After a period in military service, he was briefly (1931-1932) secretary to the great actor and director Louis Jouvet and married Monelle Valentin, an actress who later created the roles of many of Anouilh's heroines.

From early childhood Anouilh had been fascinated by the stage. He haunted theaters and was writing plays at the age of 12. Like many a stagestruck youth, he tended to confuse real life with the theater, a view which led him to sacrifice in his early plays substance for theatricality. Undaunted by Jouvet's lack of encouragement and by the near or total failure of his first plays, Anouilh stubbornly resolved to devote his life to the theater. Success came in 1937 with Le Voyageur sans bagages (Traveler without Luggage). Anouilh's popularity steadily increased in the next two decades both in France and abroad.

Profoundly impressed by the plays of Jean Giraudoux and Luigi Pirandello, which broke with the tradition of the realistic theater, Anouilh recognized the value of poetry, of illusion and fantasy, and of irony as a means of portraying basic truths about human life. He held the growing conviction that the essence of the theater, that is, its quality of make-believe, mirrors the pretense and self-delusion of life; this led him to exploit the artificiality of the theater as a way of exposing the falsity of men's motives and even of their allegedly noblest principles and sentiments.

Anouilh's constant preoccupation with the technical production of his plays gradually led him to the role of director. In this capacity he produced, in line with his own views, plays by others, including Moli'e, as well as his own.

Completely absorbed in his work, Anouilh avoided other involvements and chose a secluded private life. His first marriage ended in divorce, and he married another actress, Charlotte Chardon, in 1953. One of his children, Catherine, also an actress, starred in her father's plays.

Although Anouilh grouped his plays in several categories according to their predominant tone—pi'es (plays) roses (pink), noires (black), brillantes (brilliant), grinçantes (jarring), costumées (costumed), and baroques (baroque)— they all offer a unified and ever-deepening view of the human condition. His characteristic heroes are essentially rebels, revolting in the name of an inner ideal of purity against compromise with the immoral demands of family, social position, or their past. The fanciful or uncompromising efforts of the early heroes to escape from reality give way in most of the later plays to a profound bitterness caused by the recognition that no escape is possible. Among Anouilh's most admired plays are Le Bal des voleurs (1932; Thieves' Carnival), Antigone (1942), L'Invitation au château (1947; adapted as Ring Round the Moon), La Valse des toréadors (1951; The Waltz of the Toreadors), L'Alouette (1952; adapted as The Lark), Becket (1959), and Ne réveillez pas madame Don't Wake the Lady).

Anouilh died on October 3, 1987, in Lausanne, Switzerland.


Further Reading on Jean Anouilh

The most exhaustive general study of Anouilh in English is Edward Owen Marsh, Jean Anouilh, Poet of Pierrot and Pantaloon (1953). John E. Harvey makes an excellent study of his dramaturgy in Anouilh: A Study in Theatrics (1964), and Leonard Cabell Pronko concentrates on the themes and dramatic values in The World of Jean Anouilh (1961).

Falb, Lewis W., Jean Anouilh (Frederick Ungar, 1977).

New York Times (October 5, 1987).