France's 20th Century Master Playwright

Molière Meets Sartre

(1910 - 1987)

Talent is like a faucet; while it is open, you have to write. Inspiration? - a hoax fabricated by poets for their self-importance


Jean Anouilh's writing, which could be dramatically classically serious, or frivolously cynically whimsical, reflected his artistic idealism in a collision course with harsh reality, as he witnessed first hand the horrors of World War II. Though he maintained the French sensibilité jolie in theatre, he nevertheless shared the existentialist sense of 'what's the use' to some degree resulting in an œuvre mélangé. He grouped his works in "colored" groupings depending on their mood, that we will discuss further on. Critics might fault this philosophical incongruity, but not his technical skills manipulating the stage. Music and dance permeated his pieces, yet despair could keep pace alongside. In his own unique way, he made good use of the 'play within a play' device or placed theatrical settings in his plays which allowed him to blend farce with sobriety.

The general public might be most aware of his Tony winner Becket adapted to film five years later in 1964 and starred Peter O'Toole and Richard Burton who played Henry Plantagenet and Thomas à Becket, respectively. His abject terror of being in the spotlight and his 'backstage' presence might be the reason only those 'in the scene' are aware of him. I hope I can bring him back 'center stage.'

Bordeaux Beginnings

Love is, above all, the gift of oneself.

Jean Anouilh's father was a tailor. I could not help but observing how this line seems to reflect the lyrics from "House of the Rising Sun," and possibly his mother could have accompanied the song on violin at her job in the local Casino's ensemble if they had played it. However, she was way too busy for fiddling on that June 23rd day in 1910 giving birth to her enfant jeune fils, Jean.

Playwright's Head Start

The Play's the thing. --Shakespeare

Before he finished his childhood schooling, which eventually would lead to his attending the prestigious Sorbonne, he wrote his first play at only 12 years of age. Though he would not dedicate his career to writing for another 'baker's dozen' years, this was the start of his five decade dramatist occupation. He was 19 when Jean Aurenche helped him write his first, Humulus le Muet, then the successive play, Mandarene; (and most of his time spent at that famous left bank school was not dedicated to literature but law). Moreover, his first job was for the Comédie des Champs-Èlysées run by Louis Jouvet, but it was as their secretary. In the year (1931) he turned 21, he also married an actress, Mademoiselle Monelle Valentin (which eventually ended). (Was there some prophetic moment in 1932 when he wrote Jezabel or L'Hermine (The Ermine) Three years later he devoted all his time to writing.

Enter Stage Left

And under this carnival disguise the heart of an old youngster who is still waiting to give his all. But how to be recognized under this mask?

Anouilh began his long career in a realistic format and he borrowed much from traditional French theater. On Molière and his antecedent Jean quipped:

...the true French theatre is the only only one that's not gloomy, in which we laugh like men at war without misery and horror. This humor is one of France's messages to the world.
More importantly, there were other Frenchmen like Jouvet, Vitrac, Musset, Cocteau, and Giraudoux --who had taken their pens in new directions-- and even work of the Italian Pirandello, who helped mold him. By 1935 he started on his path to notoriety with his Y Avait un Prisonnier, (There was a Prisoner) but two years later his name was brighter on the Marquee with Voyageur Sans Bagage (Traveler without Luggage.) This play, that would be a first of an annual Parisian treat, featured the familiar theme of an individual facing struggles, this one about a man when whose lost memory returns, finds his previous life so sordid that it has to be demolished and replaced. In 1938 he wrote Le Bal des Voleurs (Thieves' Carnival.)

When he was not translating Shakespeare, or Oscar Wilde and Graham Greene, he was helping with screenplay]s, a task he began in 1936. He directed two films, and he is noted for his 1947 oeuvre cinématographique, directed by Maurice Cloche, Monsieur Vincent, and his fitting production concerning parallel marriage problems, La Petite Molière of 1959. It really is not that surprising, with his utilization of music in his dramas, to discover that he wrote a couple of ballets as well.

World War II Artistic Hero

While others were firing bullets, Anouilh was firing his barbs, in an obvious subtle manner, as seen in his time-shifting ancient classical Greek's Eurydice (Legend of Lovers) and Sophocle's ancient Antigone to the 1940's. He wrote a romantic piece in 1940 about a prince Léocadia (Time Remembered) who finds another love who looks just like his deceased beloved. The Orpheus legend redone for 1941 reflects the suffocating shadows cast over that time, and that extremely popular 1944 Antigone featured his wife playing the lead, her famous title role lines:

Vous me dégoûtez tous avec votre bonheur! Avec votre vie qu'il faut aimer coûte que coûte. On dirait des chiens qui lèchent tout ce qu'ils trouvent. Et cette petite chance pour tous les jours, si on n'est pas trop exigeant. Moi, je veux tout, tout de suite, -- et que ce soit entier -- ou alors je refuse! Je ne veux pas être modeste, moi, et me contenter d'un petit morceau si j'ai été bien sage. Je veux être scoûtere de tout aujourd'hui et que cela soit aussi beau que quand j'tais petite -- ou mourir.

The villain, King Creon, (not to be confused with Elvis' King Creole) is synonymous with contemporary dictators as exemplified by Nazi Vichey puppets and puppet-masters, and the heroin echoes a centuries' earlier cry made by American Revolutionary Hero Patrick Henry: to choose death over enslavement.

International Acclaim

Every man thinks God is on his side. The rich and powerful know He is.

His fame now worldwide after the War, he delved into historical material that would be sources for what he classified as "pièces costumées" reality blended sometimes with the surreal, and one well known of this type is his Joan of Arc account, L'Alouette (The Lark,) first presented in 1953 and at New York's Longacre Theatre in 1955 staring Julie Harris. It was around this time some his earlier pieces were translated to English. We became first introduced in 1952 to a character modeled after the author, General Saint Pé in La Valse des Toréadors (Waltz of the Toreadors). Then as the fifties wore on, dissent against Charles De Gaulle impelled his publishing L'Hurluberlu, Ou le Réactionnaire Amoureux (The Fighting Cock) in 1958, and Le Songe du Critique, then Le Sauvage (The Savage) as the sixties decade commenced. His loss of an audience to newcomers, Ionesco and Beckett put him on a long 'retreat.' However, he returned for another 'curtain call' in 1978, now as a relatively conservative and nostalgic writer, but still progressive with the suffragette piece La Culotte.

He has been sometimes relegated to a purveyor of mere entertainment, but there is usually always an underlying message about stark elements of life hidden beneath a surface of cartoon protagonists. Their standing up for what they believe rather than capitulate will either drive them to death or fantasy. The existentialist brings "l'addition" (the bill) to the table of French wine, fine culinary and "joie de vivre."

Exit Stage Center

He eventually remarried to a Mme. Nicole Lançon, who left him four offspring.Before he died in Lausanne Switzerland on October 3, 1987 he had been active, writing in 1981 Le Nombril (The Navel) and directing his and others' plays.

Colorful Segmentation

Similar to the way classifies Picasso with his Blue period, ecetera, Anouilh's work was organized by him for his published collections of plays in an almost visual descriptive manner:

  1. Black (Pièce Noires)
    These include those famous two from the tenebrous days of World War II, Eurydice and Antigone.
  2. Pink (fantasie)
    These are the lighter plays, like Thieves' Carnival, and Time Remembered
  3. Brilliant (Pièces Brillantes) --or Witty or Glittering
    Examples of this genre that mixes 'pink' and 'black' are Ring Around the Moon (1947), Colombe, and The Rehearsal
  4. Jarring (Grinçantes) -or Grating
    These were biting comedies which were mixed with the 'black' and are represented by plays like Aredèle, Waltz of the Toreadors, Ornifle, Pauvre Bitos, ou le Diner de Têtes (The Masked Dinner, or Poor Bitos)
  5. Costumed (Pièces Costumées) --or History Plays
    As mentioned earlier his Becket, ou l'Honneur de Dieu directed in 1964 by Peter Glenville, and also starred John Gielgud is part of that differentiation as well as The Lark-- the Joan of Arc tale.
  6. Baroque
  7. "My" Failures (Mes Fours)

Jean Anouilh Works Not Mentioned Above

  • Le Petite Bonheur (1935)
  • Le Rendezvous des Senlis (1937)
  • Oreste (1945)
  • Roméo et Jeannette (1946)
  • Médée (1946)
  • Ëpisode de la Vie d'Un Auteur (1948)
  • Cécile, ou L'École des Pères (Cecile or the School of Fathers) (1949) (translated to English 1954)
  • La Répétition (1950)
  • Ornifle, Ou le Courant d'Air (the Draft) (1955)
  • La Grotte (the Cavern) (1961)
  • L'Orchestre (1962)
  • La Foire d'Empoigne (Catch as catch can) (1962)
  • Le Boulanger, La Boulangère et le Petit Mitron (1964)
  • Five Plays, Volume I, II; Seven Plays, vol III (1958-1967)
  • Cher Antoine (1969)
  • Ne Réveillez pas Madame (Don't awaken the Lady) (1970)
  • Les Poissons Rouge (the Goldfish) (1970)
  • Théâtre: 7 Vols. (1951-1970)
  • Le Directeur de L'Opéra (1972)
  • Tu Étais si Gentile Quand tu Étais Petit (You were so nice when you were young) (1972)
  • Monsieur Barnett (1974)
  • L'Arrestation (1975)
  • Le Scénario (1976)
  • Chers Zoiseaux (1976)
  • Vive Henri IV (1978)
  • Jean Anouilh: Five Plays (1993)

Sources: Rand Lindsly
Moore, Edwin, Concise Dictionary of Biography: Pocket Reference London: Tiger Books, 1993.