Jean Anouilh (June 23, 1910 – October 3, 1987) was one of the leading French dramatists of the twentieth century. He was best known for his dramaturgical skill and emphasis on literary craftsmanship. His best known works include an updated version of Antigone and Becket, ou l'honneur de Dieu. Anouilh moved away from the dominant elements of modern theater, Realism and Naturalism, in favor of more artistic concerns. His plays employ some of the elements of the Shakespearean theater, including the use of flash forwards and flash backs, as well as the "play within a play" technique. In his earlier works, he examined the relationship of the individual in modern society and the conflict between individual desires and social concerns. His updated treatment of Antigone represents the extreme element of the individual who will not bend to social pressure and who pays a heavy price for her stubbornness.
He was born in Cérisole, a small village on the outskirts of Bordeaux and had Basque ancestry. His father was a tailor and Anouilh maintained that he inherited from him a pride in conscientious craftmanship. He may owe his artistic bent to his mother, a violinist who eked out the family's meager budget playing summer seasons in the casino orchestra in the nearby seaside resort of Arcachon.
Anouilh attended the école primaire supérieure where he received his secondary education at the Collège Chaptal. Jean-Louis Barrault, later a major French director, was a pupil there at the same time and recalls Anouilh as an intense, rather dandified figure who hardly noticed a lad some two years younger than himself. Anouilh enrolled as a law student in the University of Paris, only to abandon the course after just eighteen months when he found employment in the advertising industry. He liked the work and spoke more than once with wry approval of the lessons in the classical virtues of brevity and precision of language he learned while drafting copy.
In 1932, his first play, L’Hermine, written in 1929, flopped, but he followed it up with a string of others. He struggled through years of poverty producing several plays until he eventually wound up as secretary to the great actor-director Louis Jouvet. He quickly discovered he could not get along with this gruff man and left his company. During the Nazi occupation of France, Anouilh did not openly take sides, though he published the play Antigone, often viewed as his most famous work. The play criticizes in an allegorical manner collaborationism with the Nazis. Mostly keeping aloof from politics, Anouilh also clashed with Charles de Gaulle in the 1950s. Anouilh himself grouped his plays on the basis of their dominant tone: "black" (tragedies and realistic plays), "pink" (where fantasy dominates), "brilliant" ('pink' and 'black' combined in aristocratic environments), "jarring" ('black' plays with bitter humor), "costumed" (historical characters feature), "baroque," and my failures (mes fours).
He was an outstanding writer with a unique ability to craft a wide spectrum of brilliant masterpieces. In 1970 his work was recognized with the Prix mondial Cino Del Duca.
Anouilh married actress Monelle Valentin in 1931 and soon after had a child. He died in Lausanne, Switzerland.
Antigone is a tragedy inspired by Greek mythology and the play of the same name (Antigone, by Sophocles) from the fifth century B.C.E. In English, it is often distinguished from its antecedent by being pronounced in its original French form, approximately "Ante-GŌN."
The play was first performed in Paris on February 6, 1944, not insignificantly during the Nazi occupation. A comparison is sometimes drawn between the French occupation and the play, with the character of Antigone representing courageous members of the French resistance, while her uncle Créon represents the collaborators to the German occupiers, however this interpretation is somewhat simplistic, and is not hugely helpful in understanding the deeper themes of the play.
Just as in the myth and original play, the action follows the battle for Thèbes in which both of Antigone's brothers have been killed. Créon, now king, has decreed that while Antigone's brother Etéocle should be given the usual respectful burial, Polynice must be left as carrion for scavengers. Antigone chooses to attempt to bury Polynices, and is brought before Créon as a prisoner. Créon attempts to overlook the offense, perhaps because Antigone is betrothed to his son Hémon, but Antigone refuses to be denied the responsibility for her actions, whether they be viewed as guilt or credit. A twist in this version is that Créon is not certain and does not care which body is lying on the pavement, and decided it would be Polynice. Thus, the noble cause that Antigone champions in Sophocles's drama is undermined here. No longer does Antigone nobly choose death; in Anouilh's play, she rejects life as desperately meaningless but without affirmatively choosing a noble death. The crux of the play is the lengthy dialogue between Créon and Antigone concerning the nature of power, fate, and choice, during which Antigone says, "I spit on your happiness! I spit on your idea of life–that life that must go on, come what may. You are all like dogs that lick everything they smell. You with your promise of a humdrum happiness–provided a person doesn't ask much of life. I want everything of life, I do; and I want it now! I want it total, complete: otherwise I reject it! I will not be moderate. I will not be satisfied with the bit of cake you offer me if I promise to be a good little girl. I want to be sure of everything this very day; sure that everything will be as beautiful as when I was a little girl. If not, I want to die!"
Although Anouilh based his play on the Sophocles play of the same name, there are significant differences. These include the absence of the blind prophet Tiresias (who was central to the Sophocles' "Antigone"), the substitution of the Choral Odes for a single character representing the chorus, and the addition of a nanny that takes care of Oedipus' two daughters.
In many of his plays, Jean Anouilh presents his reader the striking and ineluctable dichotomy between of idealism and realism. Pucciani tells us that "in Anouilh, no middle ground of ambiguity exists where this conflict is resolved." This can be seen in his play Le Voyageur Sans Baggages, where the main character Gaston, is a World War I veteran who suffers from amnesia. He does not remember his past that was filled with his moral depravity (he slept with his brother's wife and severely injured his best friend, among examples). This moral depravity is invariably at odds with the extreme purity that he now exhibits and is the antithesis of his past. In another play L'Hermine, the main character finds himself in a world that his hostile to his romantic idealism. In L'Hermine, love is made to fight an inexorable and futile battle against money, social status, ambition, and lax morals.
Much of Jean Anouilh's work represents the battle between idealism and realism, between the individual, portrayed as a hopeless romantic, and the society, locked in a perpetual battle because his desire cannot be fulfilled in and through society. In some works, like his Pièces Roses, the protagonist finds a compromise—not an ideal one—but an acceptable accommodation with which he can live his life. But in Anouilh's Pièces Noires, the battle is lost from the beginning and the character is doomed to a harrowing fate.
Anouilh was one of the master technicians of the modern drama. His influence would stretch beyond the French stage and he would gain an international reputation for his best plays. Especially in his later works he began to treat the absurd elements of the human predicament and influenced the development of the Theater of the Absurd.
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