Jean Anouilh was born in Bordeaux. His father was a tailor and mother a violinist, who played in the orchestra of a casino near Bordeaux. After completing his early schooling, Anouilh studied law for a short time at the Sorbonne, and worked then as a copywriter at Publicité Damour. He also wrote comic scenes for the cinema. In 1931-32 Anouilh was secretary to the actor and director Louis Jouvet at the Comédie des Champs-Elysées. Since 1936, Anouilh worked on several screenplays, alone or in collaboration, including LES DÉGOURDIS DE LA ONZIÈME (1936), VOUS N’AVEZ RIEN À DÉCLARER (1937), CAVALCADE D’AMOUR (1939), LES OTAGES (1939), MONSIEUR VINCENT (1947), ANNA KARENINA (1948), based on Leo Tolstoy’s famous novel, PATTES BLANCHES (1949), CAROLINE CHÉRIE (1951), LE CHEVALIER DE LA NUIT (1953), LA MORT DE BELLE (1961), directed by by Edouard Molinaro and based on Simenon’s novel, and LA RONDE (1964), directed by Roger Vadim and based on Arthur Schnitzler’s play.
As a playwright Anouilh started already at the age of 12. In 1929 he collaborated with Jean Aurenche on his first play, HUMULUS LE MUET. It was followed in the same year by MANDARINE. Anouilh’s early plays were produced by Aurélien Lugné-Poe, a theatrical innovator, and the Pitoëffs, whose repertoire also included Paul Claudel, Jean Cocteau, André Gide, and Luigi Pirandello.
In 1931 Anouilh married the actress Monelle Valentin. At the age of twenty-five Anouilh decided to devote himself entirely to writing. During the next years Anouilh completed several plays and gained comparative success with the production of Y AVAIT UN PRISONNIER (1935) before his breakthrough work LE VOYAGEUR SANS BAGAGE (1937), which was adapted also to film. Its hero is an amnesiac who, discovering that he had been a vile young man, discards his old self. Since then a new Anouilh play was seen in Paris almost every season.
Anouilh’s early works were realistic and naturalistic studies of a sordid and corrupt world. Under the influence of such writers as Giraudoux, Cocteau, and Vitrac, Anouilh found a new angle into writing. Also classical French theater and the Italian dramatist Pirandello shaped his work. He often used the theater as the setting of his plays and struck a balance between farce and seriousness. “Thanks to Molière,” Anouilh once said, “the true French theatre is the only one that is not gloomy, in which we laugh like men at war with out misery and our horror. This humor is one of France’s messages to the world.”
Anouilh grouped his plays under adjectives descriptive of their dominant tone: “black” (tragedies, realistic plays), “pink” (fantasy dominates), “brilliant” (combination of pink and black plays in aristocratic environments), “jarring” (black plays with bitter humour), “costumed” (with historical characters), “baroque,” and mes fours (my failures). These adjectives occurred in the titles of each of his collections of plays.
During World War II Anouilh’s LÉOCADIA (1940) became a hit. The lyrical fantasy depicted a prince whose love, Léocadia, has died but who finds a new love in a young milliner who resembles her. In 1944 he gained a wide audience with ANTIGONE, a version of Sophocles’ classical drama, because of its thinly disguised attack on the Nazis and on the Vichy government, led by Marshal Pétain. Otherwise Anouilh remained mostly aloof from politics, but in the late 1950s he clashed with General de Gaulle.
Anouilh’s “costumed” plays often mixed reality with illusion and were presented as improvisations. Antigone opens with the insturction: “Set without historical or geographical implications. Three identical doors. At curtain rise all the characters are onstage, chatting, knitting, playing cards, and so on.” In the tragedy the heroine rejects the authoritarian King Creon and chooses death. The playwright’s own wife had a personal triumph in the main role.
After the war Anouilh was the most successful playwright in Europe. In the United States he enjoyed fame with the “costumed” plays to which he turned in the 1950s. Among them was L’ALOUETTE (1953, The Lark), about Joan of Arc, translated into English by Lillian Hellman. “By 1955 I needed money,” said Hellman later in Pentimento. “I wish I could tell myself that was why I adapted Jean Anouilh’s The Lark. But my reason was not money: I was feeling mischievous …”
The play was first performed in Paris on October 14, 1953. In New York it was staged at Longacre Theatre in 1955, starring Julie Harris. The American director William Wyler had read the play in Paris in 1955 and wrote: “… about Joan of Arc and it’s too late for that, or too early”. BECKET (1959), which won a Tony Award and the Antoinette Petty Award for Best Play of the Season (1960-61), was filmed with Peter O’Toole as Henry Plantagenet and Richard Burton as Thomas à Becket. “Did you love me when I made you Chancellor? I wonder sometimes if you’re capable of love,” says Henry. The film suggest that behind their lonstanding friendship was a sexual motivation, which prompted Newsweek to write that Anouilh, “by descending to the realm of the psychic and implying a sexual attraction between the two, muddies the issue.”
Anouilh’s sexual farce LA VALSE DES TORÉADORS (1952, The Waltz of the Toreadors) also became an international hit. Its hero, General Saint Pé, appeared in several plays as a caricature of the author. The title was inspired by Georges Bizet’s famous ‘March of the Toreadors’ from Carmen. In John Guillermin’s film version from 1962 the events took place just prior to the outbreak of World War I. Peters Sellers played a licentious retired army general, whose mistress falls in love with his son. “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? This is what they call a fine career.” (from The Waltz of the Toreadors) Sellers based the voice of the general on the Earl of Dudley, whom he knew.
In the 1950s Anouilh dealt with his clash with General de Gaulle in L’HURLUBERLU (1958) and LE SONGE DU CRITIQUE (1960). His works began to lose their critical favour with the emergence of such playwrights as Ionesco and Beckett. He did not write for a while. He then returned with plays which were marked by conservative attitudes and in which his principal character longs for the past. These works include LA CULOTTE (1978), in which the theme was women’s liberation. In the 1980s Anouilh directed some of his own plays as well as those of other authors. He died in Lausanne, Switzerland on October 3, 1987. Divorced from Monelle Valentin, he was survived by his second wife, Nicole Lançon, and four children.
Anouilh also wrote ballets and translated and adapted works from such authors as Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, and Graham Greene. Little Molière (1959), originally written as a film scenario, depict the unhappy relationship between the writer and his wife. Leonardo Bercovici’s film Monsoon (1952) was based on Anouilh’s play. LE SCÉNARIO (1976) was Anouilh’s attack on the movie world.