Jean Anouilh

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Inventive, cynical, deeply felt, commercially successful, and post-modern before the term was coined, the plays of Jean Anouilh would be fine fodder for any contemporary opera composer with a Brechtian…
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Inventive, cynical, deeply felt, commercially successful, and post-modern before the term was coined, the plays of Jean Anouilh would be fine fodder for any contemporary opera composer with a Brechtian sense of theater. Puzzlingly, his writing has rarely intersected with music. Francis Poulenc composed the incidental music for Anouilh's 1940 play Léocadio, from which is drawn the well-known song Les Chemins de L'amour, and Anouilh wrote the libretto for Jean-Michel Damase's 1961 opera Colombe. Otherwise, Anouilh's work still awaits the musical treatment it deserves.

Drawing inspiration, especially from Molière, Pirandello, and Giraudoux, Anouilh created obviously and intentionally artificial stage worlds, provided a sort of self-aware theater of illusion that forces audiences to contemplate all that is false in the real world. His characters' motivations and actions are hardly absurdist, but their environments are generally not realistic. His 1944 treatment of Antigone, for example, snips the characters from Greek myth (and mainly, the play by Sophocles) and pastes them into the middle of the 20th century, smoking cigarettes and driving fast cars, but the issues and actions remain true to the ancient sources.

Anouilh's recurring theme, right from his second play L'Hermine (1932), was the "great thirst for purity." His protagonists are obsessed with their personal integrity and their inflexibility leads almost inevitably to their downfall, leaving the antagonists -- who compromise and come to terms with real life -- to pick up the pieces. Typical of these doomed idealists are Joan of Arc in L'alouette (1953) and the title character in Becket (1959), both religious martyrs.

This is not to say that Anouilh's vision is always tragic; his plays range from anguished melodrama to exuberant farce. He ultimately published his plays under revealing if fanciful descriptive headings: pièces roses (light), pièces noires (dark), pièces brillantes (sparkling), pièces grinçantes (grating), pièces baroques, and several others.

Particularly in his plays before about 1960, Anouilh's happier protagonists can evade the sorry fate of those with integrity only through sheer escapism; fantasy frees the main characters in such plays as Le Voyageur Sans Baggage (1937), Léocadia, and L'invitation au Chateau (1947). From the mid-'50s, Anouilh fell into a sour pessimism, producing dark farces such as Pauvre Bitos (1956) and melancholy comedies such as Cher Antoine (1969). Notably, the heroes of these late plays are far more willing to compromise. Throughout his career, Anouilh also wrote or collaborated on several screenplays, some drawn from his stage works, some adapted from others' stories, and some original. Perhaps the best in the latter category is 1947's Monsieur Vincent, a respectful but unsentimental and not humorless biography of St. Vincent de Paul.