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Jean Anouilh | Biography

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Jean Anouilh (pronounced "ahn WEE") was one of the 20th century's most acclaimed French dramatists and one of its most controversial. In his 40-plus-year career, he wrote dozens of plays, adaptations, and translations, as well as screenplays for film and television. Of his many international successes, the most enduring is Antigone, adapted from the classic Greek tragedy.

Anouilh was born in the Burgundy region of France on June 23, 1910. He said his father, a tailor, taught him the value of craftsmanship, but his artistic bent and love of theater may have come from his mother, a violinist; when she played accompaniment at local theaters, Anouilh tagged along.

In 1922 the family moved to Paris, where the young Anouilh attended plays whenever he could. As a young man he studied law but soon gave it up, determined to become a dramatist. To support himself he wrote advertisements, which he said taught him ''precision, conciseness and agility of expression.''

When Antigone opened in Paris in 1944, Anouilh was already a well-known dramatist; beginning in 1932 he'd had a string of successful productions. His run was briefly interrupted by World War II, when he was drafted into the army, captured by Germans, and sent to a German prison camp. Eventually making his way back to Nazi-occupied Paris, Anouilh found a society bitterly divided in its sympathies between the Nazi sympathizers on the one hand and the French resistance on the other.

Anouilh also found the Paris theater scene as vibrant as ever. The German administration saw the theaters as vehicles for fascist propaganda, while the citizens of Paris were eager for escape from the uncertainty of their daily lives. When Antigone opened in 1944, it was received with a furor that was dubbed "the Antigone Crisis." Both collaborators and the resistance embraced the play—for the opposite reasons. Antigone, the rebellious heroine, appealed to the pro-resistance crowd; Creon, the reluctant leader making hard decisions for the safety of his nation, appealed to the collaborators. Anouilh himself insisted his play was apolitical, later claiming he was not even aware of the underground resistance effort.

During the postwar purges—when the French tried to bring all collaborators to account—an anti-Semitic and pro-collaborationist journalist named Raymond Brasillach was sentenced to death. Anouilh barely knew Brasillach, but he and other prominent French writers signed a letter asking for stay of execution because they believed Brasillach was being punished for thought crimes, not for deeds. The left wing of the French press labeled Anouilh a collaborator, and thereafter the French left would view Antigone as collaborationist propaganda. The French bourgeoisie, however, continued to view the play as a metaphor for resistance.

While many of the plays that followed Antigone were criticized as dated, such as The Baker, the Baker's Wife, and the Baker's Boy (1968), later plays reestablished Anouilh as a master French playwright:

  • Dear Antoine; or, The Love That Failed (1969)
  • The Goldfish; or, My Father, This Hero (1970)
  • Do Not Awaken the Lady (1970)
  • The Arrest (1975)
  • The Trousers (1978)

Anouilh eventually relocated from France to Switzerland, where he died on October 3, 1987, of a heart attack.

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