“There is love … and then there’s life, its enemy.” – Jean Anouilh
Jean Anouilh began his journey with love’s adversary on a summer day in June, 1910. His father, François Anouilh, worked as a tailor, while his mother, Marie-Magdalene, a musician, played the violin in the orchestra of the Casino at Arcachon, near the family’s home in Bordeax. As a child, Anouilh spent many nights watching his mother play for various operettas. He started playwriting at the tender age of twelve, and by the comparatively wintry age of nineteen had his first finished piece, Humulus Le Muet, a collaboration with Jean Aurenche. This was followed in the same year by Anouilh’s second effort, Mandarine. Once he had finished his early schooling, Anouilh continued his education studying law at the prestigious Sarbonne. After graduating, he worked as a copywriter at Publicité Damour, and penning comedic scenes for the French cinema. Journalism and screenwriting were not, however, counted as Anouilh’s strongest and deepest passions; his heart belonged to Le Théâtre.
He merged his love of the theatre with his love of the heart in 1931 with his marriage to the actress Monelle Valentin. He also began working as secretary to Louis Jouvet at his Comédie des Champs-Élysées – the theatre that was to bring froth all of Jean Giraudoux’s most famous works – before deciding a few years later, at age twenty-five, to commit completely to his playwriting.
The results of the decree of devotion were prolific. Anouilh wrought a multitude of plays during the subsequent years. Following his first hit, Le Voyageur Sans Bagage (1937), the Paris stage was to enjoyed a new Anouilh play nearly every season. His career as a playwright would eventually stretch over five decades.
Using a classification system based on George Bernard Shaw’s method of “Plays Pleasant” and “Plays Unpleasant,” Anouilh divided all of his published work into specific categories. The groups consisted of six types of “pièces” (plays): ” pièces noires” represented the “black” tragic and realistic, ” pièces roses” the pink and fantastical, ” pièces brilliantes” the bright, or glittering, ” pièces grinçantes” were set-your-teeth-on-edge grating, ” pièces costumées” were distinguished by costume and historical characters, and ” pièces baroque” defined by Baroque elements.
It was 1941 when Eurydice (pièces noires) was produced for the first time at Théâtre de L’Atelier, Paris. The play was written during World War II, and its influence in Eurydice is clearly evident. It was Anouilh’s first use of Greek myth adaptation, reworking the ill-fated story of Orpheus and Eurydice into a modern setting. He would return to the Greek myth adaptations later with Antigone (1944) and Médée (1946). Jean-Paul Sartre (from whom Anouilh had adopted some of his existentialist views) advocated the significance of using myth in contemporary theatre. Sartre felt it was the dramatist’s duty to convey myths that could be understood and sympathized with, depicting to the audience an increased and intensified reflection of their own torments, utilizing the great themes of love, death, and ostracism. Indeed, it appears that in Anouilh’s mind the story of Orphée and Eurydice is the single true love story worthy of being told. In the Anouilh school, classic storybook endings of total contentment are deemed incomplete, or fashioned from fibs and compromise.
Despite its sober subject matter, Eurydice was a success in Paris. Seven years later it made its American premiere in Los Angeles at the Coronet Theater in 1948 with a translation by Mel Ferrer. Critics and crowds alike seemed to receive the show kindly; and the production was of some note as it marked the American stage debut of Viveca Lindfors. Eurydice’s next destination was London. Under a different title, Point of Departure, and a new translation by Kitty Black, Eurydice opened in 1950 at the Lyric Theatre, then transferred its performances to the Globe Theatre (now known as the Gielgud). Eurydice found a welcome audience with the English, and the production achieved similar success as it had in Paris. One year later, 1951, Anouilh’s version of the Greek legend came to Manhattan to test the American palette a second time – this time on the East Coast. Under yet another title, Legend of Lovers, Eurydice opened at the Plymouth Theater using the same Kitty Black translation of the piece. The production was produced by the prestigious and adventurous Theatre Guild and starred a young Richard Burton as Orpheus, Dorothy McGuire (returning to Broadway from her time in Hollywood for the first time in ten years) as Eurydice and Hugh Griffith as Orpheus’ father. Generally speaking, it was not well received – though the cast was universally praised..
Thomas R. Dash of Women’s Wear Daily summed up the critic’s sentiment: “To addicts of the naturalistic theatre, Legend of Lovers may sound like a lot of mumbo-jumbo; to those who have a feeling for the exotic and the unusual, it will be poetic gossamer, fanciful, imaginative, and stimulating.” Members of the “mumbo-jumbo” guild were, unfortunately, plentiful. In spite of praise for Anouilh’s language (“artful and ambitious…highly provocative,” reported John McClain in the New York Journal-American — “an exquisite balance of humor and hubris,” raved A.D. Coleman of a 1967 production in The Village Voice) the consensus was that Anouilh’s story was simply too dark and dreary for the American sensibility and the glittering lights of Broadway in the early 1950’s.
A revival eight years later, in 1959 at the 41st Street Theater, Eurydice (or, Legend of Lovers) failed again to claim a mainstream audience – with the critics as divided as they were the first go round. The New York Mirror felt the play had “tender and stirring moments” and thought that though the production “less slick than its predecessor, is more effective.” It also found its new home in the intimate 41st Street Theatre served the play better then it had been served at the Booth. The New York Journal American, however, found the whole thing worse the second time around. Again, the performances were praised particularly the Orpheus of a young Ron Leibman and the Dulac of Edward Asner.
New York was not simply anti-Anouilh — several of his plays thrived here, including The Rehearsal (La Répétition), The Lark (L’Alouette), Waltz of the Toreadors (La Valse des Toréadors) and Becket, which won a Tony Award in 1959 and became a film in 1964 — but Eurydice remained a relish unappreciated by the American pallet.
During the 1980’s, Anouilh dropped, for a time, his role as playwright and directed some of his own work as well as that of other writers. He also worked with adaptation, translating pieces by authors such as Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, and Graham Greene. And he collaborated on many screenplays, directed two films, and wrote ballets.
Anouilh passed away from a heart attack at age 77 on October 3rd, 1987 in Switzerland. He was survived by his second wife, and four children – one of who is an actress.