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Jean Anouilh (1910–1987) was born in Bordeaux to a tailor father and a violinist mother. Though he began to write plays at age twelve, Anouilh initially pursued legal studies at the Sorbonne and worked briefly as an advertising copywriter and screenwriter. In 1931, Anouilh married the actress Monelle Valentin, became secretary to his mentor Louis Jouvet's Comédie des Champs-Élysées, and began his writing career. By the 1950s, Anouilh was Europe's most popular playwright. His favor in the public eye faded, however, with the rise of absurdist playwrights Ionesco and Beckett. After the loss of his critical popularity, Anouilh abandoned the theater for a number of years. He returned to the stage late in his life, writing and directing plays distinguished by their politically conservative nature and nostalgic tone.
Anouilh produced his first play, Humulus le muet, in 1929 in collaboration with Jean Aurenche. His play Mandarine appeared in the same year. Having decided to dedicate himself entirely to the theater, he then produced Y avait un prisonnier (1935), which was followed by his breakthrough work, Le voyageur sans baggage (1937), a naturalistic tale of an amnesiac who discovers that he led a corrupt life and opts to discard his former self. Though Anouilh continued to write naturalistic studies in the immediate wake of Le voyageur, he soon came under the influence of authors such as Giraudoux, Cocteau, Vitrac, and Pirandello, and began to develop a more expansive, experimental style. In the next decades, Anouilh worked in a number of genres, ranging from tragedies to farces to historical plays. He produced several "meta-theatrical" works that took the theater itself as setting and subject. Later he categorized these works by color (black, pink), quality (brilliant, failed) or style (baroque). In America, Anouilh's costumed or historic dramas were particularly well received, such as L'alouette (1953), his play on Joan of Arc, and the Tony award-winning Becket (1959).
Throughout his career, Anouilh's drama featured biting political critique. The two most notable examples in his great postwar period are his attacks on Charles de Gaulle in L'hurluberlu (1958) and Le songe du critique (1960). Antigone, an adaptation of Sophocles's classic produced in the context of the anti-fascist French resistance, is Anouilh's most often-produced work today. Antigone premiered in Paris in 1944, but Anouilh had written his tale of lone rebellion against the state two years earlier, inspired by an act of resistance during Paris's occupation by the Nazis. In August 1942, a young man named Paul Collette fired at and wounded a group of directors during a meeting of the collaborationist Légion des volontaires français. Collette did not belong to a Resistance network or organized political group, but acted entirely alone and in full knowledge of his certain death. For Anouilh, Collette's solitary act—at once heroic, gratuitous, and futile—captured the essence of tragedy and demanded an immediate revival of Antigone. Aware of Anouilh's thinly veiled attack on the Vichy government, the Nazis censored Antigone immediately upon its release. It premiered two years later at the Théâtre de l'Atelier in Paris under the direction of André Barsacq, a few months before Paris' liberation. The play starred Valentin as the doomed princess, and soon assumed canonical status in modern French theater.
Read more about the historical context of this play.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Antigone!