Jean Anouilh’s (1910-87) work ranges from high drama to absurdist farce. He is best known for his 1943 play Antigone, an adaptation of Sophocles’ classical drama; and a thinly veiled attack on Marshal Pétain’s Vichy government. His complete works are available in Gallimard’s La Pleiade series and La Table Ronde’s paperback imprint La Petite Vermillon.
Anouilh is from Andorra. In the small village of Cerisols where his father is a tailor, all fifty inhabitants are named Anouilh. Andorra is a separate-apart place — and Anouilh is a separate-apart person.
He is well known as the great contemporary playwright in London, New York, Paris, Spain . . . and he is completely unknown as a personality and takes great care to remain so.
The scathing wit of his plays then, which is so famous translated, adapted, from whom does it come? What is Anouilh? Does anyone know if he is thirty or seventy? Has anyone seen him? Does he never eat in restaurants, go to public places? At opening nights of his plays, while sophisticated revelations of the decadence of society flash across the stage alternately with visions of a certain fleur bleue lost purity — drawing peals of laughter from the audience one minute and gasps of shock the next, even sometimes tears — there is a slight man seated high among the public in the cheapest seats, incognito. He is hidden like a mole from the lights. His face is gentle. There is apparently no connection between him and the biting power on the stage . . . unless it is in the intensity of the small eyes behind the steel-rimmed spectacles.
Jean Anouilh sits alone in the gallery, observing.
He never takes a bow on the stage like other authors who co-produce; sometimes the ushers find his seat is empty before the end of the play. Yet he is very easy to talk to. He gets on well with his actors and director at rehearsals, he is gay and joking, no one is better at the job. But as soon as the job is over he goes home. That is all. No after-the-theatre suppers or hanging around. He despises publicity, dreads the idea that he might ever be recognisable in the street . . . for then he would lose his cherished privacy, which is a sort of fetish. It is not shyness: his privacy is his freedom.
He loves houses and hates hotels. He is planning to buy a mews flat in London so that when he goes to England for his plays there, even if only for a fortnight occasionally, he will be able to “live at home” among English silver and furniture.
Anouilh was born in June 1910. He took a law degree, and then worked in the first publicity agency in France with Jacques Prévert. He also wrote gags for movies at 100 francs a gag. Not only his father but his grandfather and great-grandfather before him were tailors; his mother’s people were musicians. Anouilh is proud of this heritage, thinks musicians and cloth-cutters are a good preparation for the theatre; “there is a direct link in precision” (for which he says publicity is also a help.) When he wrote I’Hermine, friends said, “This is catastrophic, he has written a play.” Pierre Fresnay acted in it and it was a great success. Anouilh fell in love with an actress, Monelle Valentin, who became his first wife (mother of his actress-daughter Catherine) and whose starring in the first performance of Antigone made it a triumph.
Cloth-cutting ancestors or no, Anouilh has a sculptor’s approach to his plays, a genius for timing and shaping the entrances and exits. No matter what some critics say (for there are prejudices) they can never deny his fantastic sense of theatre. What alarms these critics is what alarms also the bourgeoisie, he makes them feel insecure by his attacks on established creeds: money, hypocrisy, manners.
His recurring theory of the fate of pure love when up against the world (the world seeking jealously to destroy what cannot belong to it) is executed with such an upsetting mixture of hilarity, putrefaction and beauty — the ugliness shown up by acid undercurrent and never with heaviness, always precision, humour, proportion — that one wonders if certain plays (Colombe?) are not based on his own disillusions as a young man. But no one will ever know. Perhaps not even Anouilh himself, for consciously he disapproves of applying personal philosophy, or of plays with a message.
Anouilh lives in Montfort I’Amaury, one of the oldest fortified villages in France, in the Chevreuse valley forty-five minutes’ drive from Paris. It is here that he goes to earth when the curtain is down. Montfort is famous nowadays for its Auberge de la Moutière where Anouilh never goes. It has been famous always for its legends, secret tunnels, the windows of its church. It was the last village to be taken before Paris in any battle, an important point. As you walk downhill near the church, Anouilh’s house is set right on the street: a Louis XIII facade with high windows. You step into it out of the village, and out of it on the other side directly into the country. The back of the house is eighteenth century; there are white shutters, wistaria, a garden with a weeping Chinese tree as in Time Remembered, a drop down into the valley where cows graze in an orchard, silence. A little path winds through a series of creeper-grown walls never been any in the press. “Are these colour pictures?” he asks. “How about this tie, shall I wear a different jacket?” His smile is appealing, it quite changes his face.
The day we visited him, he wore a blue tie with a dark green blazer with gold buttons. He has an original colour sense (he is also a painter) and has decorated his house himself vividly: red curtains with white walls, a theatre painted in black and white above the sofa in his study, in front of its perspective hang antique marionettes. Any bibelot is rare, but it is a chance, nothing is arranged. In a comer is a medieval theatre-box of monkeys dressed up . . . curious . . . things not seen before. And all the time Anouilh is being hospitable and kind. He tells us that when he bought his first ready-made jacket his tailor-father did not speak to him for three days. He greatly admires Marcel Ayme (“an heir of Voltaire, a modern Molière”), loves English country. The talk got on to Mendes-France. “He seems honest?” we said.
“Honest men are the most dangerous,” said Anouilh. “France doesn’t need to be governed, she governs herself.”
We had thought his study was already the inner sanctum, but he said then, “There is another little room, would you like to see it?” A back door opened on to a corridor with stacks of old books, a discarded roulette wheel with only a walnut for a ball. Like children finding precious things in an attic, we went up a spiral staircase in a tower and found a room with very mysterious pictures, evidently by a great painter. “He is unknown,” said Anouilh. “It is my father-in-law. When I suggest an exhibition, he says ‘Pas encore, je fais toujours un peu de progrès.’ He is fifty-five.”
The room was warm and quiet, a white ceiling with beams, a wooden post in the middle, bright colours. It seemed appropriate for the secret room to contain these disturbing paintings — never seen.
We spoke of Spain. The Spanish censor is more lenient to Anouilh than to its own playwrights, most of whose plays are acted abroad in Mexico, Germany, etc. But Anouilh is appreciated there and his text is hardly cut. “How about going to Spain?”
“I must eventually,” he said, “but the Spanish frighten me. They are too pure, too noble.”
His eyes were distant; how did he mean it? What of the purity motif in his plays? An ephemeral moment, the fringe of a discovery . . . but imperceptibly, as always, the look changed; the moment had gone. “It is easier to live among corrupt people. You know where you are then, you feel at ease . . .” He laughed; we were disconcerted.
Anouilh does not travel much anyway because he is not curious. He has only been to Rome (where he visited the Sistine twelve times but nothing else), Switzerland and England. He likes going to England and years ago he obtained permission from the Office des Changes to buy a flat in London. But when the red tape was finished he found there was no money in the bank. English taxes took 50% of the profit on a play at that time. Agents’ fees took most of the rest; Anouilh was finally taxed on the remaining 15% when he returned to France. “I made about a fiver on a hundred pounds.”
He showed us photographs he had taken himself of his family. “Are they all right? How should the light have been?” he said simply with the sudden sensitive smile. There was his present wife (we could not meet her, she was unwell) with a beautiful, solemn face. There were three young children; one was the small boy who had come into the garden earlier and left his teddy and a rabbit in the Chinese tree, and for whom his father had carefully gathered them up and brought them back indoors.
As we were leaving, he told us the house had belonged to the last Duke of Bordeaux (successor to the throne), whose mistress had lived in it. The Duke had apparently buried treasure in the cellar; Anouilh has dug in various places but found none; the former tenant, however, had unearthed a casket in the garden containing Louis XVI jewels. “I think I’ll give up looking,” Anouilh said as if it had just occurred to him. “They might prefer it.”
“Then there are ghosts?”
“Of course, the place is full of them. My wife is often bothered — but the thing is to refuse to speak. I just tell them to leave me alone.”
The Louis XIII door closed. On one side were the ghosts; the logic, the magic and seclusion of Anouilh. On the other side we walked up a village street. It was any autumn day and it was raining.
Copyright © The Gael Elton Mayo Estate. March 1956. All rights reserved. Photographs & graphical images copyright © their respective copyright holders. Unless otherwise specified, the content herein is only for your personal and non-commercial use. Unauthorized copying, reproduction, hiring, lending, public performance and broadcasting prohibited. Photos courtesy of the Gael Elton Mayo Estate.