When the news came that French playwright Jean Anouilh had died Saturday in Lausanne, Switzerland, of a heart attack, all I could think of was a phrase attributed to Jean Cocteau when he was told that his very dear friend, the singer Edith Piaf, had died. "The ship is sinking," he whispered, mostly to himself. Days later, Cocteau himself was gone.
Anouilh was the last bulwark of that generation and his disappearance marks the end of an exceptionally rich era in French theater, one that coincided with my own formative years. It shaped what was to be my life.
Growing up in the '40s in Alexandria, Egypt, on the northern edge of Africa, in a society further isolated by the war, I spent most of my free time haunting La Cite du Livre. This bookstore, on which I bestowed all of my pocket money, was a promised land, fragrant with the crisp aroma of new books and uncut pages--an oasis for a teen-ager with a newly acquired thirst for literature, especially dramatic literature, in a world that had little time for either.
Lining the shelves at La Cite were all those prolific living playwrights, whose works I yearned to see, read aloud and devoured cover to cover: Cocteau, Giraudoux, Camus, Claudel, Sartre, but most especially Anouilh. What I learned to love about the theater, I learned from them.
Each one touched and molded my youth, none more decisively than Anouilh. I relished his idiosyncrasies, the wryness of his inventions and what struck me then (though I couldn't have begun to articulate it) was the depth of his humanity in a world he clearly perceived as inhuman. I watched for every new play, plays he himself had categorized as rosy ( Pieces Roses ), black ( Pieces Noires ) and brilliant ( Pieces Brillantes )--as in shimmering, not as in brilliantly conceived. Anouilh had too sober an opinion of himself to think otherwise. This son of a tailor saw himself purely as a tradesman, making plays as others make tables.
I'd be first in line when a new work of his was about to hit the store. In retrospect, the enthusiasm was extravagant, I know. History may even find that Anouilh was a grand rather than a great playwright, paradoxically facile and eloquent, romantic and cynical. But this ferociously private, slightly dour man, who looked more like an accountant than a writer with his closely cropped hair and round-rimmed glasses, combined elements guaranteed to enrapture rebellious youth: His work had heart, humor, a certain visionary passion and a marked infatuation with tragedy. Not just tragedy, but its Grand Gesture--the murders of Medea, the preservations of Antigone, the trials of Joan of Arc, the tribulations of Becket. When a writer affects you that deeply, objectivity takes a hike.
Anouilh could confound the world with his re-interpretations of Greek myths ("Eurydice" and the "Antigone" that is considered an allegory for the German invasion of France and was performed in Paris under the very noses of the unsuspecting occupying Nazi forces). He could transport us with the unabashedly romantic "The Lark" and "Colombe" or the enigmatic "Traveler Without Luggage"--a play I translated at 17, without license or authority, for the sheer love of it. He could enchant us with such brittle comedies as "Ring Round the Moon" and "Waltz of the Toreadors." And he did it in a crisp, mildly heroic, faintly tongue-in-cheek Gallic style that brought an unsuspecting audience to its knees.
If the plays were not always great, they were always captivating. The best of them were written in the prolific first half of a career that spanned roughly 50 years and made this recluse a rich man. Anouilh, who, as a very young man, served briefly as secretary to the great French director-actor-teacher Louis Jouvet, learned quickly, perhaps at Jouvet's elbow, that, to mean anything, a play needed to be vested in a human truth--whether it dealt with a legendary Greek figure, an archbishop, a saint, a seamstress or a pair of hunchbacks.
Few moments in the theater are quite as startling as the ending of his "Ardele ou la Marguerite," a simple piece in which a pair of hunchbacks shock their families by refusing to come out of a locked room until they are allowed to marry. We never meet this gentle pair. The play is subtly (and hilariously) consumed with the gathering of the indignant clan outraged by the situation--an unprincipled bunch, we soon discover, unaware of the depth of its own depravity, yet quick to find the union of two people genuinely in love who happen to have a physical deformity, utterly depraved.
We never stop laughing, until a double gunshot shames us in our tracks. Here Anouilh, who could write a love scene with arithmetical purity (as in "Romeo and Jeanette"), used the art of the unexpected to the hilt. Even at his most complex, he always remembered the value of keeping things simple--and sometimes keeping them stark and sudden as well.
This was a man of ideas who skillfully disguised them as entertainments. He called his theater a fairy tale and acknowledged: "It's scandalous that I earn my livelihood by amusing myself as I do."
How lucky for us that he did.