THE GUILLOTINE

Twentieth-Century Classics That Won't Last No 12: JEAN ANOUILH
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The Independent Culture
Of all the writers to have been led to the scaffold so far, from Terence Rattigan to Dennis Potter, it should be said immediately that Jean Anouilh probably has the best chance of escaping the guillotine itself. Though that may seem rather like bet-hedging, it's merely an acknowledgement that the millennial reputation of a French dramatist is not best judged from this side of the Channel. Except on the loftiest heights of achievement, the selection process of posterity continues to be influenced by all kinds of nationalist biases. Rattigan, for example, would never figure in a French equivalent of this column, since he has absolutely no reputation in France and hence is unlikely to become the posthumous recipient of one. Contrarily, there exist numerous contemporary French writers who, in the eyes of their own compatriots, may or may not survive - Paul Morand, for example, or Charles Peguy - but who are all so little known in this country, it would be meaningless to include them here.

The same, at least for younger readers, may also apply to the unpronounceable Anouilh ("Anooeeh", for the record). In his own lifetime, though, he was by far the most frequently staged French dramatist in Britain. In the 1960s, when not a year passed without some starrily prestigious and sumptuously upholstered production of one of his works - one might cite, in chronological disorder, The Waltz of the Toreadors with Leo McKern, The Rehearsal with Phyllis Calvert and Maggie Smith, Dear Antoine, with Edith Evans and John Clements - it felt as though Anouilh could do no wrong. He wed the verbal preciosity of Cocteau and Giraudoux to the weary, gemutlich cynicism of Molnar and Schnitzler, and stirred into this already heady cocktail the theatrical illusionism that bears the name of its pioneering spirit, Pirandello. Yet his plays could never be mistaken for anyone else's. What happened?

He lived too long and, above all, he wrote too much. From the evidence of his public pronouncements, he himself turned into a jaundiced, illiberal misanthrope, and his work came to seem both reactionary and repetitive, trotting out as it regularly did that old vaudeville duo, Appearance and Reality, for yet another benefit performance, like Neil Simon's Sunshine Boys. With the staging of his very late, almost nauseatingly crabby plays his stock plummeted further until, in the Michelin cultural guide, he lost the last of his three stars. And still he wrote. And maybe wrote himself out of the future.

GILBERT ADAIR

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