21 September 2011
Jean Anouilh is a prolific French playwright, whose works ranged from high drama to absurdist farce. His career spanned over five decades. A play The Orchestra (L’Orchestre, 1962) is successful in transforming sordid and melodramatic material through exciting theatrical technique. For the framework of this short play Anouilh returns to the world of a third-rate café orchestra, which he had used in earlier plays, but this time his musicians are seen in performance, and their individual tales of love, frustration, cruelty, and even madness are underscored by the banal and cloying music they play. The central story of the unhappy and doomed love affair between two musicians has great sentimental potential. And when other members of the orchestra contribute their anecdotes about cruelty to children and aged parents, the work seems close to approaching the mood of Anouilh’s earliest plays, the pièces noires. But by giving his story the framework of a performance within performance, Anouilh undercuts the melodrama and achieves a more powerful play. The orchestra becomes a disturbing and particulary unsparing image of human activity. That these characters live desperate and unhappy lives in a world of bad music, bored audiences, and different companions, a world that seems to mock their private sufferings, turns a play into a disturbing and provocative work.
Lewis W. Falb