BORN: 1900, Antibes, France
DIED: 1965, Neuilly-sur-Seine, France
GENRE: Fiction, poetry, drama
Race of Men (1937)
Evil Runs (1948)
French author Jacques Audiberti had already proved himself as a novelist, poet, and essayist when he began concentrating on plays after World War II. By the time of his death in 1965, he was widely known as an innovative dramatist whose work was associated with the “theater of the absurd.”
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Strong Connection to City of Birth Jacques Séraphin-Marie Audiberti was born on March 25, 1899, in Antibes, on the French Riviera, to Louis Audiberti, a master mason, and his wife, Victorine. Audiberti lived the whole of his childhood in that city, which had been the place of a significant battle for Napoléon upon his return to France from exile in Elba in 1815. The author appreciated the history of his native city, understanding its weight and violence, and drew on the city's history in his later literary works. Audiberti would regularly return to Antibes as an adult.
Audiberti dropped out of school in 1914 for health reasons, and although he resumed his studies in 1916, he never formally graduated. He was, however, a great fan of cinema and read many classic French authors, including
Victor Hugo and Anatole France, who later influenced his work. Starting in 1914, Audiberti began writing on his own with the encouragement of playwright Edmond Rostand, and contributed short articles and poetry to a local daily paper.
As Audiberti neared adulthood, World War I was raging in Europe. Though he did not fight in the Great War, it greatly affected those living in France with food shortages and loss of life. Significant parts of the country were covered in the trenches that were a hallmark of the conflict, and by the war's end, more than ten percent of France's population had been killed or gone missing.
Met Surrealists While Employed by Newspapers In 1918, poor health exempted Audiberti from military service, and he took a job as a clerk at the Antibes courthouse. Then, after a short stint living in or near Marseille, Audiberti left for Paris in 1924, where he worked for newspapers for at least the next ten years. During this time, he also became acquainted with members of the Surrealist movement, including Benjamin Péret and André Breton. While he did not subscribe to their beliefs and affiliations, the Surrealists—who were inspired by the subconscious, dreams, and fantasy—eventually had some influence on Audiberti's work.
Around this time, Audiberti also met a young primary school teacher from the Caribbean Islands. They married in 1926 and had two daughters, Jacqueline (born in 1926) and Marie-Louise (born in 1928).
Early Writings Validated by Acclaim In 1930, Audiberti, with the help of money borrowed from his father, self-published his first book of poetry, The Empire and the Trap. The book was favorably reviewed in two well-known literary journals. These reviews caught the attention of Valéry Larbaud, who introduced the poet to the major writers of Paris, including Leon-Paul Fargue, Drieu la Rochelle, and, later, Jean Cocteau, Louis Aragon, André Malraux, and Jean Paulhan.
In 1937, two major events occurred in Audiberti's literary career. First, he was awarded a prize for “best one-act play” for L'Ampélour (published in 1948). Second was the publication of his second book of poetry, Race of Men. In 1938, Audiberti became the first recipient of the Mallarmé Award for poetry, and his ambitious first novel, Abraxas, was put in print. Audiberti's career flourished, and he regularly published poetry, novels, and essays and contributed to newspapers, literary magazines, and movie magazines.
Prolific Period as Writer of Novels, Essays, and Poetry Audiberti's most prolific period was from 1939 to 1947. During most of this time, World War II was raging in Europe. France was at the center of the struggle as Nazi Germany controlled the country for much of the conflict. Though France was devastated by the war, the author produced nine novels, including Carnage (1942) and La Nâ (1944), and two essays, including The New Origin (1942), a sort of poetry manifesto. During this period, Audiberti also published three collections of poetry
Audiberti's Plays Take Center Stage Although Audiberti continued to publish novels, essays, poetry, and translations until his death, theatrical works became a major part of his literary production beginning in 1945. As with his poetry and novels, Audiberti's plays explore complex philosophical and religious concerns. Many of his dramas—including Quoat-Quoat (performed 1946, published 1948), whose original production was low budget because of the economic effects of World War II on France—reveal his preference for the disordered, natural paganism of antiquity over the structured Christian belief system of the twentieth century.
Audiberti won the Prix des Jeunes Comapagnies for his most famous play, Evil Runs (produced 1947, published 1948), which touches on both religious and sexual themes. His popular The Glapion Effect (1959), which was subtitled “parapsychocomedy,” combined elements of vaudeville and surrealism and provided a bridge between the “anti-theater” of the period and more traditional commercial theater. With this production, Audiberti publicly distanced himself from the avant-garde of the 1950s.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Audiberti's famous contemporaries include:
Louis Aragon (1897–1982): French poet; one of the founders of surrealism.
Jorge Luis Borges (1899–1986): Argentine writer and poet; his work weaves together the mystical components of human existence.
Jean Cocteau (1889–1963): French writer and filmmaker; well-known for his movie Orpheus (1950), a contemporary take on the Greek myth.
Friedrich Hayek (1899–1992): Austrian economist and winner with Gunnar Myrdal of the 1974 Nobel Prize in Economics; he defended free-market capitalism against socialist and collectivist economic theories.
Vladimir Nabokov (1899–1977): Russian American novelist; famous for his 1955 novel Lolita.
Continued Output Despite Declining Health In 1964, Audiberti's health worsened significantly. He busied himself finishing novels, poetry books, essays, and a movie scenario, and he wrote only one more play before his death from cancer on July 10, 1965: an adaptation of his 1956 novel The Doll (published in 1969).
Works in Literary Context
Audiberti's plays are considered part of the innovative “theater of the absurd.” Other absurdist playwrights include Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter. Absurdist drama depicts humans' uncertain place in a meaningless world and uses abstract ideas, illogical language, and incongruous situations to communicate its effect. While Albert Camus' philosophy of disillusionment was a key precursor to the theater of the absurd, Audiberti and his contemporaries were also reacting to the traumatic effect of World War II on the European psyche with their plays and ideas.
Paganism and Christianity Many of Audiberti's works deal directly with the traditions of Christianity or with symbolism taken directly from those traditions. In Quoat-Quoat, a satire of nineteenth-century melodrama, and Spoken Opera (1956), the violence of paganism proves victorious over Christianity. In Spoken Opera, a young goddess is forced to marry an evil baron who represents Christianity's vindictive aspects, and a previous lover avenges his loss by embracing evil and attacking Christian outposts.
The Struggle against Evil Evil is often central to Audiberti's works, as is the conflict between the soul and the flesh. For Audiberti, evil arises from the repression of such natural drives as sex and aggression. In The Black Beast (1945), an unloved man appears to release his frustrations with the world through violent acts, though he also leads the search for the “unknown” killer. Evil Runs (published 1948), Audiberti's most successful play, is a fairy tale about a princess who realizes that to survive as a governing power she has no choice but to use evil to fight evil, and therefore let “evil run.”
Works in Critical Context
Critics praised Audiberti for his passionate, if not flamboyant, use of language and a strong sense of the melodramatic and absurd in his writings. They also noted that his novels are complicated and often obscure, while his poetry is both formal and extravagant and his plays combine absurdist farce with surreal melodrama.
Importance of Language in Audiberti's Writings
Referring to Audiberti's first novel, Abraxas (1938), Constantin Toloudis declared: “The religious symbolism, the allegorical character of the voyage, the tone and texture of the language in the tale recounting the adventures of the intrepid hero … amount to an eloquent, almost exhaustive exposé on the lore of Audibertian themes and devices.”
Critics have often noted the rich expression of Jacques Audiberti's plays, but they often qualify them as poetic and linguistic games. Whereas in the absurdist plays of The New Theater the crisis of communication frequently seemed to be the result of an atrophy of discourse, there is an inverted will in Audiberti's work to explore the limits of the creative potential of language, a phenomenon that translates into excessive wordiness.
Verbal Virtuosity in Poems and Plays Commenting on the “verbal delirium” of Audiberti's poetic style, Kenneth Cornell noted: “Elements of the swift and torrential burst which give so much of Audiberti's verse an epic tone and which impede to some degree ready comprehension find their way into everything he writes.”
The emphasis on language and the dramatic verbal flow in Audiberti's plays have led critics to laud the vitality and originality of his work as well as fault it for unchecked wordiness and extravagance. As Leonard Cabell Pronko noted: “The danger is that vigor, imagination, lyricism, and rhetoric may take over.”
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Jacques Audiberti's plays deal with what George Wellwarth calls “the Savage God,” or an active power of evil in the universe. Here are some other avant-garde works that deal with this theme:
Endgame (1957), a play by Samuel Beckett. The two main characters in this play are faced with nothingness as they attempt to find meaning for their existence.
The Jet of Blood (1925), a play by Antonin Artaud. A violent work considered difficult to produce, this play concludes with a prostitute biting the giant wrist of God and causing a stream of blood to splash onto the stage.
The Miracle of the Rose (1943), a novel by Jean Genet. Written while Genet was in prison, this autobiographical novel proclaims a cult of the criminal, praising both crime itself and the perpetrators of it.
Professor Taranne (1953), a play by Arthur Adamov. In this play, an upstanding citizen cannot defend himself against bizarre accusations.
Rhinoceros (1959), a play by Eugene Ionesco. In this play, everyone except the main character is transformed into a rhinoceros; unable to join them, he decides to fight them.
Responses to Literature
- Audiberti has received both praise and criticism for his use of poetic and extravagant language in his plays. Find a sample of dialogue in one of his plays that you think meets this description. In your opinion, does Audiberti's use of language add to or detract from the play? Would your opinion be different if the same language were used in a poem instead of a play? Why or why not?
- In many of Audiberti's works, the presence of evil as a part of human nature is accepted as a given. Find an example of this in one of his plays and describe how this evil is shown to be a part of human nature. Do you agree with this idea? Why or why not?
- Research the drama style “theater of the absurd.” What characteristics define this type of play? How do Audiberti's works display the characteristics of the “theater of the absurd”?
Farcy, Gérard-Denis. Les Théâtres d'Audiberti. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1988.
Guérin, Jeanyves. Le Théâtre d'Audiberti et le baroque. Paris: Klincksieck, 1976.
Guth, Paul. Quarante contre un. Paris: Correa, 1947.
Lagier, Christophe. Le Théâtre de la parole-spectacle: Jacques Audiberti, René de Obaldia et Jean Tardieu. Birmingham, Ala.: Summa, 2000.
Toloudis, Constantin. Jacques Audiberti. Boston: Twayne, 1980.
Cornell, Kenneth. “Audiberti and Obscurity.” Yale French Studies 2 (1949): 100–104.