Cyrano de Bergerac
Comédie Héroïque en cinq actes en vers
Edmond Rostand’s play Cyrano de Bergerac must be one of the best-known and best-loved plays in the world. It has been translated into almost every language and there can hardly be a day in the year when Rostand’s masterpiece is not being performed somewhere or other. It has inspired more than one film, most recently Jean-Paul Rappeneau’s Cyrano de Bergerac, starring Gerard Depardieu and using Rostand’s verse (and Anthony Burgess’s sub-titles), and Steve Martin’s witty take-off, Roxanne. Rostand’s play has also inspired operas, musicals and even ballets.
Publicity for Jean-Paul Rappeneau’s film of Cyrano de Bergerac, 1990
Cyrano de Bergerac was first performed at the Porte-Saint-Martin Theatre, Paris, on 28th December 1897, where Constant Coquelin, the first Cyrano and the actor for whom the play was written, was employed at the time. Coquelin was so enthusiastic about the play that he took part shares with the directors. The huge cast and the five separate sets needed made this an expensive play to put on, so Edmond and his wife Rosemonde paid for most of the decor and some of the wages themselves. The scenery and many of the costumes were second-hand. The extras for the crowd scenes had been recruited from a local wine shop at twenty sous each.
Coquelin believed in the play, an unusual choice for a boulevard theatre (plays in verse were usually performed at the Comédie-Française), but others in the cast were less confident. But Cyrano de Bergerac was a huge success. The audience refused to leave, demanding one curtain call after another! The Paris critics the next day proclaimed with one voice that Rostand was a dramatic genius, who had restored to France her glorious past in classical verse.
Many contemporary reasons were given for the play’s success: it gave French people a reason to feel proud of their country again after its crushing
Acknowledgment: Thanks to Oliver Davies for Nader’s photo of Constant Coquelin as Cyrano de Bergerac.
defeat almost thirty years earlier at the hands of the Prussians; literary critics hoped this verse play would lead to arevival of classical French drama (it didn't); a heroic comedy was a welcome contrast to gloomy modern plays showing at other theatres. But time has not diminished the appeal of Rostand’s play.
What is it about Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac that has inspired such universal admiration and affection? Why is Cyrano one of the most inspiring heroes of our time – of any time? A large part of the answer is that Rostand infused his character with his own youthful idealism and romantic ardour. He was just twenty-nine when he wrote the play. His wife, a poet herself, wrote: “It was with the wax of his own soul that Rostand formed that of Cyrano”. (My biography of Rostand is entitled 'The Man who was Cyrano'.)
A scene in the last Act of Cyrano de Bergerac at Théâtre de la Porte Saint-Martin, Paris, dec.1897
Writing Cyrano de Bergerac
It was as a schoolboy in Marseilles that Edmond Rostand first heard of the historical Cyrano de Bergerac, when his teacher read to the class from Théophile Gautier’s essays, Les Grotesques. The historical Cyrano, judging by his portrait, had a rather large, hooked nose, but not a grotesque one. It was Gautier who, noting Cyrano’s praise of big noses in his fantasy about a trip to the moon, L’Histoire Comique des États et Empires de la lune, suggested the author was praising his own unusually large one and this gave birth to the legend used by Rostand so effectively.
Later, at the Collège Stanislas in Paris, the young Edmond came across the historical Cyrano de Bergerac again. Impressed by Cyrano’s independence, imagination and wit, he read many of his works. Rostand was also fascinated by the whole period in which Cyrano lived: the period known loosely as “Louis Treize”, that is the early and
middle years of the 17th century, when Louis XIII was king and Cardinal Richelieu was the power behind the throne. It was a time when the growing importance of the court was influencing manners, dress and language. This was carried to extremes by the Précieuses,
such as Rostand’s heroine, Roxane. Rostand makes gentle fun of these women in his play. They were celebrated for their literary salons and especially for their high-flown, elaborate language about romantic love. This appealed to Edmond, who enjoyed playing with words himself. The finery of the courtiers also appealed to him, as he himself always took pleasure in being elegantly dressed. The young Rostand’s romantic soul preferred this exciting period to his own times, which he thought were materialistic and lacking any sense of passion, poetry or chivalry.
The Louis-Treize period was also the time when classical verse drama was flourishing in France. Molière was beginning to make his name, while Corneille was thrilling audiences with his heroic dramas about the conflict between love and duty. Philosophers and free-thinkers were challenging the supremacy of the church, using reason and observation rather than faith to explain the world. It was a time of duels and love poetry, of brave deeds and sparkling wit, vividly evoked in Alexandre Dumas’ tales of d’Artagnan and the Three Musketeers, and Théophile Gautier’s Le Capitaine Fracasse. Rostand adored these books as a boy, and echoes of them occur throughout Cyrano de Bergerac.
During his time at the College Stanislas, Rostand met someone who was not only crucial in encouraging his love of poetry, but who also, unwittingly, gave him a major theme of Cyrano de Bergerac. The student supervisor for his class, the “pion”, was known to the boys as “Pif-Luisant”: “Shiny Conk”, because of his glowing-red nose. This failed poet had turned to drink to console himself. Edmond felt sorry for the pion and became his friend. He discovered that in life as in fairy stories, an ugly exterior can hide a noble soul – a contrast he would dramatise in Cyrano de Bergerac. Pif-Luisant discussed poetry with Rostand and encouraged him to break the traditional rules of verse as still taught at the college. What would Cyrano de Bergerac have been like if Rostand had not learnt to create his own form of dramatic verse, with its verve and broken lines, its witty rhymes and puns?
Cyrano-Savinien-Hercule de Bergerac (born 1691, died 1655) was not, as Rostand well knew, born in Bergerac, but at his family’s estate in Paris. But he was a Gascon by adoption, having joined a Gascon regiment at the urging of his friend Le Bret, the Cadets de Gascogne under Castel-Jaloux. Cyrano never married, but he did have a cousin called Madeleine Robineau (not Robin) who married the baron Christophe (not Christian) de Neuvillette. The historical Madeleine was not a Précieuse, but Rostand also drew on a Marie Robineau who was a Précieuse and was known as Roxane. Many of the other, such as
Le Bret, the ambitious Comte de Guiche (the Cardinal’s nephew), Ligniere, the drunken poet, and the baker, Ragueneau, were also historical figures, though they may not have had the characteristics which Rostand gave them.
Nor was the historical Cyrano himself quite as he is depicted in the play. It was Rostand who gave Cyrano his love for Roxane – his motivating Ideal – and his own idealistic soul. The intrigue which knits the main characters together was also imagined by him. But the historical Cyrano really was a poet, wit, soldier, and, bravely
for the time, a philosopher and free-thinker. He published a book of love letters, as well as some plays which had little success, but from which Moliere borrowed some of the best lines. As we’ve seen, he also wrote the first science fiction novel, on which Rostand drew for his Act Three. A fine swordsman, he fought many duels, but on behalf of his friends rather than on his own account, according to a recent book about him. He railed against stupidity and injustice, which got him into trouble with the rich and powerful in his society. He did quarrel with the actor, Montfleury, and really did rout an armed rabble all by himself at the Porte de Nesle. He was wounded at the battle of Arras; his death at only thirty-five years old was caused by a falling beam, whether deliberately dropped or not has never been established.
Rostand researched his play thoroughly. There are many anachronisms but they were all deliberate – made only to suit his dramatic needs. Once he started writing, he wrote with almost manic energy. For instance the whole of the “Moon scene” in Act Three, 250 lines, was written in one afternoon.
Cyrano in Rostand's play
Rostand was quite clear about the character of the hero of his play, but he needed a plot. The story goes that Edmond once decided to help a tongue-tied friend by giving him advice on how to court the girl he loved and even wrote some love letters for him. However, the idea of one man using another to court his beloved also occurs in Rostand’s own earlier play La Princesse lointaine, where the hero, the poet Rudel, who has sailed from France to Tripoli to see his ‘distant princess’ but who is now too ill to visit her, sends his friend Bertrand to beg her to come to him on his ship before he dies.
Rostand’s Cyrano has all the qualities of a traditional romantic hero save one. He is valiant, witty, generous, self-sacrificing; a passionate lover, and courageous in defending his honour, his friends or his country. But he is not handsome! In fact, he is positively ugly, because of his grotesque nose! But his outward appearance masks a noble soul.
Fiercely independent, Rostand’s Cyrano refuses to compromise or depend on others for success. He is proud to stand alone against the corruption of his times; and proud that his achievements are his own alone. Cyrano’s only fear is being ridiculed or pitied, and he defends himself from this with extravagant gestures and speeches, and if necessary, his sword. His bravado, wit and swashbuckling are all aimed at turning potential pity and ridicule into admiration or awe. Cyrano’s flamboyant exterior conceals a sensitive, even melancholic soul. But rather than let others see that he suffers, he resorts to bluster and bravado, even claiming to his friend Le Bret at one point, when he has just been deeply hurt, that he prefers to be hated than to be loved.
Cyrano also loves the grand gesture even when it puts him at a disadvantage, in Act Two for instance, with Le Comte de Guiche. His friend Le Bret, the voice of reason and common-sense, ‘grumbles’ (as Cyrano puts it) that he will never get anywhere in society if he continues to make so many enemies. But to Cyrano – and Rostand – any fine action is valuable in itself, and even finer if it does not achieve anything.
But the quality we associate with Cyrano above all is his panache. Panache to us means carrying out an action with a certain verve or flair. But in Cyrano’s day, panache meant literally plumes, such as the white plume of feathers in Cyrano’s hat. This plume symbolises for Cyrano his hard-won integrity. Its purity expresses his refusal to compromise with his principles in order to win worldly success. The last words Cyrano speaks and the last words of the play are, significantly: “Mon panache”. In spite of disappointments in worldly success and in love (“the laurel and the rose”), Cyrano can and does take pride in his integrity as symbolised by his pure white plume.
It is clear that panache means more than simply “flair”, to Cyrano and to Rostand. The poet explained its significance in his reception speech to the French Academy. Panache, he explained, is “courage which is so well in control of a [difficult] situation that it can make jokes about it”. So panache is a kind of heroic modesty, a refusal to take danger or oneself too seriously - a smile, said Rostand, for which we excuse ourselves for behaving so nobly – and perhaps a kind of reward too. Just as the white plume which is its literal sense is an unnecessary but attractive decoration for a hat or a helmet, “panache” adds something extra to an action that is already noble. “A little frivolous perhaps, a little theatrical”, Rostand concedes – nonetheless it is a quality he would like us all to have.
Is panache a specifically Gallic quality? The French like to think so – they see it as the opposite of the British “stiff upper lip”. But the aim of both strategies is the same: to cope bravely with danger or the need for self-sacrifice without revealing one’s inner feelings, even to the extent of making a joke. But someone with “a stiff upper lip” is repressing the emotion they feel, whereas “panache” gives vent to that emotion in a witty, flamboyant way. It seems, from the success of Cyrano de Bergerac, that panache, far from being simply a Gallic quality, is prized and admired all over the world.
Cyrano de Bergerac today
We are now well into the twenty-first century, and Cyrano de Bergerac has lost none of its attractions. The play even seems contemporary in its concern about worldly materialism and the compromises needed in modern life. Its call to idealism and enthusiasm has lost none of its urgency. Its hero, Cyrano de Bergerac, continues to move us and to inspire our admiration and affection. Just as Rostand intended, his hero takes us out of ordinary daily life for a few hours – and returns us to it, refreshed, consoled and inspired.
Two recent productions of Cyrano de Bergerac in the UK last winter brought Rostand's play to new audiences. Enthusiastic reviews greeted Peter Oswald's lively verse production at the Bristol Old Vic, directed by Tom Morris and starring Tristan Sturrock as Cyrano. Personally, I disliked the slapstick treatment of the Gascony cadets in the second act, but Sturrock's moving performance as Cyrano won me over as the play progressed.
James McAvoy as Cyrano in Jamie Lloyd's production in 2019-20, also starring Anita-Joy Uwajeh as Roxanne. Image by Charlie Gray and image courtesy of Jamie Lloyd
The production at the Playhouse Theatre in London (later streamed nationally during lockdown), directed by Jamie Lloyd and starring James McAvoy as Cyrano, brought Rostand's play to a whole new young audience. As I had contributed to the programme notes, I was invited to the premiere on 7th December. At the close of the play, the we all rose to our feet, cheering and clapping. This amazing rap production really brings alive Rostand's play for today's audiences. I felt the whole cast really love the play and wanted to share it with everyone. The lively verse translation by Martin Crimp, with much added material, really worked well. It is now available in print.
What did the Critics say
“Complex ideas about love, literature, body image and truth are expressed in its dizzyingly clever rhymes, but essentially it remains a captivating, tragicomic romance” wrote Nick Curtis in the Evening Standard. He points out that “Cyrano’s personal pain can often obscure the fact that Roxanne is manipulated and lied to even by the men who love her, and that Christian’s dumb handsomeness is itself pitiful. One of the many revelations of Crimp’s version is that it gives both characters a proper voice.”
For Clive Davis in The Times, “the humour and pathos are fresher than ever”. And instead of the traditional alexandrines, Martin Crimp has given us “sinuous hip-hop verse that is grandiloquent and swaggering when it needs to be, but is also witty and, yes, tender”. “The language”, he felt, “has a genuine poetic quality”.
In The Telegraph, Dominic Cavendish also delighted in the production’s “linguistic exuberance”, mentioning “those ravishing verbals” expressing “street-wise panache”. He defied anyone “not to fall in love with” this marvellous production. Do see it for yourself if you can.
Read more about Cyrano de Bergerac and its author in my biography of Edmond Rostand: The Man Who Was Cyrano.
Selected English translations of Cyrano de Bergerac
No need to miss out if you cannot read French! Here are some of my favourite translations:
Fry, Christopher, Cyrano de Bergerac (London: OUP, 1975); In “chiming” couplets, and true to Rostand’s idealism.
Burgess, Anthony, Cyrano de Bergerac (London: Hutchinson, 1985); used for the stage, films, and a musical. A free and vivacious modern translation in rhythmic verse.
Clark, Carol, Cyrano de Bergerac (London: Penguin, 2006); Excellent modern reading translation.
If you know some French, try this:
Freeman, Edward, Cyrano de Bergerac, Glasgow Introductory Guides to French Literature, 34 (University of Glasgow: 1995)
For serious study:
Woollen, Geoff, Cyrano de Bergerac (London:Duckworth, Bristol Classical Press, 1994). Excellent up-to-date study, with introduction, notes and bibliography.