Les Deux Pierrots
By the time Rostand left school, he was aware that he wished to devote his life to literature. But his family insisted that he study law. Between lectures, however, Rostand was writing poetry, some of which he collected and published privately in 1890, when he was twenty-two and about to get married. His book of poems, Les Musardises (the title means, roughly, “dreamy thoughts”) reveals Rostand’s preoccupations at this time. Some poems dramatise the two different aspects of his personality: his cheery outwards appearance contrasted with the intense, often melancholy feelings he was really experiencing. Rostand’s playful, mocking spirit was (like Cyrano’s bravado in the play), a way of keeping his melancholy, sensitive side invisible to all but those closest to him.
Edmond Rostand as a college student in Paris (image courtesy of Villa Arnaga)
This lively three-hander was written by Edmond Rostand in 1889 for performance by himself and his friends in the garden of the Rostand family’s summer villa in Luchon, in the French Pyrenees. At twenty-one, Edmond was not sure whether to be a poet or a playwright; this playlet was to decide his career, for it was to prove his entrée into the French theatre of his day.
The characters come from the Italian comedy: the lovely Columbine, her partner Harlequin, her father Cassander and of course the Pierrots. In Rostand’s play, Harlequin is dead, and two Pierrots are wooing Columbine (or Colombina, as we have in this version), one sad one and one happy one. The original title of the piece was Pierrot qui pleure et Pierrot qui rit (Weeping Pierrot and Laughing Pierrot). Edmond’s musical uncle Alexis Rostand set it to music: the ms is in the British Library.
As he would do in his later plays, especially Cyrano de Bergerac, Rostand expresses his own character in his two Pierrots. Pierrot One is cheerful, unworried by worldly cares as long as he can "let his verses
peal like chimes”. This embryonic Cyrano certainly has panache, with a feather in his hat rather than a white plume. Like Cyrano, Laughing Pierrot keeps his heart well hidden, preferring to meet the world with a smiling face. Rostand revered tears as an expression of deep feeling, and this Pierrot’s one tear, unlike the copious but superficial tears of his companion, reveals his soul to Colombina. Edmond himself may seem to his acquaintances, and to us in his plays, a Laughing Pierrot, but he also had a well-hidden inner melancholy, though he does not exploit this for sympathy as Pierrot Two does.
This one-act curtain-raiser in verse already displays many of the qualities that were to make Cyrano de Bergerac so successful. Lighthearted, witty and ingeniously rhymed, it is fun to read and even more enjoyable to perform. When the playlet was offered to the Comédie-
Française, its Director, Jules Claretie, was so impressed by Rostand’s talent that he invited him to submit another curtain-raiser. Boldly Rostand promised to offer a full three-act play this time. This would be Les Romanesques (more familiar to English-speaking audiences as the origin of the long-running musical, The Fantasticks). The success of this play in 1894 opened the way for Rostand to become an established playwright – no less a figure than Sarah Bernhardt would star in La Princesse lointaine in 1895 and in La Samaritaine at Easter 1897. The end of that same year would see the triumph of Cyrano de Bergerac.
Les Deux Pierrots is typical of Rostand’s early verse, in sentiments and style. Though he keeps to the conventional alternation of masculine and feminine rhymes, the liberties Rostand takes with the
traditional alexandrine, often breaking it into pieces shared among different speakers, make the play seem very modern. The wordplay; the wit in characterisation and situation as well as in language; the lyrical passages extolling the beauty of the earth and the seasons, and the daring rhymes: all foreshow his later work.
Rostand’s merry spirit and youthful optimism infuse the whole play. It was long a favourite with amateur players, and often used as a curtain-raiser to Les Romanesques. Thom Christoph’s lively and witty version will introduce this gem of a play to wider audiences. Thom Christoph is a talented poet who has also translated Les Deux Pierrots and two other Rostand plays, Les Romanesques and La Princesse Lointaine, into German verse (www.kaiserverlag.at). In 2012, Thom published a delightful verse translation into Catalan of Les Deux Pierrots.
Les Romanesques (The Romantics) was first performed on 21 May 1894. This lighthearted and altogether delightful play was a great success with the audience at the Comédie-Française, and Rostand was awarded the Prix Toirac, for the best play by a newcomer at the state theatre. Percinet and Sylvie are the starry-eyed romantics of the title. They are in love, but because they believe their fathers are sworn enemies, they see themselves as Romeo and Juliet. However, their fathers are lifelong friends who really want their children to marry each other. But knowing their romantic view of love, the fathers have built a wall between their two adjoining estates.
They engage a bandit called Straforel to lay on a false abduction, so that Percinet can save Sylvie and so earn her father’s gratitude and win her hand. All goes according to plan and the end of Act One sees all parties happily reunited.
But Rostand was not such a romantic himself as to end the story there. True love needs more than romantic notions to sustain it. When the lovers discover they have been tricked, Sylvie declares the marriage is off, and Percinet rushes off to prove himself in the outside world. Each will have to come to terms with real life and discover the meaning of true love before the third act can end happily.
Programme cover for Liverpool Playhouse in 1980
Much gentle fun is made of the lovers, and the fathers too. Straforel’s amusing speech on the varieties of abduction he can supply foreshadows the tirades of Cyrano de Bergerac.
This early play already displays Rostand’s talent for the theatre. The wit in characterisation and situation as well as in language; the lyrical passages, and the daring rhymes all foreshadow Rostand’s later work. The liberties Rostand takes with the traditional alexandrine, here and in all his plays, make the play seem very modern.
The success of Les Romanesques continues to this day in the form of the musical, The Fantasticks.
Genge Press is preparing an English version of Les Romanesques, to be published as The Romantics, in tandem with The Two Pierrots, so you will soon be able to read (and perform) it for yourselves.