Despite his debt to the romantics, the strain in French literature to which Edmond Rostand really belongs is that of préciosité, “precious” or elaborately refined writing, usually on the subject of love. An outstanding trait of préciosité is the prominence it gives to form, often at the expense of content. Therefore, Rostand wrote his dramas in the regular rhymed couplets of the classical and romantic French theater, even insisting on rime riche in the manner of the Parnassian poet Théodore de Banville. His diction and imagery were equally studied and at times rather farfetched. When deployed with wit and grace, as in his best plays, this fastidious technique served Rostand well, but it was not equally suited to all the subjects he treated.
At heart, Rostand—like most of his protagonists—was an idealist who shunned what he saw as the negativism of modern literature. Like Edwin Arlington Robinson’s Miniver Cheevy, he was in a real sense “born too late”; only instead of drinking as Miniver did, he “kept on writing” in his own vein, oblivious of his naturalist and Symbolist contemporaries. He was at his best, however, when he tempered his romantic flights with a dose of humor or with a trace of the irony that characterized his own age. Therefore, his masterpiece, Cyrano de Bergerac, takes as its hero a seventeenth century wit (himself a précieux) whose tendency to take himself too seriously is perfectly tempered by his ludicrous appearance. In Cyrano, Rostand was able to fuse his idealism and his polished wit in a character who is by turns heroic and comical—to resounding dramatic effect.
Indeed, Rostand was not only a meticulous versifier but also a man of considerable dramatic gifts. In particular, he knew how to vary the moods of successive scenes and achieve striking stage effects with surprise reversals. He was also capable of clever plot development, as his best plays, Cyrano de Bergerac and The Romantics, demonstrate. Yet because his characters are only sketchily developed, their actions can appear insufficiently motivated, and the interplay of character and action characteristic of most great drama is missing. Nor is there a structure of ideas in Rostand’s plays that might compensate for this shallowness of characterization. In his dramatic effects, as in his verbal craftsmanship, he is above all a superb entertainer—albeit an idealistic one.
Indeed, préciosité is, in essence, a form of highly refined entertainment. It is not a school but rather a tendency that runs through much of French poetry, though its heyday was in the early seventeenth century. (Its origins may be traced to the courtly lyrics of the troubadors, and it is visible in the poetry of the sixteenth century “Pléïade” as well as in that of the nineteenth century Parnassians.) The context in which the seventeenth century précieux flourished was that of the salons, exclusive social circles that noble and, later, bourgeois women gathered about themselves. The members of such circles met to discuss literary topics and often to compete with one another in actual poetic contests. One of Rostand’s best poems, a period piece called La Journée d’une précieuse (1898; a day in the life of a précieuse), describes such a contest, in which the requirement is to compose a rondeau with rhymes in-al and-oche “to accompany the gift of a seal of rock-crystal.” Rostand’s poem manages to poke gentle fun at the extravagances of his heroine and her salon while conveying some of the genuine wit and charm that such circles fostered.
In most of the salons, wit and worldly graces were prized above true erudition; writers of a “precious” cast tended to seek new, entertaining ways of saying things rather than new things to say. In general this is true of Rostand, whose imagery, diction, and versification all display the studied (recherché) quality proper to the précieux. Rostand’s decision to write verse dramas in the last decade of the nineteenth and the first decade of the twentieth centuries was itself a relative anachronism (the realistic theater confined itself to prose) and as such called attention to his virtuosity. He allowed himself romantic license in his use of the Alexandrine (the twelve-syllable line that had been the medium for classical French drama): Enjambments are frequent, and single lines are routinely divided among three, four, or even more different characters. Even in crowd scenes, however, there are no lapses into prose, and the effect is often that of a tour de force. This method works well when the theme is love or bravado, as in the famous balcony scene or in Cyrano’s duel with the Vicomte de Valvert, during which he composes a ballade, finishing off his opponent at the end of the refrain; it is less successful when more banal topics are involved, and especially when, as in Chanticleer, the necessary suspension of disbelief cannot be maintained: Twentieth century farm animals cannot be made to speak heroic couplets except in farce, and Rostand exceeds the limits of his form by freighting the play with serious themes. Even in plays set in a distant or legendary past, such as The Far Princess and The Woman of Samaria, there are lapses of taste, for the finely chiseled lines and rime riche (rhyme involving not only the last syllable of a word but also the preceding consonant or syllable) can easily ring false outside certain contexts. The same may be said of Rostand’s diction, which—largely as a result of his insistence on “rich” rhyme—includes rare and occasionally grotesque words, some of them coinages. These qualities suit the burlesque scenes to perfection but give a labored or awkward tone to some serious scenes, especially in The Far Princess.
Where imagery is concerned, Rostand is a true précieux, working best on the small scale of the individual line or speech; his recurrent or governing images are often banal (thus light is symbolic of glory, wings of daring or aspiration, lilies of chastity, and roses of fulfilled love). Even these can be effective in specific contexts—when, for example, the “Far Princess,” Mélissinde, acknowledges that the strong yet overrefined scent of the lilies with which she surrounds herself may reinforce her own “solitary pride.” By insisting that the stage be strewn with lilies, however—to be exchanged for roses in act 3, when Mélissinde has fallen in love with Bertrand—Rostand makes the symbolism too emphatic and obvious. Granted that hyperbole or exaggeration is also a feature of the “precious” style, this overworking is a temptation to which Rostand, like many précieux, succumbs all too readily. One of his loveliest images compares the Samaritan woman’s gesture, as she balances a water jar on her head with one hand, to the jar itself with its graceful handle; yet instead of letting the image stand on its own, he goes on to freight it with a grandiloquence (“Immortal splendor of this rustic grace!”) and a sentimentality beneath which it all but founders.
The far-fetched quality proper to “precious” imagery makes it most appropriate to, and effective in, burlesque or self-consciously witty passages. Here Rostand is in his element and can make the sparks fly. Perhaps the most famous example is the “nose tirade” in act 1 of Cyrano de Bergerac, in which the hero puts a man who has insulted him to scorn by improving on the insult. Instead of saying baldly, “You have a very big nose,” the man might have compared the nose to a peninsula, a scissors-case, a conch, a monument—even, “when it bleeds, the Red Sea!” This kind of virtuosity is already visible in Rostand’s early poem, “Charivari à la lune” (mock-serenade for the moon, in Les Musardises), which compares the moon to scores of different objects, including a cymbal, a mushroom, an egg, and a fingernail. More striking than the images themselves is the grace and wit with which Rostand arranges them: At first, each quatrain encompasses a single image, then two, then four, until the last frenetic strophe of the “serenade” is made to hold eight different images. Lapsing into Alexandrines, the poet admits that he is out of breath and hopes for a response from the moon—but all he hears is an ironic, “Go on!” Here as elsewhere, wit is Rostand’s great redeeming grace, the pinprick deflating what otherwise might become intolerably artificial and hollow.
This is not to deny Rostand’s properly dramatic talents. Even his most sentimental plays contain effective scenes, in which a sense of dramatic movement is sustained by artful development or sudden reversals. Thus, the woman of Samaria, recognizing Jesus as the Messiah, bursts into the same profane love song with which she had approached the well; thus Metternich, entering the Duke of...
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