Edmond Rostand 1868-1918
Significant for his revival of Romantic verse drama at a time when Naturalism and Symbolism dominated the French stage, Rostand combined an excellent sense of theatrical effect with a keen wit. His optimistic idealism found its best expression in the comedy Cyrano de Bergerac, which has achieved a lasting international reputation.
Born in Marseilles, Rostand was the son of a prominent journalist and economist. After attending local schools, he studied literature, history, and philosophy at the College Stanislas in Paris. He began writing for the marionette theater and had poems and essays published in the literary review Mireille at the age of sixteen. Although Rostand later studied law, he never practiced, choosing instead to concentrate on a career as an author. His first drama, Le Gant rouge, was produced in 1888 with little success, and his first volume of poetry, Les Musardises, received scant critical attention when it was published in 1890. Rostand achieved widespread popularity and critical regard in 1894 with his next play, Les Romanesques (The Romancers), which was produced at the Comedie Française, and solidified his reputation the following year with La Princesse lointaine (The Faraway Princess), which he wrote for the actress Sarah Bernhardt. Thereafter, Bernhardt became the principal interpreter of his works, appearing in leading roles in several of his plays. The actor Constant-Benoit Coquelin requested Rostand to write a play that would showcase his versatile skills as an actor, and Rostand complied by creating in 1897 what would become his most popular work, Cyrano de Bergerac. Two years later, ill health forced Rostand to retire to his country estate, and in 1901 he was elected to the Academie Francaise, the youngest member ever inducted. He continued to write plays and poetry when his health permitted, leaving his final play, La Dernière nuit de Don Juan (The Last Night of Don Juan), unfinished at the time of his death in 1918.
Rostand's poetry has been largely disregarded by critics, and he is remembered primarily as a dramatist. In his early play, The Romancers, Rostand rejected the sordid realism of the Naturalist plays then popular, creating a lighthearted satire about two young lovers in search of romance and adventure who discover that romantic love can exist without the excitement of danger or obstacles to overcome. Rostand further developed the theme of courtly love in The Faraway Princess, which relates the story of the troubadour Joffroy Rudel, Prince of Blaye, whose love for the Countess of Tripoli, whom he has never seen, inspires him to travel to see her before he dies. In this play Rostand introduced the theme of tenacious adherence to unattainable ideals that became characteristic of his works.
Cyrano de Bergerac is considered Rostand's dramatic masterpiece, successfully combining humor, romance, and heroic action in expert verse. Based on the life of the seventeenth-century soldier and author Savinien de Cyrano de Bergerac, the play recounts the hero's faithfulness to his ideals despite his recognition that he will never be rewarded for them. For example, he upholds his artistic principles by refusing to bowdlerize his plays in order to have them performed or to cater to a patron in order to live comfortably. Adhering to his principles of friendship, he refuses to compete with his friend Christian for the attention of Roxane, the woman they both love, and refrains from destroying Roxane's false image of Christian when he dies, even though it means foregoing his own chance to achieve happiness with her.
The polish of Cyrano de Bergerac aroused expectations which were largely disappointed by the last two plays Rostand completed. L'Aiglon (The Eaglet), which describes the life of the Duke of Reichstadt, son of Napoleon I, has been criticized for its simplistic and predictable construction. The Eaglet enjoyed considerable success in France, but it has never had the international appeal of Cyrano de Bergerac. The allegorical verse drama Chantecler, in which a barnyard cock upholds his faith in the importance of his role in the world, has received varied critical evaluations. While some commentators find the play too lengthy, obscure, and contrived, others praise it as Rostand's most ambitious and profound work, particularly those critics who view it as a poem to be read rather than performed on stage.
When Rostand's plays first appeared, some critics believed that they would inspire a return to verse drama and Romanticism. However, his dramas merely stood in contrast to the Naturalist and Symbolist literary movements of his time, rather than causing them to be supplanted. Recent evaluations of Rostand's work have praised his skillful verse and consummate theatricality, but find that his plays lack the thematic complexity and depth necessary to be considered great. Nevertheless, his dramas, particularly Cyrano de Bergerac, have maintained their popularity and continue to be performed to enthusiastic reviews.
Le Gant rouge 1888
Les Romanesques [The Romancers] 1894
La Princess lointaine [The Faraway Princess] 1895
Cyrano de Bergerac 1897
La Samaritaine [The Woman of Samaria] 1897
L'Aiglon [The Eaglet] 1900
Chantecler [Chanticleer] 1910
*La Dernière nuit de Don Juan [The Last Night of Don Juan] 1922
OTHER MAJOR WORKS
Les Musardises (poetry) 1890
Le Cantique de l'aile (poetry) 1910
Le Vol de la Marseillaise (poetry) 1919
*This unfinished work was published posthumously.
Overviews And General Studies
Martin Lamm (essay date 1952)
SOURCE: "The First Symbolists," in Modern Drama, translated by Karin Elliott, Basil Blackwell, 1952, pp. 152-78.
[In the following essay, Lamm appraises Rostand's major plays.]
While Maeterlinck and Claudel had difficulty in gaining stage success with their plays another writer of the same school, but of incomparably lower calibre, Edmond Rostand, succeeded in winning the heart of the great public. Cyrano de Bergerac was the theatrical triumph of the century, quantitatively perhaps the greatest that the history of the theatre has ever known. For some years the young author was universally acclaimed as the king of modern drama. This enthusiasm, however, began to wane even during his lifetime, and in histories of literature Rostand is now dismissed with a lack of appreciation which is as unjustified as the earlier excessive praise.
Rostand was an exact contemporary of Claudel but he came from the south, like his master Victor Hugo, and like Daudet and his Tartarin. The passionate troubadour and the boastful Gascon are the two standard types from the South of France. Rostand achieved the feat of combining them in Cyrano, a character with the bravado of a Gascon and the heart of a troubadour.
Before Rostand achieved this tremendous success he had spent his apprentice years in the Symbolist school as a writer of lyric poetry, and later of plays which did not meet with much appreciation and did not deserve to do so.
Rostand's first play, Les Romanesques (The Romancers, 1894), was an attempt to dramatize the world of Watteau. There was in his nature an element of affectation, and it was precisely in periods characterized by affectation that he found his themes, the period of the troubadour for La Princesse lointaine, (The Faraway Princess), the period of supreme affectation in which Cyrano is set, and the age of Rococo for The Romancers.
The plot of this play, in which two fathers pretend to be enemies in order to tempt their children to fall in love with each other, has also been used in a comedy by Otto Ludwig. It is not certain whether Rostand knew this work, but there is a similar situation in Musset's A quoi rêvent les jeunes filles (What do young girls dream of?).
It is of Musset and Marivaux that the play reminds us, though it lacks their psychological subtlety. The meaning is not that the young people will be cured of their romantic fancies when they have discovered how they have been puppets in their fathers' hands. The epilogue explains that they have only been deceived about the outer and unimportant appearance of things; in their hearts they have known the truth.
In his next play, The Faraway Princess, Rostand throws himself headlong into the most ethereal of romances. The real hero of the play, who does not appear very often on the stage, is the troubadour, Rudel. In character and style he is the perfect expression of the courtly, platonic affections of the Middle Ages. He is a character who has been treated by all the world's romantic writers, Heine, Browning, Swinburne and Carducci.
Like Pelléas and Mélisande the story is a variation on the Tristan theme. Rudel is at death's door, but before he dies he wishes to see Princess Mélissinde, for whom he has conceived a lofty passion through the songs of wandering minstrels. When at last he reaches Tripolis he is too weak to go ashore, and sends his friend Bertrand in his place. When the Princess catches sight of Bertrand she takes him for Rudel, and when he reads out the love poem that Rudel composed for the distant Princess she falls in love with him.
Meanwhile Rudel is still alive, though his last hour is near. During his final struggle with death the Princess and Bertrand come aboard, but the chaplain forbids Bertrand to cloud his friend's last hours by telling him of his intended deception. In a scene that is reminiscent of the end of Hernani, Rudel dies with his lips pressed against those of the Princess.
The plot anticipates that of Cyrano. Roxane is in love with the handsome face of Christian, but at the same time, and without realizing it, she loves the noble soul of Cyrano, for it was he who under the cloak of darkness made a declaration of love in Christian's name and wrote his letters for him.
Rostand's idealism is not profound, but it is genuine. The superficiality of his characterization is plainly apparent here, as well as his liking for startling stage effects. The plot is unnecessarily complicated, and the dialogue tediously wordy.
None of Rostand's early plays was particularly successful, least of all La Samaritaine (The Woman of Samaria), with its New Testament subject and the figure of Christ as an actor in the play.
Cyrano de Bergerac made him world-famous at once, and the morning after the première on 28th December, 1897, the French critics were prophesying that this date would mark a new epoch in drama as clearly as Le Cid and Hernani had done. This exaggeration was disproved by events. Cyrano did not turn out to be the beginning of a revolution, not even in France. The play is a vigorous and faithful revival of the great heroic drama of the French classical and romantic periods; it is in no sense a new creation.
Subject to these reservations, however, it cannot be denied that Cyrano exercised an influence on modern drama. Its remarkable success was convincing proof that the day of historical drama was not yet past, as critics tended to assert. The increase in the popularity of historical plays in all countries around the turn of the century is not unrelated to Cyrano de Bergerac, and it was never really dropped from the repertory lists of French theatres. Even in Sweden it is constantly revived, and always with success. It is unjust, too, to complain of the public's bad taste. The play is remarkable neither for its merits nor its faults. It has no unusual artistic merit, nor does it make greater concessions to the public's liking for stage effects than plays usually do.
Cyrano's struggle against a cruel fate, his ability to stand fast by his ideals in the face of opposition and defeat, his determination to put a brave face on humiliation and poverty, and finally, when all else fails, to go down with a brave gesture—all this is not something particularly French or 18th century; it is universal in its appeal. This play resembles too painstaking a copy of an old master, a typical, average piece of Dutch painting, with a few bold strokes of the brush added by Franz Hals.
Cyrano de Bergerac was a lucky shot. Rostand had found a period which perfectly matched his temperament. The early 17th century was an age of affectation, of idealism and sensibility, of gallant and elaborately turned phrases. When Rostand endowed Cyrano with his own exalted passions and his too brilliant vocabulary he gave the play its natural period flavour.
The beginning of the 17th century was also an age of military bravado, of the Fronde and The Three Musketeers. When Rostand makes D'Artagnan wish Cyrano luck and shake his hand, he clearly indicates that we are in a period where no act is too heroic to be believed. Cyrano is allowed to vanquish a hundred men and to tell the tale with his characteristic gallows humour. His long nose prevents his being taken really seriously by the audience, even when he is carrying out deeds of incredible heroism or showing a superhuman capacity for selfless resignation and exalted idealism. He has a half-mocking, half-tragic way of looking at himself, but Rostand does not allow us to witness any real soul-searching in him, and he does not even give us the impression that such a thing has ever happened.
Cyrano quickly selects the attitude which he feels honour compels him to adopt, and then abides by it stubbornly to the end. He is perfectly aware that such quixotic behaviour will not earn him esteem, but he is incapable of acting otherwise. The moral rectitude of the hero, which has been emphasized by modern dramatists from Schiller to Ibsen, practically reached its climax with Cyrano, the poet and long-nosed braggart. The effect was smaller and less convincing in him than in many of his predecessors, because he is so completely lacking in any sense of doubt. Cyrano belonged to an age when men acted more from impulse than reflection. He was created by an author who was in complete sympathy with him. This is why Rostand was able to work on audiences to whom the heroes of Kleist, Hebbel and Ibsen, with all their introspection, will always remain incomprehensible.
Nearest to Cyrano probably come Victor Hugo's heroes, for they are based on a similar antithesis. Just as Hernani and Ruy Blas bear noble souls under their robber cloaks or servants' uniforms, so Cyrano's sensitive and poetic soul contrasts with his robust exterior and his extravagant boastfulness. The two sides of his character drive him from one deed to another, each more heroic, more wildly idealistic than the last. He resembles Hugo's heroes in their unceasing desire to excel themselves. The knowledge that Roxane loves the stupid Christian causes him to do something more positive than merely to renounce his claims nobly; he wants Roxane to have Christian and to owe her happiness to him. To do this he determines that Roxane must not realize the extent of Christian's stupidity, so he composes letters for Christian, and takes his place in the dark to make that grand avowal of love which she has demanded. These tactics make it even more certain that he will lose Roxane, but they also give him the bitter-sweet satisfaction of knowing that it is really his soul, as expressed in letters and declarations of passion, that Roxane loves. Cyrano abides by his intention even when, sorely wounded, he visits Roxane in the final act. When he reads Christian's last letter, which he himself has written, his voice betrays his feelings. But when Roxane asks him if he loved her he steadfastly denies it, whispering at the end, "No, no, my love, I did not love you." Two lives have been destroyed for a dream; in the hour of Cyrano's death they both realize this. But Cyrano also knows that this struggle for a dream has been worth while just because it was a struggle, just because more than any other struggle it has demanded courage and sacrifice. In Rudel's song in The Faraway Princess Rostand praised that same love, noble because of its hopelessness, "plus noble d'être vaine."
Apart from Cyrano the characters in the play are insignificant. Fair without and hollow within, Christian is the antithesis of Cyrano, in the Victor Hugo style. Roxane says in the final act of the play that she has only loved one person but has lost him twice, a thought which Hugo might have expressed in the same way. Rostand and he both revel in grand period pictures which still retain a festive quality.
Our own generation does not, however, find the play as poetic as did the audiences which filled the Théâtre Porte Saint Martin for six hundred performances, or the reading public which bought more than a million copies. What remains most firmly in the memory is probably the final act, with its autumn mood of falling leaves; the sonorous Gascon song is an imitation of a poem which was wrongly ascribed to the real Cyrano.
The play is like a rich brocade which on close examination is found to contain crudities of colour and gems which are not real, but this is less disturbing because it contains an undertone of burlesque. Less easy to forgive are the hackneyed situations of the Scribe type which occasionally occur in it.
In L'Aiglon (The Eaglet), which Rostand wrote three years later, we get an impression of the actor anxious to gain the applause of his audience. Here we have a loud-voiced patriotism, sentimental and full of speeches but lacking the ability to laugh at oneself that is to be found in Cyrano.
The play was written for Sarah Bernhardt, then no longer young, and was one of the attractions of the Paris Exhibition of 1900. To read it now is like being confronted in some out-of-the-way place by a vast and pretentious exhibition building, hastily constructed of shoddy material. It may be splendidly painted and equipped to please the eye during the short summer months, but seems frighteningly empty and dismal if put to longer use.
Why Rostand really failed was because he selected a profoundly tragic subject. Napoleon's unfortunate son, Frans of Reichstadt, assumed a burden that was too heavy for him when he tried to win again for France the glory that had been Napoleon's. Rostand did the same when he chose a theme that was too great for his poetic talent. One might almost believe that he realized this better than his critics when one reads his last play, Chantecler, where he writes with charming irony of the henhouse and its chief singer, the cock, who believes that his throat can rival that of the nightingale.
The Emperor's son, obsessed by Napoleon's dream, but lacking the power to realize it—this was the essence of the plot, but Rostand could not bring it out without resorting to theatrical devices.
Napoleon himself could not be brought on to the stage, so instead Rostand, in an unlucky moment, introduced a veteran of the Old Guard whose name was Flambeau, and who was a sort of travelling museum of Napoleon's relics. From various corners and pockets of his clothes he produces a snuff-box, a pipe and a glass, all bearing Napoleon's picture or his monogram. The tragic death of the Duke on the stage is also embellished with Napoleonic souvenirs. The cradle which the City of Paris presented at his birth is carried in, and the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honour is hung over his night-shirt. There is a statue of Napoleon in the room, and he hums the tunes of his father's day while he is receiving the sacrament.
The Eaglet is set in Scribe's period; a performance of a Scribe play is announced at a fancy-dress ball at Schönbrunn. This may explain the deliberate Scribe touches in the play, the manoeuvres and counter-manoeuvres and the endless disguises. Flambeau says somewhere that he is never satisfied simply with providing the basic needs, but has a crazy passion to 'faire du luxe.' It is this southern French characteristic which has got the better of Rostand in The Eaglet.
Although the faint protests against The Eaglet were drowned in shouts of approval, Rostand seems to have realized the validity of the criticisms. He wanted to be a poet, not just a stage technician. After The Eaglet, to the surprise of the public and the critics, he retired to the country, taking his family with him, and settled for ten years in a quiet corner of the Pyrenees. Rumours were rife about the great stories that he was going to dramatize, such as Faust and Don Quixote, and there was much disappointment when it was learned that he was actually writing a play about hens in a farmyard, with a cock as the hero. The idea came quite soon after The Eaglet, but Rostand had trouble in expressing it. In any case, he was ill at the time and was not confident about his subject. The play was not completed until 1909.
A work which had met so many obstacles and taken so long to write was awaited by public and critics alike with understandable suspicion, and the première did not dispel all doubts. Maeterlinck and his The Blue Bird were to triumph three years later, and Chantecler did not meet with the recognition it merited. In it Rostand took his revenge for The Eaglet. He spent ten years of his life on a play which he must have known the ordinary public would never approve, for Chantecler is more of a literary drama and actually a more original piece of work than Cyrano.
In most European countries there is a legend to the effect that a cock believes that he causes the sun to rise because he predicts it with his crowing. This notion is elaborated by Rostand in the style of a fable. Chantecler, the name of the cock in Roman du Renard, is convinced that without him all would be darkness and nature sunk in eternal sleep. The jeers of envious rivals cannot shake his faith. A golden hen pheasant lures him into the forest away from all his hens, but she cannot accomplish alone her wish to make him forget his mission. She therefore summons to her aid the songster of the night, the nightingale, and at his first note Chantecler feels himself finally defeated. It is the same for him as for all who hear the song of the nightingale; they believe that they are only listening for a minute, but when the singing is ended they find they have been listening all night. The sun has risen, but Chantecler has not summoned it with his crowing. Chantecler suddenly sees that he has lost his throne. When the dog from the farmyard comes to greet him and tell him that everyone wants him back to bring up the sun, he answers in a moment of gloom, "Now they have the faith which I have lost." But his depression only lasts a moment and then he lets fly a full-throated crow. When the pheasant asks in surprise why he has done this he replies that it is his calling. The sun may have risen without his help, but it remains for him to awaken all to life, to open all eyes. "Who sees that his dream has died must die at once, or else rise up in greater strength."
This simple story has sometimes been taken to be an allegory on the fate of mankind, or in praise of the value of daily toil, or as an exhortation to all men to do their duty without too great illusions about its importance. This is a fairly widely held point of view, but we grasp the purport of the play better if we consider what the poet's function is. He cannot give life to nature, but he can open men's eyes to it, and he is most faithful to his calling when he regards himself as a worker among fellow-workers. "If I sing clearly and truthfully, and if every farm has a cock who sings in his place, then there will be no more night," says Chantecler.
Rostand explained that the cock expressed his own dreams, and indeed embodied something of himself. During this ten-year period while he was working on the play he had come to realize that his merits were overrated both by himself and by others. Both in the troubadour of Rudel and in Cyrano he had shown something of himself. Cyrano's self-sacrificing idealism becomes little less than a desperate gamble, a desire to make all the noblest and most extravagant gestures himself. Chantecler is less brilliant and more natural. He is the hero of domestic virtues, the citizen and father of the family, the faithful guardian. But as with all his fellow-countrymen, there is a touch of romance in his blood, and he believes that really he is something quite different. Rostand has brought out the sunny and frankly naive qualities of this Tartarin of a cock in a very human way. He is 'un brave meridional' like Tartarin, who finds it hard to see reality except through the veil of romance. Daudet blames this trait of the southern French on the burning sunshine which seems to shroud everything in a haze. So it is with Chantecler. His imagination is always a stage ahead of reality, and his sensitive soul is often wounded.
In his posthumous play, La dernière nuit de Don Juan (Don Juan's Last Night), Rostand writes a sequel to the Don Juan legend which leaves that most famous of all heroes morally naked. The play was not published until 1921, and it consists of a prologue and two acts which were already complete when the first world war broke out. The best scene is the one where Don Juan, released from hell, is confronted by shades of the thousand and three women whom he has seduced. He has to remember their names, but is always guessing wrong, and the shades mock him as they turn away. Finally they say that he has never known them, never possessed them—it is they who have possessed him, just to pass the time away. Romeo and Tristan are the two real lovers who have left behind something of themselves in those they loved. Don Juan is a mere intruder who has struck down those who are already wounded. He appears to have possessed all women, but in fact has possessed none. There is one single shade whom he has occasionally met but who is not on this list of conquests, the white one, the Ideal. At last the unhappy Don Juan begins to long for hell, but the cruel Devil tells him that a hell of a special sort is reserved for him. He is not destined for eternal fire but eternal theatre; he is to be one of the puppets in the Devil's collection. The play is slightly influenced by the Button-moulder episode in Peer Gynt, but the thought is typical of Rostand, namely that only love that is unselfish and idealistic is real.
Joseph Chiari (essay date 1958)
SOURCE: "Edmond Rostand," in The Contemporary French Theatre: The Flight from Naturalism, Rockliff, 1958, pp. 32-46.
[In the essay below, Chiari examines the elements of Romanticism in Rostand's plays.]
Edmond Rostand is not a major writer, yet somehow he is an important one. His importance lies in the fact that he is not only a kind of reaction to symbolist poetry, but a combination of the two strains—idealism and realism—which at the end of the nineteenth century were contending for pre-eminence, and also the representative of a great tradition in French poetry, the tradition of rhetorical poetry. Rostand's romanticism is counteracted by his rationalism and trust in reality, and these two contending tendencies assume, in turn, the mastery of his creative mind, or blend harmoniously in order to produce his best writings.
Rhetoric, which is found in the best poets, from Shakespeare to Racine, has now become a term of disparagement, yet there is good and bad rhetoric. The aim of rhetoric being to persuade, it may take the form of a conscious effort combining words and gestures in order to create an emotive state which will win over the reader or listener, or it may be a logical, cogent display of reasoning which cannot fail to carry conviction. It is an attempt to convey to the listener or reader a definite experience by means of overwhelming or triumphing over his judgment. Therefore the experience of the listener or reader will not be creative, but will be imposed upon him by the poet; that experience will gain only a temporary acceptance, for as it has not been truly lived and re-created by the listener or reader, it will not become part of his experience; it will not be true knowledge—which is what real poetry should be—it will remain an inferior kind of poetry. The poetry will not rise from the event or the thing described in its simplicity, or complexity, but will be given life with an aim in view, and both its morality and beauty will tend to be explicit and not implicit, as they should be. Poetry in tragedy arises from profound emotions probed to their depths in attempts to lay bare the very sources of being. Poetry in comedy arises from intellectual dispersions or unsuspected associations; the mind, instead of being governed by an overwhelming passion, bubbles freely in irrepressible exuberance according to the theme and subject chosen. That kind of poetry does not imply any revelatory quality of the words, but it does imply the existence of a rhythmical pattern, a musicality of the lines, and also the use of figures of speech which appeal as much to the senses as to the intellect, the whole thing being not a compulsory surge from the whole being of the poet, but rather an "intellectual" creation resulting from the intellect working on emotions as well as on strictly intellectual materials.
It seems to me that the test of whether rhetoric is good or bad lies in its power of conviction. If the author forgets himself, and uses his characters, or one of his characters, in order to expound his own ideas, or if he allows the characters to speak beyond the stage to the audience, then we have bad rhetoric. If a character dramatizes himself unconsciously, or if his words and gestures do not match the emotions or feelings which he is seeking to convey, then we also have bad rhetoric, for the words are no longer there in order to express a given situation, but because the author, carried away by his verbal skill, cannot resist a display of his virtuosity. But if the intellectual excitement, the passionate vehemence or persuasive strength of speech is perfectly in character and situation, whether it be Henry V on the eve of Agincourt or Horace's and Curiace's passionate debate before they engage in single combat, we have excellent rhetoric, or, to be precise, excellent dramatic speech. Good rhetoric is essentially reason at white heat, set upon a goal and wilfully using all the means of impassioned speech and power of emotive suggestion in order to reach it. The words, like waves, roll, pervade and overwhelm the listener until he lies temporarily exhausted or dazed under the impact of this mighty, dissolving stream. Rostand's rhetoric is above all the rhetoric of a burlesque poet, a poet who is making fun of others, as well as of himself. Although he is much less brilliant than either of them, his is the rhetoric of Pope or of Byron, the Byron of Don Juan, for instance, who laughs at himself first so that others may not do it. Rostand's Percynet, for instance, sees himself as Romeo, Tristram and all the great lovers of legend and history, but he says that with a smile, and therefore his utterances have a truly dramatic value for they fulfil their purpose. Only when he talks for one moment seriously, too seriously, of his love without any self-consciousness (as in the "stances") does he fall into sentimentality.
Rostand's passions are thoroughly intellectual. They come not from the heart but from the head; they are not forces which can wrench the human soul as storms can wrench minds or trees, they are thought out, although at times mentally felt and expounded with great skill. We have here a kind of rhetoric of passions reminiscent of that of Corneille and sometimes very successful, for like Corneille—though not to the same degree—Rostand was a master of words. But he did not write, he never wrote with his whole being; he wrote from a divided or rather complex, non-integrated personality. If he shared in the romanticism of his time, his Attic salt, his Mediterranean scepticism prevented him from taking himself too seriously and from striking humourless poses. He has his limitations, and they are very great, for he did not have the supreme quality of the poet, imagination, which can make great poetry; but he had equilibrium, and a sound grasp of realities. When that equilibrium is broken, when the balance leans towards the tragic, as in La Princesse lointaine or in La Samaritaine, Rostand is at his worst, for he is not a tragic poet; but when, as in Cyrano, he can temper the most serious situation with self-criticism and laughter—which forestalls laughter at himself—he is at his best, and he achieves a kind of elevation quasi-unique in his genre in France and very reminiscent of Byron.
La Samaritaine, for instance, illustrates the weak aspects of Rostand's romanticism unmitigated by the realism and the sense of humour which generally redeem it. The theme is the triumph of ideal love over physical love. The more one advances through the play, the more one wonders with anguish and increasing disquiet what Jesus had to do in the apotheosis of this new Magdalen—Sarah Bernhardt. The part is all to obviously written for the great actress, who is given as many opportunities as Rostand could provide to display the irresistible charms of her feminine personality, and they are such that even Jesus who is far more man than God, is very nearly carried away by "la forme divine de son bras nu". Indeed, who could resist her, when with her fair locks rippling down her white shoulders she seeks to rouse the mob in the public square or to lead them out of the town, along the dusty roads towards Jacob's Well where Jesus sits? What a tableau, as Rostand calls it! Jesus speaks like Rostand himself; Rostand the inflated, self-conscious poet who could not only always produce a rhyme when needed, but also a triple and quadruple rhyme when those who required them were the ghosts of great prophets who had behind them centuries of vaticination.
Rostand certainly did not seem to understand anything about religion, or he would not have produced that card-board mock pageantry which might perhaps grace a village fête in Provence and bring sentimental tears to the eyes of old matrons watching the scene, but which has no deep echoes. Jesus cannot be a dramatic character, even in order to partner Sarah Bernhardt. How can he choose, act, hesitate, suffer, since he knows all, suffers all and transcends time and space? To make of him the protagonist of a drama is to reduce him to the husk of what he is, and to show the shallowness of one's sensitiveness. The only drama the greatest drama of all, is the Passion of Christ. We cannot alter the story or the fable, as we may choose to call it, without shattering the whole framework of human sensitiveness. If Jesus moves on earth and utters human words, they must be movements and words which everybody knows, and which have by now become the very texture of the Christian soul. He may be made to behave and to speak in the manner and with the words of Rostand, D. H. Lawrence1 or any other poet, but then it is no longer Jesus; he becomes a being whom pagans or Martians could perhaps understand, but Christians certainly cannot do so. This is not a point of historical truth; poets can, to a certain extent, alter history and give us poetic truth, but Christ is not history but reality, permanent and eternal reality, beyond the historical. The greatest poets, Dante or Milton, who have sought to convey to man the idea of the Divine, have understood that; for although Milton makes God and Christ speak, they do so at least in an epic, and not in a drama. A drama, if it deals with the life of Christ, can only take the form of mystery plays which give us as faithful a vision as possible of the life of our Lord as we know it from the Bible.
Pace to La Samaritaine and let us pass, with Cyrano de Bergerac, to a genre in which Rostand can truly be himself, and in which he has reached his plenitude as a poet-dramatist.
Rostand combines some of the technical skill of Scribe with some of the exuberance of language of Victor Hugo. Besides that, he is both a realist and an idealist. His idealism is akin to that of Victor Hugo; like him, he believes in violent contrasts and in the supremacy of the spiritual over the physical. Cyrano has echoes, sometimes conscious echoes, of Marion Delorme and Ruy Blas—the earthworm in love with a star. Like Victor Hugo, Rostand can unfold brilliant metaphors and coin striking antitheses, and even his most lyrical outbursts, such as Cyrano's words to Roxane in Act III, have that kind of rhetorical brilliance and verbal lusciousness which we find in Victor Hugo. There is no doubt that with regard to rhetoric and themes, Rostand is the most Hugoesque of contemporary French poets. One cannot talk of his imagination; as I have already suggested, I do not think he had much, and whatever he had (and this is where he parts company from Victor Hugo), he certainly did not place a great deal of trust in it. He was too sceptical, too reality-bound, and, in contrast with Victor Hugo, he did not picture himself as the visionary, inspired seer who can descry unknown lands and point the road to his fellow-beings.
Rostand has a definite gift of visual imagery, of which we find many good examples in Cyrano, but as soon as he leaves reality he throws himself into a fantastic world in which he obviously does not believe. He has fancy, the kind of power which drags him in any direction but which is incapable of unifying various aspects of things and emotions into a living whole, and he has at times a power of dramatic expression which in its simplicity produces emotional tension and can rise to poetry. The end of the scene between Roxane and Cyrano is an example in which great tension between two characters can lift simple words to poetry. That scene is dramatic and very moving too, for here we see how Cyrano's hopes are drowned in the distractions of Roxane, who is completely carried away by her love for another. Rostand, or Cyrano, could dream beautiful dreams, but these dreams were countered by the wit of a man who knew their defects, and who knew that life could not always be a dream. The whole of Rostand's dramatic creation tends to prove that he believed in the supremacy of the ideal over the spiritual; indeed, in the end Rudel and Cyrano, the poets, the idealists, are those whose love triumphs; but that triumph never takes place in the world here and now, in the world of realities. When these heroes fall in the arms of their beloved, it is always too late, death is already upon them.
Protected by night Cyrano could, through the magic of his words, win Roxane's love, but he knew all too well that the whole thing would not stand the test of light and reason; he knew that Ideal is one thing and Reality another. Rostand did not believe, as Hugo did, in imagination, and his wit springs from that loss of belief. Hugo believed in his visions, in his apocalyptic dreams; Rostand also could dream, but he knew that dreams could not be realized, and he resolved the contrasts between dreams and reality into mockery, as when Cyrano, in Act I scene V, confesses his love for Roxane to his friend Le Bret:
Cyrano: … Avec mon pauvre grand diable
de nez je hume
L'avril,—je suis des yeux, sous un rayon d'argent,
Au bras d'un cavalier, quelque femme, en songeant
Que pour marcher, à petits pas, dans de la lune,
Aussi moi j'aimerais au bras en avoir une,
Je m'exalte, j'oublie … et j'aperçois soudain
L'ombre de mon profil sur le mur du jardin.Le Bret (ému): Mon ami! …
Cyrano: Mon ami, j'ai de
De me sentir si laid, parfois, tout seul …Le Bret (vivement, lui prenant la main): Tu pleures?
Cyrano: Ah! non, cela, jamais! Non, ce serait trop laid,
Si le long de ce nez une larme coulait!
Je ne laisserai pas, tant que j'en serai maÎtre,
La divine beauté des larmes se commettre
Avec tant de laideur grossière!
This is extremely moving, it is dramatic and it is poetry. The whole scene, which oscillates between the sentimental dream and the dramatic self-mockery of the main character, is wholly integrated and shows the progressive creation of Cyrano's character.
That power to see himself as he really is, and to laugh instead of crying over what is unchangeable, gives the character a new dimension and increases his dramatic range; it is, if one wishes to call it so, a kind of sense of humour, a quality which is wholly absent from the great romantics like Wordsworth, Shelley or Victor Hugo, who generally wrote on one single plane, but which in this country appears very often in the poetry of the Scots, Burns, Byron and in our time MacDiarmid. The quality of self-critical humour and of laughing at the Devil and even at death itself, is one of the main traits of Scottish poetry. The poetry of the great romantics, with their faith in imagination, their kind of mystical attitude towards the creative act, or the high seriousness of Arnold who could see in poetry a substitute for religion—or, for that matter, German subjectivity from Goethe to Wagner—has no parallel whatever in Scottish poetry. The Scots seem to share with the French a great reverence for the intellect. Rostand, in that respect, is very French indeed; he refuses to confuse reality and visions, he rarely takes himself too seriously, and when he does it is fatal to his art. Strangely enough, another mediterranean, a greater poet than Rostand, yet a man who, like him, believed both in poetry and in reason—Valéry—concluded his artistic life with Mon Faust, a dramatic poem in which even Mephistopheles is derided and made a victim of the author's irrepressible scepticism. Cyrano believes in love but, man of the world as he is, distrusts feelings and fears that other men may laugh at him, so he forestalls them by laughing first. The important thing is that, however shallow Rostand's philosophy may be, he looks at experience not from one single vantage-point, as the great romantics generally did, but from various directions. He may lack depth, but he has complexity and range; he does not attempt to reach for a transcendental order, he deals with reality as he sees it, and Nature, when he describes it, has none of the immanence conferred upon it by Wordsworth or Victor Hugo.
As a play, Cyrano has many flaws. When at the end of the balcony scene, for instance, Christian reaps the fruit of Cyrano's rhetoric of love, we cannot help having a certain feeling of revulsion, and we are made aware of the fact that Rostand's great dramatic skill can at times fail him. The death of Christian, which is not quite convincing, nevertheless increases the sympathy of the audience towards him. The last scene of Act I is sheer fantasy, but it does fit with the character of that strange man who is Cyrano. On the contrary, the arrival of Roxane on the battlefield in Act IV, scene iv, and above all the repast which follows, transform the atmosphere of tension into one of tragi-comedy and burlesque. It is a flight into absolute fancy, the characters become unreal and the interest flags. We find ourselves right in the thick of melodrama; the battle is completely artificial, and Rostand can display such a lack of sensitiveness as to make en joue rhyme with je sens sa joue. In spite of the fact that Cyrano's character is well drawn, the other characters are rather shallow. They are strongly reminiscent of Corneille's heroes in the fact that they are all, in various degrees, good; none of them is evil. The play has no metaphysical depth; life is shallow, language is without profound roots, yet it is nevertheless the language of a poet. Even De Guiche, who at the beginning of the play seems to be the bad one, in the end becomes the good Duc de Gramont who has seen the light and can express himself in poetry:
Voyez-vous, lorsqu'on a trop réussi sa vie,
On sent,—n'ayant rien fait, mon Dieu, de vraiment mal!
Mille petits dégoûts de soi, dont le total
Ne fait pas un remords, mais une gêne obscure;
Et les manteaux de duc traÎnent dans leur fourrure,
Pendant que des grandeurs on monte les degrés,
Un bruit d'illusions sèches et de regrets,
Comme, quand vous montez lentement vers ces portes,
Votre robe de deuil traine des feuilles mortes.
In spite of certain weaknesses, Cyrano is Rostand's major dramatic and poetic achievement. Rostand has often enough been dismissed as a mere writer of verse, or a kind of rhetorical poet who was not in fact a poet. Such opinions seem to me to imply a very narrow view of poetry. Granted, Rostand's poetry is different in quality and in degree from that of Shakespeare or Coleridge, or from that of Racine or Baudelaire; still, there are surely various kinds of poetry which can range from that of Shakespeare to that of Rostand.
Cyrano is a heroic comedy in verse, and therefore we cannot expect to find in it the kind of revelatory poetry which we find in Othello, King Lear or Phèdre. The aims of the poet are here very limited, but they are clear; he does not attempt to confront us with unsolved mysteries, but with the everyday dualism of human nature within definitely human situations.
The dramatic action of Cyrano is on the whole sustained, and there are scenes of true dramatic and poetic beauty—the marvellous tirade of Cyrano on noses, for instance, and the reply to the Vicomte which is a brilliantly developed metaphor, are dramatic and produce, through the self-irony of the main character, a heightening of sensibility to which one could hardly refuse the name of poetry. In the same way, the other beautiful speech of Cyrano in the eighth scene of the second act is good wit-poetry; there are plenty of apt images, there is movement, there is rhythm, and it is dramatic; it gives us a full description of Cyrano's character—Cyrano who, once more, abruptly shatters his apparent boastfulness with the confession of his utter dejection. Only a poet, however minor he may be, could fuse such contrasting emotions into the unity which we find in many scenes of Cyrano. The scene which follows is not poetry, but it is a good drama, and it adds to the mounting tension. True, the balcony scene, which is Rostand's lyrical flight, does not rise to the heart-rending lyricism of Romeo and Juliet, or the poignancy of some of Shakespeare's sonnets, but it is a very dramatic scene, which trembles on the verge of sentimentalism but which nevertheless avoids it and conveys in a poetic way the pathos of Cyrano's situation; the audience is bound to share in that pathos, for it knows that what he says comes from the depths of his heart, and it cannot but feel sympathy for a man who makes use of the sincerity of his passion in order to win a heart which he knows will not belong to him. It is indeed a very "poetical" situation, extremely delicate to handle without raising unwanted smiles or laughter, but it seems to me that by now the complex nature of Cyrano's character is so well accepted and his sincerity, which makes him forget that he is playing a part, seems so genuine, as to make the scene dramatic.
Rostand shows us that the greatest dangers which beset the poet are perhaps the discrepancies which might arise between his aims and the means which he uses to reach them. If, like Maeterlinck, he thinks he can reach poetry by using poetic themes and conventions, he will soon realize that the result will be neither dramatic nor poetic, for the two in that case should go together; but if, on the contrary, like Rostand, he attunes his poetic lyre to the situations he has chosen to describe, to the characters he has chosen to present, then he may, without flights to the summits which the former tried to reach, avoid the marshy ground where Maeterlinck got lost, and walk along a moderately high ground to the accompaniment of a music which, if it does not ravish us, never completely bores us, and which will save his name from oblivion. In his way, Rostand is a poet. He succeeds where Maeterlinck failed, and Cyrano is a work which has both an intrinsic and an historical importance. Aesthetically it is successful drama, historically, it is the meeting-point of a long tradition in French literature and the reconciliation of many contrasting traits, amongst the most important, the ideal and the rational; it has echoes of Victor Hugo, Banville, Scarron and others also, and it points the way to Valéry's more elaborate scepticism.
Cyrano marks the apex of Rostand's dramatic career. With L'Aiglon and Chantecler we have again a break in the equilibrium which produced Rostand's best drama, and consequently we have partial failures. The critics who try to gloss over these dramatic failures by describing them as poems are, to my mind, mistaken. There are true poets like Swinburne, for instance, or W. B. Yeats, who could fail in their attempts to produce good drama because they were first and foremost poets and perhaps not primarily dramatists. Atalanta in Calydon may not be a good play, but it certainly contains good poetry. But Rostand was not a poet of Swinburne's or of Yeats' magnitude; he was a versatile, masterly versifier, he had the gift of words, he could juggle with them to the point of inebriation, and also to lapses of appalling bad taste, and he only was a poet when he was a successful dramatist. He could sometimes write good descriptive poetry, and his images often have a Hugoesque splendour, but they are generally clear, visual images, free from psychological complexities or metaphysical symbolism tending towards apocalyptism as is the case with Claudel, for instance, who, like Rostand, resembles Victor Hugo but in a different way. Rostand obviously is, and could only be, a minor poet; in him there is no depth, no power of vision, no confrontation between being and non-being, between time and eternity, none of that awareness which can illumine a man's soul when confronting his finitude and his fate with the infinity of the universe, and which can give rise to moving, heart-rending songs which enable him to transcend time and his earthly plight. Rostand is the kind of poet who, deprived of the lyrical gift to sing himself out of time, can only make poetry out of the characters which compose his drama; and when he fails to be dramatic, he also fails to be a poet. His limited realistic vision, his intellect, which in order to avoid any possible suggestion of presenting Rostand as a thinker should really be described as good common sense, confine him to a kind of poetry which is more often verse than poetry, and which never goes beyond drama.
The critics who try to console themselves by saying that in L'Aiglon and in Chantecler Rostand's lyrical poetry re-deems the lack of dramatic tension, the practical failure in drama, confuse the shadow for the substance. The so-called symbolism of Chantecler is so obvious that it does not deserve that name, and it does not require any explanation. Any normal twelve-year-old child would grasp it at once without having to ask his father any awkward questions; in fact, its obviousness rejoins in its results the very transparent camouflages put on by Maeterlinck's characters. At any moment we expect Chantecler to say: "Well, of course you know who I am, don't you?"—just as we are surprised not to hear at certain moments the famous Blue Birds saying these same words. These animals have nothing animal about them; they talk and behave as Rostand and his friends probably did, and we feel that somewhere, some time in Rostand's life, there must have been some hen-pheasant who tried to lure him away from the Dawn, some denigrating blackbird-like colleague, and some highfalutin' lady whose "at homes" were the meeting-place of all the blue-stockings and the wigged hollow-heads of Paris. If, because Rostand obviously speaks through those various characters and borrows more often than not Chantecler's voice, we call that lyricism, we are singularly mistaken. Some speeches certainly sound personal, at times to the point of incongruity, as when Chantecler-Rostand talks of Chénier's death; but lyricism is something more than personal expression of feelings, as Lamartine and Rostand ought to have known. It all depends on the feelings; those expressed here are pretty common alloys, and would require a great deal more refining before they could reach the state of the pure metal. There is in the play a certain amount of wit verse, the kind of wit which brings together things far apart, or suddenly reduces the distances which separate things similar; part of scene iv in the first act is a case in point. There is also some kind of poetry, mostly verbal—the hymn of Chantecler to the sun, and his confidences to the hen-pheasant—interspersed with very bad lapses; and there are throughout the play unbearable puns, unbelievable samples of lack of taste, and a kind of verbal headiness which sprawls endlessly across numerous scenes. It is, all told, a very elaborate, over-elaborate fantasy, which is ingenious, and in parts entertaining as a review, but which will grow older and older, and will not improve with age.
L'Aiglon is on a higher level than Chantecler. It is, after Cyrano, the most accomplished drama of Rostand. Here he has once more moved away from that mixture of realism and idealism, sentiment and irony, bravado and heroism, which characterizes Cyrano, and we are once more faced with a very romantic theme, that of the hero condemned to failure. The action is therefore static; the main character, although he has impulses and velleities of movement, remains motionless. The words are like the sails of a wind-mill gyrating without anything to grind; they strike the air, and nothing but the air, producing a powerful impression of fruitless effort. The result is bombastic, swollen language, gongorism, and long scenes placed where they are for no other purpose than to enable the poet to indulge in a certain form of rhetoric.
The hero is a cardboard hero, an opera prince without any life of his own. He seems to be a combination of certain very feminine aspects of Rostand's character, crystallized in a form which would suit Sarah Bernhardt's acting. The truth is that, although Rostand may be able to conceive a verbal exteriorization of tragedy, and may have the gift of passionate rhetoric which can produce at times epic poetry, he cannot be a tragic poet. He can obviously write mock-heroic verse, as in Cyrano, and also heroic verse, as in L'Aiglon. The entrance of Flambeau in the ninth scene of the second Act is a good sample of heroic poetry containing striking images:
Nous qui pour arracher ainsi que des carottes
Nos jambes àla boue énorme des chemins,
Devions les empoigner quelquefois àdeux mains.
Flambeau is the best-drawn character of the play, and it is in him that we find mat mixture of heroic grandeur and irony which was greatly responsible for Cyrano's attractiveness. He has bad lapses—at the end, for instance, when he dies saying "Je me suis fait une légion d'honneur"—but on the whole he is moving, convincing, and his language sometimes bears the imprint of epic poetry. There are other samples of epic poetry: the beginning of the tenth scene in Act I, for instance, contains good epic poetry. Indeed, the thing to remember about L'Aiglon is that it is only a partial failure, for in spite of lengthy, lifeless scenes, in spite of appalling samples of bad taste and most common puns, such as: "vous ragusassiez!", L'Aiglon is at times dramatic and contains a certain kind of poetry. The duke is weak, sentimental, as when he offers to decorate Flambeau, pompous, petulant and childish, as when he wilfully alienates himself from his grandfather's good-will, or merely shilly-shallying, as when he should be strong and escape in order to reach the throne; all these traits show that this sickly and nervous young man was not fit to reign. Like Hamlet2 whose presence seems to have been haunting Rostand at that time, the young duke is incapable of action. He is ever hampered by what looks like very futile reasons. He nurses Hamletian feelings about his mother's unfaithfulness to the great man, his father. Just as the ghost plays an important part in Hamlet, in L'Aiglon, Napoleon's great shade dominates the play and overwhelms the weak, golden-haired young man who is torn between his urge to fulfil his father's wish and the anxiety of feeling unequal to this great task. Yet he could at times redeem himself, with the self-irony of "les soldats de plomb de Napoléon II", and Rostand could every now and then knit his speech with splendid Hugoesque images, as when, in Act I, scene viii, the doctor, talking about butterflies in an album, asks the young duke what he is looking at, and the duke replies with the very apt and dramatic words: "L'épingle qui le tue"; or later, in scene xiii, in spite of the weak rhymes:
(The entire section is 21765 words.)
Cyrano De Bergerac
T. S. Eliot (essay date 1920)
SOURCE: "'Rhetoric' and Poetic Drama," in The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism, Methuen & Co., 1920, pp. 78-85.
[In the following essay, Eliot declares that "in the particular case of Cyrano on Noses, the character, the situation, the occasion were perfectly suited and combined. The tirade generated by this combination is not only genuinely and highly dramatic: it is possibly poetry also."]
The death of Rostand is the disappearance of the poet whom, more than any other in France, we treated as the exponent of "rhetoric," thinking of rhetoric as something recently out of fashion. And as we find...
(The entire section is 23984 words.)
Bentley, Eric. "Cyrano de Bergerac, 1897." In The Play: A Critical Anthology, pp. 10-147. New York: Prentice-Hall, 1951.
Presents a brief introduction, the Humbert Wolf translation of the Cyrano de Bergerac, and an afterword covering a number of issues, including the plot, characters, themes, and dialogue of the play.
Burgess, Anthony. Preface to Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand, translated and adapted by Anthony Burgess, pp. v-xiv. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1971.
Discussion of the task of translating Cyrano de Bergerac that touches on issues of Rostand's style and versification.
Butler, Mildred Allen. "The...
(The entire section is 247 words.)