(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)


Edmond Rostand’s sympathetic treatment of sensitive people is as evident in his portrait of Napoleon’s idealistic but hesitant son as it is in that of his ugly but unselfish Cyrano de Bergerac. L’AIGLON is a verse drama in six acts, much of which must be cut, because of time limitations, when the play is presented on the modern stage. Either way, in print or on the stage, L’AIGLON is an impressive play. Perhaps the reason CYRANO DE BERGERAC is better known is that the historical feeling is not there so binding, whereas in L’AIGLON the character presented will always be known in history as the weak son of a dominant father.

The Story:

Marie-Louise, daughter of the Emperor Franz of Austria, had rented a villa at Baden, near Vienna, for herself, her retinue, and her son Franz. Franz had been given the title of Duke of Reichstadt by the Austrians as a sop to his feelings when they all but imprisoned him in that country to keep him from arousing the French to follow Napoleon’s son as they had followed Napoleon himself.

Marie-Louise pretended a greater sorrow for her husband’s death than she truly felt; actually she would have been happy enough living again at the Austrian court if it had not been for Franz, whose sorrow was so deep that he took no interest in anything his mother suggested.

Count Metternich was Franz’s official jailer, though such a term was never used. It was he who arranged the police guard, under Count Sedlinsky, to spy on every moye L’Aiglon made. Metternich allowed Franz to ride his horses where he would, but always there was an unseen guard along. Metternich also provided tutors for the lad, but they were warned never to speak Napoleon’s name. Even the boy’s history lessons were given without mention of Napoleon’s exploits.

L’Aiglon was then a frail, blond lad of eighteen. He was not strong, his cough leaving him strength only to ride the horses he loved and to find a way to learn his father’s history. But there were many people in Austria who were willing to back his bid to return as Francois, Emperor of France. The Austrian soldiers in his regiment admired his spirit and were known to cry out, “Long live Napoleon!” against the orders of those who wanted them to call out only, “Long live the duke!” The French exiles, hoping against hope, noted in reports from Paris that all the theaters were running plays about Napoleon, and that there was a cry going up to take his ashes back to Paris. The tailor and the fitter L’Aiglon’s mother brought from Paris turned out to be Bonapartists, the fitter being his cousin, the Countess Camerata. But the real history of his father he learned from a little dancer, Fanny Elssler, who memorized the stories of Napoleon’s campaigns and recited them to him.

A year later, after he had found a cache of books on Napoleon in Franz’s room at Schoenbrunn, Metternich allowed Franz to read all the books he pleased, but he set the guards even stronger around the young duke. For a while he deprived Franz of Prokesch, a Bonapartist friend, but Franz’s aunt, the archduchess, persuaded Metternich to let Prokesch come back. In return she exacted a promise from Franz that he would ask the emperor, his grandfather, to let him go back to France before he made any other plans with his friends.

Franz and Prokesch began plotting, however, using wooden soldiers on a table top to map battle strategy. The soldiers, which had been in Austrian colors heretofore, were now painted in French uniforms, exact to the last button. Metternich surprised the boys while they planned their battles and had the soldiers thrown away. At the same time Franz realized that the lackey who had guarded him most was also a friend, a man who had been a foot soldier in Napoleon’s army for seventeen years. He had repainted the wooden soldiers and he raised the most hope in Franz’s heart. Though Franz himself knew he was like a child with his nose pressed against a glass wishing for things in a store window, Flambeau, the lackey, gave him enough confidence to vow that he would return to France.

In the meantime Emperor Franz, having come to Schoenbrunn, held an audience for his subjects. In a grandfatherly way he granted many requests including one from his disguised grandson, who asked to go to his father’s land. When Franz threw off his Tirolean disguise, the emperor closed the audience chamber. Just as Franz had persuaded his grandfather to let him go back to France as emperor, Metternich appeared. He seemed to agree that Franz might rule...

(The entire section is 1875 words.)