Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 973
For serious readers of his works, the facts of Cyrano de Bergerac’s life offer an important corrective to his legend. Though his family laid claim to noble status, the only basis for that claim was their ownership of two “fiefs,” or manorial properties—Mauvières and Bergerac—in the valley of the Chevreuse near Paris. The Cyranos were in fact of bourgeois origin; their son was christened Hector Savinien de Cyrano, and he himself added the title “de Bergerac” as a young man (as he occasionally assumed the pretentious given names of Alexandre or Hercule). This was deceptive on two counts, for, aside from smacking of nobility, the title suggests a Gascon origin. Rostand thus portrays his hero as born and bred in Gascony, which the real Cyrano never visited.
Cyrano was born in Paris and christened there on March 6, 1619. Some of his childhood was spent on his father’s properties in the Chevreuse valley, where he acquired a love of nature and a hatred of dogmatic authority. The hatred was inspired by a country priest to whom Cyrano was sent for schooling; it was to grow into a lifelong passion, reinforced by his experiences at the Collège de Beauvais in Paris, where he completed his education. (The headmaster of the collège, Jean Grangier—a man of considerable scholarly reputation—is mercilessly satirized in Cyrano’s comedy, Le Pédant joué, while the country priest is pilloried in Comical History of the States and Empires of the Sun.) Once out of school, Cyrano gave free rein to his rebellious streak and joined the circles of libertins, or freethinkers—and free livers—who frequented certain Paris cabarets. Among his libertine friends were several pupils of the materialist philosopher Pierre Gassendi, including the avowed atheist Claude-Emmanuel Chapelle and possibly the young Molière. Whether he studied with Gassendi himself, Cyrano was heavily influenced by his ideas, which are discussed at length in Other Worlds.
At about this time, Cyrano’s father suffered serious financial reverses and was forced to sell his fiefs; it has been suggested that Cyrano’s gambling losses may have been a factor. Whatever the reasons, relations between father and son were strained, and they continued to be so until the father’s death; according to records left by his lawyers, Abel de Cyrano suspected his two sons of robbing him as he lay on his deathbed. It is worth noting as well that Cyrano includes a bitter tirade against fathers in Other Worlds and depicts the sons of the moon people as exercising authority over their old fathers.
His financial straits, as well as the desire to make a name for himself, inspired Cyrano to seek a commission in the Guards, a company made up almost entirely of Gascons, whose reputation for bravado was apparently well deserved. One element of the Cyrano legend that seems to bear up under inspection is his reputation for bravery in the duels for which the Guards were notorious. After being wounded in two battles, however (at the sieges of Mouzon and Arras), he gave up the military life in disgust and turned to a literary career. Frédéric Lachèvre, who produced the first accurate biography of Cyrano in 1920, has suggested that the serious illness from which Cyrano suffered during this period also influenced his decision by forcing him to withdraw from other spheres of activity. The exact nature of the disease is unknown, but several biographers have accepted Lachèvre’s suggestion that it may have been syphilis. Illness and poverty combined to reinforce the misanthropic strain in Cyrano’s character; during this period, he broke with and reviled many of his former friends.
An opponent of Cardinal Mazarin at the outbreak of the Fronde in 1649, he changed sides—possibly for pay—and wrote a scathing letter, Contre les Frondeurs (1651; against the Frondeurs). Jacques Prévot, editor of Cyrano’s complete works, suggested that one of the most violent of these ruptures may have had an erotic dimension: Charles d’Assoucy, a satiric poet, was known to be homosexual, and Cyrano seems to have shown little interest in women.
Unfortunately, Cyrano enjoyed no greater success as a writer during his lifetime than he did as a soldier. In an age of censorship, he was too bold for most publishers, and he succeeded in publishing his plays and some letters only after accepting the patronage of the duke of Arpajon, a man of limited intelligence who wished to make a name for himself as a patron of the arts. With his support, Cyrano staged his tragedy, La Mort d’Agrippine, but it was closed after a few performances by a group hired to boo his “atheistic” stance (the hirelings, ironically, missed the more daring speeches and booed at a line they simply misunderstood). Shortly thereafter, Cyrano was hit on the head by a log dropped by one of the duke’s servants. It seems at least as likely that this was an accident as that someone hired the servant to ambush Cyrano (for fear of facing him in a fair fight, as Rostand would have it): By this time, Cyrano’s dueling days were behind him. The incident precipitated a rupture with the duke, however, and forced Cyrano to take to his bed. Fourteen months later, on July 28, 1655, he died at the age of thirty-six.
Lachèvre suggests that the primary cause of death was tertiary syphilis, but a lack of definite evidence has left this surmise in doubt. Cyrano is said to have returned to the faith on his deathbed at the urging of his relative, Mother Marguerite of Jesus, and his oldest friend, Henry Le Bret. Le Bret became Cyrano’s literary executor and published a heavily expurgated version of Other Worlds in 1657, two years after Cyrano’s death.