Cyrano de Bergerac is one of the greatest plays about unrequited love in literature. It has found a resonance with audiences since it was first performed in 1897. The story of an artist and man-of-arms with a brilliant mind who is frightened of declaring his love because of his appearance has a natural appeal for many people.
The character of Cyrano is particularly attractive. His verbal skills, wit, and daring are at the same time amusing and heroic. The paradox that Cyrano presents to the viewers of the play is that of a consummate renaissance man, who, despite his abilities, is prevented from gaining the ideal love that he seeks because of a physical fault. This tension between ideal love and physical beauty is one of the driving forces of the play.
This play’s development is quite unique, in that it was written in response to a request by Constant Coquelin, a famous actor of the 1890’s. Coquelin begged for an opportunity to star in a role written by Edmond Rostand. The play that Rostand wrote reflects aspects of Coquelin’s personality but draws heavily upon elements of the historical Cyrano. The work proved to be an immediate success, later serving as a vehicle not only for Coquelin but also for the famous actress Sarah Bernhardt, who played Roxane in a later production.
The style in which the play is written is interesting as well. It is a highly romantic piece, reminiscent of the novels written by Alexandre Dumas, père, thirty years before. Yet, the prevailing literary style at the time the play was written was a naturalistic, journalistic approach, drawing material from common working people. The play’s style certainly is a reflection of Rostand’s personality, if not Coquelin’s. Rostand’s approach to writing a historical work was to create a fictional world within a framework of real events, such as the Battle of Arras. He drew heavily upon what was known of the real Cyrano, then, having assessed his character, fictionalized the man in such a way that is true to the available facts and to the artistic needs of Coquelin, the actor in the play. The brilliant, brash, insufferable, inspired, idealistic Cyrano is the result. Rostand’s other works all demonstrate his profoundly romantic view of life, full of passion and verve.
Cyrano de Bergerac tapped into a vein of bruised patriotism in the France of 1896. It is unashamedly Gallic and jingoistic. The fourth act, in which Roxane brings a wagon of food to the starving soldiers of the Gascon Guards, found a receptive audience in Paris, which had suffered through a horrifying siege and famine during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871.