Edmond Rostand’s family was wealthy, and he never seemed to need to be commercial. He worked at a slow and sure pace and chose his themes as they came to him. His canon includes one volume of poetry, Les Musardises (1890), and the dramas Les Romanesques (1894; The Romantics, 1899), La Princesse lointaine (1895; The Far Princess, 1899), La Samaritaine (1897; The Woman of Samaria, 1921), Cyrano de Bergerac (1897), L’Aiglon (1900; The Eaglet, 1898), and Chantecler (1910; Chanticleer, 1910).
Dramatic invention, the use of splendid and spectacular settings, the presence of an eloquent, witty, and adventuresome hero, the conflict of love versus honor, the recklessness and self-sacrifices of the characters, and the point of honor upon which the whole play turns—all are elements of the romance tradition and are present in Cyrano de Bergerac. Cyrano de Bergerac is a perennial favorite with theater audiences. Cyrano is more than a hot-tempered swordsman who gets into trouble because he resents people who make fun of his nose. Cyrano de Bergerac symbolizes magnanimity, unselfishness, and beauty of soul. Motion picture and television adaptations as well as several successful stage revivals of Cyrano de Bergerac over the years demonstrate that Rostand’s popular turn-of-the-century verse play is a classic. Written shortly before the beginning of the twentieth century, Cyrano de Bergerac reflects the themes and symbols of late nineteenth century romanticism, with its emphasis on the heroic individual who feels he has failed. In its story of ill-fated lovers and wasted lives, and in its symbolic moon as mother-and-home of the hero, and in its historical context, Cyrano de Bergerac is the culmination of a romantic revival in French literature.
In tone the play charts a drastically different course from the “decadent” products that filled the theaters during the same period. In creating Cyrano, Rostand reached into the seventeenth century for his character. The real Cyrano was a little-known writer who lived in France from 1619 until his death in 1655. The bearer of an unusually large nose, he wrote about it in his books—books that may be described as the early ancestors of the science fiction genre.
It is tempting to speculate that Rostand also found his proper tone in the seventeenth century, for Cyrano de Bergerac is a play based on certain Renaissance-like assumptions, such as the reality of honor and the drama it can create when confronted with a passion such as love. The theme of the play—“the making of a style out of despair”—also has affinities with seventeenth century values. People in Europe during the Renaissance were still experiencing the example as well as the ideal of the heroic individual: the exhilarating belief that one can, with courage, strength, and intellectual ability, will into being—create—the world as one chooses. It remained for Rostand’s age to turn the coin from “man is everything” to “man is nothing.” An underlying assumption of Cyrano de Bergerac is the presence of despair, but Rostand handles it lightly, and it is the style which one can create within this framework of despair that interests him. Rostand’s word for style becomes “panache”—literally “white plume” but a word with broad symbolic connotations in the play. The word signifies something of a swashbuckling quality. It conveys a sense of superiority, courage, pride. A man with “panache” would swagger, and, like Cyrano, he is almost bound to have enemies.
In spite of its evident stage popularity, Cyrano de Bergerac has taken its share of critical abuse from reviewers, who have panned it as insincere, as shallow and bustling physical activity, and as a study in useless sacrifice. The extravagance of the play, in terms of setting, language, and action, and its improbabilities also clash with the expectation of critics more accustomed to realism. Cyrano, however, is a poet, like his author; Rostand uses this play, as he does all of his works, as a vehicle for his own lyric voice.
This important point brings up a related problem the play offers to those who cannot read it in the original French. Those unfamiliar with French must depend upon translations, and although there are several English ones from which to choose, all suffer to some extent because of linguistic and cultural differences that accompany language barriers. Rostand uses the Alexandrine couplet, which gives the language of the play a weighty balance of rhyme and rhythm. Rhyming couplets in French are simply easier on the ear than they are in English. French has more rhyming endings and more acceptable combinations of its rhyming words than have proved possible in English. Out of five readily accessible English translations, three attempt to retain the poetic tone by using blank verse or rhymed verse. The other two avoid the restrictive nature of Rostand’s preferred rhyme scheme. One is unrhymed but a close literal translation; the other uses various rhyme schemes freely and attempts to find English or American parallels for Rostand’s witty references to French life and history, providing a lengthy introduction to explain why the changes were made. Regardless of what translation is used, the high lyrical style of the play is evident. One translation focuses on the concept of “panache” by using the French term in different contexts throughout the play. It helps to define this last word of Cyrano, which serves as a key to the play’s meaning. For example, early in the play at the Pont Nesle battle, Cyrano declares that he came alone except for his triple-waving plume, this “proud panache.” Later, in the debate with de Guiche over whether it is honorable for the latter to throw off his white scarf to escape, Cyrano argues that the white plume is a man’s panache, a manifestation of his very soul, not to be bartered or squandered but to be preserved as a sign of contempt for his enemies.
Finally, at the end of the play and the end of his life, Cyrano describes the leaves as falling with a certain panache: They float down like trailing plumes of fading beauty, masking their fear of returning to the inevitable ashes and dust of biblical prophecy; they fall gracefully, with style, as though they are flying. Truly, Cyrano de Bergerac is about style created out of despair.