When Cyrano de Bergerac made its debut at the Porte Sainte-Martin Theater in Paris in 1897, it was an instant success. This heroic comedy in Alexandrine verse had won over the sophisticated Parisian public and was on its way to becoming a modern classic. Though Edmond Rostand, the cast, and the producers (the Fleury brothers) were doubtful that the play would be a success, the audience fell in love with the poetry of the play and the beauty of the story. Cyrano is acclaimed as a dramatic masterpiece and is renowned for its unforgettable hero and romantic spirit. Though critics have at times labeled the play shallow, most praise its entertaining theatricality and its heroic protagonist who remains loyal to his ideals.
Cyrano is the poet turned hero. The verbal virtuosity of the play, from the "nose tirade" to Cyrano's admission to Roxane that he is the poet whom she loves, combined with the outbursts and action create a tour-de-force of a play. As William D. Howarth noted in Reference Guide to French Literature: "Despite his extravagance, Cyrano is a human character with whom spectators (the audience) and readers find it by no means impossible to reach the necessary degree of sympathetic identification: not because we ourselves aspire to the same sort of heroics, but because he expresses a Romantic idealism, a nostalgia for absolute values, latent in us all.'' The spectator can relate to Cyrano's dilemma. The insecurities that lead Cyrano to hide his love from Roxane, and to use it to Christian's benefit, are qualities that all humans possess. Rostand's genius was to create a character who is so human that he is timeless. Max Beerbohm, writing in his Around Theatres, said of Cyrano:
Cyrano will survive because he is practically a new type in drama. I know that the motives of self-sacrifice-in-love and beauty-adored-by-a-grotesque are as old, and as effective, as the hills, and have been used in literature again and again. I know that self-sacrifice is the motive of most successful plays. But, so far as I know, beauty-adored-by-a-grotesque has never been used with the grotesque as stage-hero. At any rate it has never been used so finely and so tenderly as by M. Rostand, whose hideous swashbuckler with the heart of gold and the talent for improvising witty or beautiful verses, is far too novel, I think, and too convincing, and too attractive, not to be permanent.
As time has passed Cyrano de Bergerac has become a beloved play, a classic still performed today in theaters around the world. Critics have, however, found that Rostand as a writer was not a genius as much as a playwright who had a great real-life story to embellish. Beerbohm called Rostand "a gifted, adroit artist, who does with freshness and great force things that have been done before. It is rather silly to chide M. Rostand for creating a character and situations which are unreal if one examines them from a non-romantic standpoint." Beerbohm makes an excellent point: Cyrano must be seen as the romantic hero in this heroic-comedy drama. To try to view—or read—Cyrano de Bergerac realistically, is to miss the beauty of the play.
Heroic Comedy has no tradition in English Literature. G. K. Chesterton wrote in Varied Types that, in today's world, "the hero has his place in tragedy, and the one kind of strength which is systematically denied to him is the strength to succeed." It seemed strange to some critics that a comedy should have a tragic ending. As Chesteron appraised, "Monsieur Rostand showed even more than his usual insight...
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when he calledCyrano de Bergerac a comedy, despite the fact that, strictly speaking, it ends with disappointment and death. The essence of tragedy is a spintual breakdown or decline.... It is not the facts themselves, but our feeling about them, that makes tragedy and comedy, and death is more joyful in Rostand than life in Maeterlinck."
Though Cyrano dies at the end, he dies loved by his beloved—the beautiful Roxane. It seems appropriate that the hero of a Heroic Comedy should die at the end. Dying for love is one of the most heroic acts a man can commit. Henry James, in the Critic, wrote of Cyrano: "The tight-rope in Cyrano is, visibly enough, the question of the hero's facial misfortune, doubly great as opposed to his grand imagination, grand manners, and grand soul, the soul that leads his boisterous personality to run riot, for love and for friendship, in self-suppression, in sentimental suicide." As James states, it is the heroism and romanticism that saves Cyrano de Bergerac as a play and makes it a masterpiece. James goes on to say: "I wouldn't, individually, part with an inch of Cyrano's nose. The value of it in the plan, naturally, is that it is liberally symbolic.... Cyrano, for a romantic use, had not only to be sensitive, to be conscious, but to be magnificent and imperial; and the brilliancy of the creation of the author's expression of this."
Writing in Lippincott's, Lionel Strachey sums up Rostand's writing ability this way: "Edmond Rostand's genius is of the highest, but not the highest. And however deeply our aesthetic sense is intoxicated, however we marvel at his nimble scholarship, into whatever ecstasy we go over his perfect expression of exquisite thoughts, our investigating, speculative, deductive, reasoning faculties remain untouched. Our splendid young Frenchman is, indeed, a great poet and little philosopher." In all of the criticism one point remains clear, though Cyrano de Bergerac has no real philosophical enlightenments, it is nonetheless a masterpiece. The character of Cyrano carries the play—his verbal virtuosity and faithful devotion to those he loved and cared for make him utterly unforgettable and absolutely timeless.