In As You Like It, William Shakespeare offers the famous line, "All the world's a stage," an idea that takes on a literal meaning in Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac, his play featuring one of the most theatrical of characters ever created. In the foreword to his translation of the play, Anthony Burgess writes that while "Cyrano de Bergerac may not be the best play ever written," its central figure "is surely one of the great characters in all drama." What makes Cyrano such a remarkable and popular character is, primarily, his devotion to his own code of honor, despite the fact that his goals seem unattainable. When asked if he has ever read Don Quixote, Cyrano replies, "I have—and found myself the hero." Like Quixote, Cyrano forever chases the "windmill'' (or unattainable goal) of winning Roxane's heart, and the audience's fascination with this "bravest soul alive" resides in his steadfast commitment to this task. When asked if he has "chosen any plans" for himself, the flamboyant hero replies that he has decided upon "The simplest—To make myself in all things admirable!" How Cyrano struggles with his desire to be "admirable" in all things, against his fear of being mocked for his large nose, is the focus of Rostand's "heroic comedy," in which the viewer sees how he plays various roles on the"stage'' of the world in order to produce what William Lyon Phelps called "The Triumphant Failure" in his text Essays on Modern Dramatists.
The play begins in the Hall of the Hotel de Bourgogne as various actors and patrons await the day's play. Appropriately subtitled "A Performance" by Rostand, the act raises all of the issues of the upcoming play and displays Cyrano (rather than any actor), as the true "performer." First, however, the viewer learns that Ligmere, a friend of Christian, is to be attacked for writing a song that offended someone at court; in addition, Cyrano has commanded that Montfleury, a "hippopotamus'' of an actor, be forbidden to perform. Clearly, the imaginary seventeenth-century world of Cyrano de Bergerac, is one in which art is taken very seriously, as seen later in Ragueneau's trading pastries for sonnets and his setting recipes to rhyme, as well as in the letters that Cyrano will eventually pen to Roxane (in Christian's name).
Cyrano's entrance, however, is when the play really begins, and it is in his entrance that Rostand reveals his hero's character and concerns. After chasing Montfleury off of the stage, Cyrano assumes the spotlight, managing to turn his worst defect into a "theatrical" asset. To put Cyrano "in his place," Valvert attempts to insult him, saying, "Your nose is... rather large!'' This lame jibe only proves to be a springboard for Cyrano's wit--he responds with a list of twenty things that Valvert could have said in twenty different styles, such as, "DESCRIPTIVE: 'Tis a rock—a crag—a cape/A cape? Say rather, a peninsula!" and concludes his monologue with,
These, my dear sir, are things you might have said Had you some tinge of letters, or of wit To color your discourse. But wit—not so, You never had an atom— and of letters, You need but three to write you down—an Ass
Cyrano's catalogue of insults shows his own obsession with his "peninsula," his love of language, and his contempt for the tiny minds that surround him. He is "a soul clothed in armor," and his wit is the "armor" that defends his often-battered pride. When asked by Valvert to duel, Cyrano again "performs," composing (and reciting) a four-stanza ballad the entire time; his mind and...
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his sword are equally sharp, and his "thrusting'' at Valvert reflects the "thrusting'' of his mind in the previous speech. Imbibing the admiration of the crowd as if it is champagne, Cyrano offers the theater manager a purse of gold in order to compensate for the business he has cost him for this day; when criticized by his friend (and the voice of rationality), LeBret, with, "what a fool," the swordsman rejoins, "but—what a gesture!" This idea, that "gestures" are as important as the day-to-day cares of the world (Cyrano has just given away his month's salary) resurfaces again and again in the play, with Cyrano constantly making "gestures" in which he displays (albeit without her knowledge) his love for Roxane. He displays what Rostand himself described as true "panache": "not greatness ... but something which ... stirs above it ... the spirit of gallantry.''
As he leaves the theater to fight the hundred men awaiting Ligniere, he cries, "I want an audience," and as the characters excitedly follow him, Rostand suggests that his play will be one in which various "actors" (such as Cyrano and Christian) perform for an "audience" (Roxane) whose applause they both crave and esteem.
Despite Cyrano's bravado, he does harbor great insecurities about his desire for Roxane. Before he faces (and defeats) his hundred opponents, he tells LeBret that he is afraid to speak to her because "she might laugh," and this "is the one thing in the world" that he fears. Act Two serves as a way for Rostand to accentuate this fear and intensify the portrait of Cyrano's pride created in Act One. When told by Roxane that she loves a man who "loves me too,/And is afraid of me, and keeps away,/And never says one word," Cyrano (who can always produce a needed remark) can only respond with gasps. When she continues to describe the object of her affections, however, as "beautiful," Cyrano knows that, whoever her love may be, it is not himself. His disappointment grows as he explains to LeBret the reasons for his flamboyance and "growling": "What would you have me do...? Eat a toad/For breakfast every morning...? Wear out my belly groveling in the dust?" Rather than live in fear of "the common herd," Cyrano explains that he "is too proud to be a parasite"; thus he will not allow De Guiche to alter "one comma'' in his tragedy and is even more committed to a life where he will "stand, not high it may be—but alone!"
Cyrano's problem with Roxane now seems hopeless; however, the plan he hatches with Christian allows him to avoid humility while still proclaiming his love from afar. Their meeting is one in which Rostand invites the viewer to recognize how the deficiencies in each can be filled by the other: when Christian points at his heart and says, "Oh, if I had words/To say what I have here," Cyrano laments, "If I could be/A handsome little Musketeer with eyes!" Their scheme is one in which these deficiencies are combined and "canceled out," for together, Cyrano's mind plus Christian's beauty equals the perfect man. Cyrano tells Christian to "borrow" his wit and asks him, "your beautiful young manhood—lend me that." Together, as a unified force in the battle for Roxane's love, these two will "make one hero of romance!" While Cyrano earlier remarks that he will "render no share to Caesar," that is, not allow anyone else to take credit for his actions, he freely offers his wit (and pen) to Christian, illustrating the play's theme of sacrifice for a higher cause—which reaches its height, of course, when Christian dies and Cyrano does not admit to Roxane (until fifteen years have passed) that it was he who had provided Christian with the words and feelings with which Roxane fell in love.
While such a plan is appealing to Cyrano both practically and aesthetically, Act Three shows the strains of the ruse on the swordsman's noble heart. In an effort to further enrapture Roxane, Cyrano poses as Christian under her balcony, recalling the famous scene from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. However, Cyrano is delegated to the role of a "mock-Romeo," duplicating only the Italian hero's emotion and not his rewards. The dramatic irony grows almost oppressive, when phrases like, "My heart/Hides behind phrases," and "It is my voice, mine, my own/That makes you tremble" brings Cyrano closer to Roxane but not vice-versa. After Christian climbs the trellis to receive Roxane's kiss, Cyrano is left alone, resembling Hamlet more than Romeo: "I have won what I have won—/The feast of love—and I am Lazarus!" This Biblical allusion to Lazarus, the beggar who starved at the gate of a rich man who feasted every day, pinpoints Cyrano's anguish and serves as another reminder of the "performance" theme mentioned earlier: Cyrano writes the script, directs the scene, and plays the role—but Christian receives the applause in the form of Roxane's kiss. Earlier in the Act, we learn that Cyrano has won (in a wager) two pages, whom he commands to play "sad" tunes for a man and "merry" ones for a woman. While this music obviously suits Cyrano (sad) and Roxane (merry), there is a second layer of meaning within them: in his ironic position as Roxane's secret admirer and Christian's successful go-between, both tunes apply equally to himself.
In Act Four, the action moves from a domestic to a military setting where Cyrano fights for love and honor more than any political cause. When all of the soldiers complain of their hunger, Cyrano sings to them a song which makes them weep as it reminds them of their native Gascoyne; his explanation that the men weep "for homesickness—a hunger/More noble than that of hunger of the flesh" raises the issue of the nobility of the spirit when contrasted with that of the body. While this theme has sustained the entire plot, it is emphasized here in several ways. First, we learn that Cyrano has been risking his life "every morning before breakfast" to cross the Spanish lines and deliver one of "Christian's" letters to Roxane. Second, Roxane arrives at the front in order to beg Christian's forgiveness, "for being light and vain" and loving him, as she says, "only because you were beautiful." She, too, has learned the important difference between appearance and reality, between the spirit and the flesh—but, of course, the basis of her knowledge is a falsehood and an even greater example of this difference (Cyrano himself) lies directly in front of her, although she cannot recognize it as such. Christian, like Cyrano before him, now finds himself in an ironic position: feeling guilty about his charade, he urges Cyrano to confess to Roxane. "I am tired of being my own rival," he explains, realizing what Cyrano (and the audience) has known all along about the nobility of the swordsman's heart. However, when Christian dies moments before Cyrano can reveal his true self to Roxane, he forsakes the chance to tell her, highlighting once again his panache in sacrificing his own happiness for hers. He is, essentially, continuing the performance he began when he wrote her his first letter so that Roxane may have the happy memory of Christian as her one true love.
When Act Five begins, the audience learns that Cyrano's nobility has not faded over time: for fifteen years he has visited Roxane (now in a convent) every Saturday, never revealing Christian's secret. LeBret and Ragueneau, however, inform the audience that Cyrano has become embittered, writing satires that attack "the false nobles, the false saints,/The false heroes" and "the false artists.'' This change can be accounted for by recalling Act Four: nobody knows more than Cyrano what it really means to be "true," and so he attacks hypocrisy in all its forms. The Act is haunted by death: it is autumn, leaves are dying and the sun is setting—and De Guiche informs the others that he heard a rumor at court that "Cyrano may die—accidentally." The world hates a true and noble soul, an idea emphasized when Cyrano later compares himself to Socrates and Galileo. Like Homer's Penelope, Roxane weaves her embroidery—and again like Penelope (although she does not realize this herself), she is awaiting the return of her love, at war not with the Trojans but with the false and ignoble world.
Cyrano's arrival augments the sense of death that pervades the Act and he speaks of "A very old acquaintance'' that he dismissed for only an hour so that he could visit the convent; this "most unexpected" visitor is Death himself, and Cyrano's struggle for life is only successful because of the strength of his love for Roxane. She, too, finds herself swept into the tangles of irony that Cyrano and Christian faced earlier: upon discovering that Cyrano wrote all the letters and loved her all the while, she returns his love, saying, "I never loved but one man in my life,/And I have lost him—twice." All of the play's issues now come rushing to the surface for a final examination. For example, when LeBret tells Cyrano that his scene was used by Moliere and that the audience "laughed—and laughed," Cyrano responds, "yes—that has been my life"; as before at the balcony, he has seen others take credit for the depth of his mind and soul. The spirit vs. flesh idea is raised again (for the last time) when Cyrano draws his sword to face Death: at the siege of Arras, he expressed his wish to die "by the sword,/The point of honor—by the hand of one/Worthy to be my foeman," but now he is slowly fading out of his life due to a log that someone deliberately let fall onto his head from a window. Clearly, this is not the noble and valorous death that the swordsman had envisioned for himself. However, despite this seeming ignominy, Cyrano is allowed to end his performance before his death, saying that he wishes to now die like a leaf, for "they go down gracefully.'' Struggling, he swings his sword at Death, remarking that although such a fight seems "hopeless," it is "better to know one fights in vain," as he did throughout the play for Roxane's love. The triumph of this French Don Quixote is his refusal to compromise his ideals or spirit for the "falling logs" and "hopeless" battles of the plain and unromantic world. Offering Roxane his white plume, he dies even more spiritually rich than he lived; since he lived the life of the most exaggerated, "admirable'' and noble swordsman in French theater, this is no small achievement.
Source: Daniel Moran, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale, 1997. Moran is an author and educator with extensive experience in secondary education.
I suspect, nay, I believe, that nothing could be aesthetically funnier than [M. Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac] ... is, save the sentiment, au grand serieux, that has been lavished upon it as if it were a real drama instead of a satirical extravaganza. (p. 118)
The rollicking hyperbole, the color far too high for reality with which M. Rostand has heightened the effectiveness of all [the] historic part of his material is alone enough to release him from the imputation of having himself taken his Cyrano as seriously as his public has. He has employed his historic sense in the rehabilitation of seventeenth century Paris; but neither merely as a savant nor merely as a poet, nor even as a dextrous playwright, but rather as all three combined, plus the most important factor of all in the work—namely, as a satirist, has he permeated the whole story with irony. This irony peeping out in his clever manipulation of the historical part of his framework is revealed in all its poignant intentionalness in the invented parts. (p. 119)
It is precisely in these invented parts, which are absolutely unsuited to the seventeenth century character of the real Cyrano, of course, that the design of the playwright can be unquestionably traced. In the balcony scene the sentimentality of the artificial lover of the old school and the exacting whims of a precieuse are exquisitely ridiculed. The poses of antiquated romance are recalled to mind and they are re-staged here so as to lay bare before the modern eye their archaic quality. The irony is developed to the point of rendering this lapsed sentimentality not merely comical but at times almost farcical—the levity of the treatment, despite a cleverly contrasting instant or two when Cyrano betrays his own earnestness, being at the opposite pole from the impassioned seriousness of the Shakespearian scene it recalls. To break the fair unity of such a love-passage as the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet , to cut in two the physical beauty of the youth in Romeo, and the spiritual beauty lent his speeches by the ripe poet, and to personify each of these, is virtually what the French poet has done. He has made of the one half, Christian, the clumsy-tongued, fair and lusty animal, and of the other half, Cyrano, ugly, but mature of phrase if not of mind. Still, further, he has made a Juliet of the Hotel Rambouiliet, a precieuse enamored not of the artist but of art, hankering rather for the wit which love incites than for love itself. The humor this situation involves is tickling to the last degree. Shall we spoil the comedy by taking it in dead earnest? When Christian utters his bald "I love you!" and on encouragement can but reiterate this trite simplicity, and Roxane, with closed eyes, expecting thrills from the rhapsody that halts, cries out impatiently, "That is the subject, work it up, work it up!" and when she bursts scornfully upon his stammering attempts with her, "Oh! Do labyrinthinize your feelings!" are we not to laugh? Again, when Cyrano, acting as Christian's proxy, pours out his dextrously be-rhymed emotions too successfully, till Roxane, mollified, deceived, makes the proposition to descend to him or for him to ascend to her, and throws him into a panic lest she behold him and his nose, are we not to laugh? And when he is made to ask for a kiss, thanks to Christian's crude desires, interjected in the cooing duet with an unpoetical rushing to the point that again almost threatens to unmask them both and spoil their game, so that Cyrano is forced to ward it off in vain, with outrageous quirks and conceits about a kiss being the rosy dot on the i of the verb aimer, are we to take this petty prettiness, ... are we to take this burlesque as poetry meant to be genuinely admired? And, finally, when all these fopperies of verse have frittered themselves out to the purpose both of deterring and goading the deluded Roxane till she bids her gallant up to her to take the kiss she never would have given either one of the precious pair without the assistance of the other, and when the acute Cyrano is made to urge the obtuse Christian to climb up, with his "Get up, get up, animal!" are we to believe that the playwright did not choose this most appropriate epithet with malice prepense? In a word, is it really meant that we should be so naive as to take such double-edged fooling as all this for unvarnished tenderness and fresh-born romance?
If so, and this spectacle-bouffe, circling about a nose as its sole dramatic raison d'etre, is to be shorn of its irony, it will be left bare of any literary distinction worth mentioning. If it is to be considered as a serious dramatic or poetic work, it must be perceived that its structure is of the slightest and most casual. It has neither motive, progression nor climax, and but little of the most elementary surprise of situation—the general effect being rather that of light opera than of actual comedy. Its acts are not acts, but a succession of well-chosen, effective, spectacular stage-settings loosely incorporating a string of incidents linked together in the most external way. Its characters are not characters having any inherent individuality or capacity for development, or any relationships with one another save of the most accidental sort. Its poetry, as to either imagery or emotional power, is only far-fetched and superficial .... If, on the other hand, it makes no pretension to high art, but rather to art semi-cynical, all these defects as to depth become effective; on that lower plane its buffoonery gains sparkle and significance. (pp. 120-22)
[Instead] of being hailed as this play has been by certain old-fashioned critics as a palpable evidence of the departure of what they call, with reproach, modern "Realism" and the rebirth of the good old "Romanticism" to smother the world in cakes and ale, and crowd out all new aesthetic forces forever, it is rather a token of the shutting of the door of modem life upon a certain phase of Romanticism, as henceforth impossible to be enjoyed quite in the old-world mood or without the assistance of a cultured historic sense—such a sign of the natural close of an epoch in literature and life as Don Quixote was of the close of the epoch of the dominance of chivalry in life and in literature. (p. 123)
Source: "Cyrano de Bergerac: What It Is and Is Not," in Poet Lore, Vol. XI, No. 1, Winter, 1899, pp. 118-24.
M. Rostand is not a great original genius like (for example) M. Maeterlinck. He comes to us with no marvelous revelation, but he is a gifted, adroit artist, who does with freshness and great force things that have been done before; and he is, at least, a monstrous fine fellow. His literary instinct is almost as remarkable as his instinct for the technique—the pyrotechnique—of the theatre, insomuch that I can read Cyrano almost as often, with almost as much pleasure, as I could see it played.... 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. It is silly to insist, as one or two critics have insisted, that Cyrano was a fool and a blackguard, in that he entrapped the lady of his heart into marriage with a vapid impostor. The important and obvious point is that Cyrano, as created by M. Rostand, is a splendid hero of romance. If you have any sensibility to romance, you admire him so immensely as to be sure that whatever he may have done was for the best. All the characters and all the incidents in the play have been devised for the glorification of Cyrano, and are but, as who should say, so many rays of limelight converging upon him alone. And that is as it should be. The romantic play which survives the pressure of time is always that which contains some one central figure, to which everything is subordinate—a one-part play, in other words.... Cyrano is, in fact, as inevitably a fixture in romance as Don Quixote or Don Juan, Punch or Pierrot. Like them, he will never be out of date. But prophecy is dangerous? Of course it is. That is the whole secret of its fascination. Besides, I have a certain amount of reason in prophesying on this point. Realistic figures perish necessarily with the generation in which they were created, and their place is taken by figures typical of the generation which supervenes. But romantic figures belong to no period, and time does not dissolve them.... Cyrano will survive because he is practically a new type in drama. I know that the motives of self-sacrifice-in-love and of 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. (pp. 5-6)
Source: Max Beerbohm, "Cyrano de Bergerac" ( 1898) in his Around Theatres, Rupert Hart-Davis, 1953, pp. 4-7.