Cyrano de Bergerac

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

The play opens in a theater, where Cyrano has gone to prevent the leading actor from performing because he has made overtures to Cyrano’s beloved Roxanne. After Cyrano shuts down the play, a marquis challenges him. While they duel, Cyrano composes a ballade, and at the end of the refrain, thrusts home.

Roxane, who has been watching, sends a message that asks Cyrano to meet her the next morning. He is encouraged to tell her of his love, but before he can do so, she confesses that she is in love with a handsome guardsman of his regiment and asks Cyrano to protect him. The guardsman, Christian de Neuvillette, is clever enough with men but hopelessly tongue-tied with women, and Roxane is an intellectual who must be wooed poetically. Cyrano persuades Christian to let him write speeches and love letters, which the latter will deliver. Thus Cyrano can make love by proxy.

When Christian insists on making love himself, he fumbles helplessly. Concealed by the dark, Cyrano then speaks in his own voice to Roxane. At his most eloquent, he wins her love, but it is Christian who weds her.

Though Cyrano has courage, wit, compassion, and integrity, he is undone by vanity; self-conscious about his appearance, he is afraid to woo Roxane on his own lest he be rejected. It is really Cyrano’s soul that she loves; Christian would bore her within a few hours. Unable to declare himself openly, Cyrano, in trying to make Roxane happy, brings tragedy to all three of them. Despite the tragedy, the play has much humor, verve, and panache. A variation on the Beauty and the Beast tale, Cyrano is irresistible theater, full of wit, swashbuckling, pathos, poetry, and romance.

Bibliography:

Chandler, Frank Wadleigh. The Contemporary Drama of France. Boston: Little, Brown, 1920. Rostand is depicted as “an idealist endowed with a sense of humor.” Ranks Chantecler, however, at a slightly higher level than Cyrano de Bergerac, for “the scintillating wit, the brilliant extemporization, the profusion of words and images that make us dizzy.” Good for comparing the tone of Cyrano de Bergerac with the rest of the canon.

Clark, Barrett Harper. Contemporary French Dramatists. Cincinnati: Stewart & Kidd, 1915. A short but informative essay on Edmond Rostand, his work habits, and his thin but excellent canon. Helps put Cyrano de Bergerac in perspective, and explains why subsequent dramas did not measure up to the masterpiece. Discusses the “nose” monologue in some detail.

Matthews, Brander. French Dramatists of the Nineteenth Century. 3d ed. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1901. Unusual in criticizing Cyrano de Bergerac for lacking passions, real action, and realism. Questions Cyrano de Bergerac as a lasting piece of stagework—“at bottom too slight a thing to serve as the corner-stone of a new school.”

Rostand, Edmond. Cyrano de Bergerac: A Heroic Comedy in Five Acts. Translated and edited by Louis Untermeyer. New York: Heritage Press, 1954. This deluxe edition, with color illustrations by Pierre Brissard, features a foreword introducing the person on whom the stage figure is based. Brief biographical notes and a performance history to 1947.

Smith, Hugh Allison. Main Currents of Modern French Drama. New York: Henry Holt, 1925. Acknowledges Cyrano de Bergerac as definitive in evaluating the qualities and worth of Rostand’s poetic drama. Summarizes articles that appeared after the first production. Finds the play’s “freshness and salubrity” the main source of its popularity. Cyrano was not the beginning of a new school but rather an indication of “the survival and culmination of Romanticism.”