This descendant of Pierre Corneille and Victor Hugo, the last great romanticist of the French theater, was born the son of a prominent journalist and economist. Like so many other dramatists, Edmond Rostand (raw-stah) was educated in law, although his interest was in poetry. His first publication was a book of poems, Les Musardises, published in 1890 and dedicated to Rosemond Gérard, whom he married that same year. Generally considered overly personal, his book earned less respect than his wife’s collection of poems Les Pipeaux (1889), cited by the French Academy for its sensitivity.
Despite his unpromising beginning and his dislike of the climate, he settled in Paris as a professional writer. While he never sought praise or even approval—indeed, his inclinations, interests, and tastes ran counter to the feeling of the times—he won both for the 1894 Comédie Française production of The Romancers (the title has also been translated as The Romantics), a slight comedy in which the young lovers take their cues from Romeo and Juliet. He wrote several plays for actress Sarah Bernhardt: In The Far Princess she played the title role, falling in love with a troubadour; in The Eaglet Bernhardt essayed the role of Napoleon’s ineffectual son.
Edmond Rostand’s penchant for writing starring roles for outstanding actors gave the world its most famous poetic drama, the historical romance Cyrano de Bergerac, starring the great Coquelin. Before the year of its production ended, the play had been translated into several languages, and it has been produced all around the world. The swashbuckling hero, a romanticized version of the historical personage bearing that same name, is a household word standing for the idealist who refuses to give in to the demands of the world.
So great was the young playwright’s reputation that in 1900 he was appointed an officer of the Legion of Honor, and in 1901 he became a member of the French Academy. His health failing in that same year, he built a villa in southern France, where he lived most of the time until his death in Paris, December 2, 1918. His writing was affected by ill health and diminished energy, but in 1910 he saw the performance of his drama Chanticleer, written for Coquelin, who died before it was finished. Lucien Guitry took on the role of the famous rooster who thought that he was the one who brought up the sun in the morning. This fable and satire has some of Rostand’s best writing in it, and it perfectly expresses its author’s disillusioned point of view: Chanticleer finds that while he does not control the world he can at least tend valiantly his own henyard.
Few critics consider Rostand much more than a one-play author, but a consideration of his final play, The Last Night of Don Juan, based on the theme of self-delusion, could lead one to think that his best plays might have been yet to come. In this and other plays he shows himself a master of language, subtle irony, magnificent spectacle, and ingenious manipulation. In a time when sordid realism seemed to win the day, theatergoers everywhere were grateful for the light touch of fantasy and romance. While Rostand did not change the temper or the times, he at least managed to make time stand still in the romantic world of his creation.
Edmond Eugène Alexis Rostand was born into an upper-middle-class family with deep roots in the south of France that can be traced back to the sixteenth century. His father, Eugène, and his paternal uncle Alexis were distinguished economists who also managed to cultivate their gifts for poetry and music, respectively: Eugène translated Catullus and wrote the librettos for Alexis’s oratorios. The young Rostand was a shy and studious child who loved to read and play with marionettes; his favorite authors were Sir Walter Scott and Alexandre Dumas, père. During long summer vacations in the Pyrenees, he developed a deep attachment for the region; there he also wrote his first poems. After completing primary school...
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