Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 763
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 and six years at the Marseilles Lycée, he was sent to the Collège Stanislas in Paris to complete his secondary education. His teachers there introduced him to the work of William Shakespeare, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and Alfred de Musset (some echoes of Musset’s comedies may be detected in The Romantics and The Far Princess). Rostand’s other literary heroes were Miguel de Cervantes and Victor Hugo.
Untouched by the naturalists and Symbolists, he was not drawn into any of the literary circles of Paris. Through his future wife, Rosemonde Gérard, he made the acquaintance of the poet Leconte de Lisle, her godfather, but received no encouragement from him. At his father’s urging, he began to study law while making his first attempts at playwriting. Le Gant rouge (the red glove), a comedy written in collaboration with Henry Lee, his future brother-in-law, was staged in 1888 but was not well received. Les Musardises met with mixed reviews in 1890. In the same year Rostand married Gérard, who was herself a poet (her collection Les Pipeaux was published in 1889). According to Rostand’s biographer Émile Ripert, Gérard was responsible in large measure for bringing her husband’s work to the attention of the public. A perfectionist, Rostand revised his work repeatedly and was reluctant to publish. The couple had two sons, Maurice, a dramatist, and Jean, an eminent biologist. With The Romantics and The Far Princess, Rostand gained some recognition. The former play won for him the Toirac Prize, and the latter, the friendship and admiration of Sarah Bernhardt, who produced the work and played the princess. The title role of The Woman of Samaria was created especially for Bernhardt.
The appearance of Cyrano de Bergerac proved a watershed in the poet’s life; from that time until his death, he was a famous man, besieged by admirers and, as Ripert notes, acutely conscious of his “spiritual mission” as poet, patriot, and idealist. In spite of the nationalist tendency observable in The Eaglet (Rostand’s father was a Bonapartist), Rostand did not support the nationalist parties of his day and, in fact, risked his popularity by maintaining the innocence of Alfred Dreyfus. In politics as in literature, he refused to align himself with a particular movement; he admired quixotic daring against all odds—the bravura of Cyrano—wherever he saw it, and wrote poems in praise of both the Greeks and the Boers in their bids for independence.
Rostand was plagued by recurrent pulmonary infections, and, after the success of The Eaglet, he moved with his family to Cambo in the foothills of the Pyrenees, where the weather and the relative privacy were better for his health. He returned to Paris for short periods only—for example, to deliver an acceptance speech at the Académie Française in 1903 and to supervise the staging of Chanticleer. Even in Cambo, where he built a villa and lived in semiretirement for the remainder of his life, the mantle of unofficial poet laureate weighed heavily on him. He was forced to hire a secretary to answer the flood of mail he received, and he spent ten years revising Chanticleer, for fear of disappointing his public (the play was only a partial success). A compulsive worker who suffered from insomnia, Rostand was a rather distant father to his two sons. As Maurice Rostand put it, “Glory makes homes empty.” By contrast, he corresponded with hundreds of young soldiers during World War I and visited others in the trenches. The war cast a deep gloom over his last years, during which he wrote a collection of labored patriotic verse and The Last Night of Don Juan, which he termed a “dramatic poem.” The latter was staged in 1922, four years after his death, but without success. He died of pneumonia on December 2, 1918, shortly after the Armistice.