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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3682

Despite his debt to the romantics, the strain in French literature to which Edmond Rostand really belongs is that of préciosité, “precious” or elaborately refined writing, usually on the subject of love. An outstanding trait of préciosité is the prominence it gives to form, often at the expense of content. Therefore, Rostand wrote his dramas in the regular rhymed couplets of the classical and romantic French theater, even insisting on rime riche in the manner of the Parnassian poet Théodore de Banville. His diction and imagery were equally studied and at times rather farfetched. When deployed with wit and grace, as in his best plays, this fastidious technique served Rostand well, but it was not equally suited to all the subjects he treated.

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At heart, Rostand—like most of his protagonists—was an idealist who shunned what he saw as the negativism of modern literature. Like Edwin Arlington Robinson’s Miniver Cheevy, he was in a real sense “born too late”; only instead of drinking as Miniver did, he “kept on writing” in his own vein, oblivious of his naturalist and Symbolist contemporaries. He was at his best, however, when he tempered his romantic flights with a dose of humor or with a trace of the irony that characterized his own age. Therefore, his masterpiece, Cyrano de Bergerac, takes as its hero a seventeenth century wit (himself a précieux) whose tendency to take himself too seriously is perfectly tempered by his ludicrous appearance. In Cyrano, Rostand was able to fuse his idealism and his polished wit in a character who is by turns heroic and comical—to resounding dramatic effect.

Indeed, Rostand was not only a meticulous versifier but also a man of considerable dramatic gifts. In particular, he knew how to vary the moods of successive scenes and achieve striking stage effects with surprise reversals. He was also capable of clever plot development, as his best plays, Cyrano de Bergerac and The Romantics, demonstrate. Yet because his characters are only sketchily developed, their actions can appear insufficiently motivated, and the interplay of character and action characteristic of most great drama is missing. Nor is there a structure of ideas in Rostand’s plays that might compensate for this shallowness of characterization. In his dramatic effects, as in his verbal craftsmanship, he is above all a superb entertainer—albeit an idealistic one.

Indeed, préciosité is, in essence, a form of highly refined entertainment. It is not a school but rather a tendency that runs through much of French poetry, though its heyday was in the early seventeenth century. (Its origins may be traced to the courtly lyrics of the troubadors, and it is visible in the poetry of the sixteenth century “Pléïade” as well as in that of the nineteenth century Parnassians.) The context in which the seventeenth century précieux flourished was that of the salons, exclusive social circles that noble and, later, bourgeois women gathered about themselves. The members of such circles met to discuss literary topics and often to compete with one another in actual poetic contests. One of Rostand’s best poems, a period piece called La Journée d’une précieuse (1898; a day in the life of a précieuse), describes such a contest, in which the requirement is to compose a rondeau with rhymes in-al and-oche “to accompany the gift of a seal of rock-crystal.” Rostand’s poem manages to poke gentle fun at the extravagances of his heroine and her salon while conveying some of the genuine wit and charm that such circles fostered.

In most of the salons, wit and worldly graces were prized above true erudition; writers of a “precious” cast tended to seek new, entertaining ways of saying things rather than new things to say. In general this is true of Rostand, whose imagery, diction, and versification all display the studied (recherché) quality proper to the précieux. Rostand’s decision to write verse dramas in the last decade of the nineteenth and the first decade of the twentieth centuries was itself a relative anachronism (the realistic theater confined itself to prose) and as such called attention to his virtuosity. He allowed himself romantic license in his use of the Alexandrine (the twelve-syllable line that had been the medium for classical French drama): Enjambments are frequent, and single lines are routinely divided among three, four, or even more different characters. Even in crowd scenes, however, there are no lapses into prose, and the effect is often that of a tour de force. This method works well when the theme is love or bravado, as in the famous balcony scene or in Cyrano’s duel with the Vicomte de Valvert, during which he composes a ballade, finishing off his opponent at the end of the refrain; it is less successful when more banal topics are involved, and especially when, as in Chanticleer, the necessary suspension of disbelief cannot be maintained: Twentieth century farm animals cannot be made to speak heroic couplets except in farce, and Rostand exceeds the limits of his form by freighting the play with serious themes. Even in plays set in a distant or legendary past, such as The Far Princess and The Woman of Samaria, there are lapses of taste, for the finely chiseled lines and rime riche (rhyme involving not only the last syllable of a word but also the preceding consonant or syllable) can easily ring false outside certain contexts. The same may be said of Rostand’s diction, which—largely as a result of his insistence on “rich” rhyme—includes rare and occasionally grotesque words, some of them coinages. These qualities suit the burlesque scenes to perfection but give a labored or awkward tone to some serious scenes, especially in The Far Princess.

Where imagery is concerned, Rostand is a true précieux, working best on the small scale of the individual line or speech; his recurrent or governing images are often banal (thus light is symbolic of glory, wings of daring or aspiration, lilies of chastity, and roses of fulfilled love). Even these can be effective in specific contexts—when, for example, the “Far Princess,” Mélissinde, acknowledges that the strong yet overrefined scent of the lilies with which she surrounds herself may reinforce her own “solitary pride.” By insisting that the stage be strewn with lilies, however—to be exchanged for roses in act 3, when Mélissinde has fallen in love with Bertrand—Rostand makes the symbolism too emphatic and obvious. Granted that hyperbole or exaggeration is also a feature of the “precious” style, this overworking is a temptation to which Rostand, like many précieux, succumbs all too readily. One of his loveliest images compares the Samaritan woman’s gesture, as she balances a water jar on her head with one hand, to the jar itself with its graceful handle; yet instead of letting the image stand on its own, he goes on to freight it with a grandiloquence (“Immortal splendor of this rustic grace!”) and a sentimentality beneath which it all but founders.

The far-fetched quality proper to “precious” imagery makes it most appropriate to, and effective in, burlesque or self-consciously witty passages. Here Rostand is in his element and can make the sparks fly. Perhaps the most famous example is the “nose tirade” in act 1 of Cyrano de Bergerac, in which the hero puts a man who has insulted him to scorn by improving on the insult. Instead of saying baldly, “You have a very big nose,” the man might have compared the nose to a peninsula, a scissors-case, a conch, a monument—even, “when it bleeds, the Red Sea!” This kind of virtuosity is already visible in Rostand’s early poem, “Charivari à la lune” (mock-serenade for the moon, in Les Musardises), which compares the moon to scores of different objects, including a cymbal, a mushroom, an egg, and a fingernail. More striking than the images themselves is the grace and wit with which Rostand arranges them: At first, each quatrain encompasses a single image, then two, then four, until the last frenetic strophe of the “serenade” is made to hold eight different images. Lapsing into Alexandrines, the poet admits that he is out of breath and hopes for a response from the moon—but all he hears is an ironic, “Go on!” Here as elsewhere, wit is Rostand’s great redeeming grace, the pinprick deflating what otherwise might become intolerably artificial and hollow.

This is not to deny Rostand’s properly dramatic talents. Even his most sentimental plays contain effective scenes, in which a sense of dramatic movement is sustained by artful development or sudden reversals. Thus, the woman of Samaria, recognizing Jesus as the Messiah, bursts into the same profane love song with which she had approached the well; thus Metternich, entering the Duke of Reichstadt’s bedroom late at night, is confronted by a French grenadier standing guard and half believes for a moment that Napoleon is occupying the palace as he had twenty years earlier. Indeed, the entire plot of The Romantics is built on a double reversal of romantic conventions, which Rostand arranges to maximum theatrical effect.

The Romantics

The Romantics might be described as an anti-Romeo and Juliet (pr. c. 1595-1596; deliberately so on Rostand’s part—as it opens, the hero is reading Romeo’s speech from the balcony scene). In the first act, two fathers foster an attachment between their children, Sylvette and Percinet, by pretending to be mortal enemies; like Ovid’s Pyramus and Thisbe, the young couple meet in secret by the wall dividing the two estates. The fathers put a contrived end to their contrived hatred by hiring a knockabout named Straforel to stage an “abduction” of Sylvette, whom Percinet “rescues.” As act 2 opens, the wall is down and the marriage, imminent, but a second (and this time realistic) reversal is in store: The fathers, finding each other’s daily company irritating, are on the way to becoming enemies in earnest. They find it still harder to bear the condescension of their children, who believe that their own romantic ideal has won the day over the obtuse self-interest of their elders. At last unable to contain themselves, the fathers tell Sylvette the truth; she tries to hide it from Percinet but finds herself losing interest in his romantic excesses, which now strike her as pretentious and hollow. Then Percinet stumbles on Straforel’s bill for the “abduction” (a masterfully comic touch, including items such as “Rumpled clothing, ten francs; Hurt pride, forty”). Though their first reaction is to reaffirm their love, which they insist is real even if their situation has been false, they soon quarrel, and Percinet runs off to seek “real” adventure. Straforel, who has yet to be paid, decides to patch it up between the two; he begins by proposing a real elopement to Sylvette, describing the hardships she will face in terms that make her long for a quiet life with Percinet. Meanwhile, her fiancé returns, disenchanted by his brushes with “adventure” in the form of barmaids and thugs, and the two lovers are reconciled.

As can be seen from this summary, the plot is clever, and Rostand unfolds it artfully, making the most of every reversal. He also maintains a consistent tone throughout the poetic dialogue—light and graceful, as in La Journée d’une précieuse, with exactly the right shade of gentle irony. After Cyrano de Bergerac, The Romantics is the play of Rostand that holds up best for a modern-day audience. This is largely a result of the universal appeal of its stock characters, which can be traced back as far as Menander (young lovers, burlesque fathers, jacks-of-all-trades), but it is also attributable to the essential modernity of the play’s theme: the ironic unmasking of romantic ideals. The fact that Rostand arranges a happy ending—in effect, a kind of re-masking—makes it all the more stageworthy; it is a comedy in the classical mold. Yet it portrays middle-class disillusionment in a manner that rings true.

In this respect, The Romantics is unique among Rostand’s plays. Most of the time, he prided himself on resisting the disillusionment of his contemporaries, choosing as heroes men whose great aim in life was to distinguish themselves. The means to this end differ considerably from play to play (poetry, fidelity in love, even, in Chanticleer, a rooster’s crowing), yet in each case the hero justifies his endeavor by maintaining its value on an ideal plane. The distinction he seeks is not so much public recognition—though most of Rostand’s heroes crave recognition as well—but rather the singularity of the romantic idealist, often purchased at the price of loneliness and self-doubt. Love is also an important theme in the plays, but it is always subordinate to the hero’s struggle for distinction and is tinged with the idealism of that struggle. Hence the platonic character of the great “love affairs” in Rostand—Jaufré Rudel and Mélissinde, Cyrano and Roxane. (An extreme example can be seen in the Samaritan woman’s response to Jesus, who replaces the imperfect former objects of her love.) Even Rostand’s Don Juan exhibits no real sensuality; the reasons he gives for a lifetime of seduction are all intellectual, amounting to perverted or negative ideals.

It is in his idealism, which stems from the nineteenth century romantics, that Rostand least resembles the seventeenth century précieux; for while the latter also engaged in platonic love affairs and professed a consuming interest in “things of the spirit,” the salons in which they sought to distinguish themselves were above all social circles, little courts formed in emulation of the royal court. As such, they could be stepping-stones to worldly recognition and influence. The emphasis on form in the writings of the précieux thus stems from a desire to please; theirs is the art of the courtier. Rostand was far more ambivalent in his attitude toward the public for which he wrote. Though anxious lest he disappoint his audience, he believed that the poet’s mission was not only to please but also to inspire. This sense of mission unfortunately had a pernicious effect on his last works, replacing the easy grace of The Romantics with an uneven tone that fluctuates between heavy humor and preachiness. In Cyrano de Bergerac, however, Rostand managed to strike the perfect compromise between his préciosité and his idealism.

Cyrano de Bergerac

Never was his sense of properly theatrical values keener than in Cyrano de Bergerac. The plot moves briskly, keeping the audience amused while engaging its sympathies in favor of the hero, then building to a double climax of considerable pathos. Each of the five acts has a dramatic unity of its own, yet together the acts form an almost seamless whole. A poet and soldier of uncompromising ideals, Cyrano has been cursed with an outlandish nose that he himself freely ridicules but will allow no one else to mention. His bravado dominates the first act, in which he composes a ballade while fighting a duel then goes alone to face one hundred men whom he learns are waiting to ambush his friend Lignière. Yet there is one person before whom he trembles: his cousin Roxane, whom he secretly loves but fears to woo because of his ugliness. He is on tenterhooks when, in the second act, she asks to meet with him in private and confesses that she is in love; but it emerges that her infatuation is for Christian de Neuvillette, a new member of Cyrano’s company in the Guards, and whom she wants her cousin to befriend and protect. This Cyrano resolutely promises to do, though he warns Roxane—herself a précieuse—that Christian, with whom she has never spoken, may prove a fool for all of his beauty. When this prediction turns out to be true, Cyrano takes his self-sacrifice a step further and offers to coach Christian, providing him with witty and tender words that enchant Roxane. In act 3, Christian tries to speak for himself, but his awkwardness offends Roxane; in an attempt to put things right again, Cyrano has him call her to her balcony, and he himself addresses her from the shadows below. Overcome with emotion, he pours out his heart—still in Christian’s name—and Roxane arranges a secret wedding for that very night, during which time Cyrano stands guard, detaining yet another of Roxane’s suitors, the powerful Count de Guiche. Enraged, the count dispatches the Guards to the siege of Arras; in act 4, Roxane manages to join them there, drawn by the beauty of “Christian’s” daily letters. When Roxane tells Christian that she would love him even if he were ugly, Christian urges Cyrano to tell her the truth, but a few minutes later Christian is killed, and Cyrano resolves to keep the secret. It is not until the end of act 5 (which takes place fourteen years later) that he reveals the truth, half involuntarily, on the verge of his own death.

What makes the play so compelling is the thoroughly romantic contrast between the “inner” and “outer” man: Like the dwarf Triboulet (the original of Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto) in Victor Hugo’s play Le Roi s’amuse (1832; The King Amuses Himself, 1842), Cyrano may be tender and passionate in spite of his ridiculous face. (Similarly, in The Eaglet, the Duke of Reichstadt may be considered “a great prince” although he accomplishes nothing.) The weakness of Rostand’s work is that the singularity of the soul that he claims for his heroes is merely assumed, never substantiated by depth or complexity of characterization. Even Cyrano, his most successful creation, is incompletely developed. One has only to ask what it is that Roxane loves in Cyrano (or, still more pointedly, what it is that Cyrano loves in Roxane) to realize that Rostand never tells. Roxane learned to love Cyrano’s “soul,” she says, by reading his letters, yet the only real taste that the audience gets of his eloquence is the balcony scene, in which form (witty phrasing, precious imagery) predominates and the real poignancy stems from the contrast—of which Roxane is unaware—between the beauty of Cyrano’s words and the ugliness of his face.

In fact, as a survey of his other plays reveals, Rostand had only a limited repertory of characters, types to which he reverted again and again: the romantic idealist, usually his protagonist; the desirable but fickle woman, confused about what qualities are worth loving; and the hard-headed realist, who serves as foil and often friend to the hero. Because his dramas hinged on these ideal types, Rostand sought exotic settings such as twelfth century Tripoli or seventeenth century Paris; he himself admitted that he set Chanticleer in a barnyard because no contemporary human setting would suit his purpose.

Much of Rostand’s purpose becomes clear if one compares his Cyrano with the real Cyrano, Savinien de Cyrano de Bergerac, whose life is well documented and many of whose writings survive. The greatest surprise is to discover that this Cyrano would in fact have made a very good twentieth century hero—or antihero: He gave up a military career in disgust after being wounded twice; he changed sides (possibly for pay) during the Fronde, the struggle between some nobles and the regent Cardinal Mazarin; and he almost certainly died of syphilis (like Rostand’s Cyrano, he was also struck on the head by a log, but this preceded his death by some time and may have been an accident rather than an ambush). Admittedly, the real Cyrano was a man of the seventeenth century as well: An avowed “libertine” or freethinker, he is said to have returned to the faith on his deathbed, at the urging of his friend Lebret and his relative, Mother Marguérite of Jesus. Rostand, however, did not want a seventeenth century hero any more than he wanted a twentieth century one. His Cyrano is larger than life—a great lover and a great fighter, a man of immutable ideals, impossible courage, and matchless wit. He lacks psychological depth and plausibility precisely because the ideal that Rostand would have him sustain has something inhuman about it. Why, the audience may ask, does Cyrano remain silent for fourteen years? If it were out of loyalty to Christian, he betrays his friend just as surely by speaking at the end of that time as he would have by speaking at the beginning—and, in the meantime, he has deprived not only himself but also Roxane of happiness. The answer Rostand would have given, to judge by his other plays and poems, is that the essence of Cyrano’s (and Roxane’s) love was not denied but preserved by his silence: There could be no disillusionment, no imperfection, in such an idealized passion. This means that Roxane, too, must be something less than a real woman, because she also is expected to be something more; as Charles Pujos puts it, “The beloved has to remain unpolluted to the very end, since she represents an Idea more than she does a woman, and only the [author’s] symbolic intention can justify that.”

Given its wholly platonic conception of love, how does the play continue to hold the stage in the late twentieth century? In fairness to Rostand, it must be added that questions such as that of Cyrano’s silence suggest themselves to a reader sooner than they do to a spectator, and perhaps to a spectator only after the play is finished. It should also be noted that Rostand has always found his most ardent admirers among the young, who see in Cyrano the courageous nonconformist and the tragic lover. Because of the play’s wit, its carefully articulated plot, and the delicate balance it maintains between idealism and préciosité, Cyrano de Bergerac is a superb dramatic entertainment. As such, it will probably remain a perennial favorite with theatergoers around the world.

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