Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 800
Edmond Rostand 1868-1918
Significant for his revival of Romantic verse drama at a time when Naturalism and Symbolism dominated the French stage, Rostand combined an excellent sense of theatrical effect with a keen wit. His optimistic idealism found its best expression in the comedy Cyrano de Bergerac, which has achieved a lasting international reputation.
Born in Marseilles, Rostand was the son of a prominent journalist and economist. After attending local schools, he studied literature, history, and philosophy at the College Stanislas in Paris. He began writing for the marionette theater and had poems and essays published in the literary review Mireille at the age of sixteen. Although Rostand later studied law, he never practiced, choosing instead to concentrate on a career as an author. His first drama, Le Gant rouge, was produced in 1888 with little success, and his first volume of poetry, Les Musardises, received scant critical attention when it was published in 1890. Rostand achieved widespread popularity and critical regard in 1894 with his next play, Les Romanesques (The Romancers), which was produced at the Comedie Française, and solidified his reputation the following year with La Princesse lointaine (The Faraway Princess), which he wrote for the actress Sarah Bernhardt. Thereafter, Bernhardt became the principal interpreter of his works, appearing in leading roles in several of his plays. The actor Constant-Benoit Coquelin requested Rostand to write a play that would showcase his versatile skills as an actor, and Rostand complied by creating in 1897 what would become his most popular work, Cyrano de Bergerac. Two years later, ill health forced Rostand to retire to his country estate, and in 1901 he was elected to the Academie Francaise, the youngest member ever inducted. He continued to write plays and poetry when his health permitted, leaving his final play, La Dernière nuit de Don Juan (The Last Night of Don Juan), unfinished at the time of his death in 1918.
Rostand's poetry has been largely disregarded by critics, and he is remembered primarily as a dramatist. In his early play, The Romancers, Rostand rejected the sordid realism of the Naturalist plays then popular, creating a lighthearted satire about two young lovers in search of romance and adventure who discover that romantic love can exist without the excitement of danger or obstacles to overcome. Rostand further developed the theme of courtly love in The Faraway Princess, which relates the story of the troubadour Joffroy Rudel, Prince of Blaye, whose love for the Countess of Tripoli, whom he has never seen, inspires him to travel to see her before he dies. In this play Rostand introduced the theme of tenacious adherence to unattainable ideals that became characteristic of his works.
Cyrano de Bergerac is considered Rostand's dramatic masterpiece, successfully combining humor, romance, and heroic action in expert verse. Based on the life of the seventeenth-century soldier and author Savinien de Cyrano de Bergerac, the play recounts the hero's faithfulness to his ideals despite his recognition that he will never be rewarded for them. For example, he upholds his artistic principles by refusing to bowdlerize his plays in order to have them performed or to cater to a patron in order to live comfortably. Adhering to his principles of friendship, he refuses to compete with his friend Christian for the attention of Roxane, the woman they both love, and refrains from destroying Roxane's false image of Christian when he dies, even though it means foregoing his own chance to achieve happiness with her.
The polish of Cyrano de Bergerac aroused expectations which were largely disappointed by the last two plays Rostand completed. L'Aiglon (The Eaglet), which describes the life of the Duke of Reichstadt, son of Napoleon I, has been criticized for its simplistic and predictable construction. The Eaglet enjoyed considerable success in France, but it has never had the international appeal of Cyrano de Bergerac. The allegorical verse drama Chantecler, in which a barnyard cock upholds his faith in the importance of his role in the world, has received varied critical evaluations. While some commentators find the play too lengthy, obscure, and contrived, others praise it as Rostand's most ambitious and profound work, particularly those critics who view it as a poem to be read rather than performed on stage.
When Rostand's plays first appeared, some critics believed that they would inspire a return to verse drama and Romanticism. However, his dramas merely stood in contrast to the Naturalist and Symbolist literary movements of his time, rather than causing them to be supplanted. Recent evaluations of Rostand's work have praised his skillful verse and consummate theatricality, but find that his plays lack the thematic complexity and depth necessary to be considered great. Nevertheless, his dramas, particularly Cyrano de Bergerac, have maintained their popularity and continue to be performed to enthusiastic reviews.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 64
Le Gant rouge 1888
Les Romanesques [The Romancers] 1894
La Princess lointaine [The Faraway Princess] 1895
Cyrano de Bergerac 1897
La Samaritaine [The Woman of Samaria] 1897
L'Aiglon [The Eaglet] 1900
Chantecler [Chanticleer] 1910
*La Dernière nuit de Don Juan [The Last Night of Don Juan] 1922
OTHER MAJOR WORKS
Les Musardises (poetry) 1890
Le Cantique de l'aile (poetry) 1910
Le Vol de la Marseillaise (poetry) 1919
*This unfinished work was published posthumously.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 21765
Martin Lamm (essay date 1952)
SOURCE: "The First Symbolists," in Modern Drama, translated by Karin Elliott, Basil Blackwell, 1952, pp. 152-78.
[In the following essay, Lamm appraises Rostand's major plays.]
While Maeterlinck and Claudel had difficulty in gaining stage success with their plays another writer of the same school, but of incomparably lower calibre, Edmond Rostand, succeeded in winning the heart of the great public. Cyrano de Bergerac was the theatrical triumph of the century, quantitatively perhaps the greatest that the history of the theatre has ever known. For some years the young author was universally acclaimed as the king of modern drama. This enthusiasm, however, began to wane even during his lifetime, and in histories of literature Rostand is now dismissed with a lack of appreciation which is as unjustified as the earlier excessive praise.
Rostand was an exact contemporary of Claudel but he came from the south, like his master Victor Hugo, and like Daudet and his Tartarin. The passionate troubadour and the boastful Gascon are the two standard types from the South of France. Rostand achieved the feat of combining them in Cyrano, a character with the bravado of a Gascon and the heart of a troubadour.
Before Rostand achieved this tremendous success he had spent his apprentice years in the Symbolist school as a writer of lyric poetry, and later of plays which did not meet with much appreciation and did not deserve to do so.
Rostand's first play, Les Romanesques (The Romancers, 1894), was an attempt to dramatize the world of Watteau. There was in his nature an element of affectation, and it was precisely in periods characterized by affectation that he found his themes, the period of the troubadour for La Princesse lointaine, (The Faraway Princess), the period of supreme affectation in which Cyrano is set, and the age of Rococo for The Romancers.
The plot of this play, in which two fathers pretend to be enemies in order to tempt their children to fall in love with each other, has also been used in a comedy by Otto Ludwig. It is not certain whether Rostand knew this work, but there is a similar situation in Musset's A quoi rêvent les jeunes filles (What do young girls dream of?).
It is of Musset and Marivaux that the play reminds us, though it lacks their psychological subtlety. The meaning is not that the young people will be cured of their romantic fancies when they have discovered how they have been puppets in their fathers' hands. The epilogue explains that they have only been deceived about the outer and unimportant appearance of things; in their hearts they have known the truth.
In his next play, The Faraway Princess, Rostand throws himself headlong into the most ethereal of romances. The real hero of the play, who does not appear very often on the stage, is the troubadour, Rudel. In character and style he is the perfect expression of the courtly, platonic affections of the Middle Ages. He is a character who has been treated by all the world's romantic writers, Heine, Browning, Swinburne and Carducci.
Like Pelléas and Mélisande the story is a variation on the Tristan theme. Rudel is at death's door, but before he dies he wishes to see Princess Mélissinde, for whom he has conceived a lofty passion through the songs of wandering minstrels. When at last he reaches Tripolis he is too weak to go ashore, and sends his friend Bertrand in his place. When the Princess catches sight of Bertrand she takes him for Rudel, and when he reads out the love poem that Rudel composed for the distant Princess she falls in love with him.
Meanwhile Rudel is still alive, though his last hour is near. During his final struggle with death the Princess and Bertrand come aboard, but the chaplain forbids Bertrand to cloud his friend's last hours by telling him of his intended deception. In a scene that is reminiscent of the end of Hernani, Rudel dies with his lips pressed against those of the Princess.
The plot anticipates that of Cyrano. Roxane is in love with the handsome face of Christian, but at the same time, and without realizing it, she loves the noble soul of Cyrano, for it was he who under the cloak of darkness made a declaration of love in Christian's name and wrote his letters for him.
Rostand's idealism is not profound, but it is genuine. The superficiality of his characterization is plainly apparent here, as well as his liking for startling stage effects. The plot is unnecessarily complicated, and the dialogue tediously wordy.
None of Rostand's early plays was particularly successful, least of all La Samaritaine (The Woman of Samaria), with its New Testament subject and the figure of Christ as an actor in the play.
Cyrano de Bergerac made him world-famous at once, and the morning after the première on 28th December, 1897, the French critics were prophesying that this date would mark a new epoch in drama as clearly as Le Cid and Hernani had done. This exaggeration was disproved by events. Cyrano did not turn out to be the beginning of a revolution, not even in France. The play is a vigorous and faithful revival of the great heroic drama of the French classical and romantic periods; it is in no sense a new creation.
Subject to these reservations, however, it cannot be denied that Cyrano exercised an influence on modern drama. Its remarkable success was convincing proof that the day of historical drama was not yet past, as critics tended to assert. The increase in the popularity of historical plays in all countries around the turn of the century is not unrelated to Cyrano de Bergerac, and it was never really dropped from the repertory lists of French theatres. Even in Sweden it is constantly revived, and always with success. It is unjust, too, to complain of the public's bad taste. The play is remarkable neither for its merits nor its faults. It has no unusual artistic merit, nor does it make greater concessions to the public's liking for stage effects than plays usually do.
Cyrano's struggle against a cruel fate, his ability to stand fast by his ideals in the face of opposition and defeat, his determination to put a brave face on humiliation and poverty, and finally, when all else fails, to go down with a brave gesture—all this is not something particularly French or 18th century; it is universal in its appeal. This play resembles too painstaking a copy of an old master, a typical, average piece of Dutch painting, with a few bold strokes of the brush added by Franz Hals.
Cyrano de Bergerac was a lucky shot. Rostand had found a period which perfectly matched his temperament. The early 17th century was an age of affectation, of idealism and sensibility, of gallant and elaborately turned phrases. When Rostand endowed Cyrano with his own exalted passions and his too brilliant vocabulary he gave the play its natural period flavour.
The beginning of the 17th century was also an age of military bravado, of the Fronde and The Three Musketeers. When Rostand makes D'Artagnan wish Cyrano luck and shake his hand, he clearly indicates that we are in a period where no act is too heroic to be believed. Cyrano is allowed to vanquish a hundred men and to tell the tale with his characteristic gallows humour. His long nose prevents his being taken really seriously by the audience, even when he is carrying out deeds of incredible heroism or showing a superhuman capacity for selfless resignation and exalted idealism. He has a half-mocking, half-tragic way of looking at himself, but Rostand does not allow us to witness any real soul-searching in him, and he does not even give us the impression that such a thing has ever happened.
Cyrano quickly selects the attitude which he feels honour compels him to adopt, and then abides by it stubbornly to the end. He is perfectly aware that such quixotic behaviour will not earn him esteem, but he is incapable of acting otherwise. The moral rectitude of the hero, which has been emphasized by modern dramatists from Schiller to Ibsen, practically reached its climax with Cyrano, the poet and long-nosed braggart. The effect was smaller and less convincing in him than in many of his predecessors, because he is so completely lacking in any sense of doubt. Cyrano belonged to an age when men acted more from impulse than reflection. He was created by an author who was in complete sympathy with him. This is why Rostand was able to work on audiences to whom the heroes of Kleist, Hebbel and Ibsen, with all their introspection, will always remain incomprehensible.
Nearest to Cyrano probably come Victor Hugo's heroes, for they are based on a similar antithesis. Just as Hernani and Ruy Blas bear noble souls under their robber cloaks or servants' uniforms, so Cyrano's sensitive and poetic soul contrasts with his robust exterior and his extravagant boastfulness. The two sides of his character drive him from one deed to another, each more heroic, more wildly idealistic than the last. He resembles Hugo's heroes in their unceasing desire to excel themselves. The knowledge that Roxane loves the stupid Christian causes him to do something more positive than merely to renounce his claims nobly; he wants Roxane to have Christian and to owe her happiness to him. To do this he determines that Roxane must not realize the extent of Christian's stupidity, so he composes letters for Christian, and takes his place in the dark to make that grand avowal of love which she has demanded. These tactics make it even more certain that he will lose Roxane, but they also give him the bitter-sweet satisfaction of knowing that it is really his soul, as expressed in letters and declarations of passion, that Roxane loves. Cyrano abides by his intention even when, sorely wounded, he visits Roxane in the final act. When he reads Christian's last letter, which he himself has written, his voice betrays his feelings. But when Roxane asks him if he loved her he steadfastly denies it, whispering at the end, "No, no, my love, I did not love you." Two lives have been destroyed for a dream; in the hour of Cyrano's death they both realize this. But Cyrano also knows that this struggle for a dream has been worth while just because it was a struggle, just because more than any other struggle it has demanded courage and sacrifice. In Rudel's song in The Faraway Princess Rostand praised that same love, noble because of its hopelessness, "plus noble d'être vaine."
Apart from Cyrano the characters in the play are insignificant. Fair without and hollow within, Christian is the antithesis of Cyrano, in the Victor Hugo style. Roxane says in the final act of the play that she has only loved one person but has lost him twice, a thought which Hugo might have expressed in the same way. Rostand and he both revel in grand period pictures which still retain a festive quality.
Our own generation does not, however, find the play as poetic as did the audiences which filled the Théâtre Porte Saint Martin for six hundred performances, or the reading public which bought more than a million copies. What remains most firmly in the memory is probably the final act, with its autumn mood of falling leaves; the sonorous Gascon song is an imitation of a poem which was wrongly ascribed to the real Cyrano.
The play is like a rich brocade which on close examination is found to contain crudities of colour and gems which are not real, but this is less disturbing because it contains an undertone of burlesque. Less easy to forgive are the hackneyed situations of the Scribe type which occasionally occur in it.
In L'Aiglon (The Eaglet), which Rostand wrote three years later, we get an impression of the actor anxious to gain the applause of his audience. Here we have a loud-voiced patriotism, sentimental and full of speeches but lacking the ability to laugh at oneself that is to be found in Cyrano.
The play was written for Sarah Bernhardt, then no longer young, and was one of the attractions of the Paris Exhibition of 1900. To read it now is like being confronted in some out-of-the-way place by a vast and pretentious exhibition building, hastily constructed of shoddy material. It may be splendidly painted and equipped to please the eye during the short summer months, but seems frighteningly empty and dismal if put to longer use.
Why Rostand really failed was because he selected a profoundly tragic subject. Napoleon's unfortunate son, Frans of Reichstadt, assumed a burden that was too heavy for him when he tried to win again for France the glory that had been Napoleon's. Rostand did the same when he chose a theme that was too great for his poetic talent. One might almost believe that he realized this better than his critics when one reads his last play, Chantecler, where he writes with charming irony of the henhouse and its chief singer, the cock, who believes that his throat can rival that of the nightingale.
The Emperor's son, obsessed by Napoleon's dream, but lacking the power to realize it—this was the essence of the plot, but Rostand could not bring it out without resorting to theatrical devices.
Napoleon himself could not be brought on to the stage, so instead Rostand, in an unlucky moment, introduced a veteran of the Old Guard whose name was Flambeau, and who was a sort of travelling museum of Napoleon's relics. From various corners and pockets of his clothes he produces a snuff-box, a pipe and a glass, all bearing Napoleon's picture or his monogram. The tragic death of the Duke on the stage is also embellished with Napoleonic souvenirs. The cradle which the City of Paris presented at his birth is carried in, and the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honour is hung over his night-shirt. There is a statue of Napoleon in the room, and he hums the tunes of his father's day while he is receiving the sacrament.
The Eaglet is set in Scribe's period; a performance of a Scribe play is announced at a fancy-dress ball at Schönbrunn. This may explain the deliberate Scribe touches in the play, the manoeuvres and counter-manoeuvres and the endless disguises. Flambeau says somewhere that he is never satisfied simply with providing the basic needs, but has a crazy passion to 'faire du luxe.' It is this southern French characteristic which has got the better of Rostand in The Eaglet.
Although the faint protests against The Eaglet were drowned in shouts of approval, Rostand seems to have realized the validity of the criticisms. He wanted to be a poet, not just a stage technician. After The Eaglet, to the surprise of the public and the critics, he retired to the country, taking his family with him, and settled for ten years in a quiet corner of the Pyrenees. Rumours were rife about the great stories that he was going to dramatize, such as Faust and Don Quixote, and there was much disappointment when it was learned that he was actually writing a play about hens in a farmyard, with a cock as the hero. The idea came quite soon after The Eaglet, but Rostand had trouble in expressing it. In any case, he was ill at the time and was not confident about his subject. The play was not completed until 1909.
A work which had met so many obstacles and taken so long to write was awaited by public and critics alike with understandable suspicion, and the première did not dispel all doubts. Maeterlinck and his The Blue Bird were to triumph three years later, and Chantecler did not meet with the recognition it merited. In it Rostand took his revenge for The Eaglet. He spent ten years of his life on a play which he must have known the ordinary public would never approve, for Chantecler is more of a literary drama and actually a more original piece of work than Cyrano.
In most European countries there is a legend to the effect that a cock believes that he causes the sun to rise because he predicts it with his crowing. This notion is elaborated by Rostand in the style of a fable. Chantecler, the name of the cock in Roman du Renard, is convinced that without him all would be darkness and nature sunk in eternal sleep. The jeers of envious rivals cannot shake his faith. A golden hen pheasant lures him into the forest away from all his hens, but she cannot accomplish alone her wish to make him forget his mission. She therefore summons to her aid the songster of the night, the nightingale, and at his first note Chantecler feels himself finally defeated. It is the same for him as for all who hear the song of the nightingale; they believe that they are only listening for a minute, but when the singing is ended they find they have been listening all night. The sun has risen, but Chantecler has not summoned it with his crowing. Chantecler suddenly sees that he has lost his throne. When the dog from the farmyard comes to greet him and tell him that everyone wants him back to bring up the sun, he answers in a moment of gloom, "Now they have the faith which I have lost." But his depression only lasts a moment and then he lets fly a full-throated crow. When the pheasant asks in surprise why he has done this he replies that it is his calling. The sun may have risen without his help, but it remains for him to awaken all to life, to open all eyes. "Who sees that his dream has died must die at once, or else rise up in greater strength."
This simple story has sometimes been taken to be an allegory on the fate of mankind, or in praise of the value of daily toil, or as an exhortation to all men to do their duty without too great illusions about its importance. This is a fairly widely held point of view, but we grasp the purport of the play better if we consider what the poet's function is. He cannot give life to nature, but he can open men's eyes to it, and he is most faithful to his calling when he regards himself as a worker among fellow-workers. "If I sing clearly and truthfully, and if every farm has a cock who sings in his place, then there will be no more night," says Chantecler.
Rostand explained that the cock expressed his own dreams, and indeed embodied something of himself. During this ten-year period while he was working on the play he had come to realize that his merits were overrated both by himself and by others. Both in the troubadour of Rudel and in Cyrano he had shown something of himself. Cyrano's self-sacrificing idealism becomes little less than a desperate gamble, a desire to make all the noblest and most extravagant gestures himself. Chantecler is less brilliant and more natural. He is the hero of domestic virtues, the citizen and father of the family, the faithful guardian. But as with all his fellow-countrymen, there is a touch of romance in his blood, and he believes that really he is something quite different. Rostand has brought out the sunny and frankly naive qualities of this Tartarin of a cock in a very human way. He is 'un brave meridional' like Tartarin, who finds it hard to see reality except through the veil of romance. Daudet blames this trait of the southern French on the burning sunshine which seems to shroud everything in a haze. So it is with Chantecler. His imagination is always a stage ahead of reality, and his sensitive soul is often wounded.
In his posthumous play, La dernière nuit de Don Juan (Don Juan's Last Night), Rostand writes a sequel to the Don Juan legend which leaves that most famous of all heroes morally naked. The play was not published until 1921, and it consists of a prologue and two acts which were already complete when the first world war broke out. The best scene is the one where Don Juan, released from hell, is confronted by shades of the thousand and three women whom he has seduced. He has to remember their names, but is always guessing wrong, and the shades mock him as they turn away. Finally they say that he has never known them, never possessed them—it is they who have possessed him, just to pass the time away. Romeo and Tristan are the two real lovers who have left behind something of themselves in those they loved. Don Juan is a mere intruder who has struck down those who are already wounded. He appears to have possessed all women, but in fact has possessed none. There is one single shade whom he has occasionally met but who is not on this list of conquests, the white one, the Ideal. At last the unhappy Don Juan begins to long for hell, but the cruel Devil tells him that a hell of a special sort is reserved for him. He is not destined for eternal fire but eternal theatre; he is to be one of the puppets in the Devil's collection. The play is slightly influenced by the Button-moulder episode in Peer Gynt, but the thought is typical of Rostand, namely that only love that is unselfish and idealistic is real.
Joseph Chiari (essay date 1958)
SOURCE: "Edmond Rostand," in The Contemporary French Theatre: The Flight from Naturalism, Rockliff, 1958, pp. 32-46.
[In the essay below, Chiari examines the elements of Romanticism in Rostand's plays.]
Edmond Rostand is not a major writer, yet somehow he is an important one. His importance lies in the fact that he is not only a kind of reaction to symbolist poetry, but a combination of the two strains—idealism and realism—which at the end of the nineteenth century were contending for pre-eminence, and also the representative of a great tradition in French poetry, the tradition of rhetorical poetry. Rostand's romanticism is counteracted by his rationalism and trust in reality, and these two contending tendencies assume, in turn, the mastery of his creative mind, or blend harmoniously in order to produce his best writings.
Rhetoric, which is found in the best poets, from Shakespeare to Racine, has now become a term of disparagement, yet there is good and bad rhetoric. The aim of rhetoric being to persuade, it may take the form of a conscious effort combining words and gestures in order to create an emotive state which will win over the reader or listener, or it may be a logical, cogent display of reasoning which cannot fail to carry conviction. It is an attempt to convey to the listener or reader a definite experience by means of overwhelming or triumphing over his judgment. Therefore the experience of the listener or reader will not be creative, but will be imposed upon him by the poet; that experience will gain only a temporary acceptance, for as it has not been truly lived and re-created by the listener or reader, it will not become part of his experience; it will not be true knowledge—which is what real poetry should be—it will remain an inferior kind of poetry. The poetry will not rise from the event or the thing described in its simplicity, or complexity, but will be given life with an aim in view, and both its morality and beauty will tend to be explicit and not implicit, as they should be. Poetry in tragedy arises from profound emotions probed to their depths in attempts to lay bare the very sources of being. Poetry in comedy arises from intellectual dispersions or unsuspected associations; the mind, instead of being governed by an overwhelming passion, bubbles freely in irrepressible exuberance according to the theme and subject chosen. That kind of poetry does not imply any revelatory quality of the words, but it does imply the existence of a rhythmical pattern, a musicality of the lines, and also the use of figures of speech which appeal as much to the senses as to the intellect, the whole thing being not a compulsory surge from the whole being of the poet, but rather an "intellectual" creation resulting from the intellect working on emotions as well as on strictly intellectual materials.
It seems to me that the test of whether rhetoric is good or bad lies in its power of conviction. If the author forgets himself, and uses his characters, or one of his characters, in order to expound his own ideas, or if he allows the characters to speak beyond the stage to the audience, then we have bad rhetoric. If a character dramatizes himself unconsciously, or if his words and gestures do not match the emotions or feelings which he is seeking to convey, then we also have bad rhetoric, for the words are no longer there in order to express a given situation, but because the author, carried away by his verbal skill, cannot resist a display of his virtuosity. But if the intellectual excitement, the passionate vehemence or persuasive strength of speech is perfectly in character and situation, whether it be Henry V on the eve of Agincourt or Horace's and Curiace's passionate debate before they engage in single combat, we have excellent rhetoric, or, to be precise, excellent dramatic speech. Good rhetoric is essentially reason at white heat, set upon a goal and wilfully using all the means of impassioned speech and power of emotive suggestion in order to reach it. The words, like waves, roll, pervade and overwhelm the listener until he lies temporarily exhausted or dazed under the impact of this mighty, dissolving stream. Rostand's rhetoric is above all the rhetoric of a burlesque poet, a poet who is making fun of others, as well as of himself. Although he is much less brilliant than either of them, his is the rhetoric of Pope or of Byron, the Byron of Don Juan, for instance, who laughs at himself first so that others may not do it. Rostand's Percynet, for instance, sees himself as Romeo, Tristram and all the great lovers of legend and history, but he says that with a smile, and therefore his utterances have a truly dramatic value for they fulfil their purpose. Only when he talks for one moment seriously, too seriously, of his love without any self-consciousness (as in the "stances") does he fall into sentimentality.
Rostand's passions are thoroughly intellectual. They come not from the heart but from the head; they are not forces which can wrench the human soul as storms can wrench minds or trees, they are thought out, although at times mentally felt and expounded with great skill. We have here a kind of rhetoric of passions reminiscent of that of Corneille and sometimes very successful, for like Corneille—though not to the same degree—Rostand was a master of words. But he did not write, he never wrote with his whole being; he wrote from a divided or rather complex, non-integrated personality. If he shared in the romanticism of his time, his Attic salt, his Mediterranean scepticism prevented him from taking himself too seriously and from striking humourless poses. He has his limitations, and they are very great, for he did not have the supreme quality of the poet, imagination, which can make great poetry; but he had equilibrium, and a sound grasp of realities. When that equilibrium is broken, when the balance leans towards the tragic, as in La Princesse lointaine or in La Samaritaine, Rostand is at his worst, for he is not a tragic poet; but when, as in Cyrano, he can temper the most serious situation with self-criticism and laughter—which forestalls laughter at himself—he is at his best, and he achieves a kind of elevation quasi-unique in his genre in France and very reminiscent of Byron.
La Samaritaine, for instance, illustrates the weak aspects of Rostand's romanticism unmitigated by the realism and the sense of humour which generally redeem it. The theme is the triumph of ideal love over physical love. The more one advances through the play, the more one wonders with anguish and increasing disquiet what Jesus had to do in the apotheosis of this new Magdalen—Sarah Bernhardt. The part is all to obviously written for the great actress, who is given as many opportunities as Rostand could provide to display the irresistible charms of her feminine personality, and they are such that even Jesus who is far more man than God, is very nearly carried away by "la forme divine de son bras nu". Indeed, who could resist her, when with her fair locks rippling down her white shoulders she seeks to rouse the mob in the public square or to lead them out of the town, along the dusty roads towards Jacob's Well where Jesus sits? What a tableau, as Rostand calls it! Jesus speaks like Rostand himself; Rostand the inflated, self-conscious poet who could not only always produce a rhyme when needed, but also a triple and quadruple rhyme when those who required them were the ghosts of great prophets who had behind them centuries of vaticination.
Rostand certainly did not seem to understand anything about religion, or he would not have produced that card-board mock pageantry which might perhaps grace a village fête in Provence and bring sentimental tears to the eyes of old matrons watching the scene, but which has no deep echoes. Jesus cannot be a dramatic character, even in order to partner Sarah Bernhardt. How can he choose, act, hesitate, suffer, since he knows all, suffers all and transcends time and space? To make of him the protagonist of a drama is to reduce him to the husk of what he is, and to show the shallowness of one's sensitiveness. The only drama the greatest drama of all, is the Passion of Christ. We cannot alter the story or the fable, as we may choose to call it, without shattering the whole framework of human sensitiveness. If Jesus moves on earth and utters human words, they must be movements and words which everybody knows, and which have by now become the very texture of the Christian soul. He may be made to behave and to speak in the manner and with the words of Rostand, D. H. Lawrence1 or any other poet, but then it is no longer Jesus; he becomes a being whom pagans or Martians could perhaps understand, but Christians certainly cannot do so. This is not a point of historical truth; poets can, to a certain extent, alter history and give us poetic truth, but Christ is not history but reality, permanent and eternal reality, beyond the historical. The greatest poets, Dante or Milton, who have sought to convey to man the idea of the Divine, have understood that; for although Milton makes God and Christ speak, they do so at least in an epic, and not in a drama. A drama, if it deals with the life of Christ, can only take the form of mystery plays which give us as faithful a vision as possible of the life of our Lord as we know it from the Bible.
Pace to La Samaritaine and let us pass, with Cyrano de Bergerac, to a genre in which Rostand can truly be himself, and in which he has reached his plenitude as a poet-dramatist.
Rostand combines some of the technical skill of Scribe with some of the exuberance of language of Victor Hugo. Besides that, he is both a realist and an idealist. His idealism is akin to that of Victor Hugo; like him, he believes in violent contrasts and in the supremacy of the spiritual over the physical. Cyrano has echoes, sometimes conscious echoes, of Marion Delorme and Ruy Blas—the earthworm in love with a star. Like Victor Hugo, Rostand can unfold brilliant metaphors and coin striking antitheses, and even his most lyrical outbursts, such as Cyrano's words to Roxane in Act III, have that kind of rhetorical brilliance and verbal lusciousness which we find in Victor Hugo. There is no doubt that with regard to rhetoric and themes, Rostand is the most Hugoesque of contemporary French poets. One cannot talk of his imagination; as I have already suggested, I do not think he had much, and whatever he had (and this is where he parts company from Victor Hugo), he certainly did not place a great deal of trust in it. He was too sceptical, too reality-bound, and, in contrast with Victor Hugo, he did not picture himself as the visionary, inspired seer who can descry unknown lands and point the road to his fellow-beings.
Rostand has a definite gift of visual imagery, of which we find many good examples in Cyrano, but as soon as he leaves reality he throws himself into a fantastic world in which he obviously does not believe. He has fancy, the kind of power which drags him in any direction but which is incapable of unifying various aspects of things and emotions into a living whole, and he has at times a power of dramatic expression which in its simplicity produces emotional tension and can rise to poetry. The end of the scene between Roxane and Cyrano is an example in which great tension between two characters can lift simple words to poetry. That scene is dramatic and very moving too, for here we see how Cyrano's hopes are drowned in the distractions of Roxane, who is completely carried away by her love for another. Rostand, or Cyrano, could dream beautiful dreams, but these dreams were countered by the wit of a man who knew their defects, and who knew that life could not always be a dream. The whole of Rostand's dramatic creation tends to prove that he believed in the supremacy of the ideal over the spiritual; indeed, in the end Rudel and Cyrano, the poets, the idealists, are those whose love triumphs; but that triumph never takes place in the world here and now, in the world of realities. When these heroes fall in the arms of their beloved, it is always too late, death is already upon them.
Protected by night Cyrano could, through the magic of his words, win Roxane's love, but he knew all too well that the whole thing would not stand the test of light and reason; he knew that Ideal is one thing and Reality another. Rostand did not believe, as Hugo did, in imagination, and his wit springs from that loss of belief. Hugo believed in his visions, in his apocalyptic dreams; Rostand also could dream, but he knew that dreams could not be realized, and he resolved the contrasts between dreams and reality into mockery, as when Cyrano, in Act I scene V, confesses his love for Roxane to his friend Le Bret:
Cyrano: … Avec mon pauvre grand diable
de nez je hume
L'avril,—je suis des yeux, sous un rayon d'argent,
Au bras d'un cavalier, quelque femme, en songeant
Que pour marcher, à petits pas, dans de la lune,
Aussi moi j'aimerais au bras en avoir une,
Je m'exalte, j'oublie … et j'aperçois soudain
L'ombre de mon profil sur le mur du jardin.Le Bret (ému): Mon ami! …
Cyrano: Mon ami, j'ai de
De me sentir si laid, parfois, tout seul …Le Bret (vivement, lui prenant la main): Tu pleures?
Cyrano: Ah! non, cela, jamais! Non, ce serait trop laid,
Si le long de ce nez une larme coulait!
Je ne laisserai pas, tant que j'en serai maÎtre,
La divine beauté des larmes se commettre
Avec tant de laideur grossière!
This is extremely moving, it is dramatic and it is poetry. The whole scene, which oscillates between the sentimental dream and the dramatic self-mockery of the main character, is wholly integrated and shows the progressive creation of Cyrano's character.
That power to see himself as he really is, and to laugh instead of crying over what is unchangeable, gives the character a new dimension and increases his dramatic range; it is, if one wishes to call it so, a kind of sense of humour, a quality which is wholly absent from the great romantics like Wordsworth, Shelley or Victor Hugo, who generally wrote on one single plane, but which in this country appears very often in the poetry of the Scots, Burns, Byron and in our time MacDiarmid. The quality of self-critical humour and of laughing at the Devil and even at death itself, is one of the main traits of Scottish poetry. The poetry of the great romantics, with their faith in imagination, their kind of mystical attitude towards the creative act, or the high seriousness of Arnold who could see in poetry a substitute for religion—or, for that matter, German subjectivity from Goethe to Wagner—has no parallel whatever in Scottish poetry. The Scots seem to share with the French a great reverence for the intellect. Rostand, in that respect, is very French indeed; he refuses to confuse reality and visions, he rarely takes himself too seriously, and when he does it is fatal to his art. Strangely enough, another mediterranean, a greater poet than Rostand, yet a man who, like him, believed both in poetry and in reason—Valéry—concluded his artistic life with Mon Faust, a dramatic poem in which even Mephistopheles is derided and made a victim of the author's irrepressible scepticism. Cyrano believes in love but, man of the world as he is, distrusts feelings and fears that other men may laugh at him, so he forestalls them by laughing first. The important thing is that, however shallow Rostand's philosophy may be, he looks at experience not from one single vantage-point, as the great romantics generally did, but from various directions. He may lack depth, but he has complexity and range; he does not attempt to reach for a transcendental order, he deals with reality as he sees it, and Nature, when he describes it, has none of the immanence conferred upon it by Wordsworth or Victor Hugo.
As a play, Cyrano has many flaws. When at the end of the balcony scene, for instance, Christian reaps the fruit of Cyrano's rhetoric of love, we cannot help having a certain feeling of revulsion, and we are made aware of the fact that Rostand's great dramatic skill can at times fail him. The death of Christian, which is not quite convincing, nevertheless increases the sympathy of the audience towards him. The last scene of Act I is sheer fantasy, but it does fit with the character of that strange man who is Cyrano. On the contrary, the arrival of Roxane on the battlefield in Act IV, scene iv, and above all the repast which follows, transform the atmosphere of tension into one of tragi-comedy and burlesque. It is a flight into absolute fancy, the characters become unreal and the interest flags. We find ourselves right in the thick of melodrama; the battle is completely artificial, and Rostand can display such a lack of sensitiveness as to make en joue rhyme with je sens sa joue. In spite of the fact that Cyrano's character is well drawn, the other characters are rather shallow. They are strongly reminiscent of Corneille's heroes in the fact that they are all, in various degrees, good; none of them is evil. The play has no metaphysical depth; life is shallow, language is without profound roots, yet it is nevertheless the language of a poet. Even De Guiche, who at the beginning of the play seems to be the bad one, in the end becomes the good Duc de Gramont who has seen the light and can express himself in poetry:
Voyez-vous, lorsqu'on a trop réussi sa vie,
On sent,—n'ayant rien fait, mon Dieu, de vraiment mal!
Mille petits dégoûts de soi, dont le total
Ne fait pas un remords, mais une gêne obscure;
Et les manteaux de duc traÎnent dans leur fourrure,
Pendant que des grandeurs on monte les degrés,
Un bruit d'illusions sèches et de regrets,
Comme, quand vous montez lentement vers ces portes,
Votre robe de deuil traine des feuilles mortes.
In spite of certain weaknesses, Cyrano is Rostand's major dramatic and poetic achievement. Rostand has often enough been dismissed as a mere writer of verse, or a kind of rhetorical poet who was not in fact a poet. Such opinions seem to me to imply a very narrow view of poetry. Granted, Rostand's poetry is different in quality and in degree from that of Shakespeare or Coleridge, or from that of Racine or Baudelaire; still, there are surely various kinds of poetry which can range from that of Shakespeare to that of Rostand.
Cyrano is a heroic comedy in verse, and therefore we cannot expect to find in it the kind of revelatory poetry which we find in Othello, King Lear or Phèdre. The aims of the poet are here very limited, but they are clear; he does not attempt to confront us with unsolved mysteries, but with the everyday dualism of human nature within definitely human situations.
The dramatic action of Cyrano is on the whole sustained, and there are scenes of true dramatic and poetic beauty—the marvellous tirade of Cyrano on noses, for instance, and the reply to the Vicomte which is a brilliantly developed metaphor, are dramatic and produce, through the self-irony of the main character, a heightening of sensibility to which one could hardly refuse the name of poetry. In the same way, the other beautiful speech of Cyrano in the eighth scene of the second act is good wit-poetry; there are plenty of apt images, there is movement, there is rhythm, and it is dramatic; it gives us a full description of Cyrano's character—Cyrano who, once more, abruptly shatters his apparent boastfulness with the confession of his utter dejection. Only a poet, however minor he may be, could fuse such contrasting emotions into the unity which we find in many scenes of Cyrano. The scene which follows is not poetry, but it is a good drama, and it adds to the mounting tension. True, the balcony scene, which is Rostand's lyrical flight, does not rise to the heart-rending lyricism of Romeo and Juliet, or the poignancy of some of Shakespeare's sonnets, but it is a very dramatic scene, which trembles on the verge of sentimentalism but which nevertheless avoids it and conveys in a poetic way the pathos of Cyrano's situation; the audience is bound to share in that pathos, for it knows that what he says comes from the depths of his heart, and it cannot but feel sympathy for a man who makes use of the sincerity of his passion in order to win a heart which he knows will not belong to him. It is indeed a very "poetical" situation, extremely delicate to handle without raising unwanted smiles or laughter, but it seems to me that by now the complex nature of Cyrano's character is so well accepted and his sincerity, which makes him forget that he is playing a part, seems so genuine, as to make the scene dramatic.
Rostand shows us that the greatest dangers which beset the poet are perhaps the discrepancies which might arise between his aims and the means which he uses to reach them. If, like Maeterlinck, he thinks he can reach poetry by using poetic themes and conventions, he will soon realize that the result will be neither dramatic nor poetic, for the two in that case should go together; but if, on the contrary, like Rostand, he attunes his poetic lyre to the situations he has chosen to describe, to the characters he has chosen to present, then he may, without flights to the summits which the former tried to reach, avoid the marshy ground where Maeterlinck got lost, and walk along a moderately high ground to the accompaniment of a music which, if it does not ravish us, never completely bores us, and which will save his name from oblivion. In his way, Rostand is a poet. He succeeds where Maeterlinck failed, and Cyrano is a work which has both an intrinsic and an historical importance. Aesthetically it is successful drama, historically, it is the meeting-point of a long tradition in French literature and the reconciliation of many contrasting traits, amongst the most important, the ideal and the rational; it has echoes of Victor Hugo, Banville, Scarron and others also, and it points the way to Valéry's more elaborate scepticism.
Cyrano marks the apex of Rostand's dramatic career. With L'Aiglon and Chantecler we have again a break in the equilibrium which produced Rostand's best drama, and consequently we have partial failures. The critics who try to gloss over these dramatic failures by describing them as poems are, to my mind, mistaken. There are true poets like Swinburne, for instance, or W. B. Yeats, who could fail in their attempts to produce good drama because they were first and foremost poets and perhaps not primarily dramatists. Atalanta in Calydon may not be a good play, but it certainly contains good poetry. But Rostand was not a poet of Swinburne's or of Yeats' magnitude; he was a versatile, masterly versifier, he had the gift of words, he could juggle with them to the point of inebriation, and also to lapses of appalling bad taste, and he only was a poet when he was a successful dramatist. He could sometimes write good descriptive poetry, and his images often have a Hugoesque splendour, but they are generally clear, visual images, free from psychological complexities or metaphysical symbolism tending towards apocalyptism as is the case with Claudel, for instance, who, like Rostand, resembles Victor Hugo but in a different way. Rostand obviously is, and could only be, a minor poet; in him there is no depth, no power of vision, no confrontation between being and non-being, between time and eternity, none of that awareness which can illumine a man's soul when confronting his finitude and his fate with the infinity of the universe, and which can give rise to moving, heart-rending songs which enable him to transcend time and his earthly plight. Rostand is the kind of poet who, deprived of the lyrical gift to sing himself out of time, can only make poetry out of the characters which compose his drama; and when he fails to be dramatic, he also fails to be a poet. His limited realistic vision, his intellect, which in order to avoid any possible suggestion of presenting Rostand as a thinker should really be described as good common sense, confine him to a kind of poetry which is more often verse than poetry, and which never goes beyond drama.
The critics who try to console themselves by saying that in L'Aiglon and in Chantecler Rostand's lyrical poetry re-deems the lack of dramatic tension, the practical failure in drama, confuse the shadow for the substance. The so-called symbolism of Chantecler is so obvious that it does not deserve that name, and it does not require any explanation. Any normal twelve-year-old child would grasp it at once without having to ask his father any awkward questions; in fact, its obviousness rejoins in its results the very transparent camouflages put on by Maeterlinck's characters. At any moment we expect Chantecler to say: "Well, of course you know who I am, don't you?"—just as we are surprised not to hear at certain moments the famous Blue Birds saying these same words. These animals have nothing animal about them; they talk and behave as Rostand and his friends probably did, and we feel that somewhere, some time in Rostand's life, there must have been some hen-pheasant who tried to lure him away from the Dawn, some denigrating blackbird-like colleague, and some highfalutin' lady whose "at homes" were the meeting-place of all the blue-stockings and the wigged hollow-heads of Paris. If, because Rostand obviously speaks through those various characters and borrows more often than not Chantecler's voice, we call that lyricism, we are singularly mistaken. Some speeches certainly sound personal, at times to the point of incongruity, as when Chantecler-Rostand talks of Chénier's death; but lyricism is something more than personal expression of feelings, as Lamartine and Rostand ought to have known. It all depends on the feelings; those expressed here are pretty common alloys, and would require a great deal more refining before they could reach the state of the pure metal. There is in the play a certain amount of wit verse, the kind of wit which brings together things far apart, or suddenly reduces the distances which separate things similar; part of scene iv in the first act is a case in point. There is also some kind of poetry, mostly verbal—the hymn of Chantecler to the sun, and his confidences to the hen-pheasant—interspersed with very bad lapses; and there are throughout the play unbearable puns, unbelievable samples of lack of taste, and a kind of verbal headiness which sprawls endlessly across numerous scenes. It is, all told, a very elaborate, over-elaborate fantasy, which is ingenious, and in parts entertaining as a review, but which will grow older and older, and will not improve with age.
L'Aiglon is on a higher level than Chantecler. It is, after Cyrano, the most accomplished drama of Rostand. Here he has once more moved away from that mixture of realism and idealism, sentiment and irony, bravado and heroism, which characterizes Cyrano, and we are once more faced with a very romantic theme, that of the hero condemned to failure. The action is therefore static; the main character, although he has impulses and velleities of movement, remains motionless. The words are like the sails of a wind-mill gyrating without anything to grind; they strike the air, and nothing but the air, producing a powerful impression of fruitless effort. The result is bombastic, swollen language, gongorism, and long scenes placed where they are for no other purpose than to enable the poet to indulge in a certain form of rhetoric.
The hero is a cardboard hero, an opera prince without any life of his own. He seems to be a combination of certain very feminine aspects of Rostand's character, crystallized in a form which would suit Sarah Bernhardt's acting. The truth is that, although Rostand may be able to conceive a verbal exteriorization of tragedy, and may have the gift of passionate rhetoric which can produce at times epic poetry, he cannot be a tragic poet. He can obviously write mock-heroic verse, as in Cyrano, and also heroic verse, as in L'Aiglon. The entrance of Flambeau in the ninth scene of the second Act is a good sample of heroic poetry containing striking images:
Nous qui pour arracher ainsi que des carottes
Nos jambes àla boue énorme des chemins,
Devions les empoigner quelquefois àdeux mains.
Flambeau is the best-drawn character of the play, and it is in him that we find mat mixture of heroic grandeur and irony which was greatly responsible for Cyrano's attractiveness. He has bad lapses—at the end, for instance, when he dies saying "Je me suis fait une légion d'honneur"—but on the whole he is moving, convincing, and his language sometimes bears the imprint of epic poetry. There are other samples of epic poetry: the beginning of the tenth scene in Act I, for instance, contains good epic poetry. Indeed, the thing to remember about L'Aiglon is that it is only a partial failure, for in spite of lengthy, lifeless scenes, in spite of appalling samples of bad taste and most common puns, such as: "vous ragusassiez!", L'Aiglon is at times dramatic and contains a certain kind of poetry. The duke is weak, sentimental, as when he offers to decorate Flambeau, pompous, petulant and childish, as when he wilfully alienates himself from his grandfather's good-will, or merely shilly-shallying, as when he should be strong and escape in order to reach the throne; all these traits show that this sickly and nervous young man was not fit to reign. Like Hamlet2 whose presence seems to have been haunting Rostand at that time, the young duke is incapable of action. He is ever hampered by what looks like very futile reasons. He nurses Hamletian feelings about his mother's unfaithfulness to the great man, his father. Just as the ghost plays an important part in Hamlet, in L'Aiglon, Napoleon's great shade dominates the play and overwhelms the weak, golden-haired young man who is torn between his urge to fulfil his father's wish and the anxiety of feeling unequal to this great task. Yet he could at times redeem himself, with the self-irony of "les soldats de plomb de Napoléon II", and Rostand could every now and then knit his speech with splendid Hugoesque images, as when, in Act I, scene viii, the doctor, talking about butterflies in an album, asks the young duke what he is looking at, and the duke replies with the very apt and dramatic words: "L'épingle qui le tue"; or later, in scene xiii, in spite of the weak rhymes:
Mais haussez au soleil la page diaphane;
Le mot 'Napoléon' est dans le filigrane!
Or in the middle of the rather sentimental speech of the duke to Flambeau, in the otherwise good scene ix of Act II, when he says:
Je dois, malgré tant d'ombre et tant de lendemains,
Avoir au bout des doigts un peu d'étoile encore …
There are many examples of such verbal felicity, which, when they fit with the character, are good rhetoric. Even more, the end of scene iv in Act II contains good descriptive, direct poetry; the tension caused by the feelings involved is strong, the images used extremely apt, and the result is quite moving poetry.
1Jesus, in D. H. Lawrence's story, The Man Who Died, suffers the same entirely subjective interpretation.
2Hamlet is not incapable of action because he is a weak character or lacks physical courage, it is only because he has too much purity of mind and wants first to discover the truth which underlies his "world out of joint".
Alba della Fazia Amoia (essay date 1978)
SOURCE: "The Masterpieces," in Edmond Rostand, Twayne Publishers, 1978, pp. 60-91.
[Amoia regards Cyrano de Bergerac and The Eaglet as Rostand's finest works.]
The two plays that may be characterized as Rostand's most developed and mature works—Cyrano of Bergerac and The Eaglet—were produced in 1897 and 1900, respectively. The former is the glorious burst of the summer of Rostand's life. The latter was written at the beginning of a painful period of illness, destined to become the author's melancholy autumn.
I Cyrano of Bergerac: A Dream in Action
In about three and a half centuries of modern theatrical history, there have been recorded in France only two other triumphs comparable to that of Rostand's Cyrano of Bergerac: the first was Corneille's Le Cid, produced in 1637 during the time of Richelieu; the other, Le Manage de Figaro by Beaumarchais, presented in 1784 in the dawn of the French Revolution.
Cyrano of Bergerac was first produced on December 28, 1897, at the Porte Saint-Martin Theater. Exactly one hour after the curtain had fallen, practically the entire audience was still in the theater applauding. The most curious historic aspect accompanying the play's production was the pessimism that had marked the preparations and rehearsals. Even though the name of Edmond Rostand was well known in turn-of-the-century Paris, the idea of an heroic-comic drama in rhymed alexandrine verse, built on an historic background in the Romantic manner of sixty years earlier, constituted an anachronism. The Parisian public was sophisticated and demanding, but at the same time seemed to be avid for nothing but Imperial plays and easy pochades (light comedies).
The Fleury brothers, who were the directors of the Porte Saint-Martin Theater, after having accepted Cyrano of Bergerac for production, regretted it almost immediately afterward. They were pessimistic about its success and felt that if the play ran for a dozen performances, it would be a stroke of luck. In the face of such a negative attitude, it was decided to hold production expenses down to a minimum. Rostand found himself in the predicament of having to pay for the actors' seventeenth-century costumes—in the amount of one hundred thousand francs—out of his own pocket. As for the stage sets, they were so meager that during the dress rehearsal Rostand broke down and was on the verge of assaulting the stage designer. Notwithstanding the famous Constant Coquelin's zeal for the part of the protagonist which was his, pessimism prevailed throughout the theater. One of the members of the company asked Coquelin what his predictions were regarding the play's success; he answered in a single word, shaking his head negatively: "Dark." Instead, that night of December was to mark the beginning of a glorious career on stages throughout the world for the swashbuckling swordsman-poet, Cyrano of Bergerac. Capricious and unpredictable in its reactions, the Parisian theatrical public had nonetheless been able to discern accents of an authentic poetry behind the verbal virtuosity and the visual artifices of the play.
The story of Cyrano is well known in its broad lines. As told by Edmond Rostand, it reveals an ingenuousness and, in many verses, a quixoticism recalling the author's Spanish ancestry. Cyrano is an unvanquished swordsman and an affected, versatile poet, possessed of an enormous, grotesque nose which "arrives so long ahead of him" that it prevents him from giving free rein to his true nature, that of an incurable sentimentalist. He is secretly enamored of his beautiful cousin, Roxane, who in turn loves the young soldier, Christian de Neuvillette, an attractive man but completely devoid of poetry and wit. Roxane, fearful that the gentle Christian, who has just joined the corps of Gascon cadets, will suffer in the hands of his rough and rude fellow soldiers, entrusts him to her cousin, Cyrano. The latter takes his assignment so seriously and conscientiously that he even composes for Christian highly perfected love letters for his beautiful lady. In fact (in one of the most famous scenes of the play), taking advantage of the darkness, he boldly and passionately declares his love to Roxane, who is on the balcony of her home. Cyrano then altruistically withdraws to allow Christian to receive Roxane's kiss. In the meantime, however, the Count de Guiche, commander of the cadets, has also fallen in love with the beautiful Roxane. Unable to stop the marriage of the enamored young couple, he takes his vengeance by sending Christian and Cyrano to besiege the town of Arras. During the siege, Cyrano's passionate correspondence grows more voluminous, and his letters begin to produce a profound change in Roxane, rendering her love deeper and more spiritual. Now she loves Christian no longer for his external beauty but for his soul—that is, she loves Cyrano. Suddenly and unexpectedly, she appears at the Arras military camp, but on that very day, Christian, who now understands that Roxane has unknowingly fallen in love with Cyrano, has decided to tell her the truth about the correspondence. Realizing he is loved for someone else's spirit and intelligence, he voluntarily seeks his death; he is wounded in battle and dies.1 Cyrano, out of respect for his friend, keeps the secret for fifteen years. On the verge of death resulting from a long illness caused by a falling beam striking his head, Cyrano, in delirium, confesses his long, immutable and unrequited love to the anguished Roxane. Dying, he lifts his sword high, and his last noble, proud words are: "Stainless, unbent, I have kept … / … My plume! mon panache"2
Such is the story that, bursting forth in sonorous verses and in a kaleidoscope of glistening images, has been holding audiences enthralled for almost eighty years. The student who recently declared that, in this age of cosmetic surgery, Cyrano of Bergerac is no longer plausible nor relevant, has, of course, missed the whole point of the play. It is not Cyrano's nose that prevents Roxane from loving him; it is rather the fact that he is not Christian. Even if Cyrano had been endowed with a beautiful nose, Roxane would still not love her cousin. The existence of the handsome Christian, speaking and writing with beauty borrowed from Cyrano's soul, is the image that holds Roxane enthralled, and her "pink lip will inevitably tend toward his blond moustache."3 Roxane does not find Cyrano ugly, but a normal-nosed Cyrano would not satisfy her esthetically either.
And yet the nose is what has immortalized Rostand's character. Famous actors—Constant Coquelin, Ralph Richardson, José Ferrer, Gino Cervi, Jean Piat, Christopher Plummer—their faces disfigured by an enormous false nose, have been acclaimed and will be remembered for their interpretations of Cyrano of Bergerac. In North America, the character was made familiar through the adaptations and stagings of Walter Hampden and Anthony Burgess. Such an abundance and variety of interpretations of the character of Cyrano suggest that part of this study should concern itself with the figure of the real Cyrano, since Rostand's point of departure for the play was the character of an authentic personage who lived in Paris in the seventeenth century during me time of Richelieu and Mazarin.
Before focusing on the real Cyrano, however, it may be of interest to note mat as a young boarder at school, Edmond Rostand, already distinguished among his companions for his talent in composition, had offered to write love letters and poems for a friend of his, who copied mem over and sent them to his young girlfriend. This personal recollection somehow imposes itself on me chronicles mat have created the immortal trio of Cyrano, Christian, and Roxane. Moreover, Rostand's wife, in her book about her husband, relates an anecdote mat sheds light on how the first idea came to the dramatist for me writing of Cyrano of Bergerac. Rosemonde states mat Edmond was spending a summer in the town of Luchon, a resort in the Haute-Garonne, where he happened to meet, beside a fountain, a young man who obviously had been grievously disappointed in love and was nursing his sorrow. Edmond drew out the boy's story, then spoke to him at length, consolingly and paternally. For several days, Amédée returned to me fountain to listen to Edmond's "teachings," after which he disappeared. Rostand was quite triumphant when, some time later, he met the young lady involved and she said to him in a burst of passion: "You know, my little Amédéée, whom I had judged to be so mediocre, is marvelous: he's a scholar, a thinker, a poet …". Amédée was, of course, none of these things; he was just a pale reflection of her ideal, but me idea for Cyrano was born.4
When Rostand submitted his manuscript of Cyrano of Bergerac for publication, he inscribed on me first page:
It is to the soul of Cyrano that I wished to dedicate this poem. But since it has entered into you, Coquelin, it is to you that I dedicate it.5
Coquelin, as has been noted already, was me first actor to portray the role of me poetic swordsman with the long nose. In the light of Rostand's dedication, it is reasonable to ask how much of the soul of the real Cyrano passed on to the stage, and how much from the stage into the legend; or, better yet, to ask why Rostand's imagination was so fired by me figure of a Gascon cadet who died at me age of thirty-six in the most melancholy obscurity.
The first encounter with the real, historic Cyrano is slightly disappointing: the Gascon cadet was, in fact, not a Gascon, even though he served in the company which subsequently became legendary. Savinien de Cyrano (the name given to our hero at the baptismal font) was born in Paris, of Parisian parents, on March 6, 1619, in one of the oldest and most populous neighborhoods of me capital—Les Halles. The family was rather well off, and enjoyed the prestige of a modest title of nobility. His father's name was Abel de Cyrano; the noble particule, de Bergerac, appeared later, following the acquisition of a castle on the outskirts of Paris. There were, in reality, two castles. The first, Mauvières, still exists today, although much transformed by restorations over the last century. The second castle has disappeared; not even its ruins remain. It is known, however, to have been called Bergerac, and was located near me village of the same name (now called Sous-Forêt) in the Chevreuse valley. According to established usage of the time among noble families, Abel's first child, Denyse, was authorized to use the name Cyrano de Mauvières; the second, Savinien, future swordsman and poet, Cyrano de Bergerac. It was probably me suffix -ac that misled Rostand and prompted him to make his hero a Gascon gentleman. Names of families and villages ending in -ac are, in fact, typical of Gascony. It is possible, too, that the original owners of the castle and fief were Gascons.
In accordance with the practices of the time; male offspring were sent to board with churchmen, and female offspring to convents. Savinien was no exception. His early education at Mauvières was entrusted to a country priest, who also had charge of Cyrano's future friend and apologist, the pious Henry Le Bret. At me age of twelve, after five years of what the great Italian dramatist, Count Vittorio Alfieri, a century later, would have defined as "ineducation," Cyrano left the boarding school. He had won a scholarship for the Collège de Beauvais in Paris, where he remained for six years and learned to detest tradition, cultural Aristotelianism, and the constituted authorities which were the mainstays of seventeenth-century society.
At this point in his life appeared the beautiful lady who was destined to become the inspiration for Roxane. In Rostand's play, her name is Madeleine Robin, and she is in love with the handsome Christian de Neuvillette. The real Cyrano de Bergerac did indeed have a cousin with a not dissimilar name: Madeleine Robineau, bourgeoise by birth, but married to a nobleman, the Baron de Neuvillette. Through her marriage in 1635 she had become a member of Parisian high society and stood out conspicuously among the most highly considered ladies. It was she who took charge of Cyrano's social education. It is not known whether the Baroness de Neuvillette was really a précieuse like Rostand's Roxane, but it is known that she had two great passions—good food and dancing—and that, like Roxane, she was noted for her "peach complexion." It was in her company that Cyrano learned the usages of high society and the good manners which he sorely lacked. Whether he was enamored of Madeleine is not known. It is certain, however, that he was profoundly influenced by her and found her fascinating.
The relationship, however, was not destined to last long: Cyrano's father, tired of financing his son's follies, decided to pull tight the purse strings, whereupon Cyrano decided to enlist as a cadet with the Noble Guards of the Gascon Captain, Carbon de Casteljaloux, to whom he had been introduced by his ever faithful friend, Le Bret. Cyrano was wounded in battle at Mouzon in 1639; the following year he left the Cadets and became part of the regiment of the Counts, participating in the siege of Arras—a boring affair, as all sieges are. Cyrano and his companions spent their time smoking and playing cards, just as in the opening scene of the fourth act of Rostand's play. The wife of the newly wed young Count of Canvoye was very much in love with her husband, and a graphomaniac besides—she sent him as many as three letters a day. The Count, who was not very gifted as a writer, in order to hide his embarrassment, turned for help on more than one occasion to Cyrano, who supplied him with love poems to send to his beloved wife. It is probably this historic fact that furnished Rostand with the idea for the famous letter substitution by Cyrano for the handsome but almost illiterate Christian.
The boredom of the siege was broken by an enemy attack. Cyrano, in the front line, was stabbed in the throat by an enemy saber. When he regained consciousness in a rudimentary camp infirmary, he learned that among those who had fallen in battle was the Baron de Neuvillette, Madeleine's husband. The death of Christian at Arras is not, therefore, a literary invention, nor is the widow's withdrawal to a convent. When, in fact, Cyrano left the military service and returned home to convalesce in Paris, he learned that Madeleine was spending her life in prayer and penitence. He had the opportunity of seeing her in the Convent of the Holy Cross on the day that his sister, Catherine, took the veil. He scarcely recognized Madeleine: her mourning gown was of the poorest sort, her face was devastated by tears and fasting; and the former "peach complexion" was hidden under long gray hair that Madeleine no longer attempted to disguise by artificial coloring. In the face of this manifestation of profound humility, Cyrano experienced a sort of reverse exhibitionism; he fled from the convent, horrified, and vowed never to return.
The ex-Cadet of Gascony now lived as he could, in the intellectual circles of Paris, where he underwent the influence of the famous mathematician and materialist philosopher, Gassendi. Refusing all protectors, he preferred to gain his own reputation for libertine ideas and extravagance. He wrote two fantasies in prose, Le Voyage dans la lune and L'Histoire des Etats de l'Empire du Soleil, letters, maxims, and even a study of physics. Author also of a comedy (Le Pédant joué) and a tragedy (La Mort d'Agrippine) that he was unsuccessful in having presented, Cyrano finally was constrained to turn to a protector—Louis, Duke of Arpajon, Marquis of Séverac and Count of Rodez. Notwithstanding the Duke's protection, the presentation of his tragedy was a failure. The audience rioted on the first night because of an innocent line which Cyrano's enemies chose to interpret as a sacrilege. Presentations of the play were suspended and, as a result, requests for the text at the Charles de Sercy publishing house reached an all-time high. The Duke began to regret the protection he had accorded, and Cyrano, too, felt the weight of the attachment. A fortuitous accident—or a plot—hastened their separation: a beam fell from the roof of the ducal residence and struck the poet on the head; he was to remain for a year on the threshold of death. And this is the ambush that is freely evoked by Rostand in the fifth act of his play.
The good Le Bret undertook to have his injured friend transported to the home of a certain Tanneguy for treatment. Madeleine visited him there twice, but her words of comfort apparently must not have been much appreciated, since the dying Cyrano sent word to his cousin, Pierre de Cyrano, who lived in Lannois, begging him to come to fetch him and promising that he would not disturb him for too long—just a few days. Pierre answered the call of distress, arriving at Tanneguy's home on July 25th; Cyrano, wavering, rose from bed, got dressed, went downstairs, and was assisted into the waiting carriage. On July 28, 1655, just a few days later, he was, in fact, dead, in accordance with his promise to his cousin. Cyrano de Bergerac's was a first-class mind whose brilliant fantasies, ingenious scientific hypotheses, and bold religious and political views were prematurely interrupted. Rostand, by reviving him in his celebrated play, contributed much to his fame. Rostand's hero, however, is very different from the real Cyrano, even though many biographical elements in the play are exact and though there are significant similarities between the two figures.
Rostand merely develops the figure of the noble idealist who fights against the reality of ordinary life. His Cyrano, however, never admits to such a reality but creates his own world. In such a personal cosmos, the objective observer might judge him to be the loser, but Cyrano gains for himself his most precious ideal—panache. Cyrano's world comprises two existences: the life of each day and the Ufe of love. He cherishes the highest concepts of life and duty; in them are contained the plot of the play and the story of his soul. Rostand dedicated the work to the soul of Cyrano. The play is an heroic comedy, which is very close to tragedy. As in a Molière play, not only is the sacrifice of a noble soul seen, but also the struggle of an heroic soul against all the evils of society and even against that love of idealism that can be harmful because of its own strength. From this point of view, Rostand's Cyrano surpasses the real one; love works miracles. It is this love that carries Roxane's soul to a higher level. Cyrano's idealism causes those who approach him to become idealistic, too. But the real tragedy lies in the fact that this idealistic love, which renders Roxane faithful to the memory of Christian, is the source of all of Cyrano's heroism and all his hatred for convention. In the end, it is also the cause of his death. What Cyrano loves so passionately is not Roxane—who, in truth, does not at all deserve his love, at least in the beginning of the play. He loves Love itself. He loves the fantasy that he has invented and which has become his ideal, personified by Roxane. The interest of the play, therefore, lies in the soul of Cyrano. To seize the essence of this great soul and to appreciate the true heroism of the comedy, an analysis of the internal and external figure of Rostand's creation is necessary.
Cyrano may be considered first as an able and clever man with a temperament that, once aroused, can manifest itself sweetly and paternally—but only in intimacy or in a deeply sincere relationship. Usually he is extremely violent. The most important external aspect of his character is the cult of the gesture, of which there are two kinds. First, there is the splendid gesture, the theatrical gesture, the execution of a duel while composing an improvised ballad, or marching at the head of a motley procession to fight single-handed against one hundred men. These are bravuras inspired by Cyrano's grotesque external appearance, but he executes them because he is full of life, energy and goodness—and is timid inside. He is a poet and a creator, but he senses his own ugliness and has lost his love for his own life. This explains the splendor of his verses. At this point, it is almost imperative to quote in their entirety Cyrano's memorable variations on the theme of his big nose:
Aggressive: "Sir, if I had such a nose,
I'd cut it off, so much 'twould cut me up."
Friendly: "It oft must plunge, sir, in your cup;—
Best make a goblet of a special shape."
Descriptive: "'Tis a rock,—a cliff,—a cape.
A cape, quotha? Surely a promontory."
Curious: "What is that thing,—let's have the story,—
A tool box, or, perhaps, a writing case?"
Gracious: "You must love birds to have a place
Paternally prepared,—I call it sweet,—
To make a safe perch for their tiny feet."
Truculent: "Sir, be careful when you smoke,
Lest you make trouble for all honest folk,—
Lest neighbors run and cry, 'A chimney fire!'"
Careful: "Pray hold your head a little higher,
Else such a weight will surely make you fall."
Solicitous: "Sir, take a parasol,
Lest its bright hue be faded by the sun."
Pedantic: "Aristophanes knew one,—
Was made to carry, certes, such a nose."
Lightly: "Why, friend, a most commodious rack
To hang one's hat,—where space will never lack."
Emphatic: "Fierce Euroclydon, behold,
Needs all his power to give that nose a cold."
Dramatic: "'Tis the Red Sea when it bleeds."
Admiring: "'Tis the sign the chemist needs."
Lyric: "A conche and you a triton, say?"
Simple: "A monument. When's visiting day?"
Respectful: "Come, the landed gentry greet.
Here's one who has a gable on the street."
Rustic: "Why look-a-here. A nose? I tell 'un
'Tis a prize turnip,—or a stunted melon."
Soldierly: "Charge, heavy artillery."
Practical: "Put it in the lottery.
Assuredly 'twould be, sir, the Grand Prize."
Or, last, like Pyramus, with streaming eyes:
"No wonder that nose blushes;—wicked traitor
Who mars his master, shaming his Creator."
Here are a few things, sir, you might have said,
Had you or wit or learning. But instead,
You wretched fop who trifle with your betters,
You have no spark of wit; and as for letters,
You have just four, to write you down a fool.
Had you one grain, from nature or from school,
Before these galleries you might have played
With some such fancies as myself displayed;—
—But not the fourth part of them all have spoke,
Nay, nor the half of one,—for I may joke,
Jest, as my mood or mockery may nerve me,—
But as I serve myself let no man serve me.6
The lines are a fine example of humor and verbal bravura, and yet they convey perfectly Cyrano's self-mockery and inner suffering.
In addition to the splendid gestures, there are Cyrano's heroic gestures, which render his soul so noble and great: the letters he writes for Roxane on behalf of Christian; the balcony scene, in which he directs the unfolding of the lovers' exchange all for his friend's benefit. These magnanimous gestures are so much more beautiful than the others because they are completely gratuitous. They are born of Cyrano's own personal pride and of his heroism. Perhaps the best example, however, of the heroic gesture is the scene that so poignantly combines the comic and the tragic: the scene in which Cyrano detains the Count de Guiche from entering Roxane's home, where her marriage ceremony to Christian is being performed—a ceremony that Cyrano wishes desperately would not take place and yet which he desires fervently for his beloved Roxane's happiness. Pretending to fall heavily, as if from a great height, and lying motionless as if stunned by his fall from the moon, Cyrano intercepts the Count's approach and holds him enthralled for the time necessary for Roxane and Christian to plight their troth. Rostand has cleverly captured the flavor of the real Cyrano's Le Voyage dans la lune and L'Histoire des Etats de l'Empire du Soleil in the scene, which is worth quoting in part:
I'm dizzy … giddy … for like a bomb
I hurtled from the moon.
Not metaphorically but with force.
Centuries agone … or else, a minute, …
How long I fell, I know not. I was in it …
That saffron ball up yonder in the sky!
Keep nothing from me. On what earthly site
Have I descended like an aerolite?
I came,—your pardon,—through a waterspout,
Cloudburst, that left its spray. I have journeyed, sir.
My eyes are full of Stardust. Ha, … this spur
Caught in a comet's tail. This golden tinge.
Here, on my doublet, is a meteor's fringe.
See, there, on my calf,—mark of a tooth?
The Great Bear hit me. As I dodged, forsooth
I missed the Trident but I fell ker-plunk!
Into the Balances. See, they are sunk!
They mark my weight. Look how the record lingers.
If you should tweak my nose between your fingers,
'Twould prove a fount of milk …
From the Milky Way.
Would you believe, Sirius,—I saw this sight,—
Puts on a cloudy nightcap every night?
The Little Bear can't bite;—he tries to nip.
I broke a string in Lyra by a slip.
I mean to write my travels in a book.
These stars entangled in my mantle,—look,—
When I've recorded all my diverse risks,
These captured stars shall serve as asterisks.
By six sure methods I can rise like vapor.
I could stand naked like a waxen taper,
Caparisoned with crystal phials clear,
Unstoppled, filled with summer's earliest tear,—
My body to the sunlight I'd expose,
And it were lifted as the dew arose.Guiche: Ho! That makes one way.
Cyrano: And again, I might
Draw winds into a vacuum,—keep it tight,—
Rarity them, by glowing mirrors, pressed
Isosahedron-wise within a chest.Guiche: Two!
Cyrano: Then, both mechanic and inventor, I
Make a steel grasshopper and let it fly
By swift explosions, till it fire me far
To the blue pastures of the farthest star.Guiche: Three!
Cyrano: Or, since smoke rises in its natural state,
I'd catch a globeful, equal to my weight.Guiche: Four!
Cyrano: Luna loves, what time her bow is narrow,
To suck beef-marrow, so I'd smear with marrow.Guiche: Five!
Cyrano: On an iron disc I'd stand with care,
And toss a lodestone lightly in the air.
That is a good way. When the iron flew,
Drawn by the magnet, as we nearer drew,
I'd catch the magnet,—toss it up! You see,
One might keep climbing through eternity.
Guiche: Six! And all excellent. Now, tell me, pray,
Which method did you choose?Cyrano: A seventh way!Guiche: Indeed! And what?Cyrano: Give up! You'd never guess!Guiche: Stark mad, but most ingenious none the less.
Cyrano: … It is the ocean!
When the moon moved the yearning tide to motion
I lay out on the sands, wave-wet, and so
My head was moved, and lifted … lifted slow,—
Hair holds the water, sir,—and very slowly,
I rose, just like an angel, stiff and holy.
Effortless, splendid, high above all men
I rose … I rose … I felt a shock.…Guiche: And then? …
Cyrano: … The time is up, Sir, and I set you free.
The wedding's over.7
In the heroic gesture may be seen the tragedy of the man of genius: Cyrano is a poet, a philosopher, an indomitable fencer and an idealist; but he is not successful because he is heroic, because he is idealistic, and because he fears ridicule. His philosophy, as he explains it to Le Bret, is: "… Let what will befall / Always I will be admirable, in all."8 The genuine Cyrano is the Cyrano of the panache. He desires to be "admirable in all"—and only for his own satisfaction. This is the explanation of his profound sincerity. Even though he may reiterate many times that it is beauty which he loves, Cyrano loves sincerity and courage above all. He loves Christian mainly because he has made his promise to Roxane to protect him, but also because Christian is courageous. He loves Le Bret because he is sincere. He loves the cadets because they personify courage. He loves the pastry cook, Ragueneau, because he is a poet and writes sonnets on the paper bags in which he wraps his tarts and pies. Cyrano's attitude toward women is the same: he shows esteem for a woman of the lowest social rank and treats her as a princess because she is kind and generous, but he has no sympathy for Ragueneau's wife because she is harsh and insensitive to his poetry and treats her husband badly.
With regard to Roxane, Cyrano has a completely different outlook. At the beginning, his passion is a kind of poetic veneration for her beauty; in her presence he remains wide-eyed and timid. When he learns that it is not himself but rather Christian who is loved by Roxane, his passion increases to the point of becoming poetry for the sake of love. Passion renders Cyrano heroic because it infuses into his noble heart the fire and warmth of his altruistic philosophy:
… Self drops out of sight.
For thy least good I would give all my own;—
Aye, though thou knewst it not.…9
Cyrano loves love more than he loves Roxane, but for him love is Roxane herself. His love is that of a man who has never known a woman intimately. He admits that he has never known "feminine sweetness."
At times, Cyrano is melancholy, but only toward the end of his life, as, for example, when Le Bret notices that he seems to be suffering. Cyrano starts, and cries out that he will never show others his suffering. All must appear heroic. During Roxane's last visit, looking at the falling leaves, he exclaims: "How well they fall!"10 , and later he speaks of "the fullness of Fate's mockery."11 Cyrano is a man, a hero, from the beginning of the play to the end. He is Gascon only in appearance; within, he is a southerner, litigious, passionate, and a lover of theatrical poses. His is the temperament of Don Quixote.
As for Roxane, she is affected, very light, with little spiritual depth. She is romantic, but without the youthful simplicity of Sylvette in Romantics. Her beauty is legendary, like the far-off princess Melissinde's, and her lace handkerchief inspires the starving garrison at the siege of Arras just as the vision of the princess far away encouraged the feverish sailors to continue rowing. Roxane further resembles Melissinde in that neither would ever consider committing a great crime of love. Roxane seeks only an excessively refined sort of love. Little by little, however, the influence of Cyrano's idealism has an impact on her concept of life's values, giving rise to a deep spiritual evolution within her. Ultimately, she is able to say to Christian: "At last I love thee for thy soul alone!"12 After Christian's death, she is faced with the cruel reality that there is nothing left in life for her, but she maintains an admirable calm. Subsequently, when she learns of Cyrano's love and exclaims: "I loved but once, and twice I lose my love!"13 , although the concept is affected, the cry comes from a heart genuinely in despair, and Roxane is tragically moving. In sum, the figure of the heroine represents a force in Cyrano's life; she is love personified. Just as Bertrand, in The Princess Far Away, is not easily defined or explained with respect to Melissinde, so the figure of Roxane is not easily juxtaposed with respect to Cyrano.
Turning to the secondary characters as conceived by Rostand, Christian de Neuvillette may be defined as a provincial youth, a bit out of style, who does not dare to speak to Roxane because he knows he lacks wit. He is very handsome and certainly is courageous because he dares to do something that no other brave soldier would even consider: tease Cyrano about his nose! But he is a simple soldier. He becomes impatient in the role of the affected lover, yet when Cyrano leaves him to his own devices, he is unable to do more than stammer some banalities. In the end, he allows himself to be killed in the siege in order to leave an open, free path for his friend. Christian is genuinely sincere—and therefore is beloved by Cyrano—but his role is reduced to being handsome and consequently being nothing but an obstacle in Cyrano's love life. In this respect, he is the counterpart of Bertrand in The Princess Far Away.
Le Bret plays the role of the confidant. Embodying a spirit of good sense, he is a kind of Sancho Panza at the side of Don Quixote. Through the intimate conversations between Le Bret and Cyrano, the latter's character is developed and his ideas and ideals are revealed.
The last of the secondary characters is the Count de Guiche, a true cavalier in Louis XII style, typifying the role of the mundane in comedy. He lacks ideals, except for a sort of personal concept of noblesse oblige, but his courage in battle inspires admiration. The only effect that Cyrano's idealism produces in him is to render him a bit dreamy at the end of the play, when he pronounces Cyrano's eulogy. His dreaminess, however, is not an early manifestation of the purification of a soul, but rather the expression of a weak and egotistic character that feels some remorse:
Envious … Yes!
Sometimes, when one has made life's success,
One feels,—not finding, God knows, much amiss,—
A thousand small distastes, whose sum is this;
Not quite remorse, but an obscure disorder.14
Groups and crowds of personages are part of the play, and indeed Rostand shows extraordinary skill in harmonizing large numbers of onlookers with the action of the main characters. The dramatic duel scene and the exit procession are the most striking in Cyrano de Bergerac; the pastry cook surrounded by poets and cadets creates an additional unforgettable scene; and, finally, the group scene in the convent garden, under falling leaves, forms a scene of peace and tranquil joy mixed with a nuance of fatality.
Undoubtedly there are some defects in Rostand's master-piece: too much refinement, too many theatrical gestures. Cyrano is perhaps too much the incarnation of the Romantic hero, with his contrasting physical ugliness and moral beauty. The poetry of the play is pure and lyric, however, because it is sincere. Rostand, the excessively refined stylist, is comfortable in his own preciosity. Rostand, the singer of heroic zeal, is comfortable in his Cyrano. The work, therefore, vibrates with preciosity, heroism, and poetic idealism. Moreover, as Patricia Williams maintains, the play is a strictly classical work in that it is faithful to the Aristotelian precepts, one of which is that a tragedy must be plausible. She affirms that Cyrano "is completely credible, and his actions are completely motivated by his convictions. He is true to life."15
The best excuse for Rostand's rhetoric and the best compliment to his dramatic sense are offered, however, by T. S. Eliot, who writes:
His rhetoric, at least, suited him at all times so well, and so much better than it suited a much greater poet, Baudelaire, who is at times as rhetorical as Rostand.… Is not Cyrano exactly in th[e] position of contemplating himself as a romantic, a dramatic figure? This dramatic sense on the part of the characters themselves is rare in modern drama.… Rostand had—whether he had anything else or not—this dramatic sense, and it is what gives life to Cyrano. It is a sense which is almost a sense of humour (for when any one is conscious of himself as acting, something like a sense of humour is present). It gives Rostand's characters—Cyrano at least—a gusto which is uncommon on the modern stage.… [I]n the particular case of Cyrano on Noses, the character, the situation, the occasion were perfectly suited and combined. The tirade generated by this combination is not only genuinely and highly dramatic: it is possibly poetry also.16
Rostand's Cyrano of Bergerac will continue to have meaning throughout the ages, will continue to move audiences everywhere, and probably will remain identified with the name of Edmond Rostand long after his other works have sunk into complete oblivion.
II The Eaglet: The Lyricism of a "Poor Child"
Youth frequently inspired Rostand in his choice of heroes and heroines. In The Eaglet, it is not the joyful, amorous youth of Romantics that is seen, but rather the immaturity and fragility of a young boy, Franz. Known both as the Duke of Reichstadt and the King of Rome, Franz was the son of Napoleon I and Maria Luisa (the daughter of the Archduke Francis I of Austria and Napoleon's second wife). He lived from 1811 to 1832. His claim to the paternal throne of France as Napoleon II (after Napoleon's first abdication in 1814) was at first nominal; a year later, instead, the title was formally established. In his declaration of June 22, 1815, dictated to his brother, Luciano, Napoleon spoke the following words: "My life is finished and I proclaim my son, under the name of Napoleon II, Emperor of the French." The words were repeated aloud by the Emperor himself before the nation's House of Representatives, which recognized the sovereignty of Napoleon II. Even before Waterloo, the divisive maneuver had been suggested by Joseph Fouché, Minister of Police under the Empire (who betrayed Napoleon after the Hundred Days and kept his ministry under the Restoration). Fouché's intention was probably to split the loyalties of the allies between father and son. By bestowing his crown on his son, Franz (who had been living for a year in Austria with his grandfather), Napoleon made some concession to the scruples of Francis I, one of the signers of the declaration of Vienna against the "usurper Bonaparte." The gesture helped to extract his son somewhat from the close custody of Metternich; Austria did not, however, release its grasp on the "Eaglet," fearing in him the bellicose blood of his father. At first it was decided that he would become "Prince of Parma," with hereditary rights (entrusted to his mother, Maria Luisa) to the Duchy of Parma, Piacenza and Guastalla. Then, instead, the title of the Duke of Reichstadt was bestowed on him, with compensation for the loss of effective sovereignty over any territory in the form of lands and rents.
After Waterloo, Fouché passed definitively to the side of the Bourbons, and it was principally due to his pressure that the June 22, 1815 proclamation became, for all practical purposes, a dead letter.
Adolph Hitler, during the course of his exercise of power, made one sentimental gesture toward the French: immediately after his lightning victory over France in July 1940, he ordered that the remains of the King of Rome be removed from the Capucin crypt (Kapuzinerkirche) in Vienna, where they had been reposing for over a century among the tombs of the Hapsburgs. Where the Eaglet's body was once entombed now lies his mother, who died in 1867. Hitler gave the order for Franz' remains to be solemnly transported to Paris—to the Invalides—for interment with those of the Emperor Napoleon exactly one hundred years after the return to Paris of Bonaparte's ashes. He intended this spectacular form of "restitution" to be not so much an act of posthumous justice as a move to attract the sympathy of the French, who have always been sensitive to the memory of Napoleon. The voyage of the remains of the Eaglet took place, however, among general indifference and aloofness, in a Europe racked by war.
A few months later, however, references to the King of Rome began to increase because a nobleman of Trento, Baron de Moll, in going through his family archives, discovered an important document: the diary of one of his ancestors, Captain Giancarlo de Moll, who had lived in the military "household" of the Duke of Reichstadt and had kept watch over him during the long illness that ended in his premature death. The diary was published; it is a cut and dried document with no embellishment yet extraordinarily interesting. It constitutes the most significant testimony that has been preserved in connection with the death of the King of Rome. Precisely because of the lack of sympathy on the part of de Moll, who did not expect his words to be published, and because of the cold detachment of his tone and the indifference with which he speaks of the progress of the illness that was slowly taking Franz to his death, the reconstruction of a fairly accurate portrait of the Duke of Reichstadt is possible. Napoleon II is stripped of his Romantic veils, but he is infinitely more human and more pathetic than the "Prisoner Eaglet" of the Bonaparte tradition. Even now, more than a quarter of a century after the publication of the de Moll diary, the legends of the "Austrian feathers" of Carducci's ode, and of the tempestuous loves that seem to have led Napoleon's son to an early death, are difficult to surrender to reality. The pale, sickly youth, dead at the age of twenty, without having brought salvation to France, remains a tenacious image. Today, his mortuary mask is exposed in the room of Schoenbrunn Palace which had twice been occupied by Napoleon I. Overlooking the vast and impressive gardens of the palace, the room contains, besides the mask, only a stuffed bird—symbol of the Eaglet and, as the Viennese guide today will announce nostalgically, Franz only friend.
The correspondence between Franz and his mother, Maria Luisa of Austria, was continuous and affectionate. They wrote to each other indiscriminately in the two languages in which they were both fluent—French and German. (Franz also spoke Italian rather well—a language that was coming more and more into favor at the Court of Vienna despite the origins of the "usurper Bonaparte.") Some of the boy's letters to his mother are extremely bellicose and justify the phrase pronounced by the old Prince of Ligne who, meeting him as a child of four, found him already to have "military eyes." In fact, the nineteen-year-old Duke wrote to his mother on March 25, 1830:
[P]erhaps I shall be able to participate [in the maneuvers] next year at the head of my battalion. What a great day that will be! All my desires end there, because to push them as far as the joy of a war would be excessive audacity, especially during these times.… In truth, I have the sad foreboding that I shall die without having received the baptism of fire. I have already made my decision in case of this terrible eventuality. I shall put into my will that my bier should be brought into the first battle that should occur, so that my soul will have the consolation, wherever it may be, of hearing whistling around its bones the bullets it has so often desired.…17
The passage is puerile, and typical of a child who enjoys war-play in the shadow of Napoleon. But in these few lines there is an obscurely prophetic tone. Like a shiver, the presentiment of a precocious death runs through them.
One of Franz's more noteworthy qualities was his independence of judgment. He did not repudiate any aspect of his father's moral heritage despite his Austrian indoctrination. One of his dearest friends, Anton Prokesch-Orten, found him one day absorbed in the reading of the Memorial of Saint Helena, which contains Napoleon's testament. The Eaglet read out loud to Anton the fourth paragraph, in which Napoleon exhorts his far-off son never to forget that he was born a French prince. "That," he added," is the rule of conduct of my entire life."
At first glance, Franz, Duke of Reichstadt, looked like a true Hapsburg, with the characteristic protruding upper lip, blond hair and blue eyes. Contrary to most observers, however, Marshal Auguste Viesse de Marmont, the Duke of Ragusa whom the Bonapartists referred to as the "traitor of Essonnes" because he negotiated secretly with the Allies to force Napoleon's abdication, discerned a physical resemblance between Franz and his father. The Eaglet's facial structure, his gestures, and a certain way of inclining his head to one side, were clearly inherited from Bonaparte. None of Napoleon's Corsican ruggedness, however, had passed to his son. That young figure, so full of charm and attractiveness, was, unfortunately, of an alarming fragility. Although there were already some worries about his health in 1826, when the boy was fifteen years old, fears abated after his summer vacation in Austria.
They reappeared, however, five years later, and much more intensely. It was then that gossip began about the young Duke's "excesses" which would inevitably undermine his health. In the liberal circles of Europe, specific accusations were leveled against Metternich and the Austrian court for actually encouraging these excesses in the cynical hope of getting rid of "the Son of the Man." Names were mentioned; the most persistent were those of the dancer Fanny Elssler and the Countess Nadine Károlyi, née Kaunitz. These ladies were, however, merely the objects of a schoolboy's infatuations. Only one woman seems to have inspired a deep sentiment in Franz: Princess Sofia of Bavaria, wife of the Archduke Francis Charles, a maternal uncle of the Duke. Sofia was that "aunt with cousin's eyes," of whom Rostand speaks in such fine imagery. Some historians do not hesitate to attribute to Franz the paternity of Sofia's two sons, Francis Joseph and Maximilian, born a few days before the Eaglet's death. The Court of Vienna had recourse to Sofia so that etiquette should be preserved until the end, and this historic fact is freely evoked by Rostand in his play. The sick Duke not only had to receive the last sacraments of the Church, but he had to receive them in public, in the presence of the Court and the blood Princes. Sofia, eight months pregnant, found a plausible motive for the ceremony, without alarming the dying Franz. Proposing to confess and take holy communion in order to invoke the benediction of God on her childbirth, she urged Franz to do likewise.
Only a few intimates were present in the room, but outside a small crowd hedged around in silence. At a certain moment, during the receiving of the sacraments, the doors opened soundlessly and then closed again. Etiquette was saved. The end came shortly after. Franz's last words, in German, were addressed to his mother: "Ich gehe unter, Mutter, Mutter!" ("Mother, Mother, I am going under!").18
Such, then, is the real story of Franz, Duke of Reichstadt and King of Rome. Possibly Rostand used it as the basis for his second masterpiece because in Franz's biography he found inspiration for the negative counterpart of the swashbuckling hero. After the success of Cyrano of Bergerac, Rostand felt he had to create something even better, which would have to take the form of a reverse image, since no figure could possibly outdo Cyrano. An ascending creative parabola will be observed in his successive works, reaching its symbolic and lyric apex with Chanticleer.
While he was still working on Cyrano of Bergerac, Le Roi de Rome by a certain von der Pforten was being performed at the Royal Theater in Berlin. Moreover, the figure of the Eaglet—France's Hamlet—had occupied a place in Rostand's heart for a long time. As a boy, he slept in a bed over which hung a portrait of the Duke of Reichstadt:
This portrait, he said, had become a sort of friend to me. I saw it from my bed, in the morning, on opening my eyes. It was he who presided over my studies, when I was working alone at my little table. He was present at my first readings, my first dreams, and at my first emotions.19
Rostand felt a premonition of his own future in the destiny of the young Duke. The child was enchained by the past triumph of his father and lived in unceasing anguish. Rostand, after Cyrano of Bergerac, would never succeed in freeing himself from the anguish of creativity except by creating a new masterpiece.
There were other reasons for the choice of the story of the Duke of Reichstadt. In the dedicatory note of his collection of poems, Les Musardises, Rostand declared his love for all those who are mocked, scorned, and disinherited, and for all those who, desiring to do well, in the end achieve nothing. In Rostand's eyes, the Duke of Reichstadt was one who had been mocked and scorned; Fate had decreed that he should accomplish nothing. Ten years after Cyrano of Bergerac, then, The Eaglet appeared, dedicated to the "two Maurices" in these words:
Great God! Here is no cause
Defended or reviled.
I only bid you pause
To pity a poor child.20
An historic drama in six acts, the play may be considered a masterpiece of lyricism rather than a masterpiece of drama. It is difficult to say whether it is a psychological drama or a kind of dramatized epic poem. Love is relegated to a secondary level, yet the work breathes a certain sentimentality because Rostand simply wanted to bring "the story of a poor child" to the stage. While the plot of Cyrano of Bergerac is based on two big lies, heroic and full of verve, The Eaglet is not very heroic. It is the tragedy of an unfulfilled dream, and nothing else. Cyrano lived his life scornful of the circumstances surrounding him. He created his personal reality and came very close to triumph even when he failed. The Eaglet hardly lived. He merely created his dream. His desire was to cultivate a legend (like Melissinde in The Princess Far Away), but the circumstances of life did not allow his dream to be realized. The illusion did not serve the cause of action. The Eaglet stalls. His hesitation is fatal. In the first of the two sonnets entitled "In the Crypt of the Capucins, at Vienna," found at the end of the play, Rostand declares:
In vain the scribbler searches what to write.
The Poet knows. Historians repeat.
My verse may perish, but Time cannot cheat
Wagram of that pale from against the light.
…'Tis not Legend always that deceives.
A dream is truer far than yellowed leaves.
Sleep. You were Youth. You were Napoleon's son.21
As for the dramatic construction of The Eaglet, like The Woman of Samaria, its acts are really tableaus, and each is evocative of the eagle symbol. The entire work may be considered as a sequence of events rather than the evolution of a character. The principal setting is nineteenth-century Austria in the Palace of Schoenburnn, at the Court of the Archduke, Francis I. The first act, or prologue, entitled "Fledgling Wings," is set in Maria Luisa's villa in Baden, near Vienna, where everything French is interdicted. A conversation between Metternich and Frederick of Gentz reveals Fouché's intentions of proclaiming the Duke of Reichstadt Napoleon the Second. Metternich is unperturbed by the report, confident that Maria Luisa will prevent the infiltration of the news and the hatching of any plots that might upset her ingenuous tranquillity. At most she has smuggled in a French tailor and a modiste for herself and her son. Against a backdrop of music, entertainment, and festivities are heard conversations with political undertones. A loud cry of "Long live Napoleon!" brings panic to the villa, which is quickly controlled by Metternich. The friends of the Duke of Reichstadt beg him to return to France as Emperor of the French, but he does not feel up to the task and asks for "three hundred sleepless nights" in order to prepare himself. The Duke's tutors arrive on the scene for the daily Austrian history lesson, which Franz boldly and deftly turns into an apotheosis of his father to the consternation and mystification of his teachers, who have censored all of their pupil's reading matter. Maria Luisa appears on the scene; Franz, in a fit of rebellion, rejects his mother's heritage and claims the blood of only a Corsican lieutenant in his veins. But he immediately becomes tender once again and hurries his superbly clad mother off to the dance, begging her to forget and forgive his frenzy and delirium. Frederick of Gentz leads a closely veiled woman into the Duke's chamber: it is the dancer, Fanny Elssler, who, in Franz's arms, recites memorized details of the Imperial Guard's heroic acts, for she is the source of the imprisoned Eaglet's knowledge of Napoleonic history.
In the second act—"Fluttering Wings"—a year has elapsed. The Duke has established his work room in the palace chamber used by Napoleon the First when—twice—he occupied Schoenbrunn. Franz's close friend, the Chevalier of Prokesch-Osten, has been brought to the palace, thanks to the influence of the Archduchess, Franz's aunt. The Duke laments that his partisans have forgotten him, but Prokesch encourages him to make preparations for his return to France. Marshal Marmont, Napoleon's faithful soldier, Seraphin Flambeau, and the Countess Camerata, Franz's cousin, are all plotting together for Napoleon II's triumphal re-entry into Paris.
The third act is entitled "Spreading Wings;" in it, hopes are raised mat the Duke of Reichstadt will find the strength to flee Austria. The Emperor Franz is giving audiences to the citizens attired in their Bohemian, Tyrolean, and other national costumes, waiting to present their petitions before the throne. A shepherd enveloped in a great mantle presents his paper to the Emperor:
A shepherd of Tyrol,
Orphaned, despoiled and driven from his home
By ancient enemies, desires to come
Back to its woods, its skies …
And to his father's land.
The Chamberlain asks the name of the shepherd, who stands erect and shouts: "The Duke of Reichstadt, and his land is France!"22 His grandfather rebukes him, but then the two begin to reminisce about times past and their deep love for each other. Franz begs his grandfather to give in to his whims once more and allow him to go to Paris, so mat he will be able to claim: "This is my grandson, Emperor of France!" The Emperor agrees, and they joyfully embrace, but Metternich appears to thwart their dream. Grandfather and grandson separate like children caught in mischief. The Emperor informs Metternich that he wishes Franz to reign; Metternich accepts on the condition that liberty be muzzled in France and that Napoleon II reign as an Austrian puppet. The Emperor Franz and Metternich fall into agreement, whereupon the Duke of Reichstadt recoils from them in horror. That evening, he sets the signal for the plotters: one of his father's little black hats, placed on the half-open map of Europe. Flambeau stands guard at the Duke's door. Metternich enters, does not see Flambeau in the shadows, and begins to address the hat in a tirade that gives way to an outburst of pure malevolence against Napoleon.
Flambeau steps into the moonlight and stands motionless in the classic pose of a grenadier. Metternich recoils and rubs his eyes, thinking he is having an hallucination. Flambeau pretends mat the year is 1809 and the French are quartered in Schoenbrunn; Metternich puts his finger into the flame of one of the candles to test whether he is dreaming. Flambeau plays his part superbly, but when the Duke's chamber door opens and Flambeau proclaims in a sonorous voice: "Emperor Napoleon!" there is seen on the threshold the trembling form of a poor child in a white nightgown, slender and coughing—and Metternich recovers his composure. The Austrian Chancellor flings insults at Franz—"you have the little hat, but not the head"—and succeeds in convincing him of his inherent weakness. Cruelly evoking his ill-fated forebears, Metternich breaks Franz's pride and determination, and at the end of the act, the Duke falls to the ground, a lamentable white heap whose little strength has failed him.
In the fourth act—"Braised Wings"—the curtain rises on a masquerade ball in the Park of Schoenbrunn. From behind their dominoes, Metternich and Sedlinsky, the prefect of police, discuss the plot which they expect the conspirators to execute during the evening. Metternich has no fear, because he is certain that Franz will remain in hiding and avoid the ball because his pride has been hurt. The Duke does, however, appear at the ball with his friend, Prokesch, but clearly trailing braised wings. He agonizes over the fact that all his race has had its vein of madness and that he is foredoomed to shadows and despair. Accidentally observing an intimacy between his mother and the Count of Bombelles, Franz is suddenly filled with an upsurge of filial love for Napoleon. He seizes the Count by the throat and flings him to the ground. The gesture saves him from despondency and allows him to face Metternich once again with pride and insolence. Plans are laid for his escape to the Field of Wagram and his subsequent triumphal entry into Paris.
The fifth act—"Broken Wings"—opens with Franz's exultant words: his soul has become vast, he anxiously awaits the sight of his throne, and he already relishes his power. The conspirators gather around him; the Eaglet's foot is in the stirrup ready for the flight. At this moment, however, he is warned that the life of his cousin, the Countess Camerata, who has been posing as the Duke because of their close resemblance, is imperilled. The Duke insists on going to her aid—and his hesitation loses the conspirators' cause. Flambeau stabs himself and lies dying on the Field of Wagram "among the slain, / First for the father,—this time for me Son."23 The Duke urgently and vividly re-creates Napoleon's battle in order to bring back a cherished and glorious past. Flambeau's last moments are peaceful, for his death comes in me midst of an illusion of victory. The Duke, himself transported by the fantasy he created for Flambeau, is finally brought back to reality by me approach of his Austrian regiment. Like an automaton, he leads the soldiers, giving his orders in the voice of an Austrian officer.
The sixth act (epilogue), entitled "Folded Wings," is set at Schoenbrunn in the Duke's bedchamber. In the feverish disorder of the sick room stands out a small bronze statue of Napoleon the First. The Archduchess, with forced gaiety, visits the horribly wasted Duke who, the Doctor informs her, "takes his milk well." The compliment offends the dying Franz, who "had burned for endless fame, / To shine with warriors, heroes of that ilk," and is "praised for the way in which one takes one's milk!"24 The Archduchess succeeds in persuading Franz to observe court custom by attending Mass together and taking the sacrament. The Imperial Family looks on unobserved during the elevation of the host, and in the moment of profound emotion and perfect silence, even Metternich is touched by the nobility of the dying Eaglet. In a low, deep whisper, Metternich says: "… Oh he was a gallant prince! / … Not only to the Lamb of God I kneel."25 When Franz becomes aware of the room full of people observing him, with calm and supreme majesty he bids his "Austrian family" to leave him, quoting to them the words from the Memorial of Saint Helena:
"My son is born a French prince. Let him be
A French prince unto death." Be it known
That I obey. Farewell.26
The great vermilion cradle of the King of Rome is brought into the chamber and placed beside the bed of the Duke, who puts his hand between the cradle and the bed, uttering the deeply moving lines:
My life lies in that space.
… And Fate has shed
In that dark, narrow space that holds my story,
No single ray of all that blaze of glory!27
Franz requests that French folk songs be sung to him and that the story of the proclamation of the King of Rome be read to him as he dies. The Duke's head falls forward; his last two words are: "Mama!" and "Napoleon."
In a drama of this type, interest centers on the possible actions to be carried out and on the sequence of events—not on the character of the Duke nor on that of Metternich, which are pre-established from the outset. The figure of Seraphin Flambeau is a memorable one, but his principal raison d'être is just to keep the play moving. He is a zealous, active soldier, whose energy is lacking in the Duke's own temperament. Franz finds inspiration in Flambeau and thereby nourishes his own hallucinations. The Eaglet is the narrative of a young man locked in struggle with his dreams of grandeur and with his sick body and vacillating temperament, in a hostile, foreign environment which is tragically indifferent to his struggle. Austrian indifference during his lifetime was matched by French indifference to the return of his remains in 1940. The Duke of Reichstadt never made his mark in the world; shadows and obscurity were his destiny, as he himself was able to predict.
Franz, Duke of Reichstadt, is a new Hamlet, but without the philosophy—the philosophy of gloom—of his predecessor.
He is possessed of a double heritage: in his veins runs the blood of Bonaparte and the blood of old Austria. He is a Bonaparte with blond hair: "I've something blonde within that frightens me."28 He has the nervous, sickly temperament of his mother. He is "too princely;" he never smiles; he is "blonde like Saint George;" "he seems not to be alive." On his own confessions, he is nothing but "a remembrance within a phantom." He is a Romantic hero, like Chatterton, and the weak side of his nature is revealed in a hundred ways. He is as excitable as a child when, for example, he finds the set of painted wooden soldiers; his Tyrol shepherd disguise, donned in order to request help from his grandfather, is nothing but a childish game. He seems to be playing a puerile role even on his deathbed, when he allows his imagination to depict his own funeral ceremony. This weak, Romantic hero, however, erupts with energy in a sort of burst of wrath (for example, when he declares himself to be a "living Wagram"), but these flings are of short duration and produce no concrete results. The most dramatic of them is the one in which he throws himself in fury against the Count of Bombelles, who has lightly kissed the shoulder of his mother. Franz recoils, astonished by his own act, and passes his hand over his brow, saying: "It was not I who laid that braggart low. / The Corsican leapt out and dealt the blow!"29 Ultimately, Franz realizes that his zeal takes shape only in his dreams; it fades whenever he attempts to put it into action. His dreams are grandiose and heroic, but his own soul inspires loss of faith in himself, and he lives with an inferiority complex. The Duke of Reichstadt created by Rostand has no heroic qualities and he knows that posterity will create a distorted image of him:
When History tells the story of my life,
No one will see my dreams, fierce, stormy, wild, …
They will see a go-cart, and a solemn child,
A child not even crying for the moon,
Holding the globe—but as a toy balloon!30
In The Woman of Samaria, Jesus was passionate and at the same time his life, his goodness, his perfection, and all his divinity permitted him to produce miracles. In The Princess Far Away, Joffroy Rudel and Bertrand were courageous, and they were also poets. Cyrano was a swordsman, a poet, and stronger than those who envied him. The Duke, however, is nothing but the son of Napoleon. He is a dying soul possessed of a grandiose dream, a figure whose action is entirely inner, whereas the actions of those who have created their own life make themselves felt beyond their inner life. The action of the drama does not develop as an outgrowth of the Duke's behavior; he acts only when everything has been prepared for him by others. Once, in the middle of the drama, he thinks he has the power to act, but in desperation renounces his grandiose dreams to become nothing but a Don Juan. He discovers that he can have power over women only. The psychological study of the Eaglet is excellent, but the manner of presentation spoils the effect and produces an atmosphere of melodrama. Eloquent flings are followed by hesitation and inactivity; a lively hope is followed by a premature death. The Eaglet could not take flight toward France, the country of his Ideal. He dies, and nothing remains of his effort. Doubtless, the figure of the Duke was symbolic of the wave of feeling that swept Europe around 1830. It was an era of sentiment rather than of reason, of dream rather than of action, of timid veneration rather than of heroic admiration, of tragedy rather than of triumph. For this reason, it is difficult to distinguish clearly between the historic Duke and the legendary one. The deeply Romantic poets of the period saw in him the worthy son of Napoleon, whose energy and strong will clashed against the walls of his prison. They made of him a legendary martyr, a symbol of their own feeling of limitation in the face of hard reality. In this climate, the historian's objectivity was lost.
The two characters who arouse the most interest through their often melodramatic actions are Prince Metternich and Seraphin Flambeau. Metternich maintains close surveil-lance over the Duke, who is "not-a-prisoner-but" just let him try "[t]o speak behind closed doors with no one near, / That mushroom there would sprout a listening ear."31 At night, Mettermeli penetrates into every corner of the castle, letting himself into every room with his pass-key; he is the spy who spies on the spies. From time to time, he demonstrates the quasi-diabolic skill of the old diplomat. To emphasize his non-heroic aspect, Rostand has created two scenes in the third act that deserve mention: one is the scene in which Mettermeli pronounces his long tirade over Napoleon's little hat. As he speaks, his hatred for Napoleon's greatness and virtue mount to the point where he loses his usual self-possession and takes the apparition of the grenadier (Flambeau in soldier's costume) for reality, believing he has gone back twenty years in time. The other scene is the one in which he attempts to break the pride of "this terrible child." All his capacity for cructly and evil is revealed. Mettermeli is cold, diabolically clever, deprived of any dream or illusion. He is the personification of harsh, earthly logic, and he thereby constitutes the main obstacle in the path of the chimerical Duke.
Seraphin Flambeau, defender of the oppressed, as excessively and outrageously faithful to the son of Napoleon as he had been to the father, is perhaps the most captivating of the secondary characters in the play. It is he who exhorts the Duke to return to France, where youth will rally to him singing Béranger's songs. Admirably courageous, a conspirator in love with liberty and with his country, Flambeau has suffered privation and anguish in his desire for glory and for service to the "little corporal." Full of heroism, condemned to death a thousand times in contempt of court, he has the great defect of "always doing a little more than is necessary." He echoes Cyrano of Bergerac, fighting with a rose in his ear. Certainly, Flambeau is more brusque and less poetic than Cyrano, and he is not a hero who lives in and shapes the present in the mold he desires. Flambeau lives in the glorious past of great victories and tragic sufferings. The spirit of Cyrano is most visible in the scene at the door of the Duke's chamber: donned in his old grenadier's uniform, he forgets that it is not Napoleon the great who is sleeping on the other side of the closed door, until he is taken by surprise by Mettermeli. Flambeau's lyricism is real, however, while that of Cyrano is slightly willfully excessive. Cyrano, in other words, consciously seeks the recherché, whereas Flambeau does not.
The strong contrast between the spirit of Flambeau and that of the Duke appears clearly in the sublime and unforgettable scene on the battlefield of Wagram. After the failure of the conspiracy, Flambeau lies dying, a victim of his own hand, while the Duke urgently tries to recall the past by relating the progress of Napoleon's battle:
The Duke: We are at Wagram. Just before you fell
Davoust's division crumpled Neusiedel.
The Emperor with field glasses watches all
You got a bayonet thrust. I saw you fall
And bore you to this slope.…
Flambeau: (struggling): I am choking! Water! …
Can … you … see
The … Emperor?The Duke: He moves his hand.Flambeau: (closing his eyes, peacefully): A victory!32
The Duke's auto-suggestion is a really poetic creation. He produces an illusion in which Flambeau can die with confidence. This is the grand finale to the inglorious catastrophe of the Eaglet and to the illusory life of Franz who, later, on his own deathbed, creates a moving and admirable scene, playing games on the threshold of death in a style worthy of Cyrano's panache.
As with all of Rostand's plays, the reader is left with a feeling of insufficient psychological development of the characters. The author's genius reveals itself rather in the memorable pictures that capture a state of being or a particular gesture. Rostand is, above all, a love poet; in The Eaglet, he was constrained to put love on a secondary level. Even though love is always very close to an inner, sentimental dream, Rostand nevertheless uses it to accentuate the weakness and uselessness in the character of the Duke. The Eaglet is loved by the devoted Thérèse of Lorget; by his mother, Maria Luisa (who does not understand her son's anguish and who instead amuses herself by listening to light chit-chat at the palace balls); by the carefree dancer, Fanny Elssler; he is loved, indeed, by all women, except the Countess Camerata, an exceptional figure who assumes the proportions of a Cornelian heroine. About her, the Tailor says:
She who delights to seem untamed and wild,
Unarmoured Amazon whose proud young face
Is living seal of her exalted race;
Fences; breaks thoroughbreds; dares anything.33
The Countess Camerata attempts to incite the Eaglet to action. The moment he vacillates, she cries out:
… Be gone! Ah me,
Sir, if your Father were but here to see
This sickly lad who wavers, doubts and frets
How you would make him shrug his epaulettes!34
In conclusion, I would say that Rostand's The Eaglet is a defective masterpiece. There are too many elements of preciosity in it, too many details and excessive refinements that are not essential: the dominoes at the ball, Legions of Honor, overabundant verses on Napoleon's tricolor and star, etc. There are too many disguises: Flambeau is disguised as an Austrian spy or as Neptune; the Eaglet as a Tyrolean shepherd in order to hand his petition to the Austrian Emperor; the Countess as the Duke, etc. There are too many Romantic antitheses in the pale, sickly child who makes his appearance on the scene at the height of the dramatic moment when Metternich expects Napoleon to emerge from the bedchamber. There are too many superfluous literary allusions, weighed down with alliterations, as, for example:
Each breeze brings in a branch; with every breath
—Oh miracle to madden a Macbeth!—
Not only does the forest march to me,
It swiftly dances in its ecstasy!
Borne on this sweet wind, lo, the forest flies!35
On the other hand, and despite certain passages in which the dialogue is too concise, The Eaglet contains the great qualities of Rostand's art: lyricism and sincerity. It is a new lyricism, neither affected nor Romantic, but rather sentimental—as it should be in a Court whose atmosphere of music, color, languor and love, so well rendered by Rostand, serves to obfuscate any heroic idealism and zeal. Nevertheless, even if it is sometimes over-sentimental, the feeling of sincerity that prevades such lyricism is inescapable.
The Eaglet has great dreams, noble sentiments, lofty aspirations, and dares to defy the Austrian eagle with grandiose concepts:
O eagle black,
Two-headed bird with cruel, weary sight,
O Austrian eagle, world-worn bird of night,
An Eagle of the day swept through your path,
And,—fluttering wildly in your fear and wrath,—
Not daring to believe, bird black and old,
You see one eaglet sprouting wings of gold!36
In the end, however, when everything slides away before his eyes that are closing in death, he returns to the earthy solidity of the old French popular songs. There is no progression of interest in the play, as has already been stated, but Rostand's intention must not be lost sight of: he wished to paint the portrait of a poor child who wanted to outdo himself, a wistful child who would have liked to make history but lived with his face pressed against the glass of the palace of Schoenbrunn. The inner energy of Napoleon's son flowed forth in a personal lyricism. His aspirations were grandiose and sentimental but completely sincere and colored by that fervor of youth that made the heart of every Frenchman palpitate. All of France became mother to that poor child, the Duke of Reichstadt.
1An interesting case of identification and empathy with the wounded Christian of Neuvillette is analyzed in C. G. Jung, Symbols of Transformation. An Analysis of the Prelude to a Case of Schizophrenia (New York, 1956), pp. 34 ff., which includes Jung's interpretation of the character of Cyrano. At the moment when Christian is killed and Sarah Bernhardt throws herself upon him to stanch the bleeding of his wound, Jung's patient felt a real, piercing pain in her own breast, just where Christian was supposed to have received the blow. But the tragic intermezzo with Christian is played against a background of far wider significance, namely Cyrano's unrequited love for Roxane. According to Jung, the identification with Christian is probably only a cover.
2Plays of Edmond Rostand, translated by Henderson D. Norman (New York, 1921), Cyrano of Bergerac, V, 6, p. 360.
3Elly Katz, L'Esprit français dans le théâtre d'Edmond Rostand (Toulouse, 1934), p. 59.
4Rosemonde Gérard, Edmond Rostand (Paris, 1935), pp. 10-12.
5Norman, op. cit., Cyrano of Bergerac, p. 209.
6Ibid., I, 4, pp. 233-35.
7lbid., m, 11, pp. 303, 304, 305, 306-07.
8lbid., I, 5, p. 241.
9Ibid, III, 6, p. 295.
10Ibid., V, 5, p. 352.
11lbid., V, 6, p. 357.
12Ibid., IV, 8, p. 334.
13Ibid., V, 6, p. 358.
14Ibid., V, 2, p. 347.
15"Patricia Williams, "Some Classical Aspects of Cyrano de Bergerac," XIX Century French Studies, I, 2 (Winter 1973), 116.
16T. S. Eliot, Selected Essays 1917 - 1932 (New York, 1932), pp. 25, 28, 29.
17"Maria Luisa Rizzatti, "L'Aiglon: mito e verità," Storia Illustrata, XII, 123 (Feb. 3, 1968), 99.
18Ibid., 96 - 106.
19Emile Ripert, Edmond Rostand (Paris, 1968), p. 115.
20Norman, op. cit., dedication preceding The Eaglet.
21Norman, op. cit., p. 204.
22Ibid., The Eaglet, III, 1, p. 89.
23Ibid., V, 5, p. 180.
24Ibid., VI, 1, p. 191.
25Ibid., VI, 2, p. 194.
26Ibid., VI, 3, p. 196.
27Ibid., VI, 3, p. 198.
28Ibid., I, 13, p. 45.
29Ibid., IV, 7, p. 137.
30Ibid., VI, 3, p. 197.
31Ibid., II, 2, p. 55.
32Ibid., V, 5, pp. 181-82.
33Ibid., I, 9, p. 32.
34Ibid., V, 3, p. 175.
35Ibid. , I, 13, p. 45.
36Ibid., III, 3, p. 97.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 23984
T. S. Eliot (essay date 1920)
SOURCE: "'Rhetoric' and Poetic Drama," in The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism, Methuen & Co., 1920, pp. 78-85.
[In the following essay, Eliot declares that "in the particular case of Cyrano on Noses, the character, the situation, the occasion were perfectly suited and combined. The tirade generated by this combination is not only genuinely and highly dramatic: it is possibly poetry also."]
The death of Rostand is the disappearance of the poet whom, more than any other in France, we treated as the exponent of "rhetoric," thinking of rhetoric as something recently out of fashion. And as we find ourselves looking back rather tenderly upon the author of Cyrano we wonder what this vice or quality is that is associated as plainly with Rostand's merits as with his defects. His rhetoric, at least, suited him at times so well, and so much better than it suited a much greater poet, Baudelaire, who is at times as rhetorical as Rostand. And we begin to suspect that the word is merely a vague term of abuse for any style that is bad, that is so evidently bad or second-rate that we do not recognize the necessity for greater precision in the phrases we apply to it.
Our own Elizabethan and Jacobean poetry—in so nice a problem it is much safer to stick to one's own language—is repeatedly called "rhetorical." It had this and that notable quality, but, when we wish to admit that it had defects, it is rhetorical. It had serious defects, even gross faults, but we cannot be considered to have erased them from our language when we are so unclear in our perception of what they are. The fact is that both Elizabethan prose and Elizabethan poetry are written in a variety of styles with a variety of vices. Is the style of Lyly, is Euphuism, rhetorical? In contrast to the elder style of Ascham and Elyot which it assaults, it is a clear, flowing, orderly and relatively pure style, with a systematic if monotonous formula of antitheses and similes. Is the style of Nashe? A tumid, flatulent, vigorous style very different from Lyly's. Or it is perhaps the strained and the mixed figures of speech in which Shakespeare indulged himself. Or it is perhaps the careful declamation of Jonson. The word simply cannot be used as synonymous with bad writing. The meanings which it has been obliged to shoulder have been mostly opprobrious; but if a precise meaning can be found for it this meaning may occasionally represent a virtue. It is one of those words which it is the business of criticism to dissect and reassemble. Let us avoid the assumption that rhetoric is a vice of manner, and endeavour to find a rhetoric of substance also, which is right because it issues from what it has to express.
At the present time there is a manifest preference for the "conversational" in poetry—the style of "direct speech," opposed to the "oratorical" and the rhetorical; but if rhetoric is any convention of writing inappropriately applied, this conversational style can and does become a rhetoric—or what is supposed to be a conversational style, for it is often as remote from polite discourse as well could be. Much of the second and third rate in American vers libre is of this sort; and much of the second and third rate in English Wordsworthianism. There is in fact no conversational or other form which can be applied indiscriminately; if a writer wishes to give the effect of speech he must positively give the effect of himself talking in his own person or in one of his rôles; and if we are to express ourselves, our variety of thoughts and feelings, on a variety of subjects with inevitable lightness, we must adapt our manner to the moment with infinite variations. Examination of the development of Elizabethan drama shows this progress in adaptation, a development from monotony to variety, a progressive refinement in the perception of the variations of feeling, and a progressive elaboration of the means of expressing these variations. This drama is admitted to have grown away from the rhetorical expression, the bombast speeches, of Kyd and Marlowe to the subtle and dispersed utterance of Shakespeare and Webster. But this apparent abandonment or outgrowth of rhetoric is two things: it is partly an improvement in language and it is partly progressive variation in feeling. There is, of course, a long distance separating the furibund fluency of old Hieronimo and the broken words of Lear. There is also a difference between the famous
Oh eyes no eyes, but fountains full of tears!
Oh life no life, but lively form of death!
and the superb "additions to Hieronimo."1
We think of Shakespeare perhaps as the dramatist who concentrates everything into a sentence, "Pray you undo this button," or "Honest honest Iago"; we forget that there is a rhetoric proper to Shakespeare at his best period which is quite free from the genuine Shakespearean vices either of the early period or the late. These passages are comparable to the best bombast of Kyd or Marlowe, with a greater command of language and a greater control of the emotion. The Spanish Tragedy is bombastic when it descends to language which was only the trick of its age; Tamburlaine is bombastic because it is monotonous, inflexible to the alterations of emotion. The really fine rhetoric of Shakespeare occurs in situations where a character in the play sees himself in a dramatic light:
Othello. And say, besides,—that in Aleppo once …
Coriolanus. If you have writ your annals
true, 'tis there,
That like an eagle in a dovecote, I
Fluttered your Volscians in Corioli.
Alone I did it. Boy!
Timon. Come not to me again; but say to Athens,
Timon hath made his everlasting mansion
Upon the beachèd verge of the salt flood …
It occurs also once in Antony and Cleopatra, when Enobarbus is inspired to see Cleopatra in this dramatic light:
The barge she sat in …
Shakespeare made fun of Marston, and Jonson made fun of Kyd. But in Marston's play the words were expressive of nothing; and Jonson was criticizing the feeble and conceited language, not the emotion, not the "oratory." Jonson is as oratorical himself, and the moments when his oratory succeeds are, I believe, the moments that conform to our formula. Notably the speech of Sylla's ghost in the induction to Catiline, and the speech of Envy at the beginning of The Poetaster. These two figures are contemplating their own dramatic importance, and quite properly. But in the Senate speeches in Catiline, how tedious, how dusty! Here we are spectators not of a play of characters, but of a play of forensic, exactly as if we had been forced to attend the sitting itself. A speech in a play should never appear to be intended to move us as it might conceivably move other characters in the play, for it is essential that we should preserve our position of spectators, and observe always from the outside though with complete understanding. The scene in Julius Cœsar is right because the object of our attention is not the speech of Antony (Bedeutung) but the effect of his speech upon the mob, and Antony's intention, his preparation and consciousness of the effect. And in the rhetorical speeches from Shakespeare which have been cited, we have this necessary advantage of a new clue to the character, in noting the angle from which he views himself. But when a character in a play makes a direct appeal to us, we are either the victims of our own sentiment, or we are in the presence of a vicious rhetoric.
These references ought to supply some evidence of the propriety of Cyrano on Noses. Is not Cyrano exactly in this position of contemplating himself as a romantic, a dramatic figure? This dramatic sense on the part of the characters themselves is rare in modern drama. In sentimental drama it appears in a degraded form, when we are evidently intended to accept the character's sentimental interpretation of himself. In plays of realism we often find parts which are never allowed to be consciously dramatic, for fear, perhaps, of their appearing less real. But in actual life, in many of those situations in actual life which we enjoy consciously and keenly, we are at times aware of ourselves in this way, and mese moments are of very great usefulness to dramatic verse. A very small part of acting is mat which takes place on the stage! Rostand had—whether he had anything else or not—this dramatic sense, and it is what gives life to Cyrano. It is a sense which is almost a sense of humour (for when anyone is conscious of himself as acting, something like a sense of humour is present). It gives Rostand's characters—Cyrano at least—a gusto which is uncommon on the modern stage. No doubt Rostand's people play up to this too steadily. We recognize that in the love scenes of Cyrano in the garden, for in Romeo and Juliet the profounder dramatist shows his lovers melting into incoherent unconsciousness of their isolated selves, shows the human soul in the process of forgetting itself. Rostand could not do that; but in the particular case of Cyrano on Noses, the character, the situation, the occasion were perfectly suited and combined. The tirade generated by mis combination is not only genuinely and highly dramatic: it is possibly poetry also. If a writer is incapable of composing such a scene as this, so much the worse for his poetic drama.
Cyrano satisfies, as far as scenes like this can satisfy, the requirements of poetic drama. It must take genuine and substantial human emotions, such emotions as observation can confirm, typical emotions, and give them artistic form; the degree of abstraction is a question for the method of each author. In Shakespeare the form is determined in the unity of the whole, as well as single scenes; it is something to attain this unity, as Rostand does, in scenes if not the whole play. Not only as a dramatist, but as a poet, he is superior to Maeterlinck, whose drama, in failing to be dramatic, fails also to be poetic. Maeterlinck has a literary perception of the dramatic and a literary perception of the poetic, and he joins the two; the two are not, as sometimes they are in the work of Rostand, fused. His characters take no conscious delight in their rôle—they are sentimental. With Rostand the centre of gravity is in the expression of the emotion, not as with Maeterlinck in the emotion which cannot be expressed. Some writers appear to believe that emotions gain in intensity through being inarticulate. Perhaps the emotions are not significant enough to endure full daylight.
In any case, we may take our choice: we may apply the term "rhetoric" to the type of dramatic speech which I have instanced, and then we must admit that it covers good as well as bad. Or we may choose to except this type of speech from rhetoric. In that case we must say that rhetoric is any adornment or inflation of speech which is not done for a particular effect but for a general impressiveness. And in this case, too, we cannot allow the term to cover all bad writing.
1Of the authorship it can only be said that the lines are by some admirer of Marlowe. This might well be Jonson.
Clarence D. Brenner (essay date 1949)
SOURCE: "Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac: An Interpretation," in Studies in Philology, Vol. XLVI, No. 4, October 1949, pp. 603-11.
[In this essay, Brenner examines Cyrano's similarities to traditional French Romantic heroes.]
Edmond Rostand is said to have become interested in Cyrano de Bergerac in the days of his youth because Cyrano represented a type, le raté, which had a great appeal for him.1 When years later he wanted to compose a play for his friend Coquelin, the life of Cyrano readily suggested itself to him as a subject ideally suited to the talents of that famous actor. The principal traits of character of the hero of his play, as well as most of his accomplishments and exploits, Rostand took from the life of the real Cyrano. He elaborated each of these traits in varying degree by bringing his magnificent imagination to bear on them, and he gave particular emphasis to several which embodied his own ideals. Indeed it is probably true that fundamentally the Cyrano of the play represents to a considerable extent the author himself, the author as he would have liked to be,2 a fact which must account in part for the remarkable vitality of this dramatic hero. But, in our opinion at least, there is another interesting aspect to this hero: as Rostand gave thought to the portrayal of this character he became aware of the similarity of some of the experiences and some of the traits of his Cyrano with those of certain well-known Romantic heroes of French literature. This gave him the happy idea of associating these heroes with his. He accomplishes this evocation in various ways, as we shall see, and for a very good reason he makes it quite patent. Critics of Rostand, upon seeing or reading his play, have been reminded of one or more of the French Romantic heroes whom I shall presently designate. In no case, so far as I can determine, have they taken the trouble really to verify the validity of their impressions. This attitude is characteristic of nearly all the published criticism of Rostand: it has been to a large degree impressionistic.3
It is my purpose to attempt to demonstrate how Rostand evokes through his Cyrano certain French Romantic heroes of the past, and then to indicate another, but closely related, method that he uses to link his play, and perhaps himself, with the works of the great Romantic writers of his country.
Who then are the Romantic heroes that Rostand would have us associate with Cyrano? If we take them more or less chronologically, the first to present himself is Figaro. Be it said at once that the echo of Figaro in Cyrano is less apparent than that of the other heroes we shall mention. But it is there and can be detected by those who know both these characters well. Parallels between the two can be easily drawn. Like Cyrano, Figaro has the wonderful self-confidence, the ready wit, and the resourcefulness which enable him to recover his composure quickly in the presence of adversity and to be "partout supérieur aux événements."4 His description of himself as an "orateur selon le danger, poète par délassement, musicien par occasion,"5 would fit Cyrano too. These are obvious similarities. There is no point in attaching more importance to them than that. Where one, if he has a good ear and a good memory, hears echoes of Figaro is in the manner in which Cyrano expresses himself at times.6 When he allows himself to become sentimental for a moment, as in the speech beginning
Regarde-moi, mon cher, et dis quelle espérance
Pourrait bien me laisser cette protubérance!
(Act I, sc. 5)
we can detect something of Figaro expressing himself in similar vein in his well-known soliloquy. In certain scenes that present a battle of wits, such as the one with De Guiche in the Second Act, we can hear Figaro far away sparring with the Count, as in the scene containing the tirade on god-dam.7 One could cite Cyrano's "non merci" speech with the same intent.8 Figaro is certainly one of the ancestors of Rostand's Cyrano; they belong to the same family of heroes, of this fact there can be do doubt.
We next consider one of the characters created by Victor Hugo, namely Don César de Bazan of Ruy Blas. Several critics have stated that Cyrano has reminded them of Don César, but they have not told us why. Since Hugo more than anyone else is Rostand's model for the form and substance of his comedies, it is not surprising to find Don César, more than any other character the model for Cyrano,9 especially the Don César of the famous Fourth Act. A careful reading of Ruy Blas will reveal that Don César has a great deal in common with Cyrano.
We find he is a poet:
"Je marchais en faisant des vers sous les arcades"
"Quoi. l'on vous traite ainsi, beautés àl'œil mutin,
A qui je dis le soir mes sonnets du matin."
He is a brave and reckless swordsman, he loves duels:
"Mon épée est àvous, je deviens votre esclave,
Et, si cela vous plaÎt, j'irai croiser le fer
Avec don Spavento, capitan de l'enfer."
"Quand je tiens un bon duel, je ne le lâche pas!"
He is gallant:
"Œeil pour œil, dent pour dent, c'est bien!
hommes contre hommes!
Mais doucement détruire une femme! et creuser
Sous ses pieds une trappe! et contre elle abuser,
Qui sait? de son humeur peut-être hasardeuse!
J'aimerais mieux, plutôt, qu'être àce point infâme,
Vil, odieux, pervers, misérable et flétri,
Qu'un chien rongeât mon crâne au pied du pilori."
He is generous:
"Rien n'est plus gracieux et plus divertissant
Que des écus àsoi qu'on met en équilibre.
Frère, voici ta part."
It is the Don César of Act IV who offers the most striking parallel to Cyrano. There can be little doubt that when Rostand wrote the scene10 in which Cyrano pretends to fall from the moon he had before his mind this act of Ruy Blas in which Don César tumbles down the chimney. Note that the latter states, "J'habite dans la lune," and that Cyrano explains, "Je tombe de la lune." When Don César endeavors to conceal his identity from Don Guritan he employs the same elaborate and absurd hocus pocus that Cyrano uses to throw dust in the eyes of De Guiche:
"Je ne suis plus vivant, je n'ai plus rien d'humain,
Je suis un être absurde, un mort qui se réveille.
Un bœuf, un hidalgo de la Castille-Vieille.
On m'a volé ma plume, et j'ai perdu mes gants.
J'arrive des pays les plus extravagants."
Since the real Cyrano was the author of a Voyage dans la lune, it was a clever idea to have him pretend to be an inhabitant of that astral body,—and it is quite possible that Victor Hugo gave Rostand that idea.
There is one more French hero whom Rostand appears to wish us definitely to associate with Cyrano, namely, D'Artagnan of Dumas' Trois Mousquetaires. D'Artagnan too was a Gascon and Rostand makes him a member of the same regiment as Cyrano. As a swordsman and duellist he is without a peer in modern French literature prior to Rostand's hero. So it is a neat turn to have him identified as one of those who come forward and congratulate Cyrano after the latter's feat of coordinating perfectly the composition of a ballad and what we might call the "composition" of a duel.
Rostand was a friend and admirer of Théodore de Banville. Among Banville's heroes who have something in common with Cyrano we can think of Riquet à la Houppe who has a deformed body and a beautiful soul. A much closer resemblance is offered by Gringoire who is a poet, a farceur, is proud and independent even in the face of poverty, and has a tender and sympathetic side. We can see no evidence. however, of any effort on the part of Rostand to recall these characters of Banville's in a specific manner.
It requires no great effort to find other heroes in the world's literature who resemble Cyrano in type. One of these, for example, is Don Quixote. He has easily come to the mind of a number of critics and he is even mentioned in the play, but we can see in this latter fact nothing more than a reference that is quite appropriate to the occasion. In our opinion Rostand from his own soul breathed life into the skeleton of the original Cyrano and at the same time took occasion to make it evident that his Cyrano had something in common with certain French Romantic heroes. The resulting character not only incorporates Rostand's ideals,11 but he would seem to represent at the same time the ideal French Romantic hero, the last in line and the greatest of a family of such heroes. This second fact, we believe, has been generally overlooked.
Besides employing the character of Cyrano for the purpose, Rostand has taken the occasion in this play to pay his respects to his great French Romantic predecessors in another way. He has directly borrowed from them certain episodes or ideas. This he does openly so that "he who runs may read."
Taking our sources again in more or less chronological order, we find Beaumarchais once more heading the list. The episode in Act III, sc. 1, where Cyrano is obliged to have the theorbo players follow at his heels for a whole day as a result of losing a bet is almost certainly a reminiscence of the scene in Act III, sc. 22, of the Mariage de Figaro where Count Almaviva obliges Bazile to follow Grippe-Soleil about and sing to him to the accompaniment of his guitar.
As might be expected, it is Hugo who contributes more references of this type than any other Romantic author. Leon Herrmann would have us believe that Marion de Lorme is one of the principal models for Rostand's play.12 He makes much of the fact that the action of both plays takes place in Paris at almost exactly the same time in the seventeenth century and that Richelieu, though of some importance in both plots, is never seen upon the stage. There is no evidence, however, that these similarities are more than coincidental. There is one obvious borrowing from Marion de Lorme which others before Herrmann had noted. It is Cyrano's gazette in the last act.13 This gazette is imitated from the scene in Hugo's play14 where the Comte de Gassé, who arrives from Blois to join his regiment, is made by his comrades to relate the latest news from Paris.
Though Rostand is influenced by Hugo's dramaturgy and by his comic dialogue,15 no one play of Hugo's serves him exclusively as a model. He owes more to Ruy Blas, however, than to any other play. We have already shown that there is undoubtedly something of the character of Don César in the character of Cyrano. Without wishing to overstress the subtle problem of influences, we should like to point out certain interesting parallels between these two plays. Compare with Cyrano's dramatic first entrance in Act I the manner in which Ruy Blas enters the meeting of the king's private council and remains unobserved until he reveals his presence to the surprised courtiers at the psychological moment.16 On another occasion Ruy Blas brings the queen a message from the king. Then he faints from loss of blood from a concealed wound. The identical handwriting on the message dictated by the king and on the letter the queen has received reveal Ruy Blas as the queen's unknown lover.17 All this is very similar to the scene in the final act in which Roxane becomes aware of Cyrano's love. There are certain general similarities offered by the scenes between Don César and a duenna and between Cyrano and Roxane's duenna.18 In both cases the duenna arranges a rendez-vous. Finally it is barely possible that Rostand got his idea for Cyrano's panache from this play of Hugo's. For Hugo has the grandees of Spain wear a white plume in their hats as a symbol of their noble rank and of their pride in that rank. Ruy Blas, in the First Act (sc. 3), tells Don César that he would gladly sell his soul to be one of the young grandees he sees about, "la plume au feutre et l'orgueil sur le front!". A few minutes later he has his wish when Don Salluste, having just transformed him into the false Don César, claps such a hat on his head upon the approach of the queen to indicate that that he too is not to be distinguished from the other grandees present. Furthermore, Ruy Blas, at the height of his power and glory, enters the meeting of the king's private council "la plume blanche au chapeau."19
We have already indicated how Rostand associates certain attributes of Cyrano with those of D'Artagnan of Les Trois Mousquetaires. In addition, Christian's arrival to join the Cadets de Gascogne reminds us of young D'Artagnan's early experiences in the Guards.20 The siege of Arras recalls vaguely the siege of La Rochelle, as Dumas portrays it. It has been said that Cyrano's action in tying Roxane's handkerchief to a lance so that it may serve as a flag is based on the episode in which D'Artagnan and his friends use a napkin for a similar purpose during the occupation of the Bastion Saint-Gervais.21 Interesting though they are, it is impossible to make out a case of influence in either of the two parallels just cited.
Among the heroes of Alfred de Musset's plays there are none that approach the Cyrano type sufficiently to warrant any obvious association of them with the Cyrano of the play. However. Rostand at least pays passing homage to Musset in the First Act (sc. 3) where the pages, by means of a hook and a cord, snatch the wig off a "bourgeois" among the spectators assembling for the show in the Hôtel de Bourgogne. This idea is very probably taken from the scene in Fantasio22 where a page tells Elsbeth how someone by the same means removed the wig of the Prince of Mantua.
Théophile Gautier devotes one of the chapters of Les Grotesques to a very entertaining sketch of the real Cyrano de Bergerac. There can be almost no doubt that in the two scenes in which Cyrano's nose figures prominently23 Rostand is consciously imitating the imagination and the picturesque vocabulary that Gautier employs in describing that famous appendage. Indeed it is very possible that Gautier suggested not only the scene in which Cyrano describes his nose, but also the later one in which Christian twits him about it. We do not know the extent of the "researches" made by Rostand preparatory to writing his play, but we may at least make the passing observation that he could have found in Gautier's biographical sketch just about all the basic facts upon which his imagination built up the figure of Cyrano.
It is possible that we have not quite exhausted the list of borrowings from French Romantic literature to be found in Cyrano de Bergerac, but we have listed a sufficient number to make our point. The Romantic Period was one of the epochs that most fascinated Rostand. Obviously he had a first-hand acquaintance with the works of his Romantic predecessors. Whether he depended upon an unusually good memory or whether he had recently refreshed his knowledge is of no consequence. The fact to be noted is that his borrowings from these predecessors are so numerous and so widely distributed that they cannot have been made unconsciously. One must conclude that Rostand employed them knowingly and openly as a method of rendering homage to his illustrious literary forbears and as one way of linking his work directly with theirs and of placing his play in a direct line of descent, in a relationship also exhibited by his hero. Let us not forget at the same time that Rostand produced a very original play.
1Cp. Rosemond Gérard, Edmond Rostand (Paris, 1935), p. 8.
2"C'est avec la cire de son âme qu'il avait modelé celle de Cyrano. Ces fiertés excessives qui ne veulent rien devoir aux plus proches amis, ces générosités extrêmes qui ne se vengent des ennemis qu'en les écrasant de bienfaits, tout cela était passé tout naturellement du poète dans le héros." Ibid., p. 36.
3The most ambitious attempt at an objective consideration of Rostand, that of M. J. Premsela (Edmond Rostand, Amsterdam, 1933), reveals the author of the study to be temperamentally and culturally inadequate to do justice to his subject. Much of the impressionistic criticism is likewise vitiated for the first of these reasons.
4Barbier de Séville, Act II, sc. 3.
5Mariage de Figaro, Act V, sc. 3.
6An echo of this sort can be heard, for example, in the famous soliloquy in Hugo's Hernani (Act IV, sc. 2).
7Manage de Figaro, Act ITI, sc. 5.
8Act II, sc. 8.
9Of course the contrast between physical deformity and a beautiful soul can also be found in such well-known characters of Hugo as Triboulet and Quasimodo.
10Act m, sc. 9.
11Pierre Aspesteguy reports that his friend Rostand once said to him: "Je n'exalte en Cyrano que le monde des grandes vertus, la magnanimité, la grandeur d'âme dans le dévouement telle qu'elle doit être; je veux défendre les droits de l'esprit contre les privilèges: naissance, fortune, relations, et particulièrement les atouts de la beauté uniquement physique." La Vie profonde d'Edmond Rostand (Paris, 1929), p. 147.
12"Marion de Lorme et Cyrano de Bergerac," in Neophilologus, X, 2 (January, 1925), pp. 91-95.
13Act V, sc. 5.
14Act II, sc. 1.
15Much of what Don César says in Act IV of Ruy Blas, for example, could just as well come from the lips of Cyrano.
16Cp. especially the stage direction at the end of Scene 1, Act III. At the end of Act II, scene 2, of Hernani, Hugo introduces his hero in a sudden and dramatic manner that parallels Cyrano's entrance even more closely.
17"Act III, sc. 3.
18Ruy Blas, Act IV, sc. 4, and Cyrano de Bergerac, Act I, sc. 6. Dame Bérarde, the duenna in Le Roi S'Amuse, might also enter into this parallelism.
19"Stage direction at end of Scene 1, Act III.
20Cp. Les Trois Mousquetaires, Ch. V.
21Act IV, sc. 10. Les Trois Mousquetaires, Ch. XVI. Cp. H. Platow, Die Personen von Rostands "Cyrano de Bergerac" in der Geschichte und in der Dichtung, Erlangen, 1902, p. 67.
22The nose has figured quite extensively in literature. Rostand may also have had in mind here the description of the uses of the nose in one of Erasmus's Colloquia Familiaris entitled De Captandis Sacerdotis. The parallelism is rather close. English sources must be discounted. Cp. Coleman O. Parsons. "Remarks on English Nose Literature," in Notes and Queries, 165, 2-4 (1933).
23Note, for example, the following passage from Gautier's text: "Si quelqu'un avait le malheur de le regarder et montrait quelque étonnement de voir un nez pareil, vite il lui fallait aller sur le pré.—Et comme les duels de ce temps-là ne finissaient pas par des déjeuners et que Cyrano était un habile spadassin, on courait risque de recevoir quelque bon coup d'épée au ventre et le ramporter son pourpoint percé de plus de boutonnières qu'il n'en avait auparavant, ce qui fit qu'au bout de peu de temps tout le monde trouva la forme du nez de Cyrano excessivement convenable et que tout au plus quelque provincial non encore usagé s'avisait d'y trouver le mot àrire. Il n'est pas besoin d'ajouter que quelque bonne botte poussée àfond apprenait bientôt àvivre au plaisant si elle ne le tuait pas." Les Grotesques, nouv. éd., Paris, 1856, p. 183.
Louis Untermeyer (essay date 1954)
SOURCE: "A Foreword," in Cyrano de Bergerac: A Heroic Comedy in 5 Acts by Edmond Rostand, translated by Louis Untermeyer, The Heritage Press, 1954, pp. ix-xvii.
[In the following essay, Untermeyer discusses the genesis, development, and reception of Cyrano de Bergerac]
A real flesh-and-blood Cyrano won audiences long before Rostand rhymed him into dramatic immortality. The progenitor of the play's swaggering but self-sacrificing hero, the walking gargoyle, Savinien Cyrano de Bergerac, was born near Paris in 1619. He loved his family's Gascon background, and he hated the routine education to which he was subjected. Even as a youth his spirit was both creative and critical. The principal at the College of Beauvais was the target of his young but already dangerous scorn and, later, was caricatured in a comedy, Le Pédant Joué, "The Teacher Tricked." Nevertheless, it was at school that Cyrano formed his closest friendship, a companionship with Henri Le Bret, who became his lifelong mentor and, after Cyrano's death, his editor and biographer.
Once out of school and on the loose in Paris, Cyrano spent his time like any well-to-do seventeenth century blade. He roistered and duelled—anyone who looked twice at his gargantuan nose was likely to be challenged to mortal combat—grew contentious, and quarreled with his father and all his friends except Le Bret. When he got into serious trouble he joined the audacious Cadets, or Guardsmen, of Carbon de Castel-Jaloux, fought violently in Flanders, and, at twenty-one, was seriously wounded during the siege of Arras.
Shortly after 1640 he gave up soldiering and turned to literature. In an effort to curb his irascible temper he studied and even practiced philosophy. He became a playwright, and succeeded in serious drama as well as farce; the much applauded Death of Agrippina is said to have been his favorite. His speculative fantasy, A History of the Republic of the Sun, was a forerunner of the prophecies of Jules Verne and the science-fiction of our own day, and it is said that Swift got the idea for Gulliver's Travels from Bergerac's A Voyage to the Moon. (Both are available in translation.)
Death came to Cyrano in life as in the play. As he was returning home one evening, a heavy piece of wood fell from a window and struck him down; it was never discovered whether the blow was designed or an accident. However, differing from his finale in the play, Cyrano did not succumb immediately, but lived in great suffering for a year. He was just thirty-six when he died in 1655.
Two and a half centuries after his birth, Cyrano de Bergerac—somewhat idealized but still independent and even more pugnacious and paradoxical—began a new life. His resuscitator was, like himself, a French poet and playwright: Edmond Rostand, not yet turned thirty. Rostand had been a devoted reader of Bergerac and, when he determined to bring Cyrano to the stage, he found that the seventeenth century playwright had made his task fairly easy for him. Rostand took many of the incidents of Cyrano's life and historical references and embodied them in his play; the opening scene immediately projects the mood of an archaic, intriguing, rowdy Paris, diverted by rival coteries and excited by blustering gallantries. Many of Cyrano's actual associates were revived, or revised, and became Rostand's dramatis personae: his friend and editor Henri Le Bret; Lignière, a popular versifier and writer of sardonic epigrams; the doughty Carbon de Castel-Jaloux; the fat and affected actor, Montfleury, ridiculed by Molière; two other well-known actors, Bellerose and Jodelet; two of Cyrano's admirers, Cuigy and Brissaille; the suave Antoine, Count de Guiche, who married Richelieu's niece; and Christian (originally Christophe) de Champagne, Baron of Neuvillette, who (as in the play) died at the siege of Arras. History says nothing about Cyrano and Christian-Christopher being friends. Nor is it a fact that Cyrano was in love with his cousin, the intellectual little snob, Madeleine Robineau, the Roxane of Rostand's drama. The prototypes were there, but they needed the magic touch of Rostand's imagination to place them in dramatic relation to each other. Moreover, it needed the poet to communicate, as Rostand declared when he was elected to the French Academy at the age of thirty-four, "ecstasy by means of lyric poetry … the morality of beauty."
Cyrano de Bergerac was by no means Rostand's first play. Born in Marseilles in 1868, a product of the land of the troubadours, of Provençal song and dance, Edmond Rostand was fortunate. His family was wealthy; his father was a versifier, essayist, and translator of Catullus. The boy's natural inclination to literature was encouraged from the start. He won prizes at college and, as soon as he received his bachelor's degree, a sinecure was found for him in a bank. But none of the Rostands took the position seriously and soon Edmond devoted himself wholly to writing. At twenty-two he married a young actress-poet and published his first book. It was a volume of verse, Les Musardises, and, though it was wholly without originality, it contained a few suggestions of the facility which was to become its author's chief characteristic. At twenty-four a farce in one act, The Two Pierrots, was presented at the Comédie Française; it was a variation on the "Laugh, clown, laugh" theme and remained in the repertoire as a curtain-raiser. Two years later Rostand had his first triumph: a satirical fantasy, The Romancers, which was a financial as well as an artistic success and won him a prize of 5,000 francs. At twenty-seven, with Sarah Bernhardt in mind, he wrote The Faraway Princess. This was another fantasy, based on the legend of the Provençal poet, Jaufré Rudel, who had fallen in love with the Countess of Tripoli, whom he had never seen, and who traveled overseas to Syria to die in her arms. Bernhardt produced the play in her own theatre and was glamorous in the title role.
Browning had woven his own variations around the story in his "Rudel to the Lady of Tripoli"—it was the kind of rhapsodic, moon-mad play that every poet dreams of writing, and it turned Rostand from light satire to a consideration of serious subjects.
Meanwhile, the Dreyfus affair was rocking France, and Rostand did not remain aloof from the controversy. He sided staunchly with Zola, Proust, Anatole France, and others in defense of the victimized Jewish captain. Yet in the midst of the national upheaval, he managed to complete two plays. The first, produced in Holy Week in 1897, was The Woman of Samaria, a modern miracle play founded on the Gospel story of Jesus according to St. John. The second was Cyrano de Bergerac.
Cyrano was the high point of Rostand's career. Three more plays were still to come, three increasingly ambitious dramas of decreasing merit. The first was L Aiglon (The Eaglet) produced in 1900, a dramatized study of Napoleon's unhappy and consumptive young son. Not a completely convincing play, it had moments of true vision and deep pathos; the role of the tragic boy was acted in France by Sarah Bernhardt, in America even more touchingly by the frail Maude Adams. Rostand devoted the next ten years to Chantecler, his most experimental and, in some ways, his most searching work. The scene is a barnyard; the actors are the farmside's birds and beasts; the overlord is the strutting cock who believes mat his crowing brings up the sun. When it reached Broadway, the title role was played incongruously but charmingly by Maude Adams. Rostand took the fabled world of La Fontaine and the beast-epics of the Middle Ages and gave mem the individualized vitality mat Chaucer brought to Pertelote and Chauntecleer in "The Nonne Preestes Tale." Overshadowed by Cyrano, the play was belittled, and its failure so disheartened Rostand mat he retired to his country place in the Pyrenees. His sense of frustration was already indicated in the very character of his defeated heroes: Cyrano, whose eloquence is futile and whose nobility serves only to win his beloved for another man; L'Aiglon, the sickly Duke of Reichstadt, Napoleon's son, who knows he can never achieve the heaven-storming strength of the Eagle; Chantecler, who is forced to learn mat his cock-crow does not compel the sun to rise. Another play, The Last Night of Don Juan, produced four years after Rostand's death, again revealed beneath the flourishes and gay arabesques the author's unfulfilled dreams and hopeless disillusions. An unfinished drama on the Faust theme was never published. Rostand died December 2, 1918.
The first performance of Cyrano de Bergerac was literally an historic occasion. The premiere, December 28, 1897, had been awaited with public curiosity and private apprehension. On the opening night Rostand was overcome with nervousness and overwhelmed with surprise. A half-hour before the curtain rose he apologized to the company for having involved them in what was sure to be a disastrous failure; two hours after me curtain had been rung down, the audience was still in the theatre, still applauding, still calling for the author, still crying out names and repeating lines in unprecedented excitement. The great French actor, Constant Coquelin, to whom the play was dedicated and who created the tide-role, gives a picture of the scene: "The first night was eagerly awaited by the critics, the literary, and the artistic worlds. The audience that night was undoubtedly the cream of our Parisian public. When the curtain rose on the first act diere was not a seat vacant in the theatre. The emotion of a great event was floating in the air. Never, never have I lived through such a night. Victor Hugo's greatest triumph, the first night of Hernani, was the only theatrical event that can compare with it, and that was injured by the enmity of a clique who persistently hissed through the performance. There is but one phrase to express the enthusiasm at our first performance—'a house in delirium' alone gives any idea of what took place. As the curtains fell on each succeeding act the entire audience would rise to its feet, shouting and cheering for ten minutes at a time. The coulisse and the dressing-rooms were packed by the critics and the author's friends, beside themselves with delight. I was trembling so that I could hardly get from one costume into another, and had to refuse my door to every one. Amid all this confusion Rostand alone seemed unconscious of his victory."
Thereafter, Cyrano became a permanent part of the international theatre. It was translated into every European language and several Oriental tongues, including Japanese. In the excellent German version by the eminent author, Ludwig Fulda, the play was performed again and again. Its peculiar combination of classic manner and baroque style, of beauty and bombast, was a challenge to all translators. There have been at least half a dozen notable English versions. Within a year of its first French presentation four English texts were published: a readable if not too accurate version by two Englishwomen, Gladys Thomas and Mary F. Guillemard; a fairly idiomatic version by Gertrude Hall; a discreet prose rendering by Helen B. Dole, who felt that the ballade and other "arias" were untranslatable and printed them in French, "in their native melody and rhythm"; and a workmanlike approximation by Howard Thayer Kingsbury. It was Kingsbury's version that was presented to a New York audience on October 3, 1898 (less than a year after the Paris opening) with Richard Mansfield in the title role and Margaret Anglin playing the part of Roxane. On the same night another version of Rostand's drama was produced in Philadelphia by Augustin Daly with Charles Richman as Cyrano and Ada Renan as Roxane.
The play continued to be so successful mat it was almost immediately retailored. It became a comic opera which opened in New York on September 18, 1899. "Based" on Edmond Rostand's play, it had a book by Stuart Reed, lyrics by Harry B. Smith, and music by Victor Herbert. The title role was played by the favorite comic of the day, Francis Wilson.
On November 1, 1923, a new English version of what, by that time, was known as "the Rostand classic" featured Walter Hampden in a spirited verse adaptation by Brian Hooker. An operatic arrangement with music by Walter Damrosch was staged in 1930. The text was by the music critic, W. J. Henderson, but the opera failed to win a place either in critical esteem or in the music-lover's heart.
The Hooker version was revived on October 8, 1946, with incidental music by the novelist-musician, Paul Bowles. The revival was staged by José Ferrer, who also acted the title part. Four years later Ferrer appeared in a brilliantly conceived film version, retaining a great part of the original play in Hooker's adaptation.
Two recent versions attempted to capture the swift-running rhymes of the original. The first, highly stylized and desperately spirited, was by the late English poet, Humbert Wolfe. This rendering was made for a film version that was to be produced in England starring Charles Laughton, but was abandoned. The other and more literal rhymed translation was published in Los Angeles in 1947. This was a collaboration, the joint product of Clifford Hershey Bissell, Ph. D., and William Van Wyck, Litt. D., a serious if not always successful effort.
It is a platitude to say that the transferring of a poetic work from one language to another involves many difficulties and results in many losses, but that platitude must be repeated. The fusing of separate phrases and stray ideas into a new thing complete in itself—the magic metamorphosis which is poetry—is untranslatable. The translator can expect nothing more than a fair approximation, a paraphrase, which will not sacrifice too much of the meaning at the expense of the music or, contrariwise, give up too much of the music to preserve the meaning. All he can hope for is a good compromise which will keep the rhythm pulsing, the action moving, and the spirit soaring.
The question of rhyme demands separate consideration. In a play of any length, and particularly in a serious play, rhyme is a hazard. This is not true in France, where identities of sound, assonances, and echoes are used freely; in Rostand's language rhyme presents no problems to the Gallic ear. But the English actor—as well as the English audience—is accustomed either to a dramatic prose or variations of the resonant, rolling, and generally unrhymed blank verse perfected by the great Elizabethans. It is this variably sonorous but never cloying speech which has been maintained from the time of Marlowe and Shakespeare to T. S. Eliot and Christopher Fry. On our stage, and especially the modern stage, a long play in rhymed verse sounds both artful and artificial. Worse, it is difficult to follow. The listener grows intent upon the technical device; he waits for the rhymed word which is to cap its predecessor at the end of every line. In his attention to the sound he loses the sense.
Thus, in a completely rhymed translation of Cyrano, the too nimble pairing of sounds, the continual matching of similar syllables, the very insistence of the rhymes, is a danger which is also a disservice to the original. For, despite the label, Cyrano is a comedy only in a very special sense. It certainly is not a comic comedy—there are countless witticisms, plays on words, puns, and occasional grotesque episodes; but there is nothing essentially humorous in the action. The plight of an ugly man in love with a beautiful woman, an intellectual who woos his beloved for a stupid but handsome man, and loses her himself—this is the substance of a partly ironic, partly pathetic, and finally tragic drama. This is precisely the kind of play which Rostand wrote. The mood throughout is romantic; the language is rich; the tone is alternately sentimental and noble. In short, if it is a comedy at all, it justifies the subtitle which Rostand gave his play: A Comedy-Heroic.
The subtitle is the core of the drama. For "Cyrano" is heroic in the literal as well as the theatrical sense. Here, on one level, is a swashbuckler whose life is a perpetual physical and verbal challenge; a purple patchwork of dazzling swordplay accompanied by the most extravagant rhetoric. And here, on another level, is a man doomed by his own arrogant brilliance. What seems to be romanticism run riot is checked by a grim and even devastating irony. Cyrano's defiant posturing, his grandiose gestures and oratorical fanfares, turn out to be fragments of a career in ruins—a half-braggart, half-hopeless structure of defense, a triumph of despair. Like that other anachronistic grotesque, Don Quixote, Cyrano can face himself only in the cracked mirror of illusion.
In an atmosphere of such contradictory luxuriance, the present translator has attempted to steer a middle course between the Scylla of plain prose and the Charybdis of highly colored couplets. He recognizes that Rostand used a language which is so flexible, so melodious and delicately archaic, that even the most opulent prose fails to suggest the musical character of the work. Therefore, since poetry in one language can be suggested only by poetry in another, blank verse has been chosen as the logical medium—a blank verse which is chiefly colloquial rather than classical, avoiding inversions, straightforward in idiom and modern in tone. However, the famous duelling ballade and other set pieces call for a much more formal treatment. Such lyrical moments are so surcharged with high spirits and exuberance that they inevitably rise, or erupt, into rhyme. Here, as in the body of the blank verse, the translator has tried to strike a balance between the literal meaning of the original text and Rostand's wit, fluency, and flickering eloquence.
Cyrano de Bergerac is little more than half a century old—not a long time in the Ufe of a classic. It continues to be so great a challenge to the interpreter that, within fifty years, no less than ten English translators have offered their renderings, each one vying with his predecessor in a fresh effort to bring the spirit of the original to the printed page. This version is one more evidence of the play's continuing appeal. Next to writing his own poetry, there is no greater pleasure for a poet than putting into his own tongue the essence of another poet. It is a dangerous delight, and the present paraphraser hopes he has not too much adulterated Rostand's sparkling words and potent music.
Patricia Elliott Williams (essay date 1973)
SOURCE: "Some Classical Aspects of Cyrano de Bergerac," in Nineteenth-Century French Studies, Vol. I, No. 2, February 1973, pp. 112-24.
[In the essay below, Williams interprets Cyrano de Bergerac in terms of the Aristotelian definition of tragedy.]
Edmond Rostand's undisputed chef d'oeuvre, Cyrano de Bergerac, is usually and justifiably termed a neo-romantic play, a return to the dauntless, poetic and somewhat bombastic vein of Hugo's Hernani and its contemporaries. Traits of the French romantic writers of the 1820's, who rejected the merits of their predecessors, the French classicists, indeed are reflected in Cyrano. Yet a careful study of Rostand's dramaturgy reveals that certain classical premises, some of which were stressed by Aristotle, are applicable to Cyrano de Bergerac.
Admittedly Aristotle's precepts were established for the appreciation of classical Greek tragedy rather than nineteenth-century French drama; yet the general concepts and standards which he enunciated have continued to guide dramatists as well as critics up to and including modern times. Though some modern scholars such as John Crowe Ransom deny the validity of Aristotle's criteria for evaluating modern literature,1 Aristotle, as Francis Fergusson points out, "made the most ambitious effort to describe the nature of dramatic art,2 … and the principles of his investigation are still the best we have.…"3 Whether Rostand deliberately adhered to the Aristotelian precepts is a moot point, and not the major question here, for we are simply subjecting Cyrano de Bergerac to an Aristotelian analysis.
Aristotle explains tragedy as
an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of narrative; through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions.4
"Mimesis (imitation), as Aristotle uses the term," explains Dr. Gusta B. Nance, "seems to be an interpretation of life by a creative artist in which interpretation the artist gives a conception of nature (human and physical), representing the probable and necessary, thus giving the universal, the essence of things and men"5 Rostand interpreted human nature in a man whose excessive sensitivity to an imperfection prevents his obtaining his most cherished goal. He created the confident and proud Cyrano, without peer in bravura, cleverness, wit or poetry: a composite of the ideal French hero. In an era when French morale was at a record low, Rostand painted a hero successful in the respects the nation had stumbled: victorious in battle, positive and confident in action, just in dealing with rivals, generous in spirit, crowned with the panache perhaps considered by the French as their exclusive characteristic. Rostand showed the nobility of human nature through his hero, yet kept the action firmly within the realm of probability. Through the particular problem of Cyrano's excessively long nose, Rostand demonstrated universal human nature which permits a relatively inconsequential imperfection to prevent ultimate achievement.
Tragedy is a serious action, that is, opposed to comedy in that comedy "is an artistic imitation of men of an inferior moral bent; faulty, however, not in any or every way, but only in so far as their shortcomings are ludicrous."6 Samuel Butcher describes tragedy as a picture of human destiny in all its significance.7 This is not to say that tragedy does not have humorous aspects; consider Cyrano's tirade du nez, the opening scene in Act II in Ragueneau's pastry shop, the incident of Cyrano's pretending to have fallen from the moon in order to detain De Guiche. These humorous incidents do not exaggerate a fault or weakness; they do not detract from the total effect of human destiny and its significance.
A complete action, as Aristotle explains, has a beginning, middle, and end. Cyrano, in love with Roxane and exhilarated by their rendez-vous, begins the tragic action by agreeing to help Roxane win the handsome Christian de Neuvillette. The middle is his pursuit of this determined course and his suffering because of his inability to reveal directly his passion to Roxane. The tragic hero experience a reversal of his situation at Christian's death, apparently freeing him to win Roxane for himself. Yet he realizes that through the poetic love letters he has created the image of Christian that Roxane loves. To destroy it would not only dishonor the dead but also would assure Roxane's contempt for him. Clearly the situation is of his own making and he alone is responsible. He must uphold the image of the poetic Christian, even in his dying moments saying, "Non, non, mon cher amour, je ne vous aimais pas."8
Rostand ensures his play is of the Aristotelian "certain magnitude" by the stature of Cyrano, the nobility of his actions and of his soul. Cyrano, faced with the moral dilemma of whether to seek his own pleasure or to help Roxane and Christian achieve their happiness, meets it with admirable strength. His forte is his intellect ever present and more than sufficient to disguise his true feelings, to advance Christian's courtship with poetic affirmations, to succeed in winning Roxane, to detract De Guiche from interrupting the marriage ceremony, to inspire his fellow soldiers in battle, to fight injustice and mediocrity, and to confront death defiantly.
Morally, Cyrano is neimer all good nor all bad, but has strong leanings toward goodness. His misfortune is not the result of his own wickedness, but of his profound value conflict with results in his decision to yield his own interest in Roxane to Christian. This fatal decision is provoked by his deeper than average bent of feeling. With his tragic hero who has aspirations, conflicts, and inhibitions common to everyone, Rostand produces an Aristotelian catharsis by evoking pity for a man who suffers more than he deserves. Fear also is evoked because it is so easy to identify with this man's universal traits.
Aristotle continues: "every tragedy must have six elements according to which the quality of the tragedy is determined: (1) plot, (2) character indicants, (3) thought, (4) spectacle, (5) diction, and (6) music."9
The prerequisite which Aristotle considers most important is the plot. He states, "The most important of these is the arrangement of the incidents of the plot, for tragedy is not the portrayal of men (as such), but of action, of life.…" (P, p. 14). A scrutiny of Cyrano shows that Rostand carefully arranged the structure of the plot according to story and form, and constructed it soundly with generally good dramatic techniques. The arrangement of incidents in the plot shows artistically logical developments, prepares the audience for what is coming next, and the action rises consistently to the climax. An initial crisis occurs approximately two-thirds of the way to the climax: to sustain interest, Rostand offers a new setting, a different and somewhat unrelated activity to provoke curiosity, after which he approaches the climax. Thus, the initial crisis, Roxane's and Christian's marriage in Act III, is followed in the fourth act by the scene change to the battlefield. There the action, after the intense emotion of the third act, shows the calm despair of the weary, hungry soldiers. Suddenly the beautiful and gay Roxane arrives like an angel to bring food and good cheer. Curiously the audience watches as Cyrano reveals to Christian his past letterwriting. The audience's interest grows with Cyrano's preliminary effort to tell Roxane of his love, when the climax, Christian's death, occurs. It seems that the careful structure of the beginning, middle, and end plus the undeniably logical arrangement of events contribute to the successful performance of the play. Rostand's very close attention to the arrangement of incidents of the action leads us to assume that he considered plot a vitally important element.
In presenting criteria for characters, Aristotle lists four necessary qualities: the character should be good, fitting, and exhibit likeness and consistency (P, p. 29). He says, "A character will be good if the choice made evident is a good one," (P, p. 29) and he explains fitting in these terms: "There is such a thing as manly character, but is not fitting for a woman to be manly or clever" (P, p. 29). Preston H. Epps, in his translation the Poetic of Aristotle, notes that by likeness Aristotle "seems to mean: likeness in character to the traditional character portrayed" (P, p. 29). S. H. Butcher, in Aristotle's Theory of Poetry and Fine Art, simply translates this third quality as "true to life."10 To elucidate consistency, Aristotle avers that "even if the person portrayed in the imitation is inconsistent and has been given this type of character, he must be consistently inconsistent" (P, p. 29). He further stipulates that "it is also necessary in character portrayal, just as it was in arranging the incidents, to aim always at what is necessary or what is probable in such a way that when a certain type of person says or does a certain type of thing he does so either from necessity or probability" (P, p. 30).
Consider the hero: Cyrano is probably the best developed character in all of Rostand's plays. Each act reveals a new dimension of his personality: in Act I he is bold, courageous, and arrogant in the face of superficiality; Act II shows him in love, in firm control of his emotions when his love is not returned, and generous to protect and to tolerate jibes from his rivals; in Act III his poetic, lyric, and imaginative facets are revealed; Act IV discloses his scorn for cowardice, the lengths to which love has carried him, his joy at the promise of Roxane's recognition, and his despair at the death of Christian; Act V maintains his sense of humor, his devotion to and love for Roxane, and his courage in death. He is completely credible, and his actions are completely motivated by his convictions. In this respect, he is true to life. He is also a type character, the universal hero. He is portrayed consistently as a hero with a physical grotesqueness which prevents him from allowing his passion to develop without constraint. Cyrano is good in the Aristotelian concept, in that his choice to defer to Christian for Roxane's attentions is noble.
Cyrano far outshadows his handsome rival Christian de Neuvillette, a static character, seen consistently from only one point of view. Like Cyrano he is, for the most part, credible, true to life, and sufficiently motivated. He, too, is a type character—a man whose primary asset is his handsomeness—and is manifested throughout the play as the handsome, beloved man in antithesis to the grotesque, unloved Cyrano. His decision to insist that Cyrano tell Roxane of his love for her meets Aristotle's criterion of goodness in character.
Roxane, the heroine of the play, is painted as a beautiful précieuse. Rostand's critics usually do not credit her with much depth, yet she possesses the ingenuity common to any woman in love. She is a developing character within a limited scope, credible, and logical in motivation. She is a type character consistently portrayed as an ideal woman.
Although plot is perhaps the most important aspect in Rostand's plays, characterization is also of great significance, for without skillful character creation, the plot's impact would be diminished. The characters who perform the action are credible and consistent because they are well developed. Their attributes accurately reflect the qualities of the persons they are supposed to represent, and the characters are fitting because they have the requisite traits necessary to create the personage properly. Their motives for action are well-founded and clearly expressed.
Aristotle's third constituent element for tragedy is thought. He explains thought as it relates to drama in this manner:
tragedy is an imitation of an action being carried out by certain individuals who must be certain kinds of persons in character and in thinking—the two criteria by which we determine the quality of an action; for character and one's thinking are two natural causes of action, and it is because of these that all men fail or succeed (P, p. 12).
Preston H. Epps, translator of the Poetics, comments on the difficulty of assessing precisely what was meant by the Greek word dianoia, which he translates as thought. He enumerates the five meanings of the word given in the new Lidell and Scott Greek lexicon as follows: "(1) 'thought, i.e., intention, purpose'; (2) 'process of thinking'; (3) 'thinking faculty, understanding'; (4) 'thought expressed, meaning of a word or passage'; and (5) 'intellectual capacity revealed in speech or action by characters in the drama'" (P, p. 12). From his study of the Poetics and the context in which the word thought is explained, Epps concludes that Aristotle seems to have "had in mind in his use of this word: (1) intellectual deliberative capacity; (2) the process of thinking; and (3) the thoughts one gives assent to and acts upon" (P, p. 12). He emphasizes that these are the various meanings of the word that Aristotle seems to have intended and admits that they are not entirely satisfactory.
Without Epps' explanation, Aristotle's further definition of thought would not be completely clear. Aristotle says:
The third part is the thinking ability of the characters which is the ability to (think out and) say (1) what is possible (within the limits of the situation) and (2) what is fitting—a function which is the same as that of language when used in statesmanship and in oratory.…
Thought manifests itself in what the characters say as they prove or disprove something or make evident something universal (P, p. 15).
Consequently, a study of thought necessitates an examination of dialogue both in terms if its technical aspects and its cognitive elements. The technical components of the language will be examined later. The initial consideration of thought will deal with evidence of the rational process in the three leading characters.
Cyrano's ability to perceive the crux of a situation and to give the precise response is evident in Act I in his verbal devastation of Montfleury, in the variety and aptness of all examples in the tirade du nez, culminating in the tour de force of wit in the impromptu ballade and duel with Le Vicomte de Valvert. This facility of wit is also evidenced in Act III when Cyrano wins Roxane's kiss for Christian and detains the Duc de Guiche during the marriage of Roxane and Christian. Cyrano's reasoning power, however, breaks down in the central theme of the play, his unrequited love for Roxane. Emotions emerge dominant over rational thought. Rather than impassionately constructing a rational plan to achieve his goal—the love of Roxane—he hopelessly accepts her schoolgirlish infatuation with a handsome face, and attributes his failure as rejection because of the physical imperfection of an excessively long nose. Even when his better judgment seems to be emerging in Act IV with his confession to Christian that he has sent daily letters to Roxane, Cyrano is plunged back into the emotional realm by Christian's untimely death. His reason accurately instructs him that this particular moment is inopportune to declare his love. Now it is obvious that Cyrano has strong romantic traits. He is superior, self-conscious, imaginative, a man of active hypersensibility fated by his unfortunate physical appearance.11 Aristotle would not have the character to collapse at the first sign of challenge (Roxane's apparent rejection of Cyrano) but instead would advocate the character think through all aspects of the situation. Cyrano's proven wit, perception, and persuasiveness are evidence of a potential rational being. The error in or lack of judgment, however, results in the romantic Cyrano, romantic hero of 1898 and all ensuing romantics.
The secondary characters, Roxane and Christian, are not developed enough to display any reasoning ability. They simply react to their emotions.
The element of diction, which takes the form of dialogue in drama, is defined in the Poetics as an "expression (of thought) by means of language" (P, p. 15).
Cyrano de Bergerac is an extravaganza of dramatic activity. The first act is sheer spectacle of movement, and the episodes quickly succeed each other. Yet the kaleidoscopic events are achieved with grace and a surprising economy of dialogue. On occasion, however, Rostand halts the action completely with soliloquies which demonstrate both the versatility of the character's personality and the talent of the actor. While the extensive length of the play, the multiplicity of episodes, and the soliloquies indicate extravagance in dialogue, the precise words chosen to illustrate the events and moods provide a balancing economy.
When considering the appropriateness of language in revealing character, we recognize that all the characters, even the soldiers, are refined persons. As such, they speak correctly. As a result, the play is only partially realistic in regard to manner of speech. Rostand, however, does make the content of the dialogue conform reasonably to realism. Christian frankly admits he can hold his own in jesting but has little talent for the refined manner of speech necessary to converse with ladies. Roxane's dialogue supports the précieuse personality that Rostand has drawn for her. Since Cyrano is the most highly developed character in the play, it is interesting to note how fully his dialogue reveals his personality. His audacious courage is displayed when he challenges anyone who objects to his banishing Montefleury from the stage. The famous tirade du nez soliloquy indicates his humor, wit and adjustment to his appearance. The non merci! speech reveals his pride and independence. Cyrano's secret dream, his love for Roxane, and the madness he feels in being denied this dream disclose his sensitivity. The hero's poetic skill is exhibited when he impersonates Christian beneath Roxane's balcony. His inventive mind comes to the fore in the scene in which he detains De Guiche while Roxane and Christian are married. Just before dying, Cyrano evaluates his life in his self-composed epitaph:
Rimeur, bretteur, musicien,
Et voyageur aerien,
Grand riposteur du tac au tac,
Amant aussi—pas pour son bien!—
De Cyrano de Bergerac
Qui fut tout, et qui ne fut rien.…12
The pace of dialogue is energetic and vivid. While Rostand generally uses the alexandrine couplet, there are several notable exceptions: such as the ballade composed during the duel, the epitaph, and Ragueneau's recipe for tartelettes amandines. Rostand employs his typical technique of dividing the alexandrine line among several speakers in order to sustain moments of deep emotional feeling. Thus the long play moves at a pace calculated to maintain the spectator's interest.
In the diction (used in the sense of choice of words) of Cyrano, Rostand employs a number of somewhat uncommon words such as colichemardes, délabyrinthez, escogriffes, estafilade, icosaedre, naisigère, pentacrostiche, pharaminieux, tryanneau. Moreover, he appears to have invented at least two words: Hippocampelephantocamelos and Regromontanus. The use of these pedantic and amusing words appropriately serves to support the précieux quality of the play. It seems therefore apparent that the language in Cyrano de Bergerac effectively sustains dramatic tension, reveals characters and themes.
Regarding his fifth criterion, Aristotle says, "of the remaining elements (i.e., music and spectacle), music has the greatest enriching power" (P, p. 15). In Cyrano, it has different purposes for each instance in which it is used. In Act I, music accompanies the abortive performance of Clorise and serves to establish the probability of the play within a play, and to separate its action from that of the actual drama. Music in this instance seems quite natural and is readily accepted by the audience. Musicians in Act III, however, are used as dramatic devices. Before the balcony scene, Cyrano assigns each page to a lookout post to warn him by playing an air on the lute if anyone approaches; thus, he is not taken by surprise at the entrance of the capucin or of De Guiche.
The drums, bugles, and fifes are natural accompaniments of seventeenth century warfare; therefore, their use in Act IV is to be expected. Rostand, however, further employs the music of the fifer, who plays old familiar tunes to relieve the men's minds of the miseries of war. This scene also contributes to the effectiveness of Roxane's arrival at camp. The men are saddened by memories of home and family and are quiet, sentimental, and somewhat huddled together. Thus Roxane does not enter a camp of bitterly complaining, miserable, perhaps even argumentative men, but of men receptive to the gentleness, kindness, and beauty she brings.
Rostand uses organ music near the end of Act V to call the nuns to evensong. The music also intimates that Cyrano is dying and sweetens his last moments with thoughts of Ufe transcending earth.
The music in Cyrano de Bergerac has dual purposes: that of an obvious literary device and a subtle evocation of emotional responses.
Aristotle's enthusiasm for music does not extend to spectacle. He says that "spectacle, while quite appealing, is the most inartistic and has the least affinity with poetry, for the essential power of tragedy does not depend upon the presentation and the actors. Moreover, for achieving the effects of spectacle, the art of the mechanic of stage properties is more competent than the art of poetry" (P, p. 15). The element of spectacle in the sense of décor and of coups de théâtre, however, has long enchanced drama.
Visual effects increase the richeness of Cyrano de Bergerac. Each of the five acts takes place in a different setting, which Rostand precisely describes in the stage directions. His artistic and decorative talents are particularly apparent in the detailed directions given for Ragueneau's pastry shop. His purpose in providing for the elaborate settings is to establish mood and atmosphere.
The coups de théâtre in this play contribute to the total spectacle. The first four scenes of the first act are spectacular representations of seventeenth-century life, involving numerous characters with appropriate costumes and behavior. Rostand heightens the total effect with the activities of the cut-purses, the pages snatching wigs, Roxane's appearance, Montfleury's performance, and Cyrano's ensuing termination of the performance. Cyrano's duel while composing a poem constitutes the high point of the spectacle. Likewise, the first four scenes of Act II are spectacular with the numerous bakers and poets. Rostand enhances these scenes with their activities and with Ragueneau's poetic efforts and frustrations. He deviates from the crowd spectacle in Act III and uses instead individuals for coups de théâtre. This is illustrated in the balcony scene when Cyrano assumes Christian's place, and Christian subsequently ascends to Roxane's presence. Roxane's persuasion of the capucin to marry her to Christian as well as Cyrano's claim to have fallen from the moon are also dramatic coups de théâtre which enter the realm of the spectacular.
Perhaps the most spectacular scene in the play is Roxane's arrival at the battlefield in Act IV. The misery of the soldiers contrasts with the sumptuousness of the coach. Moreover, horses on stage were then always the ultimate in theatrical spectacle. Rostand concludes Cyrano de Bergerac with the greatest of theatrical devices, the death of the hero. Thus the coups de théâtre in Cyrano de Bergerac vary from the crowd to the individual, from the comic to the tragic, and from duels and horses to death on stage.
In concluding this consideration of Cyrano de Bergerac in terms of Aristotle's definition of tragedy and six basic elements for drama, it is again acknowledged that leading drama analysts past and present classify the play as neo-romantic, completely out of step with its time, yet unmistakably a box-office success. It is not at all difficult to apply romantic traits to the play; however, Rostand's genius lies not only in creating a romantic hero, but also in the classically structured framework within which he places the hero.
The tragedy in Cyrano is not his death but the irony of his life—that Roxane's actual love was not the defunct Christian but the vibrant Cyrano. By revealing the hero in the "moments of highest mental agitation and deepest anguish,"13 Rostand shows the stature of the personality in the struggle. He has creatively interpreted human destiny in fundamental, timeless, and universal aspects evoking pity and fear as described above not only emotionally but also intellectually.
Aristotle's criteria for drama are clearly applicable insofar as plot, character, diction, music, and spectacle are concerned. It is the deviation in thought, the character's ability to reason through a situation rather than yield to an emotional conclusion, which is the springboard for the romantic tone. Without the careful classical structure in the image of tragedy on which are superimposed the constituents of romanticism, the excellent dramaturgy, and superb poetry, Rostand's romantic hero might never have gotten to the stage to captivate the hearts of universal romantics.
1Henry Popkin, "The Drama," in Lewis Leary (ed.), Contemporary Literature Scholarship. A Critical Review (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc., 1958), pp. 292-298.
2Francis Fergusson, The Idea of a Theater (Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1955), p. 242.
3Fergusson, p. 248.
4S. H. Butcher (trans.), Aristotle's Poetics (New York: Hill and Wang, 1961), p. 61.
5Gusta B. Nance, Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature, Southern Methodist University and Professor of English, Dallas Baptist College, unpublished lecture.
6Lane Cooper, Aristotle on the Art of Poetry (Revised edition; Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1947), pp. 13-14.
7S. H. Butcher, Aristotle's Theory of Poetry and Fine Art (Fourth edition; New York: Dover Publications, 1951), p. 241.
8Edmond Rostand, Cyrano de Bergerac (Paris: Librairie Charpentier et Fasquelle, 1930), Act V, scene 5.
9Preston H. Epps (trans.), The Poetics of Aristotle (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1942), p. 13. Hereinafter cited as
10S. H. Butcher, Aristotle's Poetics, p. 81.
11These characteristics of a romantic hero are those discussed by George Ross Ridge in The Hero in French Romantic Literature (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1959).
12Edmond Rostand, Cyrano de Bergerac, Act V, scene 6.
13Gusta B. Nance, unpublished lecture.
Edward Freeman (essay date 1995)
SOURCE: "Cyrano de Bergerac: Mythopoeia Triumphant," in Cyrano de Bergerac, University of Glasgow French and German Publications, 1995, pp. 21-47.
[In the following essay, Freeman considers Cyrano de Bergerac "the perfect vehicle for one of the most comprehensive, polyvalent pieces of myth-making in nineteenth-century French literature."]
The rapturous reception that was granted to Cyrano de Bergerac by its first-night audience can be accounted for by the enormity of the conception of the play. In his three previous full-length plays, Rostand had cast around, with only moderate success … , to develop a style and find a subject that suited him. Now, in moving from Jesus Christ [in La Samaritaine] to the infinitely less austere figure of Cyrano de Bergerac, whose Entretiens pointus have been called by Jacques Prévot 'une mise en question ludique du langage conventionnel', Rostand can give full rein to his inclination to be linguistically audacious, to create for himself scenic and verbal challenges of a complexity unprecedented in French theatre history. The result is a vast work—four hours long in most performances—that is the perfect vehicle for one of the most comprehensive, polyvalent pieces of myth-making in nineteenth-century French literature. Few plays in any nation's caltural history have ever arrived so opportunely to fill a vacuum:
Depuis trente ans, le théâtre cherchait une formule de renouvellent, et les tentatives qu'il faisait en tous sens n'aboutissaient qu'ànous mettre à l'école de l'étranger et àétouffer l'esprit national dans l'obscurité ou dans une sorte de neurasthénie brutale. Tout d'un coup, sonna le verbe clair de Cyrano; l'enthousiasme fut indescriptible, exorbitant, excessif; il manifestait la joie de la foule qui exultait parce qu'elle avait retrouvé l'esprit français.
(Calvet, p. 173)
The century that began with Chateaubriand, Hugo and Gautier—and not forgetting Emmanuel Las Cases, biographer of Napoléon I—was both more grandiose and more narcissistic in its myth-making than any other in French history. Rostand ended the century in the same vein. The 'French spirit' that Rostand's audiences were believed by Calvet to have rediscovered in Cyrano de Bergerac had, at its core, that amalgam of 1830s' Romantic idealism and Cornelian générosité; associated with the age of Louis XIII which Hugo and his contemporaries had tried to capture in some of their works. The central fibre of this core was honorable and if need be, and it usually was, self-sacrificial conduct in the pursuit of love. It had not been greatly in evidence in the French theatre of the 1890s.
The same would appear to be true of the real world inhabited by the historical Savinien de Cyrano de Bergerac and his libertine friends Dassoucy and Chapelle. Contemporary accounts suggest that the young Cyrano mixed in a circle of debauchees who spent a lot of time and money (although not much of the latter in Cyrano's case) in drinking and gambling. There are hints that Cyrano may have had a homosexual character—the 'dangereux penchant' hinted at by Le Bret, who elsewhere writes of Cyrano's 'si grande retenue envers le beau Sexe, qu'on peut dire qu'il n'est jamais sorty du respect que le nôtre lui doit'.
Three hundred years later, Jeanne Goldin puts it less coyly: 'Tout ce qui est lié à la physiologie et aux fonctions purement féminines provoque, chez Cyrano, un dégoût qui intéresserait les psychiatres, et il ira jusqu'àexpliquer les cas de possession par 'quelques suffocations de matrice' (Goldin, p. 40). Jacques Prévot has very similar doubts about Cyrano's intimate relationships with women, basing them on a detailed analysis of the coded allusions to 'desire' in his Lettres amoureuses (Cyrano de Bergerac poete et dramaturge, pp. 45-50). In fact Prévot concludes that Dassoucy's Aventures burlesques clearly point to Cyrano's homosexual character. At any rate the great restraint towards the fair sex attributed to Cyrano by Le Bret cannot have been total, for at one stage he had to have long and expensive treatment for syphilis. The illness may even have hastened the end of his short life; this is as plausible a cause as the head injury caused by a falling plank, which occurred fourteen months before his death.
The historical Cyrano, who might thus in his psychosexual nature and general life style have had a certain amount in common two centuries later with a number of Rostand's fin-de-siècle predecessors and contemporaries, is totally transformed by the dramatist into something quite different: a sighing gallant, adoring his cousin Magdeleine Robin, by her précieux name 'Roxane', from afar. The sublime love that has taken possession of him is destined to be unrequited, or so he believes, because of his misfortune in being endowed with a grotesque nose, 'ce nez qui d'un quart d'heure en tous lieux me précède' (I.v, 1. 494). Hugo's Ruy Blas, similarly in thrall to the Queen of Spain, had merely to progress from the state of lackey to prime minister to win her love; Cyrano, for want of the modern science of rhinoplasty, has no such hope. By an inversion that could not have been more typical of Hugo, Roxane loves Christian, who is the antithesis of Cyrano in being sublimely handsome but (of course) grotesquely inept, inarticulate, tongue-tied. He is incapable of pursuing his own courtship of Roxane without the (of course) sublimely altruistic prompting, literally, of Cyrano. We have come a long way from the quarrel between the historic Cyrano and Dassoucy (and the flight of the latter to Italy) over the bedding of a spitted 'chapon', i.e. castrato (Prévot, loc. cit., pp 48-9).
Cyrano's heroic sacrifice in furthering Christian's cause is the central theme of the play, and dominates it from start to finish. Rostand exploits a gamut of human situations, escalating in both pathos and dramatic ingenuity, in presenting générosité; as the outstanding feature of Cyrano's character. Cyrano writes love letters for his 'rival' and prompts him in the balcony scene (III. vii) with such refined language that he can be quite sure that Roxane is falling in love with his words rather than the body and person of Christian. The next logical phase is the definitive sacrifice of his hopes in enabling Christian and Roxane to marry by delaying de Guiche, who has his own plans for Roxane, for a crucial quarter of an hour (III.xiv). By the time this has been achieved, at the end of Act Three, over 1,700 alexandrines have been delivered, almost as many as in a seventeenth-century classical play, and we have witnessed a considerable amount of complex stage action. This is enough material for a similar comedy of amorous quiproquo by Molière, Marivaux or the Beaumarchais of Le Barbier de Séville (perhaps Le Mariage de Figaro is the only precedent of similar substance to Cyrano de Bergerac).
But to suppose that the play could ever have ended at this point, in a kind of platonic coitus interruptus (in the way that Le Mariage might arguably have ended after Act Four) is to fail to do justice to the fertility of Rostand's imagination in exploring and exhausting all the psychological possibilities of the love theme. Cyrano dominates the play, but that is not to say that the other characters are pale ciphers. Both Christian and Roxane still have their greatest dramatic moments ahead of them. In Act IV, which is based on the historical siege of Arras in 1640, Rostand invents for Christian an appalling realization: that Cyrano, the writer of countless love letters, ostensibly on his behalf, loves Roxane. And what goes with this is the sudden and shocking awareness that Roxane in turn loves the writer of the letters.
When she asserts that she would even love him if he were ugly, he is hit by a terrible truth: he has enjoyed a love that should have been Cyrano's. The devastation is all the more total for resulting from Roxane's innocent 'Je t'aimerais encore! / Si toute ta beauté tout d'un coup s'envolait …' (IV.viii, 11. 2146-7). Never was a fervent declaration of love more deadly. Only Racine could manufacture a scene of tragic irony of such power; certainly there is none such in Hugo (we spot all his shocks looming up well in advance: does anyone watching Le Roi s'amuse, soon to be Verdi's Rigoletto, not know whose body is in the sack?). Christian is destroyed; throwing himself into the battle with an ardour that is nothing less than suicidal, he is mortally wounded (IV.x). It remains for Cyrano to commit one more sublime gesture: he prevents Christian from dying in a state of despair by pretending that he has told the truth to Roxane and she still loves him nevertheless.
As if that is not enough, there remains a whole act for Rostand to squeeze the last drops of pathos out of the sublimated love of Cyrano for Roxane. For fourteen years Christian's devoted widow has been allowed to persist in the illusion that her vast stock of love letters were all written by Christian. The scene (V.v) in which, once again, a terrible truth pierces an innocent consciousness is another fine example of Rostand's feeling for dramatic moment. And yet again, too, credit must be given to Rostand for the skill with which he breathes fresh life into existing dramatic devices. One of the hoariest, and dullest, of them is the last-act reading out aloud of a letter that makes all clear. And it is not not unknown for this to coincide with the falling of dusk. It settles, with the final curtain, on a momentous day, an expiring life, a doomed social class, an era that can never come again. But now Rostand conjoins and exploits both clichés with an ingenuity for which critics have not given him sufficient credit.
As darkness falls, Roxane accedes to the dying Cyrano's request to be allowed to see Christian's last letter, ostensibly for the first time. When he 'reads' the letter aloud, we are prepared, I think, for her surprise at hearing 'une voix [ … ] que je n'entends pas pour la première fois'. But the moment when the truth dawns upon Roxane in the dusk—when she suddenly 'sees' in the darkness that Cyrano cannot possibly be reading the letter—is a remarkable exploitation of the distinctive properties of theatre. Theories of spécificité; could do far worse than start here.
If Cyrano is able to recite the letter in the darkness there can only be one reason: he knows it by heart. For Roxane, a series of conclusions logically follows: he knows it because he wrote it (and all the other letters); he wrote them because he loved her (and still does). When Le Bret and Ragueneau burst in, he is prevented from answering the question she can not repress: 'Alors pourquoi laisser ce sublime silence se briser aujourd'hui?' One of the earliest English editors of the play is in one sense right: 'he betrays a secret that he ought to have carried with him to the grave, for the sake of a dead man's memory' (Ashton edition, p. vii). And for the sake of the widow's peace of mind thereafter: Cyrano is fallible as well as mortal. Having only a few moments to live, he cannot find it within him to die without letting Roxane know the truth. As his life ebbs away, he devises the last of the many scenarios he has acted out during the course of the play. As Lauxerois puts it in his edition (p. 205): 'cette lecture [est] l'unique solution entre la parole et le silence'. It is an inspired piece of invention on the part of Rostand to have it divulged in this way, and within a few minutes of stage time at the first performance in 1897, the first of the forty curtain calls was ringing out.
Great and heroic love cannot be repressed. Fourteen years of sublime and stoic silence are enough for anyone: that was what four hundred successive French audiences were evidently happy to hear in 1897-1898. This picture of sublime love and sublimated sexuality made a considerable change from what was normally on offer to Parisian theatregoers in the 1890s. Most of them might have been quite content to ogle the bed-hopping cocottes of Feydeau's L'Hôtel du Libre-échange (1894) and La Dame de chez Maxim's (1891) or enjoy the socially smarter and less sexually manic titillation of Amoureuse by Georges de Porto-Riche (1891) and Les Amants by Maurice Donnay (1895). Certain dramatists, such as Curel and Brieux, were capable of treating sexual themes and their socio-moral ramifications in a serious and responsible way. In the more audacious plays of the era, which reflected the influence of the newly imported work of the foreign masters, even sexual promiscuity, nymphomania and syphilis were no longer the taboo subjects that they had been twenty years previously. Even when discussion was not explicit, it needed little imagination to tune in to the vibrations coursing through the eponymous heroine of Strindberg's Miss Julie or to realize what Oswald was dying of in Ibsen's Ghosts.
This was strong meat, but for a while there was stronger on offer. In 1891 the Théâtre Réaliste presented Prostituée, La Gueuse, La Crapule, La Morte violée and L'Avortement before the author-actor, one Chirac, was eventually put behind bars (see Henderson, pp. 81-2). From this Naturalist perspective, although admittedly it is a caricatural extreme, we are in a better position to appreciate the extensive mythopoeic process at work in Cyrano de Bergerac in so far as it embraces not just the hero but Roxane, Christian and even the cadets de Gascogne.
The précieuse Roxane has been transformed in Act Five into an ethereally devout and chaste widow, eternally impossible for Cyrano to love except via his after ego, the personne interposée of Christian. She could not be further removed from the 'belles aventurières espagnoles et italiennes, voluptueuses et fières créatures, aimant d'un égal amour l'or, le sang et les parfums,' etc, conjured up from the fertile recesses of his own imagination by Gautier (Les Grotesques, p. 235) to be the female attractions for the youthful Cyrano 'qui voit Paris pour la première fois'. She and her friends, marquis and précieuses alike, are a far cry again from the lurons who were the real Cyrano's social and sexual familiars.
The mythopoeic process requires that the rest of the play too be bathed in an atmosphere of chivalric fantasy. De Guiche, before redeeming himself as a courageous military commander in Act Four, shapes up to behave like a sinister Buckingham in Dumas's Trois Mousquetaires or similar figures in Hugo's plays who do in fact seduce, abduct, rape and kill women. Yet the menace inherent in his unchecked personal authority comes to nothing: the decorum of the sexual climate in Cyrano de Bergerac belongs to a far more ideal world than that of French Romantic literature generally. The assimilation of the play to the theatre of Victor Hugo is made often enough, but it is perhaps too facile in at least that one respect. Love in Cyrano de Bergerac is essentialized and platonized in a way that points both to Rostand's adolescent study of d'Urfé and to contemporary fin-de-siècle influences that were in fact to stay with him for the rest of his career.
To take another example, and one to which we shall return in discussing the war theme, the camp of the cadets de Gascogne at the siege of Arras, so far from evoking the atmosphere of brutality that abounded in the Thirty Years' War, recalls nothing so much as a soldiers' chorus in light opera. It is a company of well-scrubbed and sentimental young men, all identical carbon copies, and emitting not a note of that sexual menace implicit in the designation 'soudards et reÎtres' (thugs, brutes) with which Christian tries to warn off Roxane. The Spanish enemy is every bit as decent, indeed, as Latins, perhaps even more so. This is how Roxane breached the enemy lines:
J'ai simplement passé dans mon carrosse, au trot.
Si quelque hidalgo montrait sa mine altière,
Je mettais mon plus beau sourire àla portière,
Et ces messieurs étant, n'en déplaise aux Français,
Les plus galantes gens du monde, je passais!
(IV. v, 11. 1952-6)
For the jaded Parisian palate of the late 1890s, then, a significant part of the appeal of Cyrano de Bergerac was that it celebrated a code of romantic love and chivalry associated with another age. Superficially at least, a reading of Dumas père had already implanted this escapist, heroic ethic in the mythic imagination of the audiences at the Théâtre de la Porte-Saint-Martin. In Venus they had 'retrouvé l'esprit français'; but what of Mars?
Arms and the Man
Rostand's mythopoeic powers were put to the test far less with Cyrano's martial exploits than with his venereal activities. 'Le démon de la bravoure' is how Le Bret described him in the posthumons biography of 1657 (namely the preface to the États et empires de la Lune, the edition republished by the Bibliophile Jacob in 1858 and used by Rostand). The phrase had been picked up and embellished by Gautier in 1844. Cyrano's prowess as a soldier and swordsman, which is so central a part of the heroic national myth of 1897, is based on four details culled from Le Bret. In 1639 Cyrano fought at the siege of Mouzon and was wounded by a musket ball. He then fought at the siege of Arras in 1640 and received a sword wound in the neck. He rapidly achieved notoriety in the duelling culture of his fellows, the Gascon company of Carbon de Castel-Jaloux, and served as a second 'plus de cent fois'. Le Bret would have us believe he also took on a hundred opponents (a favourite hyperbole, obviously) in a sword fight at the Porte de Nesle and left two for dead, seven seriously injured, and, we must suppose, ninety-one very shaken. This account is supplied in minimal form by Le Bret, and with little comment.
Gautier adds not very much more, restricting himself to the ironic observation, a propos of me fact that Cyrano's military career was all over by the time he was twenty, 'c'est commencer de bonne heure, et bien des braves militaires servent toute leur vie sans avoir cette bonne fortune d'être aussi honorablement blessés' (Les Grotesques, p. 244). He also embroiders colourfully on the theme of the Porte de Nesle incident. The implausible 100-1 odds were already in Le Bret, but the fight now becomes 'cette bataille digne du cid Campéador'. Of me curious statement by Le Bret that although Cyrano was a second in one hundred duels, he never fought in one on his own account, Gautier repeats not a word. He had in fact many pages earlier filled out his virtuoso opening introduction to the essay, three pages on the subject of me nose, by stating that Cyrano would fight a duel with anyone visibly startled by the sight of the exorbitant organ. Gautier's Cyrano is in fact the one to be inherited by Rostand fifty years later: the impetuous bretteur who will unsheath at the drop of a hat, a glove, a misplaced reflection.
The main dynamic of Act One is the establishing of Cyrano's character as an eccentric Renaissance intellectual, famous not least for his swordsmanship. In advance of his appearance on stage, his acquaintances describe him in a series of superlatives and absolutes as 'cet homme [ … ] des moins ordinaires' (1. 99), 'le plus exquis des êtres sublunaires' (1. 100), 'Rimeur','Bretteur', 'Physicien','Musicien' (1. 101). But they observe above all that'c'est un garçon versé dans les colichemardes' (1. 95), 'le plus fol spadassin' (1. 107), and that 'il [ … ] pourfend quiconque le remarque' (1. 119). In fact the historical figure that Rostand has chosen to enhance in this way was at this stage of his Ufe, in 1640, an almost totally unknown young man of nineteen or twenty, enjoying a brief interlude between his two short and somewhat unglorious military campaigns. His years as a student of Gassendi lie ahead of him. He will become a literary touche-à-tout and a general intellectual dabbler, but never an eminent scientist or musician.
A far greater portion of the imagery in this sequence (contained mostly in the pastrycook Ragueneau's speech) relates to his physical appearance. At first with his 'feutre àpanache triple', pourpoint àsix basques', 'cape', etc., he resembles nothing so much as a stereotypical, image d'Épinal musketeer from the time of Louis XIII to be found in many a Romantic novel or play of the 1820s and 1830s, not just those of Dumas père. And to the continuing superlatives, 'plus fier que tous les Artabans', etc, is added a curious kind of conglomerate lexical hyperbole in that the weapon that he itches to unsheath is now a 'colichemarde', now 'l'estoc', now 'son glaive'. Later in the Act it is 'une épéé' and 'un espadon'. But then an even more distinctive Rostandian note of fantasy takes over, a comic extravaganza of similarly disparate cultural allusions: 'Monsieur Philippe de Champaigne', 'feu Jacques Callot', 'Artabans', 'l'alme Mère Gigogne', 'Pulcinella, des ciseaux de la Parque'. And what is now indelibly imprinted on the spectator / reader's retina is the physical profile of Cyrano with his nose ('ce nez-là' rhyming with 'Pulcinella' !) and his plumed headgear, as a strutting coq gaulois. His sword causes his cloak at the back to lift up 'comme une queue insolente de coq' and is the most striking feature of a sketch done by the author himself. Thus does Rostand establish an image of Cyrano as fiery, fearless and French, in fact 'doublement Français, puisqu'il est gascon'.1
The rest of the act is a demonstration of Cyrano's fiery temperament. He banishes Champfleury from the stage after only three lines of his performance of Baro's Clorise, and in a packed audience containing not a few people of influence and high office (Richelieu!), not one is man enough at first to defy him. He then humiliates the marquis de Valvert; the act closes with him going off to defend the poet Lignière against the hundred men who wait in ambush for him. Thus far Rostand's Cyrano, as an obstreperous, sword-happy 'Gascon' is not so very different from the countless fier-à-bras, rodomonts, fanfarons, artabans, matamores that strut and swagger through European literature from the late Middle Ages onwards, continuing a tradition dating back in fact to the miles glorious of Plautus. In that respect Cyrano as a commedia type would already have been embedded in the cultural consciousness of Rostand's spectators in 1897 (although presumably rather more of them would have met him in Gautier's Le Capitaine Fracasse and Dumas père—Rostand has Cyrano congratulated by d'Artagnan, no less—than in Ariosto and La Calprenède).
An aggressive hero of such proportions made a change from the etiolated protagonists of symbolist and decadent literature of the 1890s. Yet it is not what critics are thinking of when they point to the esprit cocardier that was stimulated by the play, and which gave such a boost to French patriotism and military pride at a very sensitive time. To understand why the play had this impact, it is not to the commedia braggart, taking on a hundred opponents, that we must look, but to the somewhat different Cyrano of Act Four and his fellow professional soldiers at the siege of Arras. This act occupies a climactic position in the play's structure, and Rostand's mythopoeic enhancement of the role of Cyrano, and through him of the military glory of France, is worth some attention.
It is known that Rostand studied Achmet d'Héricourt's Les Sièges d'Arras (1845) and the Mémoires of the Maréchal de Gramont (1826) to understand the military operations involved. This is not a lot of preparatory reading, and the latter work is in any case that of a very interested party, the much-promoted Comte de Guiche. That may be of no account, since Rostand is a dramatist not a historian. The fact remains that it is not easy to refute the claim that via this very substantial element of Cyrano de Bergerac, placed at a strategic point in a play that elsewhere lays great store by feats of arms and military swagger, Rostand has constructed an apologia for war and a paean to French bravura and genius—panache—in the conduct of it.
The historical truth is somewhat different. French military involvement in the Thirty Years' War was low-key, thanks almost entirely to the European-wide political skills of Richelieu. This was how it had to be: in the 1630s, France had not been a major European fighting force for a long time. The country's military capability trailed behind that of the Imperial Habsburgs and even the Swedes and the Dutch as regards arms, equipment, drills, discipline and logistical organization. As a historian has put it, 'Richelieu had a low opinion of the fighting spirit of the French, urged Feuquières to recruit in Germany, and he tried, like Henri IV, to entice the peasants of the Val Telline to serve in the French army' (Treasure, p. 193). Thus the great military battles of the Thirty Years' War, the White Mountain, Lützen, Breitenfeld, the first battle of Nördlingen, and the carnage that accompanied them and notorious atrocities like the sack of Magdeburg in 1631, were experienced mainly by others.
France's political and territorial gains at the end of the Thirty Years' War in 1648, on the other hand, were significant, and were obtained by clever diplomacy and proxy warfare. Such victories as were won by French feats of arms were relatively minor ones like Rocroi and Arras. Full-scale pitched battles against the Spanish, such as Rocroi in 1635, were rare; the siege of Arras in 1640 usually merits only the merest of mentions in histories of the Thirty Years' War.
And what of Gascon involvement in all of this? A statistical analysis by Robert Chaboche of the regional origins of French troops shows that Gascon troop numbers, although slightly higher than those from other provinces of the south, were nothing like those of provinces close to the action such as Île-de-France, Picardy, Champagne and Normandy (Chaboche, pp. 10-24). The Gascons were probably outnumbered by Irish, Germans and Swiss. The overall picture, although unavailable to Rostand before the findings of modern historians, is somewhat different from the one we are presented with in Cyrano de Bergerac. As Treasure again puts it:
An English mercenary, already eleven years a campaigner in the Thirty Years' War, remarked on the difference between the French army at the start of its first season of war, the cavalry crested with feathers and resplendent in scarlet and silver lace, and the ragged deserters who stole away, officers as well as men, before the end.
But history is one thing, creative literature and theatre roughly based on it are quite another. 'Turoldus' does not appear to have been inhibited by the unavailability of Basque and Arab archives from composing the Chanson de Roland. By the end of the 1640s, as Turenne gained in experience, France was emerging as a major military power and gradually breaking the stranglehold of the Habsburgs. Rostand, in Cyrano de Bergerac, thus unearthed and held up for admiration what with a little stretch of the imagination could be regarded as a glorious precedent, a balm for the French inferiority complex of the 1890s vis-à-vis Germany. To that part of the nation still suffering psychologically from the lingering wound of Sedan, one of the greatest humiliations in all military history; still feeling the phantom twitches of the severed limbs that were Alsace and Lorraine; increasingly fearful of suspected German machinations; and resignedly voting vast budgetary sums to the arms race of the 1890s, Cyrano de Bergerac was a prodigious morale-booster. Marshal Bazaine had surrendered in Metz in 1870 with an army of 170,000 well-equipped men; General Boulanger had shown not much more stomach for a political fight in 1889 and had run away to his mistress in Brussels. But Rostand's commander de Guiche, once he has been provoked into redeeming himself by Cyrano's mention of Henri IV, foregoes his right to retire from the most dangerous zone of action, stays to lead and fight, and saves the day … and the lady. Why then, two hundred and fifty years later, should not France again emerge from under the shadow of a powerful neighbour possessing an awesome military machine? And might not war lead to enduring peace? Did France have cause to fear Spain ever again after the end of the Thirty Years' War? It it could happen to the Habsburgs, it could happen to the the Hohenzollerns.
So we see then in Cyrano de Bergerac an epic, heroic comedy that plays up military ardour, glory, unfailing courage. These are symbolised by the panache associated with the name of Henri IV, whose legendary cry 'Ralliezvous àmon panache blanc!' would have been lodged in the imagination of every bourgeois patriot in the nineteenth century. Unlike de Guiche at Bapaume, Henri IV would not have abandoned his commander's sash to get out of a tight corner. 'Mais on n'abdique pas l'honneur d'être une cible' (IV.iv, 1. 1862) mocks Cyrano, who—in yet one more preposterous coup de théâtre in a play that groans beneath their weight—has braved a hail of grapeshot to retrieve the sash. Against superior numbers and superior arms, French courage in its supercharged Gascon form is a priceless asset. In extremis, it may be the only one. No commentator appears to have noticed the significance of Cyrano's contemptuous, and for once laconic, dismissal of his master's cunning plan to break the siege by espionage and subterfuge. De Guiche's complacent lines, as he makes contact with a Spaniard who is in his pay, are of great interest against the background of the ongoing Dreyfus case and what it revealed about mutual suspicion, espionage and manipulation by Germany and France:
C'est un faux espion espagnol. Il nous rend
De grands services. Les renseignements qu'il porte
Aux ennemis sont ceux que je lui donne, en sorte
Que l'on peut influer sur leurs décisions.
(IV.iv, 11. 1876-9)
'C'est un gredin' is Cyrano's opinion of the enemy soldier whose venality is the opportunity for the French to save their skins. It is not the Gascon way. Nor, by implication, should it be the French way. The professional soldier Hulot has a similar view of such methods in Balzac's ambivalent novel about war and social disorder Les Chouans, yet another Romantic novel that Rostand would have known well from his lycée days.
As much as he reinforces an aristocratic ethic of military honour and courage, and pushes back on to his horse, so to speak, an aristocrat who momentarily forget himself, Rostand plays down, indeed totally omits, the real horrors of the Thirty Years' War, the suffering of the common people, famine, riots, insurrections, devastation and religious fanaticism. Callot is mentioned in the second scene of the play, but it is the Callot of the picturesque Caprices (for the purpose of contextualizing Cyrano's grotesque appearance—and his name makes an excellent rime riche with 'falot' !) not the same Callot whose Miseries of War is one of the most poignant records of that tragic era.
The miseries—if that is a strong enough word in respect of a novel in which the large-scale experience of mangled limbs, gangrene, excruciating pain is described in stark and insistent detail—had been a notable feature of Zola's novel about the Franco-Prussian War, La Débâcle. It was published in 1892, some twenty-two years after the event, yet only five years before the first performance of Cyrano de Bergerac. We surely cannot doubt that Rostand was familiar with it, yet in as much as any literary inspiration lay behind Act Four, it is as if he had read nothing since Les Trois Mousquetaires.
In a chapter contributed to a thematic work of war history, Adrienne Hytier notes that in these years 'le nombre de candidatures àSaint-Cyr double', and that revanchards like Déroulède and Maurras fuelled the fires of nationalism.2 About the same time, an antimilitarist, pacifist current—smaller and doubtless socially courageous—began to flow. Writers and journalists such as Abel Hermant, Henri Fèvre, Lucien Descaves and Georges Darien began to pull liberals and left-wing Republicans towards the position adopted by Jean Jaurès in the years immediately preceding the First World War. Rostand had to live with a dilemma. Cyrano de Bergerac could easily be recuperated by nationalists as late as thirty years after the Franco-Prussian War, and it continued to be popular in the run-up to the First World War, in which, if he had been physically fit, Rostand would willingly have been a combatant. Over seventeen thousand copies of the play were sold in 1917 alone; a derived version by Jean Suberville, Cyrano de Bergerac aux tranchées, was published in 1918 with a preface by Rostand. Yet he was far from being the natural ally of the ultra-conservatives who formed their ranks during the precise period of twenty years separating the beginning of the Dreyfus affair and the outbreak of the First World War. It is interesting to note that a copy of Zola's Paris was personally dedicated by him to the playwright when it was published in March 1898. The Rostand who was courageous enough to lend his name to the cause of Dreyfus, in defiance of the pro-military elements and interested parties that might naturally derive satisfaction from, and exploit, the patriotism of Cyrano de Bergerac, was the late Romantic who had transformed a pre-Classical miles gloriosus into a thoroughly nineteenth-century Idealist and Poet. If the play is an apologia for war, it is for war to be fought honorably and in a spirit of idealism, and for its apologists to be the first into the trenches. Rostand may have been naïve, but he was never a rogue.
Le Vicomte: méprisant Poète …!
Cyrano: Oui, monsieur, poète!
(Liv, 1. 394)
Rostand's Cyrano the lover-warrior is also an intellectual, a creator, a poet. Rostand is known to have read most of his seventeenth-century model's work that would have been available for consultation in the 1890s. He also documented himself about the cultural climate of the pre-classical period before Cyrano's death in 1655; he was no stranger to it in any case since his prize-winning essay on d'Urfé and Zola. The Dictionnaire des Précieuses by Somaize (1660), Chappuzeau's Théâtre français (1674) and the Dictionnaire critique de biographie et d'histoire by Auguste Jal (1872) were among a number of scholarly sources called upon. The zeal with which he created an accurate cultural background to the action of Act One has in fact been mildly criticized by Truchet for its naïveté and didacticism. The latter is no doubt right when he situates the reception of Cyrano de Bergerac from a sociological point of view in the educational context of the Third Republic. A section of the audience at the Théâtre de la Porte-Saint-Martin was a popular one. To understand its response, Truchet suggests:
Il faut se reporter aux temps héroïques des débuts de l'enseignement primaire obligatoire. Régnait alors, dans le sillage des instituteurs, un touchant appétit de savoir, une foi quelque peu naïve en l'acquisition des connaissances par toutes sortes de moyens, parmi lesquels le théâtre; on allait voir, certes, Cyrano pour le plaisir, mais on y allait aussi pour s'instruire. D'où parfois, de la part de l'auteur, un didactisme un peu lourd, qui se manifeste particulièrement vers le début de la pièce, pour reconstituer une atmosphère, enseigner des noms (Philippe de Champaigne, Callot, Rotrou par exemple, ou Montfleury, Jodelet, Bellerose), donner des informations sur des hommes célèbres; ainsi ce vers: "Tiens! Monsieur de Corneille est arrivé de Rouen!" (I, ii).
(Truchet edition, pp. 34-5)
Also among the early audiences was one Émile Magne, a young man of twenty very conscious of having far more than a primary education, and eager to demonstrate it. Within months of the first night of the play, his Les Erreurs de documentation de 'Cyrano de Bergerac' (La Revue de France, 1898) lavishes sarcasm on Rostand: 'Entrer un instant àl'Arsenal, compulser quelques livres traitant du XVIIe siècle n'eut [sic] point constitué un acte d'extrême virilité. Mais Monsieur Rostand est un des admirateurs de celui qui établit le fameux principe du moindre effort et sa comédie s'en ressent' (Magne, p. xii). In the end Truchet's aesthetic objections, his reproaches about the clumsy expository style, are more pertinent than Magne's forensic indignation about Rostand's anachronisms. Magne was scandalised that Rostand believed Baro's Clorise was first performed in 1640 (instead of 1631), that Richelieu could have attended a performance of such a mediocre play, that there could ever have been illegal duelling in his presence, etc. Rostand coped serenely with Magne's vituperation and informed him that there were more anachronisms and 'errors' in the play that had not yet been spotted—a teasing provocation to more erudition on Magne's part. The latter's diatribe has most aptly been described by Brun as 'un pavé énorme pour écraser un brillant papillon' (Brun, p. 7): unlike the pavé de l'ours in La Fontaine's fable (and Feydeau's curtain-raiser), this brickbat is certainly not hurled well-meaningly.
Appropriately, Le Pédant joué, Cyrano's only comedy, is the subject of a more arcane clin d'œil by Rostand to the erudite. In the final act, as Cyrano is dying, Ragueneau expresses his disgust that Molière's Les Fourberies de Scapin (not in fact performed until 1671!) has apparently plagiarized Cyrano's comic line, put into the mouth of the pedant Granger: 'Que Diable aller faire dans la Galère d'un Turc?' The literary allusion is this time handled more subtly by Rostand than those of Act One. It is once again an example of what Truchet calls 'les charmes de la pièce pour les spectateurs qui avaient fait des études.' The author flatters his audience by allowing it the satisfaction of supplying the full title of the play referred to as Scapin and of completing Molière's famous line 'Que diable allait-il faire [ … ] dans cette galère?'. The culmination of the intertextual tease for an educated audience participating in a theatrical crossword puzzle is that Rostand does not tell them what play of Cyrano's the line and scene are taken from.
However, the whole incident is of thematic importance. In his dying moments Cyrano is essentialized as generous. 'Chut! Chut! Il a bien fait!' is his comment on Molière's plagiarism, which any of Rostand's audience who had read Les Grotesques would have seen described by Gautier as 'le plus effronté plagiat qu'il se puisse voir'. Ragueneau reports that the scene provoked much laughter. Molière enjoyed a success that with a little more effort and luck on Cyrano's part could have been Cyrano's—and perhaps with a little more probity on Molière's part should have been. Cyrano regrets his lack of success as a writer: 'Oui, ma vie / Ce fut d'être celui qui souffle,—et qu'on oublie!', but is not bitter: 'C'est justice, et j'approuve au seuil de mon tombeau.' The very next line, with its binary rhythm and personal absolutes, encapsulates the nineteenth-century conception of the lover-poet's condition: 'Molière a du génie et Christian était beau'. Cyrano has been graced by neither genius nor beauty, but he has clung proudly to his independence. This interpretation of Cyrano de Bergerac as a Romantic, a dramatic poet who suffers and dies for his principles and for his misfortunes, a noble idealist in a grubby world of hard-headed opportunists, concludes the play and is our abiding vision of Rostand's hero as an incarnation of 'l'esprit français'.
Gautier's vehement denunciation of Molière's plagiarism—if indeed it was one—for being one of the most shameless thefts in cultural history is an appropriate reminder that the Romantic thesis underlying Les Grotesques is fundamental to Rostand's conception of Cyrano qua poet. Not just of Cyrano, but of his fellow-poets Lignières and Ragueneau and the cohort of 'poètes affamés' of the first two acts of the play, the second of which is actually given the title 'La Rôtisserie des Poètes'. Rostand's Lignière is based in name at least on the real François Payot de Lignières (1628-1704) whom Le Bret counted among Cyrano's friends. He incarnates various features of the Romantic tradition of the poet inherited from Rutebeuf and Villon that Gautier and his fellow anti-Classicists would have admired: poor, a lover of the dive bouteille, disapproved of by Boileau, a scourge of the high and mighty—and a potential victim as a consequence ('Une chanson qu'il fit blessa quelqu'un de grand' I.iii, 1. 157). 'Poète!' is the anathema, sufficient as an absolute, thrown at Cyrano by the Vicomte, a representative of the same class that organized the hundred against one ambush of Lignières. With the difference that he is a teetotaller, a detail retained from Le Bret, according to whom Cyrano considered drink to be as lethal as arsenic, but given minimal treatment in the play, Rostand's subversive hero is a kindred spirit to Lignière(s) in making enemies among the influential, with in his case fatal consequences.
For the Romantics, poetry should be what it allegedly once was, a joyous, creative activity, rooted in the life of the common people, before it was appropriated and emasculated by courtiers and academicians in the middle of the seventeenth century. Before then, they imagined, poetry could be loved and created by peasants … and pastrycooks. Once again an important character of the play, Ragueneau, is based on a historical figure. Cyprien Ragueneau was a pastrycook obsessed with poetry—'portant comme un autre Atlas tout le faix de l'Etat poétique' (Dassoucy, Aventures burlesques,)—who finished his days, as in the play, as mediocre an actor as a poet. It is against this background that Rostand's Cyrano must be seen. His opinion of Roxane's précieux friends could not be more forthright: 'des singes' (III.iii, 1. 1297). He is far more at home wherever poetry is spontaneous, improvised for the pleasure of a popular audience—if necessary, while fighting a duel. In Cyrano's case the result is a far better formal ballad than Ragueneau's recipe in verse for tartelettes amandines. Although Rostand omits to exploit a detail to be found in Le Bret—'Je le vis un jour dans un corps de garde travailler à une élégie avec aussi peu de distraction que s'il eût été dans un cabinet fort éloigné du bruit'—clearly, poetic creation in Cyrano de Bergerac is part of everyday life, anything but a salon activity.
The five-act structure chosen by Rostand elides the whole period from 1640 to 1655, in which Cyrano's literary career was concentrated. Yet it cannot be said that the final vision of Cyrano as a poète maudit, the last in a line from Baudelaire to Rimbaud, Verlaine and Laforgue, is inconsistent with the Cyrano of 1640 as portrayed in the earlier acts. In Act Five, de Guiche, now promoted from the comte who fought at Arras to the rank of duc-maréchal, regrets that at the pinnacle of his career he feels 'mille petits dégoûts de soi'. Cyrano, however, while suffering from 'l'abandon, la misère … la solitude, la famine', can take comfort from having always been independent. 'Ne le plaignez pas trop', urges de Guiche, 'il a vécu sans pactes, / Libre dans sa pensée autant que dans ses actes' (Vii, 11. 2307-2308).
Fourteen years earlier de Guiche had offered his personal patronage to Cyrano (II.vii), only to have it indignantly rejected when the latter heard that the price of having his tragedy La Mort d'Agrippine championed might be that Richelieu, de Guiche's uncle, would suggest a few improvements to the versification: 'Impossible, Monsieur; mon sang se coagule / En pensant qu'on y peut changer une virgule' (II.vii, 11. 931-2). When taken to task by Le Bret, Cyrano launches into the powerful 'Non, merci' tirade (II.viii) against being in the pay of a patron, surrendering one's freedom of thought or suffering any violation of the sacrosanct integrity of the artist's personal expression.
The scene is yet another curious amalgam, typical of the patchwork pastiche style of the play. Cyrano's courageous if arrogant declaration of material and intellectual independence at all costs recalls similar sentiments in key works of the Romantic period, most notably Vigny's Chatterton. But a few lines later Rostand pulls a different coloured patch of material out of the scrap box, sews it on the the garment, and the tone changes. The proud poet-martyr modulates into a bile-spitting misanthropist who, artistic integrity suddenly forgotten, wants to be hated: '[Je] m'écrie avec joie: un ennemi de plus!' (II.viii, 1. 1022). Cyrano-Alceste—'Déplaire est mon plaisir. J'aime qu'on me haïsse' (1. 1024)—lambasts the eminently reasonable and long-suffering Le Bret / Philinte for his geniality and social skills. This venomous tribute to 'la Haine' (1. 1035) has the merit of historical plausibility, if no other, in that the theme is nearly contemporary with Le Misanthrope. And even without going so far as to follow Madeleine Alcover in challenging Cyrano's authorship of the Mazarinades (Cyrano relu et corrigé;), it is clear that elsewhere the historical Cyrano could be acerbic and vindictive, in his Lettres satiriques, for example, at the expense of Scarron and Montfleury. Yet seen in the context of Cyrano's profile as a poet, this ex nihilo surge of misanthropy is profoundly unconvincing. The objection must be made that this twenty-line pose fits ill with the nature of Cyrano in the rest of the play. It is difficult to imagine this Cyrano, any more than Molière's Alceste, being tolerated for long in a barrackroom full of fun-loving, Gascon musketeers to whom galéjade and badinage are second nature.
It is as if the above scene has been pasted in at a late stage of the writing, the better to prepare Le Bret's final portrait of Cyrano in Act V:
Ses épÎtres lui font des ennemis nouveaux!
Il attaque les faux nobles, les faux dévots,
Les faux braves, les plagiaires,—tout le monde!
The anaphoric faux is followed up in Cyrano's last delirious speech by a visual rhetoric, for the eye of the reader, in the exclamatioin marks and initial capitals that put one in mind of nothing in nineteenth century poetry so much as Vigny's Les Destinées: 'le Mensonge […'] les Compromis, les Préjugés [… ,] la Sottise'—these are 'tous [s]es vieux ennemis'. It is meant to be an apocalyptic assortment of vices that Cyrano has spent his life combating, only to be defeated. Yet is there not something bland and unspecific about these demons? Via the rhetoric of the repeated faux, the capitalization of the abstract nouns, the hyperbolic tout le monde, Rostand would appear to be straining stylistically—for want of a convincing ideological substance—to enhance the mythic stature of a hallowed Romantic hero, the poet-martyr, who had been around for a very long time by 1897, and about whom he had nothing new to say.
It is a difficult task, yet for achieving by style what can not be achieved by substance Rostand is equalled only by Hugo in nineteenth-century theatre. After four hours of stage time and over two thousand alexandrines he still has a range of literary and scenic tricks to deploy: the dusk, the falling leaves and the autumnal chill; the convent bells and procession of nuns in the background; the pathos worthy of Pixérécourt: 'Ma mère / Ne m'a pas trouvé beau. Je n'ai pas eu de sœur' (the latter historical inaccuracy would bring the tally to over fifty if Magne were still counting); delirious visions of happier times; Quixotic hallucinations; the grandiose, Pascalian infinities of the last line of the epitaph he has composed for himself, 'Cyrano de Bergerac / Qui fut tout et qui ne fut rien' (V.vi, 11. 2539-40); the faux-sublime of possibly the most famous line in the play, 'Non, non, c'est bien plus beau lorsque c'est inutile!' (1. 2557); the gallows humour àla Villon of the play on words: 'je crois qu'elle [la mort] regarde … / Qu'elle ose regarder mon nez, cette Camarde' (11. 2553-4); the death of the hero, sword in hand, like Bayard and Roland at the foot of a tree; like them, he is a Christian knight, 'chez Dieu' (that has been hinted at throughout this act); the dying Beast kissed by Beauty in the last line of the play (a profane form of extreme unction); and finally a slow fade on the aristocratic emblem of the ethos of the whole play, one of the most famous curtain-lines in French theatre:'Mon panache'. Two other emblems, the laurel and the rose, he has yielded up; but, like Henri IV, he is inseparable in death from the legend of his panache. No 1830s' Romantic poet, champion of liberty and martyr to truth, ever had a death scene quite like this.
But what of the Savinien de Cyrano de Bergerac who inspired hostile cabals of real 'dévots', whose La Mort d'Agrippine was a source of scandal because of the implicit atheism of Sejanus's lines:
Étais-je malheureux lorsque je n'étais pas?
Une heure après la mort, notre âme évanouie
Sera ce qu'elle était une heure avant la vie.
and who, in the same play, punning on the words hostie and latin hostia (victim), exposed himself to charges of blasphemy? The Cyrano de Bergerac who would have liked to see Cardinal Mazarin flambé; who published a satirical letter 'Contre un Jé … [Jésuite] assassin et médisant', and whose États et empires de la Lune was purged of potentially dangerous impieties when it was published by the well-meaning Le Bret and de Sercy in 1657? What of Cyrano de Bergerac libertin, in short?
The answer is, not much. It is true that Rostand has made a conspicuous and dramatically effective call on the last-named text. In Act Three, scene 13, de Guiche has to be prevented for just a quarter of an hour from reaching Roxane's house. Rostand has Cyrano pretend to fall back to earth after his journey to the moon, and succeed in distracting Guiche by describing the methods he used for his journey (a virtuoso passage for once poorly exploited in the [Jean-Paul] Rappeneau film). Rostand succinctly recycles five to be found in Les États et empires de la Lune and one from Le Soleil, and invents one of his own for good measure. The scene is an imaginative piece of comic writing worthy of Molière and Beaumarchais. But that is the limit of Rostand's appropriation of this major Cyrano text. When read in conjunction with its companion volume, Les États et empires du Soleil, under the convenience title L'Autre Monde, it is regarded as an early work of comic philosophical fiction on the path that leads to Fontenelle, Swift and Voltaire. Rostand of course, like everyone else before 1910, had access only to the 1862 Paul Lacroix edition of the text, expurgated by the timorous Le Bret in 1657. At various points Lacroix indicates in footnotes that 'il y a ici une lacune; mais nous croyons reconnaÎtre que Cyrano avait mis Adam et le Paradis Terrestre dans la lune' (p. 129) and 'on peut supposer que Cyrano racontait comment il avait cueilli un fruit sur l'arbre de la Science' (p. 132). Even allowing for the incompleteness of the edition available to Rostand, the author has responded only in a limited way to the stimulus of what it was nevertheless still known to contain. As Pierre Brun puts it, in the first scholarly study of Cyrano's work, in 1893: 'il y a dans son roman des questions audacieuses et ardues, sinon résolues, du moins posées' (p. 247). Rostand has steered a careful course wide of Savinien de Cyrano the freethinker and of the whole area of religious controversy associated with him in the seventeenth century.
The first two lines of the epitaph composed by Rostand's Cyrano for himself are 'Philosophe, physicien / Rimeur, bretteur, musicien' (V.vi, 11. 2533-4). Neither here or anywhere else in the play is the world libertin found. Although Rostand subscribes to the legend that the log that fell on Cyrano's head was aimed, he omits that part of the legend that would have it that the aiming was done by, or at the instigation of, Jesuits. In Rostand's version, de Guiche has heard a rumour that Cyrano could soon have an accident, but it is implicit that the organisers of it are secular. Religious fanaticism and intolerance—the real demons that could have fatal consequences for a libertin in the seventeenth century—are significant by their absence from the phantoms hallucinated by Cyrano in his delirium. Furthermore a part of the legend about Cyrano's death that Rostand does accept, as unprovable as the imputation of Jesuit involvement, is that he died chrétiennement. It is true that he has Cyrano believe his place in 'paradise'—alongside Socrates and Galileo—will be 'dans la lune opaline', but that is the merest salute to the tradition of Cyrano the freethinker. Rather more does it accord with the image of Cyrano the dying clown, a pierrot even more appropriately lunaire than any other at the end of the nineteenth century.
The fact remains that despite this Rostandian quirk and the absence of formal last rites, Cyrano has asked Sœur Marthe to pray for his soul and made his intentions clear. The convent of the Dames de la Croix and its good-hearted nuns could hardly have been depicted more reverentialy. Jacques Prévot has argued that 'L'Autre Monde est un poème' and that 'Cyrano est notre premier poète scientifique en prose' (Cyrano de Bergerac romancier, p. 130), That is surely true, and it must be concluded that his poet, the courageous explorer of alternative secular universes, whose place in the intellectual history of the seventeenth century was being established about the time Rostand was writing, is separated, if not in light years, at least by a considerable distance from the 'vieil ami qui vient pour être drôle'.
The Nose and the Man
'Rostand ne semble rien devoir aux Grotesques de Gautier, si ce n'est peut-être l'idée d'attacher au nez de son héros l'importance que l'on sait.' (Truchet, p. 36). Although we would not agree that Rostand's conception of Cyrano and of the poetic calling genèrally owes almost nothing to Gautier, the second half of this quotation certainly rings true. As already seen, the historical Cyrano's nose was the cause for mirth for at least two seventeenth century commentators, Dassoucy and Ménage, despite which he had enough aplomb to incorporate a substantial comic passage on the merits of big noses into the États et empires de la Lune. Not only did every self-respecting inhabitant of the moon use his nose as a sundial but he was prepared to castrate every male child born with a small nose. What was a barbarie to the traveller was a practice reflecting thirty centuries of accumulated wisdom for the lunarians:
Nous le faisons après avoir observé depuis trente siècles qu'un grand nez est, à la porte de chez nous, une enseigne qui dit: Céans loge un homme spirituel, prudent, courtois, affable, généreux et libéral; et qu'un petit est le bouchon des vices opposés; c'est pourquoi des camus on bâtit les Eunuques, par ce que la république aime mieux n'avoir point d'enfants d'eux que d'en avoir de semblables àeux.
(Œuvres complètes, p. 416).
This is clearly the passage that Rostand, prompted by Gautier's gloss in Les Grotesques, used as his source for Cyrano's apostrophe to the bumbling 'Fâcheux':
Vil camus, sot camard, tête plate, apprenez
Que je m'enorgueillis d'un pareil appendice,
Attendu qu'un grand nez est proprement l'indice
D'un homme affable, bon, courtois, spirituel,
Libéral, courageux, tel que je suis …
(I.iv, 11. 290-94)
Another clear, if shorter echo of an original Cyrano text is heard in the next scene, when Cyrano laments to Le Bret that because of 'ce nez qui d'un quart d'heure en tous lieux me précède', he is doomed to remain unloved, 'même par une laide'. This is obviously inspired by Genevote's description to his face of Granger's appearance in Le Pédant joué. Amid an epic catalogue of ugly features, the nose stands out: 'son nez mérite bien une égratignure particulière. Cet authentique nez arrive partout un quart d'heure devant son MaÎtre; Dix savetiers de raisonnable rondeur vont travailler dessous à couvert de la pluie' (Œuvres complètes, p. 202). Cyrano was thus ambiguous on the subject of noses: allegedly irascible as regards his own (chalking up ten deaths in duels, according to the Menagiana), yet capable on at least two occasions in his work of exploiting the comic potential of a prime specimen. It so happens that in presenting it, in La Lune, as an indicator of all the moral virtues, and its opposite as a sign of viciousness or of extreme dullness at the least, Cyrano the seventeenth-century humanist was continuing a long tradition of ancient and Renaissance 'nose literature' (to use Coleman Parsons's phrase—p. 235), much of which he may have been familiar with. A late sixteenth-century text referred to briefly in this Parsons nose survey is a treatise by the Italian surgeon Gaspare Tagliacozzi, De Curtorum Chirurgia. With woodcut illustrations demonstrating his techniques, Tagliacozzi claimed to to be able to graft on noses from the skin of the upper arm for the benefit of gentlemen who had lost their noses as a result of what was euphemistically known as 'duelling' (he had worked in Naples). Yet there appears to have been no call for the resourceful rhinoplast's services from the over-endowed. The work may have been known to our humanist touche-à-tout, providing ammunition, as it conceivably could, to one with a sufficient degree of wit and malevolence, for a belief in the viciousness of the nasally challenged.
Although he has felicitously recycled what might just be perceived as a nose complex in Cyrano, Rostand can have known little of the long humanist tradition that lay behind it. Nor, to move on to a human science that was more his own contemporary, could he have foreseen mat modern anthropologists would point to non-European traditions which throw interesting light on his particular handling of the theme:
Le nez, comme l'œil, est un symbole de clairvoyance, de perspicacité, de discernement, mais plus intuitif que raisonné.
Pour les Bambaras, le nez est, avec la jambe, le sexe et la langue, un des quatre ouvriers de la société. Organe de flair, qui décèle les sympathies et les antipathies, il oriente les désirs et les paroles, guide la marche de la jambe, et complète en somme l'action des trois autres ouvriers responsables du bon ou du mauvais fonctionnement de la collectivité.
Au Japon, les orgueilleux et les vantards passent pour avoir de longs nez …3
Intuitive, hypersensitive, articulate, boastful, Rostand's Cyrano is all of these, in so far as such characteristics are believed to be enjoyed by the nasally conspicuous, the nasigères, as they were known in the author's Marseille schooldays. Even, too, as an expert swordsman, nimble on his legs—le nez [ … ] guide la marche de la jambe.' But for the Bambaras of West Africa, for whom the leg complements the nose and the tongue in the passage quoted above, there is a fourth vital appendage for harmonious living, the sexual organ. Is Rostand's hero conspicuous in this respect?
In the section on Love, we have already noted that Rostand's treatment of the theme throughout the play is chaste, idealized, chivalric. For all we know, Christiane, Roxane and Cyrano all die virgins. The ribald, even salacious, tone to be detected in some of the original Savinien de Cyrano's writing is absent from the play. Rostand is similarly austere as regards any inspiration he can have drawn from Les Grotesques; Gautier's essay begins with a sly but clear allusion to the folk belief that a long nose is a sign of a long penis: 'beaucoup de physiologistes femelles tirent aussi de la dimension de cette honnête partie du visage un augure on ne peut plus avantageux' (Les Grotesques, p. 231). Among modem critics, Citti and Besnier draw attention to the potential as a phallic symbol of a nose as grotesquely long as Cyrano's in the play, yet are hard pressed to account for Rostand's diffidence in the matter. In Besnier's words, 'Qui aura deviné que [le nez] était (redoublé, en outre, d'une prompte épée) phallique? Rostand dit bien des choses en somme de ce nez, mais pas celle-là : preuve, si l'on veut, que c'est la seule qui compte' (Besnier edition, p. 20). It is well said: Rostand is surprisingly coy. Par pudeur, the author who ten years earlier preferred d'Urfé to Zola is choosing to ignore at least two allusions that must have been quite clear to him: one blatant, in a French grivois tradition, Gautier's titillating reference to the 'physiologistes femelles'; one less so, if more interestingly Freudian avant la lettre, the lunarians' choice of castration as a fate for all infant males unfortunate enough to be born with small noses.
Although the play is replete with verbal audacities, the only one of them that is sexually allusive concerns Cyrano's sword, not his nose: 'La pudeur vous défend de voir ma lame nue?' (Liv, 1. 227). Yet the significance of his nose for a consideration of his maleness, his virility, his virtù, is inescapable. Rostand's Cyrano, possessor of an enormous nose, is aggressive in his relations with other assertive or prominent males. He fences verbally or literally with the Fâcheux, Valvert, Montfleury, de Guiche, the Gascons. He flaunts and flashes his sword, his tongue … his nose.
To Lignière and Ragueneau, however, males who are victims, he is compassionate and protective. The only woman to whom he is assertive is the latter's flirtatious wife, Lise, (she leads Ragueneau … by the nose, as it were). With all other women, the distributrice, Roxane, the nuns, he is shy, inhibited, tearful, ashamed of his nose. His sword stays sheathed. And not just his sword: he would appear to share with Christian the implausible record of being the only French soldier in the Thirty Years' War to die a virgin. The man who will take on a hundred men at one time with his sword nearly faints and has to be held up by Le Bret when he is faced with the prospect of meeting Roxane face to face. It is only via the personne interposée of Christian that he can court her, and when the latter is dead the play is four-fifths over. Is it not tempting to see the fourteen-year-long relationship he then lives with Roxane—an unnecessarily platonic relationship—as proof that it is a sublimated homosexual love for Christian that he is mourning? Cyrano's exorbitant nose, then, is a kind of commedia mask, an ostensible symbol of virility, yet which by virtue of its very enormity prevents, and above all protects, the vir from having to do what a vir has to do.
1Émile Magne, Le Cyrano de l'Histoire, p. 5.
2'Ambiguïté et contradictions (XIXe siècle)', in La Guerre (Paris: Bordas, 'Les Thèmes Littéraires', 1975), pp. 117-34 [pp. 123-4].
3'Le Nez', in J. Chevalier and A. Gheerbrant, Dictionnaire des symboles (Paris: Laffont, 1982), p. 666. Italics supplied.
Unless otherwise indicated, French texts are published in Paris. Textual citations give author's name, then page number.
I Annotated editions
Ashton, Harry Cyrano de Bergerac. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1942.
Aziza, Claude Cyrano de Bergerac. Presses Pocket, coll. 'Lire et Voir les Classiques', 1989.
Besnier, Patrick Cyrano de Bergerac. Gallimard, 'Folio', 1983.
Bird, Edward A. Cyrano de Bergerac. Toronto: Methuen, 1968.
Citti, Pierre Cyrano de Bergerac. Livre de Poche, 1990.
Lauxerois, Pierre Cyrano de Bergerac. Bordas, 1988.
Pavis, Patrice Cyrano de Bergerac, (with preface by P. Barillet). Livre de Poche, 1983.
——. Cyrano de Bergerac. Larousse, 1991.
Spens, Willy de Cyrano de Bergerac. Garnier-Flammarion, 1989.
Truchet, Jacques Cyrano de Bergerac. (Éditions de L'Imprimerie nationale, 1983.
Woollen, Geoff Cyrano de Bergerac. Bristol: Bristol Classical Press, 1994.
II English Translations
Burgess, Anthony Cyrano de Bergerac. London: Hutchinson, 1985.
Hooker, Brian Cyrano de Bergerac. New York: Henry Holt, 1923.
Morgan, Edwin Cyrano de Bergerac. Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1992.
Norman, Henderson Plays of Edmond Rostand. New York: Macmillan, 1921.
III Books and articles on Rostand and his theatre
Amoia, Alba della F. Edmond Rostand. Boston: Twayne, (World's Authors Series, no. 420), 1978.
Boillot, Félix 'La Construction de la phrase dans Cyrano de Bergerac', Le Français moderne, VU (1939), 301-316.
Calvet, Jean Les Types universels dans la littérature française. Lanore, 1963, 2 vols. ('Cyrano', vol. I, pp. 173-90).
Gérard, Rosemonde Edmond Rostand. Charpentier et Fasquelle, 1935.
Grieve, J.W. L'Œuvre dramatique d'Edmond Rostand. Les Œuvres représentatives, 1931.
Haugmard, Louis Edmond Rostand. Sansot, 1910.
Howarth, W.D. Sublime and Grotesque: A Study of French Romantic Drama. London: Harrap, 1975.
Magne, Émile Les Erreurs de documentation de "Cyrano de Bergerac." La Revue de France, 1898.
Rictus, Jehan Un "bluff" littéraire, le cas Edmond Rostand. P. Sevin et E. Rey, 1903.
Ripert, Émile Edmond Rostand, sa vie et son œuvre. Hachette, 1968.
Vernois, Paul 'Architecture et écriture théâtrales dans Cyrano de Bergerac', Travaux de linguistique et de littérature de l'Université de Strasbourg, IV, 2 (1966), 111-38.
Williams, Patricia 'Some Classical Aspects of Cyrano de Bergerac', Nineteenth-Century French Studies, I, 2 (1973), 112-24.
IV Cyrano de Bergerac and his times
Alcover, Madeleine La Pensée philosophique et scientifique de Cyrano de Bergerac. Geneva: Droz, 1970.
——. Cyrano relu et corrigé. Geneva: Droz, 1990.
Brun, Pierre Savinien de Cyrano Bergerac, sa vie et ses œuvres, d'après des documents inédits. Armand Colin, 1893.
——. Savinien de Cyrano Bergerac, gentilhomme parisien: l'histoire et la légende de Lebret àM. Rostand. Daragon, 1909.
Cyrano de Bergerac Histoire comique des états et empires de la lune et du soleil, ed. P.L. Jacob [i.e. Paul Lacroix, 'Le Bibliophile Jacob'], Delahays, 1858; republished by Galic, 1962). Contains Henry Labret's biographical preface of 1656.
——. Œuvres complètes, ed. Jacques Prévot. Belin, 1977.
Gautier, Théophile Les Grotesques, ed. Cecilia Rizza. Fasano/Paris: Schena/Nizet, 1985.
Goldin, Jeanne Cyrano de Bergerac et l'art de la pointe. Presses de l'Université de Montréal, 1973.
Harth, Erica Cyrano de Bergerac and the Polemics of Modernity. Columbia University Press., 1970. Jal, Auguste Dictionnaire critique de biographie et d'histoire. Plon, 1872.
Knight, Joseph 'The Real Cyrano de Bergerac', The Fortnightly Review, LXX (1898), 207-15.
Lachèvre, Frédéric Les Œuvres libertines de Cyrano de Bergerac. Paris, 1920; Geneva: Slatkine Reprints, 1968.
Mason, Haydn Cyrano de Bergerac: 'L'Autre Monde '. London: Grant and Cutler, 1984.
Mongrédien, Georges Cyrano de Bergerac. Berger-Levrault, 1964.
Parsons, Coleman O. 'The Nose of Cyrano de Bergerac', The Romanic Review, 25 (1934), 225-35.
Prévot, Jacques Cyrano de Bergerac romancier. Belin, 1977.
——. Cyrano de Bergerac poète et dramaturge. Belin, 1978.
Scruggs, CE. Charles Dassoucy: Adventures in the Age of Louis XIV. Lanham, Md., University Press of America, 1984.
Spink, John French Free-Thought from Gassendi to Voltaire. London: Athlone Press, 1960.
V Background and thematic studies
Chaboche, Robert 'Les Soldats français de la guerre de trente ans, une tentative d'approche' La Revue d'histoire moderne et contemporaine, XX (1973), 10-24.
Hemmings, F.W.J. The Theatre Industry in Nineteenth-Century France. Cambridge University Press, 1993.
Henderson, John A. The First Avant-Garde (1887-1894): Sources of the Modem French Theatre. London: Harrap, 1971.
Parker, Geoffrey (ed.) The Thirty Years' War. London & New York: Routledge, 1984.
Reader, Keith 'Le Phénomène Cyrano: Perceptions of French Cinema in Britain', Franco-British Studies, XV (1993), 3-9.
Shattuck, Roger The Banquet Years: The Arts in France, 1885-1918. London: Faber and Faber, 1955).
Treasure, G.R.R. Seventeenth-Century France. London: Murray, 2nd. ed., 1981.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 247
Bentley, Eric. "Cyrano de Bergerac, 1897." In The Play: A Critical Anthology, pp. 10-147. New York: Prentice-Hall, 1951.
Presents a brief introduction, the Humbert Wolf translation of the Cyrano de Bergerac, and an afterword covering a number of issues, including the plot, characters, themes, and dialogue of the play.
Burgess, Anthony. Preface to Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand, translated and adapted by Anthony Burgess, pp. v-xiv. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1971.
Discussion of the task of translating Cyrano de Bergerac that touches on issues of Rostand's style and versification.
Butler, Mildred Allen. "The Historical Cyrano de Bergerac as a Basis for Rostand's Play." Educational Theatre Journal VI, No. 3 (October 1954): 231-40.
Compares Rostand's character with the historical figure and attempts to account for the playwright's deviations from fact in his play.
Cohen, Helen Louise. Introduction to Cyrano de Bergerac. In Milestones of the Drama, pp. 347-56. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1940.
Includes an account of Rostand's dramatic career, background on the historical Cyrano de Bergerac, and a bibliography of secondary sources.
Kilker, J. A. "Cyrano without Rostand: An Appraisal." The Canadian Modern Language Review XXI, No. 3 (Spring 1965): 21-5.
Examines the work of the real Cyrano de Bergerac, himself the author of two plays.
Additional coverage of Rostand's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Research: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 104,126; Discovering Authors; Discovering Authors, British Edition; Discovering Authors, Canadian Edition; Discovering Authors: Modules, Dramatists and Most-Studied Authors Modules; Major 20th-Century Writers; Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vols. 6, 37.
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