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.