Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 463
L’AIGLON belongs to a period of dramatic history in which plays were considered chiefly as performing vehicles for star actors or actresses. It is rich in dramatic speeches, filled with elaborate rhetoric and poetry, yet it is essentially static. Perhaps the reason for this fault lies with the protagonist more than with the author, for the Duke of Reichstadt is a weak and vacillating individual. He devotes, in this long and rambling play, much time and energy to proclaiming the need to act, but never acts. Indecisive and full of self-pity, he bemoans his fate to everyone who will listen. If the quality of his speeches were not on such a high level, he would be one of the greatest bores in dramatic literature. The play does not at any time reach the heights of CYRANO DE BERGERAC, and its alexandrines carry to excess the dislocation already visible in that finer play.
Rostand wished to be thought of as the poet of bravery in quest of an unattainable ideal, and made more noble by its heroic paradox, but he worked much better with a more dynamic hero. It is difficult for an audience to sympathize with impossible goals unless the protagonist is willing to fight for them. Style, or panache, Rostand’s self-proclaimed ideal, is not enough for a six-act drama.
Rostand’s plays were hailed as a welcome reaction against the naturalistic drama of the period, but they actually were Romanticism brought up to date, with new symbols woven into old fabrics. Rostand was the master of language and rhyme and was able to construct speeches that were as moving as they were beautiful. L’AIGLON will survive chiefly because of its sentiment and poetry, although it fails as a piece of dramatic craftsmanship. The characterizations are highly stylized, as if each individual in the drama is consciously playing a part; the result is that the audience seems to see masks upon masks and poses upon poses. The only characters who possess a substantial reality are Metternich, the Emperor Franz, and—occasionally—Marie-Louise, the young duke’s mother. But even they seem often to be partaking in a glorious pageant rather than trying to survive a real-life crisis.
Much attention is paid, in both dialogue and stage instructions, to settings and costumes. The exquisite gowns and elaborate uniforms seem almost to assume symbolic status; certainly, the white uniform with the scarlet-lined cape and eagle buttons that the duke orders for himself is intended as a symbol of his lost glory and power. At the end of the play, the audience or reader pities the duke, but cannot feel that his end was in any way tragic. The Duke of Reichstadt simply did not possess the stature to be a tragic hero.