Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1875
Edmond Rostand’s sympathetic treatment of sensitive people is as evident in his portrait of Napoleon’s idealistic but hesitant son as it is in that of his ugly but unselfish Cyrano de Bergerac. L’AIGLON is a verse drama in six acts, much of which must be cut, because of time limitations, when the play is presented on the modern stage. Either way, in print or on the stage, L’AIGLON is an impressive play. Perhaps the reason CYRANO DE BERGERAC is better known is that the historical feeling is not there so binding, whereas in L’AIGLON the character presented will always be known in history as the weak son of a dominant father.
Marie-Louise, daughter of the Emperor Franz of Austria, had rented a villa at Baden, near Vienna, for herself, her retinue, and her son Franz. Franz had been given the title of Duke of Reichstadt by the Austrians as a sop to his feelings when they all but imprisoned him in that country to keep him from arousing the French to follow Napoleon’s son as they had followed Napoleon himself.
Marie-Louise pretended a greater sorrow for her husband’s death than she truly felt; actually she would have been happy enough living again at the Austrian court if it had not been for Franz, whose sorrow was so deep that he took no interest in anything his mother suggested.
Count Metternich was Franz’s official jailer, though such a term was never used. It was he who arranged the police guard, under Count Sedlinsky, to spy on every moye L’Aiglon made. Metternich allowed Franz to ride his horses where he would, but always there was an unseen guard along. Metternich also provided tutors for the lad, but they were warned never to speak Napoleon’s name. Even the boy’s history lessons were given without mention of Napoleon’s exploits.
L’Aiglon was then a frail, blond lad of eighteen. He was not strong, his cough leaving him strength only to ride the horses he loved and to find a way to learn his father’s history. But there were many people in Austria who were willing to back his bid to return as Francois, Emperor of France. The Austrian soldiers in his regiment admired his spirit and were known to cry out, “Long live Napoleon!” against the orders of those who wanted them to call out only, “Long live the duke!” The French exiles, hoping against hope, noted in reports from Paris that all the theaters were running plays about Napoleon, and that there was a cry going up to take his ashes back to Paris. The tailor and the fitter L’Aiglon’s mother brought from Paris turned out to be Bonapartists, the fitter being his cousin, the Countess Camerata. But the real history of his father he learned from a little dancer, Fanny Elssler, who memorized the stories of Napoleon’s campaigns and recited them to him.
A year later, after he had found a cache of books on Napoleon in Franz’s room at Schoenbrunn, Metternich allowed Franz to read all the books he pleased, but he set the guards even stronger around the young duke. For a while he deprived Franz of Prokesch, a Bonapartist friend, but Franz’s aunt, the archduchess, persuaded Metternich to let Prokesch come back. In return she exacted a promise from Franz that he would ask the emperor, his grandfather, to let him go back to France before he made any other plans with his friends.
Franz and Prokesch began plotting, however, using wooden soldiers on a table top to map battle strategy. The soldiers, which had been in Austrian colors heretofore, were now painted in French uniforms, exact to the last button. Metternich surprised the boys while they planned their battles and had the soldiers thrown away. At the same time Franz realized that the lackey who had guarded him most was also a friend, a man who had been a foot soldier in Napoleon’s army for seventeen years. He had repainted the wooden soldiers and he raised the most hope in Franz’s heart. Though Franz himself knew he was like a child with his nose pressed against a glass wishing for things in a store window, Flambeau, the lackey, gave him enough confidence to vow that he would return to France.
In the meantime Emperor Franz, having come to Schoenbrunn, held an audience for his subjects. In a grandfatherly way he granted many requests including one from his disguised grandson, who asked to go to his father’s land. When Franz threw off his Tirolean disguise, the emperor closed the audience chamber. Just as Franz had persuaded his grandfather to let him go back to France as emperor, Metternich appeared. He seemed to agree that Franz might rule in France, but he set up so many obstacles that Franz realized he had been tricked.
That night Franz left one of his father’s old tricorn hats on his table as a signal to Flambeau that he would enter the plot to return to Paris. Overjoyed at seeing the hat, Flambeau took off his lackey’s suit to show his old French uniform beneath. Metternich, having come into the room with his private key, was almost persuaded by Flambeau that Napoleon himself was sleeping in the next room. The shock of seeing the slender, trembling Franz instead of his heavy-set father appear was nearly as bad for Metternich as it was for Flambeau. Flambeau escaped through a window.
Then Metternich tore Franz’s pride to ribbons as he stood the boy in front of the mirror and pointed out how weak he looked, how feeble his brow and hands were, how like the Hapsburgs—but not at all like Napoleon.
Metternich gave a fancy dress ball in the Roman ruins in the park at Schoenbrunn. Among the costumed crowds it was easy for Franz’s confederates, Flambeau and Fanny Elssler, to have him change cloaks with his cousin, the Countess Camerata, who was dressed in a uniform exactly like L’Aiglon’s. While the ever-vigilant guards followed her, Franz went with Flambeau to Wagram Field, where horses were to be waiting for their escape.
But they were early and the horses were not ready. Then, as Franz was getting into his saddle to ride for the border, he heard of a plot against him. Realizing that the killers would find the countess in his place, he started to turn back. The countess herself, having escaped, came up begging him to flee. Too late he realized that the police had caught up with him. His fellow conspirators crept away, except for Flambeau, who killed himself rather than face a firing squad. As he was dying, Flambeau thought he was back in the thick of the battle fought on Wagram Field many years before. Franz, carrying on the pretense, told him where each regiment stood, which advanced, which won, how Napoleon raised his hand in sign of victory. As Flambeau breathed his last, voices of Napoleon’s long-dead troops sounded across the field. Franz realized he would have to make a great sacrifice to match those the French soldiers had made there long ago.
A short time later, as Franz lay on his deathbed, his family tried to keep from him the seriousness of his condition. He realized something was wrong when the archduchess got up from her own sick-bed to see him. When Franz and his aunt went into a smaller room for mass, the Austrian royal family gathered quietly in his bedroom; it was the Austrian custom for the whole family to be present at a royal death. Prokesch came with the countess, bringing Therese, the little French exile Franz loved. An old general, who had been the duke’s aide, watched at the door to see when Franz would partake of the Holy Bread. Then he opened the door quietly so the family could see the lad for the last time. A sob, escaping from Therese, reached the duke’s ears and he realized that his time had come.
After sending away the Austrian family, but keeping the Frenchmen with him, Francois, Prince of France, had the old general read to him the account of the christening in Paris of Napoleon’s son. With the Te Deum following that account, Francois died.
Further Critical Evaluation of the Work:
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.
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