by Charles Marowitz
(Swans - February 23, 2009) Edmond Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac is now one hundred and twelve years old -- written shortly before its first production in 1897. It is an old war horse that has weathered a lot of campaigns and seems to be well-armored for many more. No glue factory for this old dobbin.
Like most adolescents, I fell in love with Cyrano around the time I started high school. The love affair was consummated when the Stanley Kramer film starring Jose Ferrer appeared making concrete the fanciful longings stirred by the text. By the time I reached the age of discretion, I thought back to Cyrano as one would a teenaged romance, which, though largely an infatuation, still left indelible marks. As one became aware of the riches of Shakespeare and Marlowe, Dryden and Webster, Edmond Rostand's talent -- in retrospect -- appeared brittle, even negligible. Later on however, after one had become somewhat weighed down with heavyweight classics, one returned with a renewed appreciation for the simpler pleasures of works like Cyrano. In one's maturity, it became clear that art, like food, had different densities -- and sometimes a burger and a milkshake were preferable to a four-course dinner and provided a gastronomic high of an entirely different order.
It is Edmond Rostand's curse that one always begins by qualifying his talent and apologizing for his work -- as if liking Rostand was tantamount to culturally slumming. This is an impulse that never arises when watching his play but seems to be unavoidable in critical evaluations. But just as Herrick and Campion need suffer no sense of inferiority when compared to Shakespeare and Marlowe, so there is no need for us to justify our liking for Rostand. In fact, to put things into proper perspective, Cyrano de Bergerac is a far sturdier piece of craftsmanship than Pericles or The Siege at Rhodes, confirmed by the fact that it has not been out of the modern repertoire since Benoit Constant Coquelin first plastered on his giant proboscis over a hundred years ago.
The last thing Rostand is interested in is the well-made play. Like his rambunctious hero, he instinctively recoils from anything as prefabricated as that. There are whole chunks of the play that, judged by established playwriting techniques, could be deleted because they do not help the plot culminate to that point of resolution to which traditional plays usually tend. But if one did delete them, one would be losing the pearls that give the crown its glitter. Apply the traditional yardstick to a work like The Importance of Being Earnest and you could reach the same conclusion -- but the virtues of that play, as with Cyrano, are in the amplifications, the digressions, the, if you like, irrelevancies. Sometimes it is texture that determines the quality of content and in such cases, one must revere the peculiarities of a text as one does the peculiar characteristics of an individual who, outsize and unpredictable, is, for those very reasons, more fascinating.
The play is predicated on the irresistible lie that wit, talent, and personal panache cannot only compensate a man for physical ugliness but also enable him to triumph over competition that is patently more attractive. It is the pipe dream of every acne-ridden schoolboy and tubby, balding Romeo who watches the good-looking jock waltz off with the most desirable campus queen. It elevates the idea of esthetic worth to a height as fanciful as it is unreal. Perhaps that is why the play is juvenile in the very best sense of that word and, for over a century, has been so highly appreciated by the very young. Its own intrinsic romanticism speaks persuasively to people who have not yet lost their sense of romance. It is redolent of the fairy tales on which children have been weaned. It is a literary extrapolation of Beauty and the Beast, The Ugly Duckling, and all those other fables where unprepossessing heroes improbably win the hands of fairy princesses. In other words, it nourishes the fantasy quotient in men and women that, unfortunately, diminishes as they grow older and wiser -- i.e., mundane and cynical. It is, if you like, children's theatre on the very highest level because, mythic roots notwithstanding, its branches yield the succulent fruit of lyric poetry.
Cyrano de Bergerac, sometimes Hercule de Bergerac, often referred to as Savininen de Cyrano de Bergerac, was born in Paris in 1619 and brought up by a country priest in a small private school. It was there that he first met his friend Henri Lebet -- a friendship that was to last a lifetime. When certain strains began to appear in the relations between teacher and pupil, Cyrano was sent back to Paris where he was put under the charge of an even more disagreeable disciplinarian called Grangier, later cruelly characterized by the author in a comedy entitled Le Pedant Joué.
Once in the capitol, Cyrano conspicuously sowed his wild oats, so much so that his father threatened to disown him. Lebet, Horatio to Cyrano's Hamlet, effected a reconciliation of sorts and persuaded his friend to join him in the gardes nobles under the command of the very same Captain Carbon de Castel Jaloux who inhabits the play. It was here that Cyrano acquired the nickname le démon de bravoure and lived up to that name with several foolhardy acts of bravery.
Between l648 and l653 he lived an itinerant life and then entered the service of the Duc d'Arpajon to whom he dedicated several of the books written during that period. Like Alfred Jarry, whom he spiritually resembles, Cyrano's most significant early work was inspired by profound contempt for a repellent authority figure. (Clearly there was an abundance of Père Ubus in the French educational system of the 17th century as there were two centuries later.) His play The Death of Agrippine, which appeared in 1654, was dedicated to his patron, the Duc d'Arpajon, but its atheism caused such a violent reaction, the Duke tried to distance himself from both the work and its author. After making innumerable highly-placed enemies, he was wounded by a piece of timber dropped from an upper story of the Duke's residence just as he was entering the grounds. The Duke, out of concern (or possibly to rid himself of his troublesome charge) suggested it might be best for Cyrano to recuperate in the country, which, rankling at his patron's callousness, he did. It was during this period of enforced convalescence that attempts were made to convert Cyrano to Catholicism. Lebret claimed the efforts were successful but since Cyrano forsook this gaggle of religious zealots five days before his death, it is more likely that he died an atheist -- at the home of his cousin, Pierre de Cyrano -- in September 1655.
The size of Cyrano's nose is also a matter of historical fact and, like his namesake in Rostand's play, he gloried in it. From firsthand accounts of those who have seen portraits of the soldier-poet, it was "monumental" -- an object that far surpassed Durante's schnozzola. As to his quarrel with the actor Montfleury, that too is anecdotally accurate. Cyrano did ban him from the stage for a month and when the actor attempted to break the ban, Cyrano did beard him in his own den to the consternation of a vociferous audience, many of whom were more predisposed to Montfleury than to Cyrano. His fanciful pseudo-scientific writings still exist in French, the most fascinating being his imaginary voyages to the moon and the sun that predate Swift's Gulliver's Travels and are strongly reminiscent of it. It is inconceivable that Jules Verne did not come under Cyrano's influence; his works ran to several editions for three centuries after his death.
Is this the same Cyrano that Rostand has rendered? Not in every particular. Cyrano himself was a rather scurrilous and aggressive antagonist who took great joy in cruelly demolishing his enemies -- and not always with great style or elegance. But in the life of Cyrano there is an "against-the-grain" quality that clearly appealed to the playwright who himself ran counter to the theatrical fashion of his day and who may have used the historical character as a ramrod to batter the new naturalistic tendencies that he despised. But there is no denying the fact that because there is a real, decipherable, flesh-and-blood personage behind Rostand's character, the play is nourished by very much more than poetic fancy. Behind its heroics and verbal ornamentation, there is an historical foundation, which, being part of l7th century French history, gives it solidity as 2lst century French drama.
The hero of Cyrano de Bergerac is not the eponymous hero based on the real adventurer and poet of the mid l7th century, but poetry itself; the poetic notion of life as opposed to its prosaic counterpart. Fancy as opposed to fact. Dream life as opposed to real life. Cyrano's adventure, both in the play and in his own life, exemplified the kind of action and endeavor that are no longer available to us in our own lives, except through emulation of make-believe heroes in books, plays, and films. That is why we continually come back to Cyrano. He represents the freedom, independence, nonchalance, and impetuosity, which we barter away in order to become "responsible citizens" -- qualities that we can never forgive the adult world for taking from us.
[Ed. A new translation of Cyrano de Bergerac by Charles Marowitz has been published by Smith & Kraus and is available from the publishers at l Main Street, PO Box 127, Lyme, NH 03768-0127.]
If you appreciate the quality of Charles Marowitz's work, please consider making aMoney is spent to pay for Internet costs, maintenance and upgrade of our computer network, and development of the site.