Thursday, January 12, 2012

Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand

Here I am at last—I've finished Le Morte D'Arthur, and I'm sorry I've been away so long! This post will not be about Le Morte D'Arthur—not because I have nothing to say, but because I have so much to say that I have decided instead to have an Arthurian-themed Feature Week later on this month.
Instead, I'm going to review a play. Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand first appeared in 1897 and was immediately wildly successful in both the French-speaking and the English-speaking world. It's ever-so-loosely based on a historical poet-soldier. Cyrano de Bergerac is a Gascon cadet in a regiment composed almost entirely of Gascon noblemen, a poet, and a great swordsman. The only sorrow in his life is his enormous nose, which he is sure makes it impossible for any woman to love him—certainly not his childhood playmate, the lovely and intelligent Roxanne. Alas! Roxanne loves good-looking but simple-minded Christian de Neuvillette, who has just joined Cyrano's regiment. Determined that Roxanne shall be happy, Cyrano offers his services to Christian: with love-letters written by Cyrano, Christian will woo Roxanne.
It's a somewhat simple and farcical plot, but Rostand turns it into an epic, comic, witty, and unabashedly romantic melodrama. It's full of swashbuckling and wordplay. In an age when other playwrights were exploring the depressing depths of realism, Rostand gives his hero a two-page-long speech exploring alternate insults for his nose preparatory to fighting a duel over it:
Thoughtful: 'You ought to put an awning over it, to keep its colour from fading in the sun.'
Pedantic: 'Sir, only the animal that Aristophanes calls the hippocampelephantocamelos could have had so much flesh and bone below its forehead.'
Flippant: 'That tusk must be convenient to hang your hat on.'
Grandiloquent: 'No wind but the mighty Arctic blast, majestic nose, could ever give you a cold from one end to the other!'
In an age when Bernard Shaw was writing cynical tracts like Man and Superman, Rostand revels in romanticism:
I sing, dream, laugh, and go where I please, alone and free. My eyes see clearly and my voice is strong. I'm quarrelsome or benign as it suits my pleasure, always ready to fight a duel or write a poem at the drop of a hat. I dream of flying to the moon but give no thought to fame or fortune. I write only what comes out of myself, and I make it my modest rule to be satisfied with whatever flowers, fruit, or even leaves I gather, as long as they're from my own garden.
There's nothing that's small or mean about this play. Cyrano is generous, but so is Christian when he begins to suspect that Roxanne may have fallen in love with the writer rather than the bearer of the letters. Even the villain, De Guiche, is capable of gallantry at a pinch. The final act may go on a little long, and be sad, but no really romantic story ends happily.
There isn't a great lot of deep philosophical substance to Cyrano de Bergerac. But then, there isn't supposed to be. Cyrano de Bergerac is a good time, a brilliantly well-written play, a story that is happy and heartening not because it everything ends happily but because it is as generous and expansive as its hero.
This review is of the English translation by Lowell Bair.
I have seen the 1990 French-language film Cyrano de Bergerac starring Gerard Depardieu, an excellent adaptation capturing the energy and romanticism of the original. Highly enjoyable for teens and up.
Gutenberg etext (translation by Gladys Thomas and Mary F Guillemard)

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