Some works of art turn out to be beginnings; some are more like ends. In the 1890s, The Master Builder (1892), Spring Awakening (1891), The Seagull (1896), and, heaven help us, Ubu Roi (1896) look like the future.
Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac (1897) is like a culmination of the French theatrical tradition before the madmen blow it up. Corneille, Molière, Marivaux, the Romantics – they all lead to this “heroic comedy.” Meaning, I sure enjoyed it. And it is not really even the end of a tradition, not at all, but its descendant is Schönberg and Boublil’s Les Misérables, not Ionesco’s Rhinoceros. Eh, like I know anything about 20th century French theater.
A big cast, a huge lead part, an onstage battle scene, an onstage theater scene, duels, an entire act set in a pastry kitchen (and, thus, to a gluttonous critic, among the greatest acts in theatrical history). I wondered if Roxanne, the female lead, was a little thin, but she roars to life in Act IV.
I own a strange edition of the play, a Signet Classics paperback translated by Lowell Bair that includes a DVD of the 1950 Michael Gordon film, or should I say José Ferrer film, since all anyone cares about is his performance. I haven’t watched it; I should. My understanding is that it is, like the original, in verse. The translation I read was all prose, except when Cyrano is dueling – he composes impromptu verse when dueling – or the poetically ambitious pastry chef is reciting a versified recipe.
RAGUENEAU. There’s something lacking in this sauce.
THE COOK. What shall I do to it?
RAGUENEAU. Make it more lyrical.
I suppose I should read a version – Anthony Burgess’s? – that makes Cyrano more lyrical, but I was happy with this one.
Cyrano is an ideal man of the 17th century, brilliant, brave, adept in all useful skills – poetry and swordsmanship – and also, to use an anachronism, the epitome of cool, limited only by his ugliness, meaning his enormous nose. His love for his cousin Roxanne is channeled into a successful attempt to win her for another man, a handsome idiot. The jealousies of another character adds some complications to the plot. Most of the play is done for laughs, but the pathos of the short final act, a kind of coda, is earned.
Cyrano is worth knowing for his own sake. He declaims a long statement of purpose in Act II, Scene 7, (a response to the suggestion that he “temper [his] haughty spirit a little”) much of which applies as well to Rostand’s time as to his.
But what would I have to do?... Dedicate poems to financiers, as many others do? Change myself into a buffoon in the hope of seeing a minister give me a condescending smile? No, thank you… Attend councils held in taverns by imbeciles, trying to win the honor of being chosen as their pope? No, thank you. See talent only in nonentities? Be terrified of gazettes, and constantly be thinking, “Oh, if only the Mercure François will say a kind word about me?” No, thank you… 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.
Is this the great hero of the 17th century or the 19th?