Tuesday, October 18, 2016

I dream of flying to the moon but give no thought to fame or fortune - enjoying Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac

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?


  1. Very interesting. You sent me into research mode, and the Ayn Rand, Elvis Presley, and Elton John connections are mind-boggling. Ah, the perversions of literature are boundless.
    Source: Wikipedia --
    1945 Love Letters is a screen adaptation by novelist Ayn Rand of the book Pity My Simplicity by Christopher Massie which converted his story into an adaptation of Rostand's play. The heroine, Singleton (played by Jennifer Jones), falls in love with a soldier during World War II, believing him to be the author of certain love letters that had been written for him by another soldier at the front. In this version, the heroine discovers the identity of the true author (played by Joseph Cotten) in time for the protagonists to experience a "happy ending." The film, produced by Hal Wallis, was a commercial success and earned four nominations for Academy Awards, including that of Jones for "Best Actress of 1945," and was one of the four films which paired Jones and Cotton as romantic leads. (The others were Since You Went Away, 1944, Duel in the Sun, 1946, and Portrait of Jennie, 1948.) The musical score by Victor Young was also nominated for an Oscar, and featured the melody of the hit song "Love Letters," which has been recorded by numerous artists since 1945, including Rosemary Clooney, Dick Haymes, Nat King Cole, Elvis Presley, Jack Jones, Engelbert Humperdinck, Shelley Fabares, Elton John and Sinéad O'Connor. The melody or song has been reused in other films, including the Blue Velvet (1986), directed by David Lynch.[19][20][21]

  2. Huh. So the original Massie novel was not an adaptation of Cyrano, but Rand made the screenplay for a film of the novel into an adaptation of the play, which was, again, unrelated to the novel. That is pretty odd.

    I think the only adaptation I know is Steve Martin's version, and it has been 30 years since I saw that. I still remember the insult scene, though, a direct shift from the play, where Cyrano comes up with multiple, distinctive insults of his own nose because his opponent's insults are so stupid.

  3. Wikipedia, whether or not it is accurate (and it has plenty of problems throughout its encyclopedic volume of entries), has more about Cyrano. You might be surprised by a number of things.

  4. Have you not seen the Gérard Depardieu film? It was, as I recall, pretty good, though I am a sucker for big costume productions in French. I have never read the play, of course, being a barbarian. That "from my own garden" speech is pretty good, though.

  5. Likely a nod to Voltaire, though. The play has plenty of them. Cameo from d'Artagnan, for example.

    The Depardieu film, no, I missed it. Now it stands as the capstone of L'age Depardieu.

  6. I don't know the d'Artagnan connection to Voltaire.

  7. Oh, I see, I mean plenty of nods to French literature, not plenty of nods to Voltaire.

  8. My kind of literature, then. Crammed full of everyone else.

  9. I wonder what references to Hugo I might be missing. Cyrano is such a Hugo-like character, and also like a Hugo character.

  10. How I love that play! In high school, our French teacher, Mme Ruegg (an Alsatian -- she also taught German) had the senior class put on a play every year, and I lobbied hard for Cyrano, knowing that I (as the best male student) would play the lead, and the girl I had a crush on (as the best female student) would play Roxane. But no, Mme Ruegg despised Rostand and wanted us to do Jules Romains's Knock. After we read it, we refused to do it, and she got even grumpier (and probably hit the gin bottle she didn't think we knew she had in her file cabinet). Ah, youth!

    And yes, the Depardieu version is well worth seeing.

  11. Despised Rostand! How sad, how sad. And how close you came to recreating the play in real life, if behind-the-scenes theater counts as real life.

  12. Well, she must have been born in the early years of the century, so Rostand would have been the fave of her parents' generation, and how many of us have much patience for that? (See the feelings of many of my fellow boomers for Sinatra, who was really a wonderful singer.)

    And yes, I had fevered fantasies about recreating the play in real life.

  13. I guess I know the feeling. I have had some grumpy anti-Dylan feelings lately, in response to some of the more blunt and hyperbolic Boomer triumphalism. And I love Dylan.