Descriptif : C'est un roc! C'est un pic! C'est un cap!
– Que dis-je, c'est un cap? C'est une péninsule!
Since I am likely to be unusually busy the next two weeks, I need something easier to get through -- shorter, perhaps, or a re-read. The fortnightly book is both: Edmond Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac.
Rostand, of course, was a playwright, and Cyrano is his most successful play. In the first performance on December 28, 1897, Cyrano was played by Constant Coquelin, France's most famous actor. The performance made theatrical history, one measure of which was that after it was done the audience stayed in the theater, calling for an encore, talking about the play, for two straight hours. Translations were rapidly made, the theaters of the world began to perform it. It has been an international favorite ever since. A little-known fact about the play is that it is the source of the English word 'panache' -- in French it means the plume in a hat or helmet, and the English meaning is based on Rostand's Cyrano.
Cyrano de Bergerac was a real person, although he is highly fictionalized in the play. He was a playwright in the seventeenth century. He fought in the siege at Arras (not to be confused with the more famous and somewhat later Battle of Arras) in the Thirty Years' War. He was a student of Pierre Gassendi. His most famous plays tend to be quite fantastical, almost science-fiction-y, involving trips to the sun or the moon; they were quite influential, with people like Jonathan Swift and Edgar Allan Poe taking ideas from them. He died in 1655, for reasons not entirely known, at the age of 36. He did indeed have a big nose, although not quite so peninsular as one would imagine.
I'll be reading the work in Louis Untermeyer's blank verse translation, first done for The Limited Editions Club and carried over into the Heritage Press edition. The covers of the book are comb-marbled cloth. The typeface is mixed, with the spoken lines being in fourteen-point Times Roman, the stage directions in eight-point Times Roman, and the names of speakers in six-point News Gothic. It has twenty-one pen-and-brush colored drawings. In addition, it has a lagniappe, a little pamphlet, "Cyrano Composes a Ballade", in which Cyrano's famous improvised ballad in Act I is given in Rostand's original and seven different English translations of it. I present the first lines of each here.
(1) Je jette avec grâce mon feutre (Rostand 1897)
(2) I gaily doff my beaver low (Thomas and Guillemard 1898)
(3) My hat I toss lightly away (Kingsbury 1898)
(4) Lightly I toss my hat away (Hooker 1923)
(5) I doff my beaver with an air (Wolfe 1935)
(6) With nonchalance, I doff my hat (LeClercq 1939)
(7) With grace I cast my felt aside (Bissell and Van Wyck 1947)
(8) My hat is flung swiftly away (Untermeyer 1953)