Sunday, February 01, 2015

Edmond Rostand, Cyrano de Bergerac


Opening Passage: The stage directions are fairly substantive throughout, so I will take the opening stage directions as the opening passage this time around.

The hall of the Hotel Burgundy in 1640. It is built in the shape of a tennis court, but is arranged and decorated for a theatrical performance.

Summary: The basic story of Cyrano de Bergerac is widely known. A witty soldier and poet, Cyrano, is in love with Madeleine Robin, also known as Roxane; but he suffers under the impediment of having a large nose. Roxane, meanwhile, is attracted to Christian, who is extraordinarily handsome, and she asks Cyrano to look out for him, which he promises, for her. Christian is also in love with Roxane, but, while witty enough in banter with men, is hopeless with women. This is a problem, because Roxane is the sort of woman who could never really bear a man who could not be witty with her. And thus is set up the situation whereby Roxane falls in love with them both without ever learning, until the very end, that she has fallen in love with more than one person.

The play is interesting in that it is highly comic but not a comedy. It is in fact a tragedy. But all the characters have such zest for life -- such panache, as Cyrano taught us to say -- and such wit that one laughs one's way to the inevitable doom. Not a single character in the play finds happiness; but they are all noble, each in his or her own way. Thus the play as a whole is light and pleasant, with a bittersweet aftertaste, like a pastry with orange zest.

In addition to reading the play, I also had a long, fun discussion with MrsD about translating Cyrano's improvised ballade. You can find my version here and her versions at her blog.

I also watched the 1990 movie version of Cyrano de Bergerac, starring Gerard Depardieu. Depardieu's take on the character was somewhat different from what I expected, but it was a very good movie, one that stayed reasonably close to the play itself, while nonetheless making use of some of the advantages of camera over stage.

Favorite Passage:

LE BRET [pointing to the moonlight filtering through the branches]: Your other friend has come to visit you.

CYRANO [smiling at the moon]: I see her.

ROXANE: I have loved but once--one man--
And I must lose him twice.

CYRANO: Tonight, Le Bret,
I shall ascend, without machinery,
And reach the moon at last. [pp. 206-207]

Recommendation: Highly Recommended.

Quotations from Edmond Rostand, Cyrano de Bergerac, Louis Untermeyer, tr., Heritage Press (New York: 1954).


  1. MrsDarwin11:08 PM

    Skipped the Superbowl tonight to watch the Jose Ferrer version, from 1950 -- Ferrer was quite good (he won the Academy for Best Actor) but Roxane and Christian were pretty much placeholders. And so that didn't clear up the character questions I had about them: how can Christian not realize until the siege of Arras that Cyrano loves Roxane? Is he just that dumb? He has a sort of nobility about him, and you see that he and Cyrano develop a respect for one another, but to listen to someone else whisper those words in that tone to the woman you love, and to see her respond... Was he just that desperate? If I were staging the balcony scene, after Cyrano takes over I'd have Christian standing somewhere he could see only Roxane and not Cyrano, perhaps not even hear him. He's not interested in what words win Roxane; he only wants to see her herself.

    And Roxane is so wedded to this character she's created in her mind -- a character which Cyrano and Christian do their best to reinforce -- that she can't see past the end of her own nose, if you'll excuse the phrase. It's almost as if she floats through the play living in her own graceful reality, unable to read the signs of the times, from Cyrano's trembling hand to Christian's actual ineloquence to the mortal dangers of taking a pleasure trip to a besieged fort to focusing on her needlework when her old friend is dying beside her. Only at the end does reality come into sharper and more terrible focus than her illusions. Cyrano might have spoken in those fifteen years, but it's part of his outsized nobility that he doesn't. Roxane might have found her dreams of love realized at any time if she'd only paid enough attention, but she didn't. And that's what makes it a tragedy.

    I think that Cyrano's desperate, hopeless love for Roxane is what keeps him from being merely a witty blowhard. He's on top of every situation, words and sword to hand, but he's so endearing nervous about her that you really feel for him. I think one of my favorite scenes, from an acting class standpoint, was Act II Scene 6 where Roxane tells him that she loves someone, and his heartbreaking series of "Ah!"s, and his dejection afterward. His silences set off his wordplay everywhere else.

    I also read Anthony Burgess's translation -- actually, I finished it before I finished any other version because the French was taking me too long and the English online isn't as quick to read as the printed page -- and he made several changes. One is giving Roxane a speech in which she explains why it's so important to her that Christian woo her with eloquence and wit. Burgess: "I have inserted a little speech which I hope will ring plausibly, to the effect that inarticulate brutish wooing is a mark of the aristocracy that regards a middle-class bookish pretty girl like Roxana [Burgess has changed her name] as fair game. and that to her the advent of true love must reveal itself in divine eloquence. This perhaps adds a human substratum to Roxana's preciosity, and seems to work dramatically." Second, and bigger, is her absence in Act IV, which Burgess has changed to Act III: he says her appearance breaks the tension of the scene: "The whole thing becomes absurd, farcial, unacceptable in terms of even the most far-fetched dramatic convention." He substitutes instead a letter to Christian that delivers most of her lines. It works well enough, and I don't know that I exactly exactly disagree with him on Roxane's appearance, which was a bit hard to credit given the intensity of the siege, but in spending a long time trying to find Burgess's forward to his translation of Cyrano to post here (you can read a few pages of it through Amazon's preview feature), I found instead a long interview he did with The Paris Review in which he was pretty much an asshat, so that's colored my view of his opinions.

  2. branemrys7:35 AM

    You're certainly right about the obliviousness of everyone involved -- even Cyrano, quick on the uptake, is only aware because both sides confide in them. I think a lot of the peculiarities arise precisely from its being a comic, almost farcical, play structured as a tragedy. Everything about love affairs is exaggerated, including the hopelessness and the obliviousness and the loss and, for that matter, the occasional need to rely on one's friends in objectively absurd ways. And I think almost all of the general appeal of the play lies in this, that it portrays love as a goofy disaster, but one worth braving.

    I think where Burgess goes wrong is precisely in thinking in terms of drama -- obviously it is drama in the sense of being play, but it is not drama in the sense of tone, and trying to increase the drama of the play will generally be detrimental. I think, for instance, it's problematic to try to give a further explanation to Roxane's taste for wit: it's there because of all the men who find that they somehow can't talk to the woman they love, and because of all those who can and yet find that it seems to get them nowhere, and because of all the women on the other end of both with the men they love. It doesn't need to be explained; it is the link that makes the play not a weird story about a couple of people but a universal situation, and the idea that you need to add some contrived explanation to get a 'human substratum' when one is dealing what is in fact the single point of the characters with which much of the audience can already immediately identify is simply baffling. Likewise, I think Roxane's appearance is supposed to break the tension of the scene; treating love as anything other than a wonderfully crazy feast is death to the structure, tone, and theme of the play. Cyrano's moon-stories, which Rostand carries over from the historical Cyrano, and to which he weaves allusions throughout the last half of the play, are, I think, the key here: love is as crazy as going to the moon, and the ways we romance each other as goofy and bizarre as any of the imaginative schemes for going to the moon that Cyrano concocts -- and yet love has a sort of splendor and sublimity, and romance a sort of charm, for precisely the same reasons.


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