Review: Cyrano de Bergerac

Cyrano de Bergerac is a play written by Edmond Rostand in 1897 but set in 1640 Paris. It became an instant success and has remained so ever since. In one sense it’s a throwback to “France’s golden age—a time when men were musketeers, women were beautiful heiresses, and the wit flashed as brightly as the swordplay” (according to SparkNotes), represented in stories like The Three Musketeers, which was published 50 years before Cyrano. Cyrano even references The Three Musketeers in places. In another sense it’s a parody of such stories. Part comedy, part tragedy, the main focus is its title character, Cyrano.

Cyrano excels in almost every area. He’s witty, an excellent poet, a superb swordsman, and he commands the respect of almost all who know him. The one area where he lacks confidence is romantic relationships, and that’s due primarily to his extremely oversized nose. He thinks no woman would find him attractive or even give him a chance, especially his cousin, Roxanne, whom he confesses to one friend that he loves. When Roxanne sends him a message that she wants to meet with him privately, he begins to hope that perhaps she could love him, and he pours out his heart in a letter to her. But when they meet, he learns that she loves a handsome young man in his regiment, Christian, and she asks him to watch over Christian.

He agrees, and when he tells Christian that he is Roxanne’s cousin, Christian confesses that he loves her but he can’t approach her. Roxanne loves “flowing words,
Bright wit,” and Christian is tongue-tied and inarticulate. The men each lament their deficiencies:

Oh, to express one’s thoughts with facile grace!. . .

. . .To be a musketeer, with handsome face!

Then Cyrano hits on an idea: they can combine their talents. He can teach Christian what to say, and that will give him an outlet for his own heart. He gives Christian the letter he had just written to Roxanne but left unsigned and tells Christian to send it to her in his name.

What could possibly go wrong with that plan?

The rest of the play shows how they each progress and carries them through various scenes, but I don’t want to give away any more details.

Some of the comedic sections are priceless, such as a lengthy exchange with Cyrano and another man who is trying not to look at or comment on Cyrano’s nose and then is questioned by Cyrano (“Is there anything extraordinary about it?…Is it soft and swinging like an elephant’s trunk? Is there a wart on the end of it? Or a fly?…Is it a phenomenon?”) When Christian, hoping for a kiss, wants to speak to Roxanne himself and can’t seem to come up with anything except, “I love thee,” Roxanne responds, “‘Tis the theme: embroider it,” and later “Gather up your scattered eloquence.” Here are just a few more samples:

Tradesman: You are not Samson!
Cyrano: I will be, my dear sir, if you’ll lend me your jaw.

Cyrano: Whom I love? Come now, reflect. The dream of being loved, even by a homely girl, is one forbidden me. Forbidden by this nose of mine that precedes me everywhere by fifteen minutes.

I enjoyed the comedy and the swashbuckling, but most of all I enjoyed the more earnest parts, such as when Cyrano is trying to coach Christian when they’re half hidden in the darkness under Roxanne’s balcony (reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet‘s balcony scene). Getting frustrated with the process, Cyrano pushes Christian out of the way and then speaks from his heart. The last few scenes, when Cyrano goes to visit Roxanne some fourteen years after the action in the previous scenes, is masterfully written. The time of day, the season, the double meaning to Cyrano’s words, and the development of the conversation all come together to form once of my favorite sections of literature with one of my favorite lines (which I can’t tell, or else you’d know the ending!)

I looked at SparkNotes and Shmoop‘s analysis a bit, and disagreed with Shmoop’s especially. They seemed to think the main theme was Cyrano’s lack of self-esteem, that if he had not been hung up on his one defect, he could have had a life of love (see the Shmoop heading “Why Should I Care?” for more on this).

But I think the theme has to do with the self-sacrificial nature of real love. A couple of times Cyrano had an opening to confess his love, but he abstained, for the happiness and then the honor of another. All the characters grow in their understanding of love, finding that it goes beyond handsome faces, stolen kisses, and “embroidered” words, but Cyrano embodies it the most.

I did not investigate translations like I did before reading Don Quixote, and I wish I had. I looked around a bit afterward and learned that one by Brian Hooker is considered the best. I was primarily looking for an audiobook version that read the actual play rather than an audio performance of it, and found that here, translated by Howard Thayer Kingsbury, and enjoyed it very much. It says it is narrated by Flo Gibson, but it is actually narrated by Grover Gardner, who did an excellent job. I also got this Kindle version translated by Charles Renauld and looked around it and the Gutenberg version, and didn’t like either of them as much, at least, as far as I compared them, which wasn’t much. For instance, where in the audiobook Roxanne tells Christian to “embroider” his words, the Gutenberg version says to “vary” them, and the Renauld version just says, “Amplify!” I don’t know which is closest to the original, but “embroider” sounds a lot better to me. But I do appreciate Renauld’s introduction and preface detailing some of the difficulties of translation, not only from a different language, but from the poetry in which the play was originally written, and his reasons for making the choices he did, ending with the admonition that those who would be critical should “Try the task!” While looking up information on translations, I came across this fascinating discussion with some examples of how different translations handle one of Cyrano’s speeches and this great article.

One place where translations differ greatly is near the end when Cyrano speaks of the one thing he can take with him when he dies that no one can take away from him. Some translations say “plume,” others say “panache.” The audiobook said “plume,” and I admit it didn’t make sense to me at first. Renauld says in his introduction:

Now, what is this panache upon which “Cyrano” sets such a high value? To understand it is to appreciate, to miss it is to miss the meaning of the play. An explanation of it is, therefore, not out of place in this introduction.

The panache is an external quality which adds colour and brilliancy to internal things already worth having for their own intrinsic value. Its main justification is personal bravery…The panache is literally a high plume, or bunch of plumes, that waves high above a commander’s head-gear…There is magnetism in the panache…Henry the Fourth said to his soldiers; “you will find it always on the path of honour and duty.” The panache, too, is essentially joyful. “Cyrano” is joyful, in spite of a life that would breed discouragement and bitterness in almost any heart but his.

That sheds light on this earlier speech of Cyrano’s when someone criticizes his clothes:

It is my character that I adorn.
I do not deck me like a popinjay ;
But though less foppish, I am better dressed :
I would not sally forth, through carelessness.
With an insult ill wiped out, or with my conscience
Sallow with sleep still lingering in its eyes.
Honor in rags, or scruples dressed in mourning.
But I go out with all upon me shining,
With liberty and freedom for my plume,
Not a mere upright figure ; — ’tis my soul
That I thus hold erect as if with stays,
And decked with daring deeds instead of ribbons.
Twirling my wit as it were my moustache,
The while I pass among the crowd, I make
Bold truths ring out like spurs.

And it also sheds light on one place where they are battling Spain, and a cadet comes in with “a collection of shabby hats spitted on his sword, their plumes bedraggled and holes through the brims,” “spoils of war” he gathered from the enemy’s camp.

So it does look like the theme has to do with panache, brave, magnetic, joyful flair. But I still think it has to do with love as well.

There are multiple film versions of the play – I’d love to check out Jose Ferrer’s, one of the most famous ones, if I can find it. I did find this scene of it:

I had seen this play at least once, maybe a couple of times, years ago, and remembered the basic story line, but I am so glad I read (or listened to) it now. There was so much to enjoy about it, and I feel sure I’ll read it again in the future.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Literary Musing Monday, Carole’s Books You Loved)


10 thoughts on “Review: Cyrano de Bergerac

  1. Even my sophomores grasp the theme that love looks out for the other person instead of itself. They are usually quiet when we finish because of the depth of that theme. They love the play, and I do too. Glad to hear that you do too!!

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