Cyrano de Bergerac
is a play written in 1897
by Edmond Rostand
based on the life of the real Cyrano de Bergerac
. The first four acts are set in 1640
, while the fifth is set in 1655
. An immediate triumph upon its release, the play is one of the most popular in the French language
and has been filmed several times
and even made into operas
The entire play is written in verse, in rhyming couplets of 12 syllables per line, very close to the Alexandrine format, but the verses sometimes lack a caesura. It is also meticulously researched, down to the names of the members of the Académie française and the dames précieuses glimpsed before the performance in the first scene.
The original Cyrano was Constant Coquelin, who played it over 400 times at Porte-Saint-Martin and later toured North America in the role. Richard Mansfield was the first actor to play Cyrano in the United States in an English translation. The longest-running Broadway production ran 232 performances in 1923 and starred Walter Hampden, who returned to the role on the Great White Way in 1926, 1928, 1932, and 1936. He passed the torch to José Ferrer, who won a Tony Award (and a subsequent Academy Award four years later) for playing Cyrano in a 1946 Broadway staging, the highlight of which was a special performance in which Ferrer played the title role for the first four acts and Hampden assumed it for the fifth. Other notable English-speaking Cyranos were Ralph Richardson, DeVeren Bookwalter, Derek Jacobi, Richard Chamberlain, and Christopher Plummer, who played the part in Rostand's original play and won a Tony Award for the 1973 musical adaptation. Kevin Kline played the role in a Broadway production in 2007, with Graham Chapman playing Roxane and Daniel Sunjata as Christian.
The play has been translated and performed many times, and is responsible for introducing the word "panache" into the English language.
Hercule Savinien Cyrano de Bergerac, a cadet
(nobleman serving as a soldier) in the French Army, is a brash, strong-willed man of many talents. In addition to being a remarkable duelist, he is a gifted poet and is also shown to be a musician. However, he has an extremely large nose, which is a target for his own self-doubt. This doubt prevents him from expressing his love for his distant cousin, the beautiful Roxane, as he believes that his ugliness forbids him to "dream of being loved by even an ugly woman."
Act I — A Performance at the Hôtel Burgundy
The play opens in Paris, 1640, in the theatre of the Hôtel Burgundy. Members of the audience slowly arrive, representing a cross-section of Parisian society from pickpockets to nobility. Christian de Neuvillette arrives with Lignière, who he hopes will identify the young woman with whom he has fallen in love. Lignière recognizes her as Roxane, and tells Christian about her and Count De Guiche’s scheme to marry her off to the compliant Viscount Valvert. Meanwhile, Ragueneau and Le Bret are expecting Cyrano de Bergerac, who has banished the actor Montfleury from the stage for a month. After Lignière leaves, Christian learns of a plot against him and departs to try to warn him. The play “Clorise” begins with Montfleury’s entrance, and Cyrano disrupts the play, chases him off stage, and compensates the manager for the loss of admission fees. The crowd is about to disperse when Cyrano lashes out at a pesky busybody, then is confronted by Valvert and duels with him while composing a ballade
, mortally wounding him as he ends the refrain (as promised). When the crowd has cleared the theater, Cyrano and Le Bret remain behind, and Cyrano confesses his love for Roxane. Roxane’s duenna
then arrives, and asks where Roxane may meet Cyrano privately. Lignière is then brought to Cyrano, having learned that one hundred hired thugs are waiting to ambush him on his way home. Cyrano, now emboldened, vows to take on the entire mob single-handed, and he leads a procession of officers, actors and musicians to the Port de Nesle.
Act II — The Poets’ Cookshop
The next morning, at Ragueneau’s bake shop. Ragueneau supervises various apprentice cooks in their preparations. Cyrano arrives, anxious about his meeting with Roxane. He is followed by a musketeer, a paramour of Ragueneau’s wife Lise, then the regular gathering of impoverished poets who take advantage of Ragueneau’s hospitality. Cyrano composes a letter to Roxane, warns Lise about her indiscretion with the musketeer, and when Roxane arrives he signals Ragueneau to leave them alone. Roxane and Cyrano talk privately as she bandages his hand (injured from the fracas at the Port de Nesle); she thanks him for defeating Valvert at the theater, and tells him that she is in love with Christian. Roxane fears for Christian’s safety in the predominantly Gascon company of Cadets, so she asks Cyrano to befriend and protect him. This he agrees to do. After she leaves, Cyrano’s captain arrives with the cadets to congratulate him on his victory from the night before. They are followed by a huge crowd, including De Guiche and his entourage, but Cyrano soon drives them away. Le Bret takes him aside and chastises him for his behavior, but Cyrano responds haughtily. The Cadets press him to tell the story of the fight, teasing the newcomer Christian. When Cyrano recounts the tale, Christian displays his own form of courage by interjecting several times with references to Cyrano’s nose. Eventually Cyrano explodes, the shop is cleared, and Cyrano and Christian now become fast friends. When Cyrano tells Christian that Roxane expects a letter from him, Christian is despondent, having no eloquence in such matters. Cyrano then offers his services, including his own unsigned letter to Roxane. The Cadets and others return to find the two men embracing, and are flabbergasted. The musketeer from before, thinking it was safe to do so, teases Cyrano about his nose and receives a slap in the face while the Cadets rejoice.
Act III — Roxane’s Kiss
A few days later, outside Roxane’s house. Ragueneau, having been driven bankrupt, is now Roxane’s steward, and is talking with the duenna
. Cyrano arrives, with two theorbo
-playing pages (as the result of winning a bet). Roxane then emerges, praising Christian’s supposed eloquence. De Guiche then meets with her alone, trying to arrange a rendezvous before he goes off to war; she refuses, but contrives to have the Cadets remain in Paris. De Guiche leaves, Cyrano returns, Roxane and the duenna then leave, and Cyrano remains to meet Christian and coach him. When Christian does arrive, he refuses Cyrano’s assistance, believing that he can woo Roxane on his own. Roxane soon returns, and Cyrano retreats, leaving a nervously tongue-tied Christian to founder. Roxane leaves him outside, thoroughly disgusted with his loss of eloquence, and Cyrano re-emerges. Christian begs for his help, and they contrive to have Christian repeat Cyrano’s words to Roxane while she is on her balcony; this changes with Cyrano taking Christian’s place to make it easier. In the course of this, a monk arrives looking for Roxane, and Cyrano sends him in another direction. Cyrano then resumes his wooing of Roxane for Christian, winning Christian a kiss from her. The monk returns, with a note from De Guiche still trying to meet with her; she makes up a new message, that the monk should marry Roxane and Christian. While the marriage is being performed in Roxane’s house, Cyrano delays De Guiche by pretending to be a stranger with a fantastic tale of seven ways of traveling to the moon. (In fact the real-life Cyrano had written The Other World: Society and Government of the Moon
, one of the earliest works of science fiction
.) When Roxane and Christian emerge as husband and wife, De Guiche then releases the orders to send the Cadet company to battle. Roxane has Cyrano promise to watch over Christian, and make sure that he writes to her.
Act IV — The Gascon Cadets
The siege of Arras
. The Gascon Cadets are among many French forces now cut off by the Spanish, and they are starving. Cyrano, meanwhile, has been writing in Christian’s name twice a day, smuggling letters across the enemy lines. De Guiche, whom the Cadets despise, arrives and chastises them; Cyrano responds with his usual bravura, and De Guiche then signals a spy to tell the Spanish to attack on the Cadets, informing them that they must hold the line while relief comes in. Then a coach arrives, and Roxane emerges from it. She tells how she was able to flirt her way through the Spanish lines. Cyrano tells Christian about the letters, and provides him a farewell letter to give to Roxane if he dies. After De Guiche departs, Roxane provides plenty of food and drink with the assistance of the coach’s driver, Ragueneau. She also tells Christian that, because of the letters, she has grown to love him for his soul alone, and would still love him even if he were ugly. Christian tells this to Cyrano, and then persuades Cyrano to tell Roxane the truth about the letters, saying he has to be loved for "the fool that he is" to be truly loved at all. Cyrano disbelieves what Christian claims Roxane has said, until she tells him so as well. But, before Cyrano can tell her the truth, Christian is brought back to the camp, having been fatally shot. Cyrano realizes that, in order to preserve Roxane's image of an eloquent Christian, he cannot tell her the truth. The battle ensues, a distraught Roxane collapses and is carried off by De Guiche and Ragueneau, and Cyrano rallies the Cadets to hold back the Spanish until relief arrives.
Act V — Cyrano’s Gazette
Fifteen years later, at a convent outside Paris. Roxane now resides here, eternally mourning her beloved Christian. She is visited by De Guiche, Le Bret and Ragueneau, and she expects Cyrano to come by as he always has with news of the outside world. On this day, however, he has been mortally wounded. While he arrives to deliver his “gazette” to Roxane, it will be his last. Knowing this, he asks Roxane if he can read "Christian's" farewell letter. She gives it to him, and he reads it aloud as it grows dark. Listening to his voice, she realizes that it is Cyrano who was the author of all the letters, but Cyrano denies this to his death. Ragueneau and Le Bret return, telling Roxane of Cyrano’s injury. While Cyrano grows delirious, his friends weep and Roxane tells him that she loves him. He combats various foes, half imaginary and half symbolic, conceding that he has lost all but one important thing — his panache
— as he dies in Roxane's arms.