"Cyrano, lui, est un homme debout, qui meurt debout."
Cyrano de Bergerac strikes me as a perfect and complete play. It is actually six plays in one, merging all the theatrical genres: drama, epic, romance, tragedy, comedy and history. For the French, Cyrano has an aura comparable to that of Hamlet in the English-speaking world. It embodies a whole world of values, or, rather, it enacts a conflict between opposing values. Set in the mid-seventeenth century just after the age of Shakespeare, the play shows the ultimate, glorious and desperate resistance of the aristocratic spirit, which is threatened by two enemies: absolutism, which strives to tame a too-independent aristocracy through devious political tricks in the name of the raison d’État; and bourgeois mediocrity, which in the name of social utility seeks to overturn values, preferring profit to honor and denouncing aristocratic superiority, privileges, and freedoms.
For both of these forces - that is, the rising absolute state and the growing bourgeoisie - the goal is to belittle the aristocracy, which is struggling to maintain its spirit of chivalry, its definition through heroism, and its values of grandeur, bravery and gallantry. This is the golden age of the last heroic knights such as the Three Musketeers, the Baroque age where independence and freedom still have real meaning. It is also the bold age of critical thinking and libertine philosophy standing up against arrogant authorities and oppressive orders, when an ancient French society fell from grace. The French spirit glows with pride through figures such as d’Artagnan, Corneille, Richelieu, Descartes, Molière – who, not accidentally, are all explicitly mentioned in Cyrano de Bergerac.
Cyrano is a perfect representative of this intense contradictory world, of which he is the absolute hero. He is sublime in the strongest sense of the word. Poet and swordsman, philosopher and lover, knight and scientist, he embodies the heroic figure in all its forms. His tongue, his pen and his sword never miss their target. Wit and heart, bravery and charisma, he has (almost) everything. His last word, panache, therefore defines him perfectly. Cyrano is magnificent through his idealism, his constant struggle for purity, and his desperate quest for the absolute. He is a man of his word who cannot abide the slightest compromise of principle. Honor, faith, morality, duty are sacred to him. He praises love (Roxane) and friendship (Christian) to the point of abnegation and the ultimate self-sacrifice. Cyrano’s motto is: ‘I decided to be admirable in everything, for everything’ – even at the cost of complete failure and self-destruction. For him, failure turns out to be deeply honorable, as it can be transformed into an ethical and aesthetic triumph.
As a tragic hero, Cyrano reaches the peak of the sublime. Early on in the play, in the middle of the first act when he confesses to Le Bret his love for Roxane, this heroic figure shows himself to be a cruelly incomplete man and a deadly divided soul. His nose, which he regards as a hideous deformity, stands out as the physical manifestation of his singularity as much as the visible sign of his deepest, incurable character flaw. Cyrano refuses to let himself love and be loved. Despite the constant care and loyalty of his true friends, Le Bret and Ragueneau, he is profoundly lonely. His radical quest for freedom and purity makes him a social outsider. Cyrano stands apart from the world he seems to know so well and master easily, but which he also impresses so strongly. He himself says he ‘falls from the moon’, and this image of a ‘moonwalker’, beyond the trick he uses to delay De Guiche in act III, hints at the extreme oddness of this character who lives on another moral planet. Like many romantic figures, Cyrano is damned by his duality: he combines the sublime and the grotesque, inner beauty and (so-called) outer ugliness, mad bravery on the battlefield and extreme shyness in the presence of the woman he loves. If he has the capacity and feeling for noble acts and gestures, he is first and foremost all about words, a man who perfectly uses the language and can manipulate words for any chosen purpose – poetry, seduction, story-telling, etc. Letters will become his medium to express a love he cannot reveal – except twice, by accident, under Roxane’s balcony and at the hour of his death. Being the half of a lover, the soul, he will need another half, the body (Christian), to convey his message of love. This Faustian pact makes Cyrano a modern, tragic figure of heroic, ideal, and absolute romanticism – of panache.
Cyrano de Bergerac generates enthusiasm wherever it is performed. It glows like a grand opera with its inspiration and singular music, with its varied and multi-coloured tonalities, its contrasting and even conflicting atmospheres, from intimate confessions to public turmoil. The play features numerous world-famous arias, some written for one voice (the variations on the nose, the ‘no, thank you!’ scene), some for two (Lebret and Cyrano’s private friendly discussions, Roxane’s confession of love for Christian to Cyrano, Cyrano’s ultimate forced confession to Roxane, the ‘I fall from the moon!’ scene between Cyrano and De Guiche), some for three (the seduction scene under the balcony with Cyrano, Christian, and Roxane), and some composed for the ensemble (Cyrano expelling Montfleury from the Hôtel de Bourgogne in act I; Cyrano describing his night fight to the Cadets despite Christian’s provocative interruptions in act II; and Cyrano lifting the spirits of the Cadets at war through music and poetry in act IV). This piece is like music in its content as well as in its poetic style and verse. For this reason, choosing the best possible translation will be vitally important.
Cyrano de Bergerac has wide appeal since all of its romantic characters are endearing in one way or another – even De Guiche, who is finally ‘making progress’, as Cyrano puts it in act IV. Pursuit of the highest ideals, the constant upheavals and implacable logic, the swings between hope and despair, the happiness that is so close yet is destroyed on the verge of being grasped, the complete physical and/or moral destruction of the main sextet, and the double tragic ending, all serve to set a breathtaking pace. Cyrano de Bergerac is about virtuosity – brilliance, brio, and panache. The whole action unfolds extremely quickly with not a single dead moment. Soon after their first kiss, Christian and Roxane get married, and immediately thereafter, Christian has to leave Roxane to go off to war. And so on. This rapid pace is connected both to comedy, which is marked by the speed of wit and the prompt reactivity of humor, and to tragedy, due to the ironic timing of fateful events which always develop faster than the characters. Just as Cyrano is about to confess his love to Roxane at last, Christian is instantly killed by the enemy’s first shot. His sudden death renders Cyrano mute for fifteen years. Cyrano’s final confession comes only with his dying breath. The action of the play is therefore generally marked by a sense of merciless emergency – even if sometimes, a moment of poetry, of love, or of despair provides us with a sublime pause.
An optimal staging of this play must keep up this lively but subtle pace, express all of Cyrano’s wonderful themes, make its captivating voices sing, and let its harmonics resonate. It should create a wave of enthusiasm in the audience, as happened on its opening night on December 28, 1897, when the spectators paid homage to Edmond Rostand with a cascade of fans and ladies’ gloves. Rostand wrote Cyrano as an antidote to melancholia while he was in the throes of several bouts of depression. Cyrano’s opening caused the greatest excitement generated by a literary work since the controversy surrounding Victor Hugo’s Hernani in 1830. This play also inspired profound pride in its Parisian audience, rather than scandalizing it. Enthusiasm is at the core of this piece and represents life at its fullest intensity. It combines energy and admiration, expressing the best part of man’s soul, and is generated by the sublime spectacle of a life experienced with panache from beginning to end. Cyrano is by far the most popular play in the classical French repertoire. Its hero is not solely an ambassador of his time but a spokesman for universal, sorely needed values; Cyrano’s story is at once humorous, romantic, tragic, heroic, and cruel and continues to move us today.
Cyrano de Bergerac has fascinated generations since 1897 and triumphed on stages over more than a hundred years. When it was first revived in France at the Comédie Française in 1938, it ran continuously for thirty-eight years. Since the 1980s, there have been three major French productions that received international recognition. In 1983, Jérôme Savary staged an all-star production, starring Jacques Weber, which was applauded by French critics. In 1990, Robert Hossein’s piece, starring Jean-Paul Belmondo, was also well received and toured for two seasons in France. That same year, Jean-Paul Rappeneau directed a film adaptation, starring Gérard Depardieu, which was a major success and won many international film awards. In England in 1983, Derek Jacobi starred in Terry Hands’ West End revival at the Aldwich and Barbican Theatres in London. Both Jacobi and Hands received a Laurence Olivier Theatre Award (I recall your saying that you saw this production and were impressed by Jacobi’s performance, and I would be happy to hear your comments about it). The next two Cyranos were Elijah Moshinksi’s production, starring Robert Lindsay, in 1992 at the Haymarket; and Gregory Doran’s, starring Anthony Sher, in 1997 at the Royal Shakespeare Company. Although both were successful, they do not seem to have had the impact of Hands’ production. The last London production of Cyrano, which was directed by Howard Davies in 2005 at the National Theater, starring Stephen Rea, got bad reviews despite a very good cast and crew, perhaps because it followed Peter Brook’s Empty Space principle. For me, Cyrano stands exactly at the antipodes of ‘an empty space’: on the contrary, the space offers a whole world, a grand vision, and a spectacular show.
Despite its popular appeal, Cyrano de Bergerac has rarely been produced in the past thirty years, and even less frequently with a celebrated acting troupe. It is time for the hero to be reborn and for the tale to be revived in the hands of the most distinguished international actors. Cyrano is an engaging story of unrequited love, heroism, humor and heartbreak that requires above all a very strong cast, even in the minor parts. My goal is to bring to the London stage an interpretation of Rostand’s masterpiece that draws on an international cast in order to benefit from the actors’ diverse accents and better serve the play.
The actor playing Cyrano will have to embody the fiery hero blessed with the ancient chivalrous spirit, the unbeatable swashbuckler who turns fencing into dancing, and performance into elegance. He will have to radiate charisma and mystery, poetic refinement and bravery, distinction and audacity – that is, panache. Cyrano possesses an absolute romanticism which shines as the last remaining spark of an extinguished knighthood from centuries past.
Drawing on Cyrano’s allusion to his ‘old wound from Arras’, I see him as a character who is plagued by an everlasting sore which cannot be healed. Despite his extraordinary powers, he is ultimately vulnerable and powerless against this internal ‘black hole’.
Cyrano appear to be ambivalent and complex, composed of multiple contradictory layers. His behavior seems deviant to the rest of the world but is in keeping with his own existential standards. He is men of excess, of the absolute, and express the dark side of what we call normality, which Le Bret calls ‘madness’ in reference to Cyrano’s way of being. He contains an impenetrable mystery, and is therefore impossible to judge by usual standards – even the anti-Cyrano, Hank Quinlan, who is the least sublime and most corrupt of all Orson Welles’ characters. The concluding comment about Hank Quinlan in Touch of Evil is: ‘He was some kind of a man... What does it matter what you say about people?’ (I quote Welles here because he is one of my favourite masters and references, especially in terms of true complexity). I would like to do justice to Cyrano’s complexity and create a powerful, subtle and multidimensional Cyrano.
Rostand himself described his Gascony cadet Cyrano de Bergerac as a ‘French Don Quixote’, as he personifies a certain quest for heroism through decadent ages, from the Baroque period to the romantic era.
Image tirée du téléfilm de Claude Barma Cyrano de Bergerac, 1960.