As it is when we have stared too long at the sun
Everywhere we look is flecked with red,
I turn away from watching you, and tread
A landscape dancing with your fire!
Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand.
Someone is ringing the bell and gowns and scent and breeches and broad lace collars move swiftly up the carpeted staircase, past the ushers and into the boxes or the dress circle and take their well worn leather seats.
Chat subsides. Someone clears their throat. Lights down.
The curtain rises and there in semi darkness is “The Hall of the Hotel de Bourgogne,in 1640.”
Cyrano de Bergerac written by the French poet and playwright, Edmond Rostand, is one of my favourite pieces of literature. First performed in 1897, this is a tale about the swashbuckling hero Hercule Savinien de Cyrano de Bergerac (a cadet in the French army) and his love for his distant cousin, Roxane. She is his obsession, which he pursues vicariously because he does not believe he is worthy of her beauty, intellect and goodness. Thus, instead of declaring his love to his beloved, Cyrano pens the love letters of fellow cadet, Christian de Neuvillette.
Why would the verbal and steel sparring hero, Cyrano de Bergerac, do such a thing?
Cyrano de Bergerac has an “enormous” nose in the middle of his face and as such considers himself undeserving, contemptible and utterly unworthy of love.
This five act tragicomedy is a non stop rattling ride! It opens with a play within a play and we witness the performance on and off the stage as the witty hero baits and hooks his opponents. This is a play about heroism and self sacrifice as Cyrano faces the tragedy of unrequited love. All of this occurs in the shadow of the Franco-Spanish War and culminates in one of the great battle scenes on stage: the re-enactment of the Siege of Arras. Finally, we emerge into Act Five “Fifteen years later” in a cloistered space fit for reflection where the object of Cyrano’s love, Roxane, grieves for what she thought was lost love.
Throughout this witty, action packed drama Cyrano de Bergerac’s faithful friend, Le Bret, pleads for him to “behave”, to be less obstreperous and more acceptable; to be less himself and more conventional. To this Cyrano de Bergerac replies:
Dining out to curry favour,
Meeting the influential till I slaver,
Suiting my style to what the critics want
With slavish copy of the latest cant?
To ingratiate myself, abject with fear,
And fawn and flatter to avoid a sneer?
No thanks, no thanks, no thanks!
You see Cyrano de Bergerac knows himself. He is the extraordinary fighter, fearless and loyal but he is also a tender hearted poet and would rather his beloved Roxane have the handsome faced Christian than be saddled with his own awful proboscis. This selfless grand gesture of love leads to tragedy, of course … but it also leads to triumph as our hero eventually fights off the self-doubt that has plagued him all his life.
This is an individual who is, on the one hand, flamboyant and recklessly courageous but on the other hand, so crippled by his self-image that he believes he is unworthy of love.
This is why this classic remains timeless.
Cyrano de Bergerac is many of us, at different points in our lives, harbouring our own perceived disfigurements which we believe preclude us from being loved.
The final scene makes her cry every single time I read this play. It is so full of humanity and panache. Cyrano de Bergerac is dying but clambers up on to his feet and fights a duel with the phantoms sent by death:
You noseless skullhead, stare
Out of those empty sockets, if you dare,
Directly at my nose! …
Come on, then! Ha! And Compromise,
Prejudice, Corruption! [He strikes] Damn your eyes,
Capitulate? Never! – And you, Stupidity!
-I know in the end you’ll get the better of me:
It doesn’t matter, I’ll fight, I’ll fight, I’ll fight!
It is December 27 1897 and the curtain has just fallen on the opening night of Rostand’s play, Cyrano de Bergerac, but the annals of history record that the applause from the audience goes on and on and on.
It is a full hour before they stop.
Elizabeth’s first book, The Alchemy of Poetry, is available now! It would make the perfect gift for someone who is interested in the world of art and poetry and history and politics and love and death and war and the sublime – because the 160 poems selected in The Alchemy of Poetry succinctly and pitch perfectly offer all this and so much more!
Get your copy and send Elizabeth your review!
The Alchemy of Poetry by Elizabeth Guy
Published by Dreaming Big Publications
Paperback; 470 pages; ISBN-13 : 978-1947381414
Genre: Ancient, Classical and Contemporary Poetry; Education and Teaching; Non fiction