We are all familiar with the humorous and bittersweet tale of unrequited love between the lovely maiden Roxane and the guy with the big nose. It has become legendary through this play by Edmond Rostand, which opened December 28, 1897. The play, however, bears little resemblance to the life of the real man.
Hercule-Savinien de Cyrano de Bergerac lived from 1619-1655 mostly in or near Paris. He, like his legendary character, was a swordsman known for fighting duels, and, as in the play, probably did fight in the Siege of Arras. He was a well known writer, which included a futuristic science fiction story about traveling to the moon by a firecracker-powered rocket: (The Other World: The Society and Government of the Moon). Unlike his fictional namesake however, though he had a large nose, it was nothing like the protuberant proboscis which has made his name famous. And though some sources say he may have had an affair with a woman, he is known to have been the lover of Charles Coypeau d'Assoucy, a relationship which ended in a bitter feud. He suffered from, and probably died of tertiary syphilis at age 36.
But in Rostand's play, Cyrano is swashbuckling and heroic, poetic and romantic. His enemies fear him greatly,
(and he has a gift for making enemies), yet no one can break him down. No one, that is, except for his beautiful cousin, Roxane, with whom he is hopelessly in
The play begins as people are entering the Hotel Burgundy in 1640, where a play, "La Clorise," is to be performed. Montfleury is to star unless Cyrano shows up to stop him. Ragueneau fears he has lost his bet, but as Montfleury begins his soliloquy, a voice in the audience orders him off the stage. As he attempts to continue, the voice harasses him to leave. The audience is divided between amusement and anger, then eventually departs. Cyrano throws a bag of coins onto the stage for reimbursement. As everyone disperses, a busybody confronts Cyrano, and cannot stop staring at him. It is here that we learn the consequences of, not only making fun of his nose, but even appearing to look at it, to notice it, or even worse, trying to appear to NOT notice it. Cyrano himself can poke fun at it, but woe to anyone else who dares.
And so we catch a glimpse of the tempestuous personality that is Cyrano. But he has another side, a tender, gentle side. He says to the busybody, ". . .Here's an accessory I'm proud to wear; For a large nose betokens a large heart. Symbol of courage and of courtesy, It indicates a nature kind and keen, Witty warm and liberal—like mine—And never one like yours, you stupid oaf!. . ." Beneath the rugged exterior lies a softie at heart. And it is this duality of his nature, often in opposition with itself, that makes him such an interesting, humorous, frustrating and even pathetic character. Nevertheless, no matter what you call him, his personality is larger than life.
In Act II, Cyrano and others are at the cook shop of Ragueneau, the chef and pastry cook and poet, who mixes cooking and poetry like they are one and the same. His friends pay him by leaving pages of poetry. And he is aghast to find his wife using the pages to make bags for the pies! It is here that Roxane meets in private with Cyrano .She speaks of love, but his hopes are shattered to find that he is not the object of her affection. It is Baron Christian de Neuvillette, a cadet in Cyrano's regiment. Though he is a bit of a dolt, a bore, unromantic and unpoetic, Cyrano, because of his fierce loyalty to Roxane, sacrifices all to bring them together. Probably the most famous scene takes place below Roxane's balcony, where Cyrano pretends to be Christian and woos her with his poetry.
One of the enjoyable features of this play is the elaborate descriptions of the scenery for each act, which is very helpful, but not always included when reading a play. It helps put the reader visually into the action.
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