Cyrano de Bergerac

views updated May 29 2018

Cyrano de Bergerac












When Cyrano de Bergerac was first produced at the Porte Saint-Martin Theater in Paris, France, on December 28, 1897, the audience applauded for a full hour after the final curtain was drawn. A classic was created on that night, and an unforgettable hero of literature was born.

The play is based loosely on the life of playwright Savien de Cyrano de Bergerac (1619-1655), Edmond Rostand’s favorite writer. Actor Constant-Benoit Coquelin had asked Rostand to write a play to showcase his versatile acting abilities. Rostand, though writing in the 1890’s, set his action in the 1640’s; during the last two decades of the real de Bergerac’s life. This “heroic comedy” uses rhymed Alexandrine verse to combine romance, heroic action, and humor to give life to one of the most enduring characters in modern literature: Cyrano de Bergerac, a hero who is not only a swashbuckler but a poet, using words as effectively as weapons.

Cyrano was first published in France by Charpentier et Fasquelle in 1898; and first translated into English by Howard Thayer Kingsbury for Lamson, Wolfe, and Co. the same year. The play has been produced all over the world. In 1950 it was brought to movie screens in the United States by the United Artists studio with Jose Ferrer starring in the title role. Noted writer Anthony Burgess (A Clockwork Orange) translated the play in 1971: this translation was used as the basis for the subtitles for the 1990 French film version directed by Jean-Paul Rappineau and starring Gerard Depardieu.

A modern interpretation of Cyrano de Bergerac, Roxanne, was produced by Columbia Pictures in 1987. This film, loosely based on Rostand’s play, was written by and starred comedian Steve Martin as a modern Cyrano. The success of this film was due in part to its loyalty to the central themes of love, loyalty, sacrifice, and independence of Rostand’s original classic. The hero, again with a very large nose, woos the woman he loves for another, more “handsome” man.

Edmond Rostand’s mix of humor, romance, and heroic action in Cyrano de Bergerac has captured audience imagination for almost 100 years. Its recurring themes of love, loyalty, sacrifice, and friendship continue to have resonance for audiences of many generations.


Edmond (Eugene Alexis) Rostand was born on April 1, 1868 in Marseilles, France. The son of a prominent journalist and economist; Rostand was encouraged to write from a very early age. In his teens he began creating plays for marionette (puppet) theater, and, at the age of sixteen, had several poems and essays published in the literary magazine Mireille. At the College Stanislas in Paris he studied literature, philosophy, and history before going on to study law at the local university. Rostand’s ambition, however, was to be a writer, and though he completed the coursework, he never practiced law.

Rostand’s first play, he gant rouge(1888), and his first book of poetry, Les musardises (1890), were largely ignored by both critics and the public. It was Les romanesques {The Romancers, 1894) which served as his breakthrough. Produced at the Comedie Francaise in 1894, its romantic style stood in contrast to the naturalism and symbolism practiced by many of his contemporaries such as Henrik Ibsen and Maurice Maeterlinck.

On April 8, 1890, Rostand married Rosemonde Gerard, who was herself a poet. Their marriage produced two children, Maurice and Jean.

La princesse lointaine (The Princess Far-Away, 1895) solidified Rostand’s reputation and its production marked the beginning of his professional alliance with the famous French actress Sarah Bernhardt. Known for her passionate performances, Bernhardt went on to star in several of Rostand’s later plays, including Cyrano de Bergerac. Though she did not create the role of Roxane, she did portray it on the French stage during its initial run.

It was Rostand’s alliance with renowned French actor Constant-Benoit Coquelin, however, which resulted in his masterpiece: Cyrano de Bergerac (1897). Coquelin had asked Rostand to write a play that would both challenge and showcase the numerous facets of his acting ability. Rostand delivered a heroic comedy about a swashbuckling poet with an abnormally large nose, a tale based on his own favorite writer. The real-life Cyrano was, like his fictional counterpart, both a soldier and a writer, his famously large nose, however, was Rostand’s invention.

Just two years after the critical and popular success of Cyrano de Bergerac, illness forced Rostand to move back to his country estate. His last two finished plays: L’Aiglon {The Eaglet, 1900), and Chanticler (1910), were critical disappointments. L’Aiglon (about the life of the Duke of Reichstadt, son of Napoleon I) was, according to most critics, considered too simplistic and predictable. Chanticler (about a barnyard rooster who defends the importance of his role in the world) had critics divided: while some found it obscure and too long; some found its allegorical verse profound, and view it as a poem to be read and not performed.

Rostand’s final play La derniere nuit de Don Juan {The Last Night of Don Juan, 1922), was left unfinished upon his death in 1918.

Rostand was the youngest member ever elected to the Academie Francaise (one of the highest honors France bestows on scholars of letters) in 1901. He is remembered for his skillful verse and the robust theatricality of his plays, most notably, Cyrano de Bergerac.


Act I: A Performance at the Hotel de Bourgogne

Act I of Cyrano de Bergerac opens at the famous Hotel de Bourgogne in France, where a troop of actors are setting up for a matinee performance. Joining the actors and stagehands is a cross-section of seventeenth-century Parisian life: cavaliers, pages, pickpockets, peddlers, and even Marquises bustle about the stage. The audience is introduced to Christian de Neuvillette, a handsome young man who has come (with his friend, Ligniere) to catch a glimpse of Roxane, a beautiful woman who may be attending the performance. Christian complains of his inability to speak to her:“I have no wit,” he states, and he fears embarrassing himself if he is given the chance to confront her. A greater obstacle, however, is the fact that the Comte de Guiche, who is married to the niece of Cardinal Richelieu, also desires Roxane, and has been pressing her to marry his friend, Valvert, so that he can be near her whenever he wishes. Roxane is, naturally, averse to the idea.

The play truly begins when its title character, the soldier Cyrano, enters and chases Montfleury, an actor whose pomposity and unskilled bombast the swordsman despises, off of the stage. After giving the theatre’s manager a purse of gold (to compensate for his closing the play), Cyrano banters with some minor characters—until Valvert, goaded by de Guiche, attempts to mock Cyrano for his most striking feature: his gigantic nose. He taunts Cyrano with, “your nose is . . . rather large,” to which Cyrano replies with a fifty-four line oration in which he details all of the insults Valvert could have said, had he “some tinge of letters, or of wit.” As if this speech is not proof enough of Cyrano’s quick mind and sense of humor, he immediately duels Valvert while simultaneously composing a ballad that describes his actions. He states that when he completes his verse, he will strike with his sword, which he does, killing Valvert. Clearly, the “Performance at the Hotel de Bourgogne” is Cyrano’s own, which the crowd on stage (and in the audience) watch, spellbound. After the hall empties out, Cyrano reveals to his friend, Le Bret, that he is in love with (of course) a woman named Roxane. Like Christian, he is afraid of humiliation, although his problem is not his lack of wit but “the shadow of my profile on the wall.” Roxane’s lady-in-waiting asks Cyrano if she and Roxane might meet him tomorrow to discuss “certain things.” Cyrano agrees and continues his pursuit of making himself “in all things—admirable.” He ends the Act by dueling one hundred men to save Ligniere’s life, a brave and noble act, although it has already been revealed to the audience that Cyrano’s private self is lovelorn and insecure.

Act II: The Bakery of the Poets

The action shifts to Ragueneau’s pastry shop, where the baker (and aspiring poet) feeds a host of local artisans in exchange for their verse and conversation. Cyrano enters, for it is here that he will meet Roxane, and he is eager to hear what he hopes will be a pronouncement of her love. Roxane tells him that she is in love, with someone “who does not know,” who “loves me too,” and “never says one word.” However, when she describes this man as “beautiful,” Cyrano knows that she cannot be speaking of him. Roxane confesses that she loves Christian, and has come to ask Cyrano to watch over him, as he is to enter the Guards (of which Cyrano is a member). Cyrano reluctantly agrees, saying nothing to Roxane about his own feelings.

Cyrano tells Christian of Roxane’s love and that she expects a letter from him. Delighted yet distraught, Christian tells Cyrano that he cannot write, for doing so “would ruin all”: “I am a fool!/Stupid enough to hang myself.” The two men speak of their own deficiencies: Christian, placing his hand on his heart, cries, “Oh, if I had words/To say what I have here.” Cyrano wishes he was “a handsome little Musketeer.” Finally, Cyrano devises a plan to help Christian: the young soldier can “borrow” his wit by allowing Cyrano to write the

letter to Roxane. After some prodding, Christian agrees, causing Cyrano to exclaim that, with their combined forces, “we two” will “make one her of romance!”

Act III: Roxane’s Kiss

Act III takes place in front of Roxane’s house. Cyrano enters and speaks to Roxane about “Christian’s” letters, which she describes as the work of “a master,” but which Cyrano is forced (by virtue of his secret role in their creation) to criticize. De Guiche enters, again asking Roxane to consider his offer; she responds with indifference. When he reveals that the Guards have been ordered to besiege Arras, Roxane’s concern for Christian motivates her to trick de Guiche into leaving Cyrano and Christian behind, while the rest of the regiment marches off to glory. He agrees, convinced that this is a sign of Roxane’s love. Christian and Cyrano enter and discuss their agreement, which Christian wants to end by speaking freely and openly to Roxane. “I am no such fool! You shall see,” the young Cadet promises, only to flounder when he does attempt to speak eloquently to Roxane. She runs into her house, shutting the door in his face and leaving Christian more heartbroken than before. However, Cyrano again devises a plan: he will stand under Roxane’s balcony and pretend that he is Christian; this way, the illusion that they have created will be sustained. Hidden by shadows, Cyrano “rhapsodizes” under her window until she begs him to climb the trellis and receive her kiss. Christian does, leaving Cyrano on the ground, comparing himself to Lazarus, the Biblical beggar who waited outside the gates of a rich man who dined on the finest foods.

A Capuchin monk enters with a letter for Roxane from de Guiche, explaining that he has secretly remained in Paris for a day while his regiment is preparing for war. Roxane, however, pretends to read a very different letter to the Capuchin, claiming that she and Christian are to be immediately married by order of Cardinal Richelieu. Roxane and Christian arrive for the ceremony, while Cyrano, again finding himself an outcast, waits outside. When de Guiche enters, Cyrano manages to stall him long enough for the ceremony to conclude; when it does, Roxane and Christian enter and announce their marriage. Furious, de Guiche commands Cyrano and Christian to report to the front. As they leave, Cyrano promises Roxane that “Christian” will write her every day.

Act IV: The Cadets of Gascoyne

Act IV occurs at Arras, the front of France’s war against Spain. Cyrano has risked his life every day by crossing the battlefield to ensure that Roxane receives her daily letter. All are shocked when a carriage arrives at the camp containing Roxane and Ragueneau; she has come to see Christian, and he has come to supply the hungry men with food and wine. In a conversation with Christian, Roxane asks for his “forgiveness.” She feels that she has sinned, that she has fallen in love with him only because he was “beautiful.” She tells him that even if he were “less charming” or “ugly even,” she would still love him. Of course, this is terrible news to Christian, who tells Cyrano that he is “tired of being/[His] own rival.” Christian wants Roxane to know the truth: “I want her love/For the poor fool I am—or not at all!” He asks Cyrano to tell Roxane the entire story in the hope that she will choose the man whom she loves more dearly. Christian exits the stage, entering the battle that rages outside.

Cyrano now has the opportunity for which he has been hoping: a chance to reveal himself to Roxane, to show her that it is his soul and his words that she loves. Just as he is about to tell her, however, Christian is brought on stage, mortally wounded. Rather than deny happiness to a dying man, Cyrano tells Christian that Roxane chose him: “I have told her; she loves you.” As he watches Roxane weep over Christian’s body, Cyrano realizes that he will never be able to tell her the truth: “I am dead and my love mourns for me/And does not know.” Inspired to fight, Cyrano rushes to the front, announcing, “I have two deaths to avenge now—Christian’s/And my own!” The act ends as Cyrano enters the fray.

Act V: Cyrano’s Gazette

The scene shifts to fifteen years later. Roxane has entered a convent and is visited by Cyrano every Saturday. During these visits he informs her of the week’s events, giving her a dose of the town’s gossip. Le Bret tells the nuns that Cyrano is penniless and lonely due to his caustic attacks (“satires”) on hypocrites of all kinds: “He attacks the false nobles, the false saints,/The false heroes, the false artists—in short,/Everyone!” De Guiche, whose passion has been cooled by time, visits Roxane to tell her of a rumor he heard at Court concerning the possible murder of Cyrano for offending a “false noble.” Ragueneau runs on stage and informs everyone that Cyrano was hit on the head with a log that “accidentally” fell from a window. He and Le Bret run off to aid the dying swordsman.

Cyrano, however, appears after they leave to see Roxane before he dies. Although he tries to make jests and tell Roxane the “gazette” of news at Court, he is obviously in pain (yet too proud to admit it). Confessing that he is dying, he engages in his last swordfight, a battle with death itself. While his previous clashes with death allowed him escape, this one will not, and he stumbles in exhaustion. Nearing death, Cyrano’s last wish is to read the letter that “Christian” wrote to Roxane on the day of his death, which she keeps in a locket around her neck. As he reads it aloud, the irony of the situation—and Cyrano’s life—intensifies: “Farewell, Roxanne, because to-day I die . . . and my heart/Still so heavy with love I have not told,/And I die without telling you!” When he continues reading the letter after the sun sets, however, Roxane realizes that Cyrano knows the letter by heart; she realizes that it was he, not Christian, who composed the words with which she fell in love. Roxane is so moved by the many sacrifices and selfless acts performed by Cyrano that she professes her love for him. Cyrano thanks her for a life of “sweetness” and collapses while offering Roxane “One thing without stain,/Unspotted from the world, in spite of doom/[His] own!” As Roxane leans toward him, asking him what he is leaving her, he smiles and says,“My white plume”: a symbol of his honor in a world that seemed to have little regard for such a quality.



The stage manager of the theater where Montfleury was set to perform, he is put in the position of calming the crowd when Cyrano runs Montfleury off the stage. He allows Le Bret and Cyrano to wait in the theater while the mob leaves after the duel with Valvert.


A handsome but tongue-tied soldier from Touraine; Christian comes to Paris to join the Gascony Guards (Cyrano’s regiment) and to find the beautiful Roxane.

So overcome is he with Roxane’s beauty that he allows Cyrano to woo Roxane with words when it


  • The earliest film adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac is a silent film from 1925 with Pierre Magnier as Cyrano. Available from Kino on Video.
  • The most famous film version of Cyrano de Bergerac is the one in which Jose Ferrer reprised his famous stage role as the title character. The film was released in 1950 by United Artists and is available on Nostalgia Family Video.
  • The Royal Shakespeare Company’s 1985 production of the play, with Derek Jacobi as Cyrano, is available on video from Turner Home Entertainment.
  • For a newer adaptation of the play, see Jean-Paul Rappeneau’s 1990 version of Cyrano de Bergerac, starring Gerard Depardieu as Cyrano, a performance for which he won the 1990 Cannes Film Festival’s Best Actor award. Available on Orion Home Video.
  • Steve Martin’s comedy Roxanne (1987) tells the story of Cyrano de Bergerac in a modern American setting. Starring Steve Martin as C. D. Bales (Cyrano) and Daryl Hannah as Roxanne. Available on Columbia Home Video.

becomes obvious that his good looks are not enough to win her heart. Even after he is married to her, it is Cyrano who continues the relationship, composing moving love letters for Christian. When he finds that the words (Cyrano’s heart and soul) are what she loves, the starving and sickly Christian begs Cyrano to tell Roxane the truth. Knowing he cannot continue to dishonestly accept Roxane’s love, he seeks death in battle.

Christian is a man with honorable intentions and a good heart. He is also easily led and a victim of his own desires. He willingly allows Cyrano to act as a kind of “emotional surrogate” to make up for the qualities he lacks. He is truly in love with Roxane but knows that her love for him has not been fairly won. He sees an honorable death in battle as the only solution to this problem. It is Christian’s hope that, in his absence, Cyrano and Roxane can find true happiness together.

The Citizen

The Citizen is a member of the audience at the theater. An otherwise insignificant character, he serves as a means by which Rostand illustrates his hero’s sensitivity regarding his appearance as well as his rapier-sharp wit. The citizen is caught staring at Cyrano’s sizable sinuses and subsequently initiates the play’s famous “nose tirade.”


See Cyrano de Bergerac

Cyrano de Bergerac

Cyrano de Bergerac is a man who excels at poetry and swordsmanship in order to overcome his “physical limitation”—a very large nose. In the words of the character Ragueneau, “there never walked,/stalked rather, strutted, so extravagant, bizzare,/far-fetched, excessive, hyperbolic, droll,/mad a gentleman-ruffian as this Bergerac.”

From the first sight of Cyrano ridiculing the lackluster skills of the actor Montfleury, it is clear that his wit is a weapon as sharp as his sword. When challenged to a duel by the Vicomte de Valvert, he composes a “ballade” (poem) as they fight. He taunts his opponent,“when the poem ends, I hit.” It is clear that Cyrano is in complete control, both in the swordfight and in the verbal repartee; as he states, he completes the poem and defeats de Valvert. For Cyrano, composing the poem is an integral part of the fight itself, an illustration that there is little distinction between his mental and physical prowess—and that these powers serve as tools to maintain his individuality and freedom.

Cyrano’s dedication to his art (and obsession with independence) is also depicted in his rejection of de Guiche’s patronage. His statement, “I might, (take a patron)/if the thought of anyone’s changing a single comma,/didn’t make my blood curdle,” shows his revulsion at the thought of anyone meddling in his affairs. In the end, his insistance on being an independent man brings about his death.

Just as he fights with words, Cyrano can also employ them in the pursuit of love. Believing that his beautiful and intelligent cousin Roxane could not love him because of his looks; he offers to woo her for the handsome but tongue-tied suitor, Christian. It is with Cyrano’s words that Roxane is won into marriage, not Christian’s looks. Cyrano, his self-esteem so low, cannot believe, even after Roxane’s letter to the front in the siege of Arras, that she could love him. For fifteen years he keeps the secret, fearing her rejection, until he is, himself, about to die. Cyrano is a passionate man, whose independence eventually leads to his downfall. He does, however, achieve a bittersweet triumph before his death, learning that Roxane does in fact love him for his soul, not his outward appearance. Cyrano’s tale illustrates the concept of true beauty coming from within.

Comte de Guiche

A courtier and somewhat foppish aristocrat; de Guiche, though married to the niece of French leader Cardinal Richelieu, is in love with Roxane. He believes that if he cannot have her he will force her to marry his ally, the Vicomte de Valvert. De Guiche will do whatever is necessary to win Roxane, and is determined to crush whomever stands in his way. When Cyrano thwarts his attempt at a late-night meeting with Roxane and enables her marriage to Christian; he sends Cyrano, Christian, and their regiment, the Gascony Guards, to the siege of Arras in retribution. It is only after many years that de Guiche learns to respect Cyrano for his independence and understands the loyalty of Roxane.

Christian de Neuvillette

See Christian

The Foodseller

The Foodseller is a young woman who shows Cyrano kindness by trying to give him food after he gives his purse to Jodalet at the theater. He refuses her offer but kisses her hand. This illustrates Cyrano’s easy and natural charm with women and takes place as he tells Le Bret that no woman will ever want him.


LeBret is Cyrano’s friend in the Gascony Guards and is the perfect foil (a character who offers complementary—often contrasting—behavior) for Cyrano. He is a staunch supporter and loyal friend to Cyrano, but also reminds Cyrano when he is being reckless (as when Cyrano gives his entire purse to Bellerose, the theater owner). Protective of Cyrano, he tries to keep him safe in the siege of Arras and again at the convent fifteen years later. He has enormous respect and love for Cyrano, and also for Roxane.


A poet and a drunk, Ligniere serves to introduce Christian to all at the theater. De Guiche sends one-hundred “ruffians” to kill Ligniere because he wrote a scandalous song about him. Thanks to Christian’s warning, Cyrano protects Ligniere, fights off the hundred ruffians, and saves his life. This victory for Cyrano helps solidify his reputation as a fighter at the pastry shop the next day and wins over the crowd until his disagreement with de Guiche over patronage.


Lise, Ragueneau’s wife, has no patience for her husband’s love of poetry. She destroys his books to wrap pastries. Irritated by her husband’s poet friends, she eventually runs off with a musketeer. Cyrano warns Ragueneau of Lise’s friendliness with the musketeer but it is too late.

Magdeleine Robin

See Roxane


Montfleury is a notoriously overweight and very bad actor on the Paris stage. Defying Cyrano’s warning to stay off the stage for a month, he finds himself kicked off and run out of town by Cyrano.

Mother Marguerite de Jesus

The Mother Superior of the convent in which Roxane takes refuge after Christian’s death, she is an understanding woman, who tells her young sisters Marthe and Claire not to try to convert Cyrano. She enjoys Cyrano’s Saturday visits to Roxane. Her presence serves as a narrative bridge, shading in the events in the fourteen years since the siege of Arras.


Ragueneau is a baker and would-be poet. A friend to Cyrano, he opens his pastry shop to poets who listen to his verse in exchange for food and drink. He supports Cyrano both in friendship and with food from his shop. He also allows his shop to be used as a meeting place for Cyrano and Roxane. He warns Cyrano of the danger of making too many enemies and tries to help him when he can.

Ragueneau’s wife, Lise, leaves him for a musketeer after he bankrupts himself by publishing a book of recipes in verse—“Ragueneau’s Rhymed Recipes”. By the end of the play he works odd jobs to survive, but he remains a loyal friend to Cyrano until the end.


Roxane is one of the most sought after women in Paris. Beautiful, intelligent, and fiercely independent, she lives with her duenna (chaperone) in a comfortable home in Paris. She is Cyrano’s cousin, and the object of desire for not only Cyrano and Christian, but the Comte de Guiche and the Vicomte de Valvert as well. Described by Rostand as “delicately reared and bookish,” she is a lover of words and not men.

While attracted to Christian’s good looks, his lack of social skill and clumsy attempts at conversation turn her off. It is only when Roxane hears the words of Cyrano—spoken through Christian—that she is charmed. Convinced that Christian is both handsome and intelligent; it is she that devises a plan to thwart the Comte de Guiche’s late-night meeting so that she may marry Christian. It is her quick thinking that convinces the Capuchin (priest) to marry them; despite this cunning, she is nevertheless fooled by Cyrano’s ruse.

Roxane proves to be a faithful and loving wife to the end by staying in a convent after Christian’s death. She resists the advances of the still-ardent Comte de Guiche, and her only link to the outside world is her faithful cousin Cyrano, who is her regular visitor. It is only when she realizes that the words Christian spoke came from Cyrano that she declares her love for him. Roxane’s physical attraction to Christian—and her enduring belief that it was he who spoke such beautiful words to her—blinds her to Cyrano’s deep love. As Cyrano lies dying, however, she realizes her true love in Cyrano.

Roxane’s Duenna

The duenna is a chaparone who is easily bribed by Cyrano’s cream puffs at Ragueneau’s pastry shop. She is at times cynical and sarcastic, yet very protective of her charge, Roxane.

Sister Claire

Counterpart to Sister Marthe, she is concerned about Cyrano and expresses her concern to Mother Marguerite.

Sister Marthe

One of the two sisters at the convent who play out a comic moment as each tells the other’s sins to Mother Marguerite. Marthe wishes to convert Cyrano, and Cyrano, before his death tells her to pray for him.


See Vicomte de Valvert

Vicomte de Valvert

Valvert is the man de Guiche wishes Roxane to marry in the hopes of keeping her from Cyrano and Christian. Foppish and slightly dim-witted, he provokes Cyrano into a duel in the theater. Unable to come up with a witty retort against Cyrano’s torrent of poetry, he enters into the fight. He is slain by Cyrano’s sword with the line “the poem ended/and I hit.”


Search for Self

Cyrano de Bergerac is a story about fear, beauty, loyalty, friendship, love, and difference. In Cyrano’s search for his self—and the conflict between who he is and who he’d like to be—he manages to both gain friends and make enemies. He simultaneously challenges those around him while entertaining others. He must ultimately believe that it is possible for Roxane to love him, and to believe


  • Research the life of Cardinal Richelieu (whose niece De Guiche is married to in the play) and explain how a knowledge of Richelieu’s role in French history can expand a reader’s understanding of De Guiche’s character.
  • Look in a historical source to discover what life was like in seventeenth-century France. Then, compare and contrast your findings with the presentation of French life in Cyrano de Bergerac.
  • In the play, Cyrano and the Guards fight the Spanish at the seize of Arras. Investigate the causes and effects of this battle and explain why Rostand would use it in his play.

himself worthy of that love, before he can make peace with his enemies. Unfortunately, this realization comes too late for both of them, and he dies as Roxane declares her love for him.


Cyrano is afraid to declare his love for Roxane, his cousin, because he fears rejection and ridicule—he believes that a woman as beautiful as Roxane could never love a man who is not also physically beautiful. This fear drives him to succeed at swordsmanship, poetry, and scathing wit. He drives the actor Montfleury from the stage, and fights a duel with the Vicomte de Valvert with both his sword and his words. Cyrano fights not only against his foes, but against his own fear of rejection.


There is much talk of beauty and and its counterpart ugliness in Cyrano de Bergerac. Cyrano believes himself too ugly to be loved by the beautiful Roxane (or any woman). Yet he fails to properly value the more elusive beauty that he possesses in his mind and heart. A beauty that can create his moving poetry and cause Roxane to swoon at his words. Ironically, it is Cyrano’s

This nose precedes me everywhere,/A quarter of an hour in front, to say, ‘Beware,/ Don’t love Cyrano’ to even the ugliest./ And now Cyrano has to love the best,/ The brightest, bravest, wittiest, the most/ Beautiful!”

Yet Cyrano fails to recognize the source of his own beauty, his heart and mind. With this beauty he creates moving poetry, summons words that cause Roxane to swoon, and rallies the spirits of starving, dejected soldiers.

There are numerous contrasts between beauty and its opposite in the play: with Christian it is his dashing outward appearance against his limited intelligence, with Cyrano it is the direct opposite. It is only when Roxane writes to Christian/Cyrano during the siege of Arras that the two men realize that words mean more to her than looks: “Your beauty is a barrier to you/If you were ugly . . ./. . . I know I should/Be able to love you more.” There lies the notion that Cyrano’s beauty comes from within, and has more depth than Christian’s. Roxane is in love with the words—Cyrano’s words—and not Christian’s handsome exterior. The sense that beauty comes from within, from the soul, rather than the body is strong. The play’s tragedy comes from its protagonist’s failure to recognize this earlier.


Even though aware that it was his words that won the heart of Roxane, Cyrano remains loyal to his friend Christian’s memory after the latter’s death during the siege of Arras. He does not take the opportunity to romantically pursue Roxane. Christian looks for death in battle rather than struggle on after he realizes that it is Cyrano’s soul (his words and feelings) with which his wife is truly in love. Cyrano, still afraid of rejection, keeps this secret for fifteen years. Rather than tarnish the memories Roxane has of Christian, Cyrano remains loyal to his friend and keeps the secret. It is only when he is about to die that he feels that he can reveal to Roxane that it was he who wrote all of those letters and wooed her while she was on her balcony. Her declaration of love is what Cyrano wanted more than anything in the world, and he dies finally knowing it was his heart and soul that she truly loved.

Le Bret, Ragueneau, and Roxane are all very loyal to Cyrano. Despite being put into sometimes perilous situations by the poet-hero, they continue to offer support and friendship to him. Le Bret and Ragueneau are there until the end, trying to save him from his enemies, but it is too late. This kind of loyalty is fueled by deep friendship, and that is an important theme in Rostand’s work. Those who are friends with Cyrano will defend him to the end.


Cyrano’s markedly different appearance is what drives him and fuels his fear. It is his belief that Roxane could never love him that forges his alliance and friendship with Christian. It is also what drives his bravura and wit. Anyone who mentions his unusually large nose (as the unfortunate citizen in the theater in Act I) is open to attack. The only thing that saves Christian from such an attack in the pastry shop is the love of Roxane. Those who learn to look past the difference—Ligniere, Ragueneau, Le Bret, and eventually Christian and Roxane—realize that Cyrano’s true beauty resides within. His difference is merely physical and does not touch his soul. Even the Comte de Guiche sees and understands the “true Cyrano” by the end: “He/Lives his life as he wants, he’s one of those/Rare animals that have opted to be free/...Nevertheless,/I think I’d be proud to shake him by the hand.”


In the end, it is Cyrano’s freedom that finishes him. His refusal of the Foodseller’s meal in the theater (Act I), de Guiche’s offer of Richelieu’s patronage at the pastry shop (Act II), and the aid of the Sisters at the convent (Act III): his wish to be free and independent eventually leads to his death. By believing that he cannot be loved, he wishes to be dependent on no one. This fierce thirst for freedom leads him to say and write things that make him many enemies; he is eventually killed because of his words—the words that, ironically, also mirror his inner beauty.

It was Rostand’s triumph to create a character so full of bravura, wit, and cunning and yet be so afraid to declare his love to his beloved. It is his difference that drives his fear, but it also drives his quest for freedom and independence. It is his love and friendship that drive his loyalty; yet it is love that he is afraid to declare. This complex character gives rise to a very simple situation. A love triangle that takes fifteen years to play out. Cyrano de Bergerac is about many things: fear of rejection; loyalty, love, and friendship; and freedom and independence. Through Cyrano, all of these themes are realized. Yet, at the end, when our hero dies, the overwhelming feeling is one of vindication: Cyrano triumphed, and, however briefly, knew he was loved.


Cyrano de Bergerac is the tale of a man with an abnormally large nose who is in love with his beautiful cousin Roxane. She is, however, in love with the handsome soldier Christian. Cyrano’s words work with Christian’s good looks to woo Roxane, and it is only upon Cyrano’s death that Roxane learns the words she loved so much were Cyrano’s. As both poet and swordsman, Cyrano lives out his days independent and free, “thumbing his nose” at the conventions of the mid-1600s. The story is a very effective dramatic work, utilizing numerous techniques to convey the emotions and events of Cyrano’s life.


Rostand idolized the writer Savinen de Cyrano de Bergerac (1619-1655) and, in creating a fictional account of his life, embellished on one of France’s most colorful literary figures. The real de Bergerac was indeed both a soldier and a writer, but Rostand added one distinguishing element: a very large nose. While Cyrano’s nose is first seen as a comic prop, his romantic heart and heroic stature quickly change that perception. Those familiar with the play see Cyrano’s nose as a symbol of his undying love and devotion.

Cyrano de Bergerac falls very easily into the genre of Romanticism. That term is generally defined as “any work or philosophy in which the exotic or dreamlike figure strongly, or that is devoted to individualistic expression, self-analysis, or a pursuit of a higher realm of knowledge than can be discovered by human reason.” Cyrano is, beyond anything else, an individual. From his first appearance in the theater to taunt Montfleury, Cyrano’s larger than life personality mirrors his unusually large nose. This physical challenge makes Cyrano an exotic character, one who is more than mere man.


By basing the character of Cyrano on a real historical figure, Rostand was able to use the most interesting aspects of the real de Bergerac and then embellish by adding details such as the incredibly large nose. Rostand created a character that took on a life of his own. Cyrano strives for perfection, both in poetry and in love. The other characters in the play are marvelously written, but it is Cyrano who twists and turns words into tirades and roller coasters. Rostand uses the real de Bergerac’s life as a source for some of the verbal virtuosity. Cyrano’s speech delaying de Guiche in his late-night meeting with Roxane is based on the real Cyrano’s Histoire comique des etats et empires de la lune etdu soleil, a comic exploration of the “States and Empires of the Moon and the Sun”. It is however, the fictional Cyrano’s “nose tirade” in Act I that serves to set the stage for his heroic endeavors. This is a man who refuses to lose and refuses to fail. Even in the end he triumphs as he dies. He wins the love of the beautiful Roxane by remaining true to his character.


Cyrano engages in witty repartee many times during the play. Repartee is a “conversation featuring snappy retorts and witticisms” (see DfS glossary). The repartee between Cyrano and the citizen in the theater leads to the infamous “nose tirade” in which the man is humiliated by Cyrano’s rapid fire wit. The comedy that results from this exchange and with his exchange with the Vicomte de Valvert later on in Act I is at the recipients’ expense, but it serves to focus our attention on Cyrano and to make him a hero as he defeats his foes with means other than his sword.

Point of View

As with many dramas, Cyrano de Bergerac is told with a third person point of view. This presents characters and events from outside any single character, but with no special insights into the thoughts or actions of the characters. We see events from a “spectator” point of view, but we do not hear any of the characters thoughts and feelings other than what they tell each other. Shakespeare often relayed characters’ thoughts and interior dialogues through a monologue called a soliloquy, which essentially allows a character to speak his mind out loud. Rostand eschews this technique in favor of a straight dialogue method, one that places the burden of illustrating his character’s feelings on the poetic words they speak to each other.

Heroic Comedy

G. K. Chesterton wrote in his book Varied Types that,“heroic comedy is, as it were, a paradise of lovers, in which it is not difficult to imagine that men could talk in poetry all day long.” Rostand wrote Cyrano de Bergerac in Alexandrine verse: a rhymed verse used by French dramatists and poets. Anthony Burgess, in his English translation in 1971, turned it into Heroic couplets with a rhyming couplet scheme. By writing in verse, Rostand was consciously working against the naturalism and symbolism of his contemporaries Ibsen and Maeterlinck. For Rostand’s heroic comedy, he uses poetry to convey the dreamlike, exotic quality of Romanticism. There is no equivalent to Heroic Comedy in English literature. In the English (and American) tradition, comedies should have a happy ending, yet Rostand’s ends with the death of his hero. While the ending is sad and somewhat tragic, Cyrano does, in dying, gain his greatest wish: he is loved by the woman he has always worshipped.


Seventeenth Century: Thirty Years War

Rostand wrote Cyrano de Bergerac in the late 1890s but set it in the mid-1600s. While the late 1890s was a period of great industrial and technological advancement, the mid-1600s (the beginning of the reign of Louis XIV) was a time of political intrigue and artistic intellectualism. It is important to understand both periods to truly understand the effect on Rostand’s Heroic Comedy.

France in the 1640s was still feeling the effects of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648). Fought mainly in Germany, the war saw the German Protestant Princes, France, Sweden, Denmark, and England fighting the Holy Roman Empire (including the Catholic Princes of Germany and the countries of Austria, Spain, Bohemia, and Italy). The war was fought primarily over trade, and control over the various trade routes to the east.

The war itself ended for most countries in 1648 with the Peace of Westphalia. Fighting went on between France and Spain, however, and in 1654 the Spanish laid siege to Arras in northwestern


  • 1600s: The real Cyrano de Bergerac writes Histoire comique des etats et empires de la lune et du soleil, chronicling his “adventures” on the moon.

    1890s: The atom is discovered to be composed of a nucleus orbited by bodies called electrons. This discovery leads to the advent of space flight and the nuclear age.

    Today: The Space Shuttle makes routine visits to Earth orbit, and there is preparation for a future visit to Mars.

  • 1640s: The Thirty Years War comes to an end for most countries with the Peace of Westphalia, but France and Spain continue to fight over territory until the end of the seventeenth century.

    1890s: European countries continue to pursue colonization of the Third World in order to compete with each other for power. France deposes Queen Ranavalona of Madagascar, while Cuba demands independence from Spain.

    Today: The European Union continues to evolve, making France and Spain member states of a new federation.

  • 1600s: Great plays and books were discussed in the salons of Paris, among the aristocrats and nobles who could afford to spend their leisure time discussing and going to the theater. Most common people did not have this luxury.

    1890s: Through the availability of newspapers and magazines, critics all over the world discussed the great works at the turn of the century. Most people have some access to the arts.

    Today: People from all over the world and of all social classes can read and discuss art and literature over the internet. Information is more widely available than ever before, and it is accessible almost immediately.

  • 1640s: Society was organized into a strict class structure: aristocrats and nobles, the merchant middle-class, and the rural peasants and farmers who worked the land. A great majority of people went uneducated.

    1890s: The Industrial Revolution of the late 1800s drew more people into the cities to work in factories. Society becomes more urbanized, as people leave their jobs in the fields for work these new industries. More and more people are being educated, and there is new emphasis on staying in school.

    Today: The Technological Revolution is producing more and more office jobs as workers are being “downsized” and laid off from their factory positions. As society and industry becomes more mechanized there are fewer jobs for unskilled workers, and there is a great demand for those workers with a college education.

France. The real Cyrano de Bergerac fought in this siege, and Rostand uses this historical fact for the setting of Act II.

Seventeenth Century: Civil Unrest

French nobles, upset with the unreasonable taxation, high tarriffs, and road tolls engaged the aid of Spanish troops and staged a rebellion against Cardinal Mazarin in 1648. The Cardinal was running the government for the eight-year-old Louis XIV. The aristocracy allied with the rising middle class in France to put down the rebellion. The public was outraged that the nobles were allied with France’s enemy Spain. The conflict provided the opportunity later on for Louis XIV to consolidate his power over France and become an absolute ruler.

Seventeenth Century: Literature

During the reign of Louis XIV (The Sun King), French literature, arts, and philosophy became the standard for all of Europe. The Academie Francaise, founded by Cardinal Richelieu in 1634, sought to protect the French language by guarding against slang and poor grammar in all art and literature. (Edmond Rostand would become its youngest member ever inducted in 1901.) With a strong monarchy, the French had more leisure time for artistic pursuits than ever before.

The audience for theater in the 1600s tended to be the small elite group of aristocrats who could afford to patronize the arts. The refined style of the time period reflected the lifestyle of the patrons, who could afford to “keep” artists in their circle. Writers were generally poor in the seventeenth century and persuaded nobles, landowners, and even Louis XIV to finance their works (an idea which has formed more organized roots in modern drama in the form of government subsidies and grants for the arts and the grants and fellowships awarded to artists by various private and public foundations). Authors often included extreme flattery of their patrons in their books. The real-life Cyrano de Bergerac was sickened by this flattery but eventually was forced to seek the patronage of the Duke of Arpajon. Rostand depicts de Bergerac’s feelings in his play, having his fictional Cyrano state: “Dedicate my works to men of wealth?/ Become a sedulous ape, a fool who waits/For some official’s patronizing smile?/No, thank you, . . . I prefer to sing, to dream, to play/To travel light, to be at liberty.”

Seventeenth Century: Salons

Literary works in the seventeenth century were read and discussed in salons. These salons, or ruelles as they were called, were often hosted by a French noblewoman who entertained aristocrats, writers, and philosophers while sitting on her bed. Meeting in this situation brought a “much needed refining influence on both the manners and language” of the gentlemen in attendence, according to John Lough in his book An Introduction to Seventeenth-Century France. Madeleine Robineau, whom Rostand used as a model for Roxane, was an intellectual who was a fixture and frequent hostess of such events.

1890s: Politics

Rostand wrote Cyrano de Bergerac in the late 1890s. The year it debuted the French deposed Madagascar’s Queen Ranavalona, ending the one hundred year Hova dynasty; a Franco-German agreement defined the boundary between Dahomey and Togoland; and Britain and France inched ever closer to a possible conflict over colonial territories. The United States annexed the Hawaiian Islands much to the dismay of the Japanese; who still had 25,000 nationals there. Also, England’s Queen Victoria celebrated her Diamond Jubilee—seventy-five years of rule. Despite the threat of various conflicts, the world was at a time of relative peace.

1890s: Science

In 1897 English physicist Joseph John Thomson proved that an atom was made up of electrons orbiting a nucleus, and that each element had a different number of electrons, and a different weight. The discovery of the atom opened the door to numerous advances in science and, later in the twentieth century, made everything from space travel to nuclear power possible. The malaria parasite was found to be carried by the Amopheles mosquito—a discovery that would lead to the widespread use of insecticides and the draining of wetlands where the insects bred. Also in 1897, the cathode ray tube was invented; which would eventually lead to the development of television and wireless communication.

1890s: Literature

In literature and entertainment, the Library of Congress was completed in Washington D.C. in 1897. The Invisible Man by H. G. Wells, Captains Courageous by Rudyard Kipling, and Dracula by Bram Stoker were all published for the first time in 1897. Other plays that made their debut that year were John Gabriel Borkman by Henrik Ibsen, The Devil’s Disciple by George Bernard Shaw, and The Liars by Henry Arthur Jones.

Edmond Rostand wrote Cyrano de Bergerac at a time when Naturalism was a major force in the literary world. His heroic comedy was a complete contrast to what most of his contemporaries were writing at the time. While Ibsen was focused on Naturalism and Maeterlinck on Symbolism, de Bergerac used the Romanticism of the 1640’s to create a completely different theater experience for his audience. The 1890’s was a time of great change in the world, a time of forged alliances, technological and industrial advances, and social, political, and artistic upheaval. By setting Cyrano in the seventeenth century and basing the hero on a real-life character, the playwright was free to explore a more exotic and romatic time. As Lionel Strachey wrote in a review of the play in Lippincott’s,“Rostand is the preeminent verbalist and sentimentalist of the French drama. He has the perennial talent of the right word in the right place, and that without prejudice to rhyme.” Rostand’s talent was to create a heroic character in Cyrano who transcends time.


When Cyrano de Bergerac made its debut at the Porte Sainte-Martin Theater in Paris in 1897, it was an instant success. This heroic comedy in Alexandrine verse had won over the sophisticated Parisian public and was on its way to becoming a modern classic. Though Edmond Rostand, the cast, and the producers (the Fleury brothers) were doubtful that the play would be a success, the audience fell in love with the poetry of the play and the beauty of the story. Cyrano is acclaimed as a dramatic masterpiece and is renowned for its unforgettable hero and romantic spirit. Though critics have at times labeled the play shallow, most praise its entertaining theatricality and its heroic protagonist who remains loyal to his ideals.

Cyrano is the poet turned hero. The verbal virtuosity of the play, from the “nose tirade” to Cyrano’s admission to Roxane that he is the poet whom she loves, combined with the outbursts and action create a tour-de-force of a play. As William D. Howarth noted in Reference Guide to French Literature:“Despite his extravagance, Cyrano is a human character with whom spectators (the audience) and readers find it by no means impossible to reach the necessary degree of sympathetic identification: not because we ourselves aspire to the same sort of heroics, but because he expresses a Romantic idealism, a nostalgia for absolute values, latent in us all.” The spectator can relate to Cyrano’s dilemma. The insecurities that lead Cyrano to hide his love from Roxane, and to use it to Christian’s benefit, are qualities that all humans possess. Rostand’s genius was to create a character who is so human that he is timeless. Max Beerbohm, writing in his Around Theatres, said of Cyrano:

Cyrano will survive because he is practically a new type in drama. I know that the motives of self-sacrifice-in-love and beauty-adored-by-a-grotesque are as old, and as effective, as the hills, and have been used in literature again and again. I know that self-sacrifice is the motive of most successful plays. But, so far as I know, beauty-adored-by-a-grotesque has never been used with the grotesque as stage-hero. At any rate it has never been used so finely and so tenderly as by M. Rostand, whose hideous swashbuckler with the heart of gold and the talent for improvising witty or beautiful verses . . . is far too novel, I think, and too convincing, and too attractive, not to be permanent.

As time has passed Cyrano de Bergerac has become a beloved play, a classic still performed today in theaters around the world. Critics have, however, found that Rostand as a writer was not a genius as much as a playwright who had a great real-life story to embellish. Beerbohm called Rostand “a gifted, adroit artist, who does with freshness and great force things that have been done before. . . . It is rather silly to chide M. Rostand for creating a character and situations which are unreal if one examines them from a non-romantic standpoint.” Beerbohm makes an excellent point: Cyrano must be seen as the romantic hero in this heroic-comedy drama. To try to view—or read—Cyrano de Bergerac realistically, is to miss the beauty of the play.

Heroic Comedy has no tradition in English Literature. G. K. Chesterton wrote in Varied Types that, in today’s world, “the hero has his place in tragedy, and the one kind of strength which is systematically denied to him is the strength to succeed.” It seemed strange to some critics that a comedy should have a tragic ending. As Chesteron appraised, “Monsieur Rostand showed even more than his usual insight when he called Cyrano de Bergerac a comedy, despite the fact that, strictly speaking, it ends with disappointment and death. The essence of tragedy is a spiritual breakdown or decline. . . . It is not the facts themselves, but our feeling about them, that makes tragedy and comedy, and death is more joyful in Rostand than life in Maeterlinck.”

Though Cyrano dies at the end, he dies loved by his beloved—the beautiful Roxane. It seems appropriate that the hero of a Heroic Comedy should die at the end. Dying for love is one of the most heroic acts a man can commit. Henry James, in the Critic, wrote of Cyrano: “The tight-rope in Cyrano is, visibly enough, the question of the hero’s facial misfortune, doubly great as opposed to his grand imagination, grand manners, and grand soul, the soul that leads his boisterous personality to run riot, for love and for friendship, in self-suppression, in sentimental suicide.” As James states, it is the heroism and romanticism that saves Cyrano de Bergerac as a play and makes it a masterpiece. James goes on to say: “I wouldn’t, individually, part with an inch of Cyrano’s nose. . . . The value of it in the plan, naturally, is that it is liberally symbolic. . . . Cyrano, for a romantic use, had not only to be sensitive, to be conscious, but to be magnificent and imperial; and the brilliancy of the creation of the author’s expression of this.”

Writing in Lippincott’s, Lionel Strachey sums up Rostand’s writing ability this way: “Edmond Rostand’s genius is of the highest, but not the highest. . . . And however deeply our aesthetic sense is intoxicated, however we marvel at his nimble scholarship, into whatever ecstasy we go over his perfect expression of exquisite thoughts, our investigating, speculative, deductive, reasoning faculties remain untouched. Our splendid young Frenchman is, indeed, a great poet and little philosopher.” In all of the criticism one point remains clear: though Cyrano de Bergerac has no real philosophical enlightenments, it is nonetheless a masterpiece. The character of Cyrano carries the play—his verbal virtuosity and faithful devotion to those he loved and cared for make him utterly unforgettable and absolutely timeless.


Daniel Moran

Moran is an author and educator with extensive experience in secondary education. His essay examines Rostand’s sharply defined title character and the nature of heroism.

In As You Like It, William Shakespeare offers the famous line, “All the world’s a stage,” an idea that takes on a literal meaning in Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac, his play featuring one of the most theatrical of characters ever created. In the foreword to his translation of the play, Anthony Burgess writes that while “Cyrano de Bergerac may not be the best play ever written,” its central figure “is surely one of the great characters in all drama.” What makes Cyrano such a remarkable and popular character is, primarily, his devotion to his own code of honor, despite the fact that his goals seem unattainable. When asked if he has ever read Don Quixote, Cyrano replies, “I have—and found myself the hero.” Like Quixote, Cyrano forever chases the “windmill” (or unattainable goal) of winning Roxane’s heart, and the audience’s fascination with this “bravest soul alive” resides in his steadfast commitment to this task. When asked if he has “chosen any plans” for himself, the flamboyant hero replies that he has decided upon “The simplest—To make myself in all things admirable!” How Cyrano struggles with his desire to be “admirable” in all things, against his fear of being mocked for his large nose, is the focus of Rostand’s “heroic comedy,” in which the viewer sees how he plays various roles on the “stage” of the world in order to produce what William Lyon Phelps called “The Triumphant Failure” in his text Essays on Modern Dramatists.

The play begins in the Hall of the Hotel de Bourgogne as various actors and patrons await the day’s play. Appropriately subtitled “A Performance” by Rostand, the act raises all of the issues of the upcoming play and displays Cyrano (rather than any actor), as the true “performer.” First, however, the viewer learns that Ligniere, a friend of Christian, is to be attacked for writing a song that offended someone at court; in addition, Cyrano has commanded that Montfleury, a “hippopotamus” of an actor, be forbidden to perform. Clearly, the imaginary seventeenth-century world of Cyrano de Bergerac, is one in which art is taken very seriously, as seen later in Ragueneau’s trading pastries for sonnets and his setting recipes to rhyme, as well as in the letters that Cyrano will eventually pen to Roxane (in Christian’s name).

Cyrano’s entrance, however, is when the play really begins, and it is in his entrance that Rostand reveals his hero’s character and concerns. After chasing Montfleury off of the stage, Cyrano assumes the spotlight, managing to turn his worst defect into a “theatrical” asset. To put Cyrano “in his place,” Valvert attempts to insult him, saying, “Your nose is . . . rather large!” This lame jibe only proves to be a springboard for Cyrano’s wit: he responds with a list of twenty things that Valvert could have said in twenty different styles, such as, “DESCRIPTIVE: ‘Tis a rock—a crag—a cape/ A cape? Say rather, a peninsula!” and concludes his monologue with,

These, my dear sir, are things you might have said Had you some tinge of letters, or of wit To color your discourse. But wit—not so, You never had an atom—and of letters, You need but three to write you down—an Ass.

Cyrano’s catalogue of insults shows his own obsession with his “peninsula,” his love of language, and his contempt for the tiny minds that surround him. He is “a soul clothed in armor,” and his wit is the “armor” that defends his often-battered pride. When asked by Valvert to duel, Cyrano again “performs,” composing (and reciting) a four-stanza ballad the entire time; his mind and his sword are equally sharp, and his “thrusting”


  • Rostand’s 1895 play The Princess Far Away is his play concerning Joffroy Rudel, a troubadour who travels to see the beautiful Countess of Tripoli before he dies, despite the fact that they have never met. Like Cyrano, Joffroy is an idealist who commits to a plan of action to realize his dream.
  • Chantecler, Rostand’s 1910 play, focuses on a barnyard rooster who, like his counterpart in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, attempts to uphold his dignity among other “animals” of the world.
  • Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote (1605, 1615) is the renowned novel that follows the adventures of an idealist who lashes out at a materialistic world by engaging himself in various chivalric (and delusionary) adventures. When asked if he has ever read Don Quixote, Cyrano replies, “I have —and found myself the hero.”

at Valvert reflects the “thrusting” of his mind in the previous speech. Imbibing the admiration of the crowd as if it is champagne, Cyrano offers the theater manager a purse of gold in order to compensate for the business he has cost him for this day; when criticized by his friend (and the voice of rationality), LeBret, with, “what a fool,” the swordsman rejoins, “but—what a gesture!” This idea, that “gestures” are as important as the day-to-day cares of the world (Cyrano has just given away his month’s salary) resurfaces again and again in the play, with Cyrano constantly making “gestures” in which he displays (albeit without her knowledge) his love for Roxane. He displays what Rostand himself described as true “panache”: “not greatness . . . but something which . . . stirs above it. . . the spirit of gallantry.”

As he leaves the theater to fight the hundred men awaiting Ligniere, he cries, ‘ I want an audience,” and as the characters excitedly follow him, Rostand suggests that his play will be one in which various “actors” (such as Cyrano and Christian) perform for an “audience” (Roxane) whose applause they both crave and esteem.

Despite Cyrano’s bravado, he does harbor great insecurities about his desire for Roxane. Before he faces (and defeats) his hundred opponents, he tells LeBret that he is afraid to speak to her because “she might laugh,” and this “is the one thing in the world” that he fears. Act Two serves as a way for Rostand to accentuate this fear and intensify the portrait of Cyrano’s pride created in Act One. When told by Roxane that she loves a man who “loves me too,/And is afraid of me, and keeps away,/And never says one word,” Cyrano (who can always produce a needed remark) can only respond with gasps. When she continues to describe the object of her affections, however, as “beautiful,” Cyrano knows that, whoever her love may be, it is not himself. His disappointment grows as he explains to LeBret the reasons for his flamboyance and “growling”:“What would you have me do. . .? Eat a toad/ For breakfast every morning. . .? Wear out my belly groveling in the dust?” Rather than live in fear of “the common herd,” Cyrano explains that he “is too proud to be a parasite”; thus he will not allow De Guiche to alter “one comma” in his tragedy and is even more committed to a life where he will “stand, not high it may be—but alone!”

Cyrano’s problem with Roxane now seems hopeless; however, the plan he hatches with Christian allows him to avoid humility while still proclaiming his love from afar. Their meeting is one in which Rostand invites the viewer to recognize how the deficiencies in each can be filled by the other: when Christian points at his heart and says,“Oh, if I had words/To say what I have here,” Cyrano laments, “If I could be/A handsome little Musketeer with eyes!” Their scheme is one in which these deficiencies are combined and “canceled out,” for together, Cyrano’s mind plus Christian’s beauty equals the perfect man. Cyrano tells Christian to “borrow” his wit and asks him, “your beautiful young manhood—lend me that.” Together, as a unified force in the battle for Roxane’s love, these two will “make one hero of romance!” While Cyrano earlier remarks that he will “render no share to Caesar,” that is, not allow anyone else to take credit for his actions, he freely offers his wit (and pen) to Christian, illustrating the play’s theme of sacrifice for a higher cause—which reaches its height, of course, when Christian dies and Cyrano does not admit to Roxane (until fifteen years have passed) that it was he who had provided Christian with the words and feelings with which Roxane fell in love.

While such a plan is appealing to Cyrano both practically and aesthetically, Act Three shows the strains of the ruse on the swordsman’s noble heart. In an effort to further enrapture Roxane, Cyrano poses as Christian under her balcony, recalling the famous scene from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. However, Cyrano is delegated to the role of a “mock-Romeo,” duplicating only the Italian hero’s emotion and not his rewards. The dramatic irony grows almost oppressive, when phrases like, “My heart/Hides behind phrases,” and “It is my voice, mine, my own/That makes you tremble” brings Cyrano closer to Roxane but not vice-versa. After Christian climbs the trellis to receive Roxane’s kiss, Cyrano is left alone, resembling Hamlet more than Romeo: “I have won what I have won—/The feast of love—and I am Lazarus!” This Biblical allusion to Lazarus, the beggar who starved at the gate of a rich man who feasted every day, pinpoints Cyrano’s anguish and serves as another reminder of the “performance” theme mentioned earlier: Cyrano writes the script, directs the scene, and plays the role—but Christian receives the applause in the form of Roxane’s kiss. Earlier in the Act, we learn that Cyrano has won (in a wager) two pages, whom he commands to play “sad” tunes for a man and “merry” ones for a woman. While this music obviously suits Cyrano (sad) and Roxane (merry), there is a second layer of meaning within them: in his ironic position as Roxane’s secret admirer and Christian’s successful go-between, both tunes apply equally to himself.

In Act Four, the action moves from a domestic to a military setting where Cyrano fights for love and honor more than any political cause. When all of the soldiers complain of their hunger, Cyrano sings to them a song which makes them weep as it reminds them of their native Gascoyne; his explanation that the men weep “for homesickness—a hunger/More noble than that of hunger of the flesh” raises the issue of the nobility of the spirit when contrasted with that of the body. While this theme has sustained the entire plot, it is emphasized here in several ways. First, we learn that Cyrano has been risking his life “every morning before breakfast” to cross the Spanish lines and deliver one of “Christian’s” letters to Roxane. Second, Roxane arrives at the front in order to beg Christian’s forgiveness, “for being light and vain” and loving him, as she says, “only because you were beautiful.” She, too, has learned the important difference between appearance and reality, between the spirit and the flesh—but, of course, the basis of her knowledge is a falsehood and an even greater example of this difference (Cyrano himself) lies directly in front of her, although she cannot recognize it as such. Christian, like Cyrano before him, now finds himself in an ironic position: feeling guilty about his charade, he urges Cyrano to confess to Roxane. “I am tired of being my own rival,” he explains, realizing what Cyrano (and the audience) has known all along about the nobility of the swordsman’s heart. However, when Christian dies moments before Cyrano can reveal his true self to Roxane, he forsakes the chance to tell her, highlighting once again his panache in sacrificing his own happiness for hers. He is, essentially, continuing the performance he began when he wrote her his first letter so that Roxane may have the happy memory of Christian as her one true love.

When Act Five begins, the audience learns that Cyrano’s nobility has not faded over time: for fifteen years he has visited Roxane (now in a convent) every Saturday, never revealing Christian’s secret. LeBret and Ragueneau, however, inform the audience that Cyrano has become embittered, writing satires that attack “the false nobles, the false saints,/The false heroes” and “the false artists.” This change can be accounted for by recalling Act Four: nobody knows more than Cyrano what it really means to be “true,” and so he attacks hypocrisy in all its forms. The Act is haunted by death: it is autumn, leaves are dying and the sun is setting—and De Guiche informs the others that he heard a rumor at court that “Cyrano may die—accidentally.” The world hates a true and noble soul, an idea emphasized when Cyrano later compares himself to Socrates and Galileo. Like Homer’s Penelope, Roxane weaves her embroidery—and again like Penelope (although she does not realize this herself), she is awaiting the return of her love, at war not with the Trojans but with the false and ignoble world.

Cyrano’s arrival augments the sense of death that pervades the Act and he speaks of “A very old acquaintance” that he dismissed for only an hour so that he could visit the convent; this “most unexpected” visitor is Death himself, and Cyrano’s struggle for life is only successful because of the strength of his love for Roxane. She, too, finds herself swept into the tangles of irony that Cyrano and Christian faced earlier: upon discovering that Cyrano wrote all the letters and loved her all the while, she returns his love, saying, “I never loved but one man in my life,/And I have lost him—twice.” All of the play’s issues now come rushing to the surface for a final examination. For example, when LeBret tells Cyrano that his scene was used by Moliere and that the audience “laughed—and laughed,” Cyrano responds, “yes—that has been my life”: as before at the balcony, he has seen others take credit for the depth of his mind and soul. The spirit vs. flesh idea is raised again (for the last time) when Cyrano draws his sword to face Death: at the siege of Arras, he expressed his wish to die “by the sword,/The point of honor—by the hand of one/Worthy to be my foeman,” but now he is slowly fading out of his life due to a log that someone deliberately let fall onto his head from a window. Clearly, this is not the noble and valorous death that the swordsman had envisioned for himself. However, despite this seeming ignominy, Cyrano is allowed to end his performance before his death, saying that he wishes to now die like a leaf, for “they go down gracefully.” Struggling, he swings his sword at Death, remarking that although such a fight seems “hopeless,” it is “better to know one fights in vain,” as he did throughout the play for Roxane’s love. The triumph of this French Don Quixote is his refusal to compromise his ideals or spirit for the “falling logs” and “hopeless” battles of the plain and unromantic world. Offering Roxane his white plume, he dies even more spiritually rich than he lived; since he lived the life of the most exaggerated,“admirable” and noble swordsman in French theater, this is no small achievement.

Source: Daniel Moran, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale, 1997.

Poet Lore

In the following essay, an anonymous critic focuses on the irony in Cyrano de Bergerac, arguing that Rostand intended the play to be a satire, and not, as it was being hailed, as a serious drama.

I suspect, nay, I believe, that nothing could be aesthetically funnier than [M. Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac] . . . is, save the sentiment, au grand serieux, that has been lavished upon it as if it were a real drama instead of a satirical extravaganza, (p. 118)

The rollicking hyperbole, the color far too high for reality with which M. Rostand has heightened the effectiveness of all [the] historic part of his material is alone enough to release him from the imputation of having himself taken his Cyrano as seriously as his public has. He has employed his historic sense in the rehabilitation of seventeenth century Paris; but neither merely as a savant nor merely as a poet, nor even as a dextrous playwright, but rather as all three combined, plus the most important factor of all in the work—namely, as a satirist, has he permeated the whole story with irony. This irony peeping out in his clever manipulation of the historical part of his framework is revealed in all its poignant intentionalness in the invented parts, (p. 119)

It is precisely in these invented parts, which are absolutely unsuited to the seventeenth century character of the real Cyrano, of course, that the design of the playwright can be unquestionably traced. In the balcony scene the sentimentality of the artificial lover of the old school and the exacting whims of a precieuse are exquisitely ridiculed. The poses of antiquated romance are recalled to mind and they are re-staged here so as to lay bare before the modern eye their archaic quality. The irony is developed to the point of rendering this lapsed sentimentality not merely comical but at times almost farcical—the levity of the treatment, despite a cleverly contrasting instant or two when Cyrano betrays his own earnestness, being at the opposite pole from the impassioned seriousness of the Shakespearian scene it recalls. To break the fair unity of such a love-passage as the balcony scene in ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ to cut in two the physical beauty of the youth in Romeo, and the spiritual beauty lent his speeches by the ripe poet, and to personify each of these, is virtually what the French poet has done. He has made of the one half, Christian, the clumsy-tongued, fair and lusty animal, and of the other half, Cyrano, ugly, but mature of phrase if not of mind. Still, further, he has made a Juliet of the Hotel Rambouillet, a precieuse enamored not of the artist but of art, hankering rather for the wit which love incites than for love itself. The humor this situation involves is tickling to the last degree. Shall we spoil the comedy by taking it in dead earnest? When Christian utters his bald “I love you!” and on encouragement can but reiterate this trite simplicity, and Roxane, with closed eyes, expecting thrills from the rhapsody that halts, cries out impatiently, “That is the subject, work it up, work it up!” and when she bursts scornfully upon his stammering attempts with her, “Oh! Do labyrinthinize your feelings!” are we not to laugh? Again, when Cyrano, acting as Christian’s proxy, pours out his dextrously be-rhymed emotions too successfully, till Roxane, mollified, deceived, makes the proposition to descend to him or for him to ascend to her, and throws him into a panic lest she behold him and his nose, are we not to laugh? And when he is made to ask for a kiss, thanks to Christian’s crude desires, interjected in the cooing duet with an unpoetical rushing to the point that again almost threatens to unmask them both and spoil their game, so that Cyrano is forced to ward it off in vain, with outrageous quirks and conceits about a kiss being the rosy dot on the i of the verb aimer, are we to take this petty prettiness, . . . are we to take this burlesque as poetry meant to be genuinely admired? And, finally, when all these fopperies of verse have frittered themselves out to the purpose both of deterring and goading the deluded Roxane till she bids her gallant up to her to take the kiss she never would have given either one of the precious pair without the assistance of the other, and when the acute Cyrano is made to urge the obtuse Christian to climb up, with his “Get up, get up, animal!” are we to believe that the playwright did not choose this most appropriate epithet with malice prepense? In a word, is it really meant that we should be so naive as to take such double-edged fooling as all this for unvarnished tenderness and fresh-born romance?

If so, and this spectacle-bouffe, circling about a nose as its sole dramatic raison a” etre, is to be shorn of its irony, it will be left bare of any literary distinction worth mentioning. If it is to be considered as a serious dramatic or poetic work, it must be perceived that its structure is of the slightest and most casual. It has neither motive, progression nor climax, and but little of the most elementary surprise of situation—the general effect being rather that of light opera than of actual comedy. Its acts are not acts, but a succession of well-chosen, effective, spectacular stage-settings loosely incorporating a string of incidents linked together in the most external way. Its characters are not characters having any inherent individuality or capacity for development,


or any relationships with one another save of the most accidental sort. Its poetry, as to either imagery or emotional power, is only far-fetched and superficial . . . . If, on the other hand, it makes no pretension to high art, but rather to art semi-cynical, all these defects as to depth become effective; on that lower plane its buffoonery gains sparkle and significance, (pp. 120-22)

[Instead] of being hailed as this play has been by certain old-fashioned critics as a palpable evidence of the departure of what they call, with reproach, modern “Realism” and the rebirth of the good old “Romanticism” to smother the world in cakes and ale, and crowd out all new aesthetic forces forever, it is rather a token of the shutting of the door of modem life upon a certain phase of Romanticism, as henceforth impossible to be enjoyed quite in the old-world mood or without the assistance of a cultured historic sense—such a sign of the natural close of an epoch in literature and life as ‘Don Quixote’ was of the close of the epoch of the dominance of chivalry in life and in literature, (p. 123)

Source: “Cyrano de Bergerac: What It Is and Is Not,” in Poet Lore, Vol. XI, No. 1, Winter, 1899, pp. 118-24.

Max Beerbohm

In the following essay, which originally appeared in 1898, Beerbohm predicts that Cyrano will be regarded as one of the most noted romantic heroes of all time, asserting that “Cyrano will survive because he is practically a new type in drama.”

M. Rostand is not a great original genius like (for example) M. Maeterlinck. He comes to us with no marvelous revelation, but he is a gifted, adroit artist, who does with freshness and great force things that have been done before; and he is, at least, a monstrous fine fellow. His literary instinct is almost as remarkable as his instinct for the technique—the


pyrotechnique—of the theatre, insomuch that I can read Cyrano almost as often, with almost as much pleasure, as I could see it played. . . . It is rather silly to chide M. Rostand for creating a character and situations which are unreal if one examines them from a non-romantic standpoint. It is silly to insist, as one or two critics have insisted, that Cyrano was a fool and a blackguard, in that he entrapped the lady of his heart into marriage with a vapid impostor. The important and obvious point is that Cyrano, as created by M. Rostand, is a splendid hero of romance. If you have any sensibility to romance, you admire him so immensely as to be sure that whatever he may have done was for the best. All the characters and all the incidents in the play have been devised for the glorification of Cyrano, and are but, as who should say, so many rays of limelight converging upon him alone. And that is as it should be. The romantic play which survives the pressure of time is always that which contains some one central figure, to which everything is subordinate—a one-part play, in other words. . . . Cyrano is, in fact, as inevitably a fixture in romance as Don Quixote or Don Juan, Punch or Pierrot. Like them, he will never be out of date. But prophecy is dangerous? Of course it is. That is the whole secret of its fascination. Besides, I have a certain amount of reason in prophesying on this point. Realistic figures perish necessarily with the generation in which they were created, and their place is taken by figures typical of the generation which supervenes. But romantic figures belong to no period, and time does not dissolve them. . . . Cyrano will survive because he is practically a new type in drama. I know that the motives of self-sacrifice-in-love and of beauty-adored-by-a-grotesque are as old, and as effective, as the hills, and have been used in literature again and again. I know that self-sacrifice is the motive of most successful plays. But, so far as I know, beauty-adored-by-a-grotesque has never been used with the grotesque as stage-hero. At any rate it has never been used so finely and so tenderly as by M. Rostand, whose hideous swashbuckler with the heart of gold and the talent for improvising witty or beautiful verses . . . is far too novel, I think, and too convincing, and too attractive, not to be permanent, (pp. 5-6)

Source: Max Beerbohm, “Cyrano de Bergerac” (1898) in his Around Theatres, Rupert Hart-Davis, 1953, pp. 4-7.


Burgess, Anthony. Preface to Cyrano de Bergerac, by Edmond Rostand, translation by Burgess, Knopf, 1971, pp. v-xiv.

While much of this essay is an explanation of Burgess’s methods as a translator, he does offer some valuable insight into the issues of Rostand’s play.

Chesterton, G. K. “Rostand” in his Varied Types, Dodd, Mead, and Company, 1903, pp. 73-82.

An excerpt from Chesterton’s book that characterizes Rostand’s work, focusing in particular on Cyrano de Bergerac and L’Aiglon and their status as heroic comedies.

Phelps, William Lyon. “Edmond Rostand” in his Essays on Modern Dramatists, Macmillan, 1921, pp. 229-78.

An overview of Rostand’s career which traces the theme of the “Triumphant Failure” in several of his plays. This is a good source for information about Rostand’s thematic concerns.

Spiers, A. G. H., “Rostand As Idealist” in Columbia University Quarterly, Vol. XX, No. 2, April, 1918, pp. 155-69.

Spiers discusses how several of Rostand’s characters (including Cyrano) attempt to fulfill their idealistic goals despite the obstacles with which they are faced. The essay features several passages from Rostand’s plays as well as his definition of “panache.”


Beerbom, Max. “Cyrano de Bergerac” in his Around Theatres, revised edition, Rupert Hart-Davis, 1953, pp. 4-7.

Howarth, William D. “Cyrano de Bergerac” in Reference Guide to French Literature, St. Jame’s Press, 1992, pp. 165-66.

James, Henry. “Edmond Rostand” in the Critic, Vol. 29, no. 5, November, 1901, pp. 437-50.

Lough, John. An Introduction to Seventeenth-Century France, Longmans, 1960, p. 228.

Strachey, Lionel. Review of Cyrano de Bergerac in Lippincott’s, February, 1899, pp. 264-69.

Cyrano de Bergerac

views updated May 29 2018

Cyrano de Bergerac

by Edmond Rostand


A five-act play set in France during the years 1640 to 1655; first performed in 1897.


An ugly man with a large nose writes poetry and love letters that are used by a handsome but unintelligent suitor to win the heart of a beautiful woman.

Events in History at the Time the Play Takes Place

The Play in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Play Was Written

For More Information

The playwright Edmond Rostand (1868-1919) was born into a wealthy family whose members encouraged him to write. He studied law, then worked for a short time in a bank. Eventually Rostand devoted himself entirely to his writing. He grew fascinated by the life of the writer Savinien de Cyrano de Bergerac and avidly read all his books. Rostand based his most renowned play, Cyrano de Bergerac, on this writer’s life. The real Cyrano lived in France from 1619 to 1655, and the events of the play take place during the last two decades of his life.

Events in History at the Time the Play Takes Place

Life in France during the 1600s

From 1618 to 1648, the Thirty Years War raged throughout most of Europe. Political dissatisfaction and religious tension from the Reformation fueled the conflict, which was fought largely in Germany. The war was mainly a struggle that pitted German protestant princes and foreign powers, including France, Sweden, Denmark, and England, against the Holy Roman Empire, which included the Catholic princes of Germany as well as the Hapsburg-controlled countries of Austria, Spain, Bohemia, and Italy. An aggravating factor in the war was the expansion of colonial trade at this time, which brought territorial skirmishes over control of various trade routes.

In 1638 France declared war on Spain, which at the time controlled the Spanish Netherlands (known later as Belgium), northeast of France. French Guardsmen marched to Arras, located in northwestern France, to protect the city from Spanish control. The war raged on, finishing for most European nations with the Peace of Westphalia, which signified the end of the power of the Holy Roman Empire and laid the groundwork for the modern European state system.

Meanwhile, France experienced a period of civil turmoil. In 1648 nobles and the parliament of Paris staged an unsuccessful revolution against Cardinal Mazarin, then governing on behalf of Louis XIV, who was only an eight-year-old child. Unreasonable taxation laws, tariffs, and road tolls triggered the uprising. The rebellion was, however, a dismal failure. Apparently the rising middle class and the aristocracy could not work together. Many members of the middle class were outraged that the nobles enlisted the aid of Spanish troops even though France was at war with Spain at the time. In the end, the disunity paved the way for King Louis XIV to become an absolute ruler.

Louis began personally to assume power in the 1650s. By the time Mazarin died in 1661, Louis had resolved that he would hold all important authority in his own hands. Most likely the peasants and the middle class alike welcomed the powerful rule of a king who would protect them from nobles interested in gaining power for themselves. Under the seventy-two-year rule of Louis XIV (1643-1715), French language, architecture, thought, and literature became the standard for all Europe.


1620: Born in Parts

1639-40: Serves in French corps of the guard in military campaigns

Early 1640s: Begins to write classical tragedies

1654: Injured by falling timber at his patron’s house

1655: Dies in Paris

1656: Histoire comique des États et empires de la lune is published

1662: Histoire comique des États et empires du soleil is published

After the Thirty Years War ended for most of Europe, the conflict raged on between France and Spain. A Spanish army invaded France in 1653 to conquer Paris, but the Spaniards failed. In 1654 the persistent Spaniards laid siege to Arras, but were again unsuccessful. The real-life Cyrano de Bergerac fought at Arras, and the conflict found its way into Rostand’s play.

Shortly after the failed attack on Arras, the French entered into an alliance with the English, who sent over six thousand soldiers to join in the fray. Together the French and English defeated the Spanish; the fighting finally ended in 1660 with the Treaty of the Pyrenees.

With a strong monarchy in place in France by the end of the Thirty Years War, many aristocrats were deprived of any significant political function. As their leisure time increased, the people of France developed a particular interest in artistic and intellectual matters. French literature focused on clarity, precision, and aristocratic tastes. The newly founded Acad émie Française attempted to systematize more rigorously the rules of language and writing. Established by Cardinal de Richelieu in 1634, the Académie aimed to protect the purity of the French language against slovenly usage and grammatical inaccuracies.

Literary trends were strongly influenced during the 1600s by a small and elite audience and the writers who conformed to their tastes. Literature of the era, designed to appeal to an aristocratic and noble audience, rejected the uncouth manners of previous times in favor of a refined style that became the norm. Groundbreakers such as the playwright Molière and mathematicians and philosophers like René Descartes and Blaise Pascal elevated the arts and sciences.


Writing paid very poorly in the 1600s. Consequently, authors of the era were either independently wealthy or extremely poor. Many sought patrons to support their artistic ventures. As long as their work attracted interest, writers could persuade nobles, wealthy landowners, and even the king to provide them with substantial money. Exaggerated praise for patrons became a common feature in books of this era as a result of their financial support. No degree of flattery to a patron was too high if the writer thought it would ensure continued backing.

At the same time, some artists rejected the creative constraints imposed upon them by patrons. The real-life Cyrano found patronage revolting and for many years refused to compromise his artistic principles by subjecting his work to the whims of a supporter. Economic circumstances, however, finally forced Cyrano to turn to the Duke of Arpajon for support. Their patronage arrangement was cut short by Cyrano’s untimely death. Rostand relates Cyrano’s feelings on the patronage issue, having the fictional Cyrano staunchly refuse a patron in the play:

Dedicate my works to men of wealth?
Become a sedulous ape, a fool who waits
For some official’s patronizing smile?
No, thank you.... I prefer to sing, to dream, to play,
To travel light, to be at liberty.
          (Rostand, Cyrano de Bergerac, pp. 80-1)


The salon was a social affair during which various pieces of literature were read and discussed. Flourishing in Paris during the 1600s, these lively gatherings brought together aristocrats, writers, and some of the finest minds of the day. Cultural opinions formed in salons strongly influenced broader literary tastes.

Commonly known as ruelles, the salons were often hosted by a French lady who received her guests while sitting on her bed. Members of the salons believed that contact with the ladies in this manner brought “a much needed refining influence on both the manners and language” of the noble gentlemen (Lough, p. 228). Ideas of moral virtue and polite society, commonplace in the literature of the day, were prominent subjects of discussion in the salons of France. Madeleine Robineau, whom Rostand used as a basis for his sophisticated character Roxane, was a high-minded intellectual who frequently attended salons and even hosted such events herself.

The Play in Focus

The plot

Cyrano de Bergerac is the story of an unpleasant-looking hero with a gargantuan nose who is in love with a beautiful woman. Cyrano, the hero, is an intellectual, a gifted poet, and a swashbuckling swordsman. Secretly in love with his beautiful cousin Roxane, he believes that she could never love him because of his long and hideous nose.

Meanwhile, Roxane loves the young soldier Christian de Neuvillette, an attractive but unintelligent man. Christian realizes that he cannot sustain Roxane’s affection with his dull, tongue-tied manner. Aware that Cyrano is an eloquent speaker, Christian turns to him for help. Cyrano agrees to aid Christian by writing poems and love letters to Roxane, which Christian then uses as his own.

In the play’s most famous scene, Cyrano passionately declares his love to Roxane under the cover of darkness, while Christian awaits nearby. In the scene’s final moments, Cyrano steps aside, allowing Christian to kiss Roxane as if the flowing words had been Christian’s all along. The ruse works and Roxane falls in love with Christian, not realizing that it is actually Cyrano who has spoken the words beneath her balcony that have won her heart.

The Count de Guiche, however, is also in love with Roxane. One evening, the Count arrives at Roxane’s home just as Roxane and Christian are about to be hastily wed. Although Cyrano desperately wishes Roxane was his bride, he does not want anything to get in the way of her happiness. Cyrano comes to the aid of Christian and his beloved Roxane by intercepting the Count and preventing him from entering Roxane’s house until the couple is wed. The Count is unable to stop the marriage, but since he is commander of the cadets, he secures revenge by sending Cyrano and Christian to battle in the siege of Arras.

During the siege, Cyrano continues to write love letters and prose on Christian’s behalf. Cyrano writes to Roxane daily, crossing battle lines to ensure that his letters get through to her. Unexpectedly, Roxane appears at Arras. At this moment, Christian realizes that her passionate response to Cyrano’s poetry can mean only one thing: Roxane must truly love Cyrano. Christian plans to tell Roxane the truth about the letters and the poems, but dies in battle before he can do so.

Following Christian’s death, Roxane enters a convent. There she mourns her husband’s death for fifteen years. Cyrano visits Roxane faithfully every week, yet he never reveals the secret of his love for her.

One day, Cyrano is hit in the head by a falling beam of wood. On the verge of death, he visits Roxane one last time. Faint and wounded, Cyrano asks her to let him read the final letter from Christian. The letter, which Roxane wears around her neck, is, of course, one that Cyrano himself wrote. “Roxane, farewell. It seems that I must die,” recites Cyrano with his last ounce of strength. “My heart is heavy with unspoken love” (Cyrano de Bergerac, p. 201).


I offer one and all
A general challenge—none will be refused.
Walk up, you heroes. Give your names. Don’t crowd . . .
Won’t someone try? Won’t someone unafraid
To die please raise his hand? Not one?
          (Cyrano de Bergerac, p. 23)

Although it is by now growing dark outside, Cyrano continues to recite from the letter. Roxane slowly realizes that Cyrano is no longer reading the letter, but knows its contents by heart. It finally dawns on her that it was Cyrano who wrote the letter and has loved her all these years. Roxane declares her love for Cyrano, who reluctantly admits that he loves Roxane. He confesses that he, not Christian, wrote her the letters from Arras and spoke to her from beneath her balcony. Sadly, no sooner does Cyrano confess his love than he staggers, falls, and dies.

Real-life parallels

The real-life Cyrano of the 1600s, on whom Rostand based his main character, was an expert swordsman and a soldier in addition to being a poet. A swaggering but heroic man, Cyrano lived dangerously. Like Rostand’s character, he had a grotesque nose and an irascible temper. The fictional exploits portrayed in Rostand’s play echo the real-life Cyrano’s combative lifestyle. He fought hundreds of duels over insults to his unsightly appendage.

Various acquaintances of the real-life Cyrano are featured prominently in Rostand’s play as well. During his school years, the actual Cyrano met Henri Le Bret, who later became Cyrano’s friend and biographer. Le Bret appears in the play, as do several other personalities from the seventeenth century, including the popular poet Lignière; the military leader Carbon de Castel-Jaloux; the disliked actor Jacob Montfleury; two of Cyrano’s admirers, Cuigy and Brissaille; the Count de Guiche, who married Cardinal Richelieu’s niece; and two well-known actors, Bellerose and Jodelet.

After attending college in Beauvais, the real Cyrano moved to Paris, where his wild antics and extreme behavior led to trouble with his friends and father. The elder Bergerac, dismayed by Cyrano’s behavior, withdrew the young man’s allowance. Encouraged by his friend Le Bret, Cyrano joined the Guardsmen of Carbon de Castel-Jaloux in 1638. Cyrano fought in Flanders against Spain and, as in Rostand’s drama, battled at the siege of Arras. The real-life Cyrano, however, was injured twice at Arras, whereas Rostand’s fictionalized hero remained unscathed.


News of the real-life Cyrano’s heroism traveled far and wide. Long after his death, French soldiers left for the battlefront to repel invasion by the Germans in World War I. Some of these soldiers called themselves the “Cyrano Division” in honor of Cyrano’s legendary bravery (Amoia, p. 123).

Cyrano’s battle wounds prompted him to leave the Guardsmen. Upon returning to civilian life in Paris, Cyrano spent a large portion of his days drinking, gambling, and dueling. At the same time, he studied philosophy and literature and began to write. Cyrano’s most famous works, Histoire comique des États et empires de la lune and Histoire comique des États et empires du soleil (Comical History of the States and Empires of the Moon and Comical History of the States and Empires of the Sun), describe trips to the moon and sun. The hero of the fantasies discovers a lunar kingdom and an alien world on the sun.

Allusions to these fantasies appear in Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac. In one scene Cyrano detains the pesky Count de Guiche so that Christian and Roxane can marry without interruption. Cyrano drops from a balcony and falls to the ground at the feet of the Count. Explaining that he has just landed from the moon, Cyrano begins an incredible tale of his adventures in space. His story closely parallels the other-worldly travels chronicled in the real Cyrano’s Histoire.

De Guiche: What’s this? where did this thing— this man—fall from?
Cyrano: The moon … You must pardon me— I came by the last cloudburst; there is ether
All over me. My eyes are full of star-dust.
There’s fur from some strange planet on my sburs
And—look!—here on my cuff, a comet’s hair!
You never would believe the things I saw....
I’m going to write a book about it all.
          (Cyrano de Bergerac, pp. 128-31)

One evening the real-life Cyrano, heading home for the night, was struck in the head by a large wooden beam that fell from a window. Unlike the play, in which Cyrano dies shortly after the accident, the real-life Cyrano suffered from his injury for a year before dying in 1655 at the age of thirty-six.


The characters of Roxane and Christian de Neuvillette are loosely based on the lives of Madeleine Robineau and Christophe de Neuvillette. Madeleine was a distant cousin of Cyrano, and Christophe served alongside Cyrano at the siege of Arras. Although it is true that Madeleine and Christophe married, and that Christophe died at Arras, it is unclear whether Cyrano and Christophe ever had the close friendship that was portrayed in the play. Nor is it clear whether Cyrano ever loved his cousin Madeleine.

There are also discrepancies between the play and reality. In Rostand’s play, Cyrano faithfully visits Roxane at the convent every week after Christian’s death. The real Cyrano saw Madeleine once in the convent, but was horrified by what he found. Grief-stricken, Madeleine’s beauty had faded. Her face, hidden by long gray hair, was haggard due to tears and fasting. Repelled by the sight of her, the real Cyrano fled from the convent, vowing never to return (Amoia, p. 66).

While the characters in Cyrano de Bergerac are rooted in actual historical personalities, the spark for the play’s central plot came from a story told to Rostand by a young man whom he met at a watering place in the Pyrenees Mountains. The sad young man told Rostand that he loved a woman who turned a deaf ear to his wooing.

Rostand asked the unhappy man, “But what
do you say to her?”
The snubbed lover replied, “I tell her that I
love her.”
“And then?”
“I begin all over again.”
“And after that?”
“That’s all there is!”
          (Cohen, pp. 351-52)

Rostand decided to help the lovesick man, and, in the process, conceived of the idea for his play.

He tutored the young man in the art of poetry and literary allusion, much as Cyrano does for Christian in the play. Rostand’s poetry lessons were successful. The young man earned the affection of the woman whom he loved, and Rostand walked away with the seeds of what would become his most successful drama.

Events in History at the Time the Play Was Written

France during the late 1800s

The late nineteenth century was a time of rapid and dramatic social change in France. Republican government, despite shaky beginnings, took root there in this era, with the establishment of a political framework that became the basis of modern France. The 1870s saw the beginnings of the modern party system and basic political divisions, cementing the Republican ideal and making it central to French political thought. The monarchist majority that existed in 1870 gave way to the moderate and libertarian Republicans, called Opportunists, who held power from 1879-1899.

The year 1894 gave rise to a great uproar in France over the trial of Alfred Dreyfus, a French army officer and a Jew. Dreyfus was accused of giving military information to the Germans, convicted of treason, and deported for life. The evidence used to convict Dreyfus was skimpy, however. By the end of the affair, Major Henry of the General Staff admitted that he had forged documents that were used to prove Dreyfus’s guilt. Major Henry committed suicide, and Dreyfus received a presidential pardon—but not before the affair divided France and provoked a fierce display of anti-Semitism. For those convinced of his guilt, Alfred Dreyfus provided a focal point for anti-Jewish attitudes already prevalent in late 1800s France.

The Dreyfus Affair politicized many intellectual figures of the day. Various writers, thinkers, and artists united to expose the truth. Edmond Rostand, Emile Zola, Marcel Proust, and Anatole France, for example, stood in defense of the victimized Jewish captain when he was first accused. On January 13, 1898, Émile Zola published a letter in the newspaper I’Aurore alleging that Dreyfus had been framed. Response to the letter was swift and strong. Zola, who had denounced members of army’s general staff, was tried and sentenced to a year’s imprisonment and subjected to public vilification for openly supporting Dreyfus. Several other protests followed. Writers and artists signed petitions and gave speeches defending the Jewish officer. Edmond Rostand risked his literary reputation and professional standing by publicly siding with Dreyfus.

There are indications that the controversy had an impact on Cyrano de Bergerac. Although Rostand’s play takes place in the 1600s, significant parallels emerge between Rostand’s main character and Alfred Dreyfus. Both Cyrano and Dreyfus were military gentlemen, and both were honorable and dignified until the end of their respective stories. Cyrano maintained the secret of his love for Roxane until his dying moments, sacrificing his own happiness for the sake of the woman he loved. Dreyfus maintained his dignity and his principles with honor throughout his trial, until his eventual pardon. Not until 1898 did Major Henry admit that certain documents used to convict Dreyfus had been forged. A new trial followed and Dreyfus was again convicted, although a pardon was recommended. The honorable Dreyfus refused to accept such a pardon. His imprisonment dragged on until another trial in 1906 found him not guilty and granted him a complete pardon. In all, he had served an unjust sentence of twelve years, eight of them after the false evidence had been revealed.

Realism in the French theater

The arts flourished in France near the turn of the century. Theater was probably the most popular form of the arts in France during the late 1800s. Half a million Parisians attended the theater at least once a week. One observer stated that “the population of Paris lives in the theater, for the theater, by the theater” (Weber, p. 159). Technological advances of this era added to the excitement and flair of the live stage. In a time when most people still lived without electricity in their own homes, the brilliant lights of the theater enthralled the crowds. Staging techniques and dramatic dialogue became increasingly realistic during this period. Stage sets often included live horses, actual ships, and stories reflecting real-life conflicts.

There were other significant advances during this time as well. Scientific progress meant that advantages previously reserved only for the rich were more widely enjoyed. Public transportation, electricity, and improved water systems were among the modern amenities made more readily available; the Paris metro, or subway system, for example, began to operate around 1900. Problems such as political scandal and unsanitary food supplies continued to plague the nation, however, and rural peasants and urban workers still suffered from poverty.

Perhaps Cyrano’s overwhelming success was due in part to its imaginative, escapist plot, which transported careworn audiences back to an earlier and a more romantic tradition. For at least ten years prior to the production of Cyrano, the French public had been fed a steady stream of drama focusing on misery, degeneracy, and crime. The romance of the philosopher-swashbuckler’s antics may have provided a welcome change from the realistic plays that permeated theater of this era. Furthermore, the play was written in verse, another throwback to the earlier, more romantic days. Despite the popularity of Rostand’s fanciful play, French theater at the end of the nineteenth century remained firmly entrenched in realism. As one historian noted, Cyrano was a “champion without heirs” (Weber, p. 161).

How the play was received

The first production of Cyrano de Bergerac took place at the Porte Saint-Martin theater on December 28, 1897. Prior to opening night, there was great uncertainty about how the play would be received. The directors kept production costs to a minimum, for they expected the play to run only a few short weeks. The author was thus forced to pay for many expenses out of his own pocket. The stage sets were so inadequately designed that Rostand nearly attacked the stage designer. Only minutes before the first curtain went up, Rostand threw himself into the arms of the play’s lead actor, crying, “I beg your forgiveness, my friend. Pardon me for having involved you in a disastrous adventure” (Rostand in Cohen, p. 35).

Much to everyone’s surprise, the play met with sensational approval. At opening night, the audience applauded in the theater for nearly two hours after the final curtain. As described in the introduction to the play, the great French actor Constant Coquelin, who performed the lead role, described the crowd as “a house in delirium. Amid all this confusion Rostand alone seemed unconscious of his victory” (Coquelin in Rostand, p. xiii).

For More Information

Amoia, Alba. Edmond Rostand. Boston: Twayne, 1978.

Cohen, Helen Louise. Milestones of the Drama. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1940.

Kleeblatt, Norman L., ed. The Dreyfus Affair: Art, Truth, and Justice. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1987.

Lough, John. An Introduction to Seventeenth-Century France. London: Longmans, 1960.

Palmer, R. R., and Joel Colton. A History of the Modern World. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1969.

Rostand, Edmond. Cyrano de Bergerac. Translated by Louis Untermeyer. New York: Heritage, 1954.

Weber, Eugen. France, Fin de Siecle. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986.

Wright, Gordon. France in Modern Times, 4th ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 1987.

Cyrano de Bergerac

views updated May 14 2018


France, 1990

Director: Jean-Paul Rappeneau

Production: Hachette Premiere et Cie/Camera One/U.G.C/D.D Productions/Films A2; colour, 35mm; running time: 138 minutes.

Producers: Michel Seydoux, Rene Cleitman; screenplay: Jean-Paul Rappeneau, Jean-Claude Carriere, from the play by Edmond Rostand; subtitles: Anthony Burgess; photography: Pierre Lhomme; editor: Noelle Boisson; assistant directors: Thierry Chabert, Francine Meunier, Nathalie Bezon, Attila Monost; art directors: Jacques Rouxel, Tamas Banovich; production design: Ezio Frigerio; music: Jean-Claude Petit; costumes; Franca Squarciapino; sound: Jean Goudier, Pierre Gamet, Dominique Hennequin.

Cast: Gérard Dépardieu (Cyrano de Bergerac); Anne Brochet (Roxane); Vincent Perez (Christian de Neuvillette); Jacques Weber (Comte de Guiche); Roland Bertin (Ragueneau); Phillippe Morier-Genoud (LeBret); Philippe Volter (Vicomte de Valvert); Josiane Stoleru (Duenna).

Awards: Best Actor, Cannes 1990.



Rappeneau, Jean-Paul, and Jean-Claude Carrière, Cyrano de Bergerac, d'après l'oeuvre d'Edmond Rostand, Paris, 1990.


Variety (New York), 4 April 1990.

Strauss, F., Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), April 1990.

Merrick, H., "Le Marivadange Héroique" in Revue du Cinéma (Paris), April 1990.

Amiel, V., "L'esprit du theatre et la beauté du cinéma" in Positif (Paris), May 1990.

Manceau, J.L., Cinéma (Paris), May 1990.

Logett, L., "Autour de Cyrano" in Jeune Cinéma (Paris), June-July 1990.

Buruina, M., and others, Séquences (Montreal), September 1990.

Horguelin, T., "Le film de Roxane" in 24 Images (Montreal), Autumn 1990.

"Cyrano de Bergerac," in Reid's Film Index, no. 6, 1991.

Strick, P., Monthly Film Bulletin (London), January 1991.

West, J.M., Cineaste (New York), February 1991.

Kermol, E., in Le Costa Vista (Trieste), no. 18, 1992.

Abdullaeva, Z., in Iskusstvo Kino (Moscow), no. 11. 1992.

Douin, Jean-Luc, in Télérama (Paris), 23 March 1994.

* * *

The makers of this most recent telling of the Edmond Rostand classic have accomplished a most praiseworthy feat. They have taken a century-old romance of nobility and love's sacrifice and maintained a healthy measure of the flavor of the original, while at the same time bringing it to life for audiences of the 1990s.

In 1897, Rostand first presented this self-proclaimed "heroic comedy" about a proud Gascoyne swordsman, poet and lover with an enormous nose. Through the first half of the 20th-century, Cyrano was produced on many occasions with great success. Coquelin and Walter Hampden were but two of the actors who interpreted Cyrano. In recent years, however, the lacey prose and honeyed poetry of Rostand (known to most American audiences through the traditional English translation by Brian Hooker, written in 1923) has appealed mainly to more literary audiences. The 1950 Stanley Kramer production featuring Jose Ferrer as Cyrano had been considered the definitive film adaptation, but it has been overshadowed by this more contemporary, action-packed and in some ways more relevant production.

Director Jean-Paul Rappeneau and star Gérard Dépardieu have cut through the fine embroidery of Cyrano to the play's solid core, and emphasize Cyrano as an individualist. He is shown as a man of principle who would rather suffer the fate of an outsider than relinquish his own brand of panache. Dépardieu offers a naturalistic performance, playing Cyrano with an earthiness and virility that permeates much of the actor's film work. With an unabashed pride and stubbornness, Cyrano scoffs at two-faced politicians and attacks mannered fops who kowtow with insincere grace in exchange for courtly favors. Dépardieu's swordsmanship is no more skillful than Jose Ferrer's was, but this production is created with a greater excitement towards the sword fight sequences. Whereas Ferrer's Cyrano parries and thrusts half-hidden amid the black and grey shadows of the back streets of Paris, Dépardieu's Cyrano duels with a greater relish in more colorful surroundings and in stronger light, to the accompaniment of a more fluid camera.

A ruggedness of atmosphere properly places Cyrano in a rough-and-tumble man's world. At the cadets' headquarters, one sees soldiers in various stages of undress. There, one can smell the musk of the leather protective gear. At the battle stations, unwashed and hungry soldiers hunt down a rat and skin it for supper. As the men suffer for lack of meat, Cyrano calls upon an elderly shepherd to sing a folk song to remind them of their proud Gascoyne heritage. These moments of unaffected custom give emphasis to the difference between Cyrano's world and the refined, phony spheres in which Cyrano's enemies, the actor Montfleury and the Compte de Guiche, travel.

The film's English subtitles, written by Anthony Burgess, present a tasteful and lively text. As one might hope, the prose pays homage to the old-fashioned, flowery recitations in the Rostand play, maintaining the original flavor of the piece. Burgess uses good judgement in occasional decisions to keep to the French language. Roxane, for example, who is cousin to Cyrano and the love of his life, is referred to as "precieuse." The strength of this word and the way the lips move when it is pronounced make this the authoritative description of Cyrano's secret sweetheart. In the finale, as he dies, Cyrano's last words refer to the one laurel he will take with him to the grave: "my panache." Burgess could have translated that term as Hooker did, as "my white plume." But, for today's audiences, such a term seems insignificant. The French word "panache" holds weight.

The trio of Dépardieu, Rappeneau and Burgess have assembled a Cyrano de Bergerac that is naturalistic in style. It is at once a respectful interpretation of its original source material and an action-packed, full-bodied production designed to appeal to contemporary audiences.

—Audrey E. Kupferberg

Cyrano de Bergerac, Savinien

views updated May 21 2018

Cyrano de Bergerac, Savinien (1619–55) French writer. His novels and plays combine free thinking, humour and burlesque romance. As an author, he is best known for two posthumously published prose fantasies, Journey to the Moon (1656) and The Comical Tale of the States and Empires of the Sun (1662), which contain many scientific predictions. He is perhaps equally famous as the eponymous hero of the popular but historically inaccurate play by Edmond Rostand.

Cyrano de Bergerac

views updated May 14 2018

Cyrano de Bergerac (1619–55), French soldier, duellist, and writer. He is chiefly remembered for the large number of duels that he fought (many on account of his proverbially large nose), as immortalized in a play by Edmond Rostand (Cyrano de Bergerac, 1897).