A captivating classic which has withstood the test of time, Cyrano de Bergerac is manna for my romantic soul. The play set in Paris in 1640 during the reigns of Louis the 13th and Louis the 14th, but written in 1897 by Edmond Rostand is loosely based on a real person named Cyrano de Bergerac embellished freely in fiction. It has resulted in various adaptations on screen and on stage and it has never failed to tug at my heartstrings in any of its avatars. I recently saw the filmed version of the Comédie Française production which was aired in theaters across the US for just one show on the same day and at the same hour. I also read the original play in French and its translation in English last month and thought that a Valentine’s Day post on this story would be a fitting tribute to its creator for if there’s anything that can warm the most cynical of hearts, it’s this beautiful but heartrending love story.
Cyrano de Bergerac was written in alexandrine verses. The French language lends itself beautifully to the poetic form and it’s difficult to capture the cadence and rhythm in English. If you must read a translation, stay away from the online public domain one which is quite awful. Also, do yourself a favor and watch the opulent 1990 production of Cyrano with Gérard Depardieu who gives a magnificent performance. He was born to play the part. To me Gérard Depardieu IS Cyrano.
Cyrano de Bergerac is a flamboyant, funny, witty, proud, short-tempered, courageous, brash and sentimental cadet of Gascony well versed in music, science, philosophy, literature and warfare. He has a penchant for poetry. He is a larger than life character- a tad over the top and theatrical with a touch of Romeo and a shade of Don Quixote-the epitome of chivalry vanquishing enemies with ease- in short, a force to be reckoned with. This acclaimed swordsman and ingenious wordsmith sounds perfect, doesn’t he? Not quite for he has an enormous nose which makes him the butt of ridicule and is the bane of his existence. This phenomenally prominent proboscis also prevents him from declaring his love for his cousin Roxanne as he fears her rejection.
The fair Roxanne is in love with the handsome Christian de Neuvillette, a cadet in Cyrano’s own regiment who reciprocates her feelings but lacks the eloquence to woo her. So Cyrano becomes Christian’s voice and expresses his ardent love for Roxanne through the letters he pens under his name. The two team up together with their respective qualities of beauty and wit to seduce Roxanne. The balcony scene where Christian serenades Roxanne with Cyrano’s words displays Cyrano’s poetic prowess. Here’s an exquisite description of a kiss:
A kiss, when all said and done, what is it? An oath taken at close quarters, a more precise promise, a confession that wishes to be confirmed, A rosy circle around the ‘o’ of the verb ‘to love’; It’s a secret which takes the lips for the ear, A moment of infinity buzzing like a bee, A communion with a flowery taste, A way of breathing in a little of the heart and tasting a little of the soul along the edges of the lips.
Un baiser, mais à tout prendre, qu’est-ce?
Un serment fait d’un peu plus près, une promesse
Plus précise, un aveu qui veut se confirmer,
Un point rose qu’on met sur l’i du verbe aimer;
C’est un secret qui prend la bouche pour oreille,
Un instant d’infini qui fait un bruit d’abeille,
Une communion ayant un goût de fleur,
Une façon d’un peu se respirer le coeur,
Et d’un peu se goûter, au bord des lèvres, l’âme!
There is a third character, Comte de Guiche who is also in love with Roxanne and who tries to thwarts their attempts. In the end, the resourceful Roxanne outwits the Comte and succeeds in marrying Christian. Right after the wedding, Christian has to leave for the front even before their marriage has been consummated. Cyrano promises Roxane that Christian will write to her and he risks his life everyday by crossing enemy lines to deliver the letters he has penned himself under Christian’s name. Roxanne falls in love with the soul of the poet and declares to the troubled Christian that even if he were to turn ugly she would love him for his poetic ingenuity. Christian is willing to give up Roxanne on this discovery but fate has other plans for this love triangle.
What Cyrano de Bergerac has taught me about love:
Love is courage. If you love someone, say it. What is the worst that can happen? You’ll be rejected and it won’t be the end of the world. Besides, there is a possibility that the person may reciprocate your feelings. Give love a chance in spite of your feelings of inadequacy and in spite of your flaws, real or perceived. A love that expresses itself so eloquently is also a love that is tongue-tied! Poor Cyrano! When he finally summons the courage to reveal his feelings, fate denies him the opportunity when Christian is killed during the siege of Arras. Why did he remain silent for fourteen years after Christian’s death? Perhaps sometimes the courageous thing to do is to be quiet and love from the shadows. And if Cyrano had confessed his love for Roxanne, then we wouldn’t have had such a tragically beautiful love story and imbibed the other important lessons about love.
Love goes beyond appearances. While Cyrano exemplifies inner beauty, Christian with his dashing looks represents outer beauty. But isn’t Cyrano’s ability to craft words as superficial as Christian’s good looks? It seems that physical attractiveness and intellectual abilities are the traits cherished by the protagonists at the beginning of the play. Roxanne falls initially for Christian purely for his looks. And both men seek her out for her external beauty. Ironically, Cyrano himself who is so self-conscious about his deformity can’t help falling for a charming woman. Roxanne is not only a very beautiful woman but is also a ‘precieuse’ – an intellectual woman with a refined literary taste. Roxanne falls in love with Christian’s looks and Cyrano’s wit but it’s only towards the end that she has a glimpse into the beautiful soul of the man and realizes that his integrity, honor and adherence to moral standards are what constitute his inner beauty. In fact the story is a reworking of The Beauty and the Beast and Cyrano himself refers to the fairy tale but he points out the painful fact that unlike the tale where the prince’s ugliness evaporates, his remains the same.
Love is loyal. Roxanne’s plight is as pitiable as Cyrano’s. In spite of being one of the most beautiful and sophisticated women in Paris, she loves no other and lives a life of a recluse in a convent, faithful to the memory of her deceased love. As darkness envelops the evening while Cyrano, in the throes of death, reads Christian’s letters out aloud, Roxanne realizes that he is reading from memory and the truth dawns on her. Her true love has always been right under her nose. ( I just couldn’t resist the pun! ) The realization that the mind and soul she was in love with belonged to Cyrano, leads her to this heartrending lament that always makes me dissolve into tears: I have loved but one man in my life and I’ve lost him twice.(“Je n’aimais qu’un seul être et je le perds deux fois!” ) Alas! Love is lost and love is found only to be lost again.
Another scene that never fails to bring a lump in my throat is when Cyrano describes his loneliness at never knowing a woman’s love :
I had never known a woman’s love.
Even my mother did not find me handsome:
I had no sister; and, later as a man,
I feared the mistress who would mock at me.
But at least I have had your friendship–thanks to you
A woman’s charm has crossed my path.
J’ignorais la douceur féminine. Ma mère
Ne m’a pas trouvé beau. Je n’ai pas eu de soeur.
Plus tard, j’ai redouté l’amante à l’oeil moqueur.
Je vous dois d’avoir eu, tout au moins, une amie.
Grâce à vous une robe a passé dans ma vie.
Love is selfless. Perhaps the most valuable lesson I learned from the play is that true love has no expectations and places no demands. Cyrano’s love for Roxanne is so deep that he is willing to encourage her romance with another man for her happiness. It’s also admirable that he was a good friend to Christian and helped him even after the latter mocked him for his grotesque deformity. His love is so pure and noble that even after Christian dies, he wants to preserve the image Roxanne has of him in her mind, albeit a false one. The closest we come to this ideal is the unconditional love a parent has for a child. It’s far more difficult to be self-sacrificing in a romantic relationship. And that’s definitely something we can learn from Cyrano. If you love someone truly you’ll care more about their happiness than your own. Cyrano has given up a lot but not his integrity. In the end, the swashbuckling poet leaves the world with what has always stayed with him-his panache. (Panache, incidentally, was a word introduced in the English language with the popularity of the play.)
In this modern age of casual encounters and fleeting relationships, one would think that this epic tale would be outdated but it has endured through the ages for Cyrano’s story is one we have all lived. We all hope that someone would love us like Cyrano and there’s also a little bit of Cyrano in all of us, n’est-ce pas, pining from afar for an unattainable love?
* The translations are all mine.