This book is #18 on my Classics Club list.
‘Tis well known, a big nose is indicative
Of a soul affable, and kind, and courteous,
Liberal, brave, just like myself, and such
As you can never dare to dream yourself,
(Scene I: Act 4)
Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s a French musketeer with an enormous nose.
And no, I’m not making this up. The hero of Edmond Rostand’s 1897 play, Cyrano de Bergerac, is a brilliant fighter, poet, and wit.
Oh – and he is also well-known for having an absolutely enormous nose. Naturally, he is a little sensitive about it. But he makes up for it by being quick-witted and sharp as a tack. If it weren’t for his nose, in fact, Cyrano would probably be a complete catch. And as sympathetic as the reader is to his unfortunate physical imperfection, I’m forced to admit that his big hooter does lead to some very funny scenes. While picking a fight with a Viscount at the theatre, for instance, Cyrano is told: “Sir, your nose is. . .hmm. . .it is. . .very big!” (Scene I: Act 4). Never one to deny the obvious, Cyrano gives the man a little lesson in insults:
Is that all?. . .
What do you mean?
Ah no! young blade! That was a trifle short!
You might have said at least a hundred things
By varying the tone. . .like this, suppose,. . .
Aggressive: ‘Sir, if I had such a nose
I’d amputate it!’ Friendly: ‘When you sup
It must annoy you, dipping in your cup;
You need a drinking-bowl of special shape!’
Descriptive: ”Tis a rock!. . .a peak!. . .a cape!
–A cape, forsooth! ‘Tis a peninsular!’
Curious: ‘How serves that oblong capsular?
For scissor-sheath? Or pot to hold your ink?’
(Act I: Scene 4)
In fact, Cyrano goes through insults ranging from ‘rustic’ to ‘pedantic’ to ‘military’. It’s a great scene, capped off by a duel at the end, which Cyrano fights while composing a ballad to the astonishment of his audience.
Cyrano does have his serious side, however. We soon learn that despite his swagger, he is deeply in love with his cousin, Roxanne.
Still, he can’t help thinking he has little chance with her:
Look well at me–then tell me, with what hope
This vile protuberance can inspire my heart!
I do not lull me with illusions–yet
At times I’m weak: in evening hours dim
I enter some fair pleasance, perfumed sweet;
With my poor ugly devil of a nose
I scent spring’s essence–in the silver rays
I see some knight–a lady on his arm,
And think ‘To saunter thus ‘neath the moonshine,
I were fain to have my lady, too, beside!’
Thought soars to ecstasy. . .O sudden fall!
–The shadow of my profile on the wall!
(Act I, Scene 5)
Indeed, he soon finds out that she is in love with “A poor youth who all this time has loved / Timidly, from afar, and dares not speak. . .” (Act II, Scene 6). Cyrano’s hopes are raised for a moment, then quickly dashed when he discovers it is the young, handsome Christian de Neuvillette, a cadet in Cyrano’s own regiment, with whom Roxanne has fallen in love. Desperately disappointed, Cyrano nevertheless promises to help bring the two young lovebirds together. What ensues is the usual poetry-and-balcony scene, with Cyrano feeding the witless Christian lovely little poems to win Roxanne’s heart.
It works, of course, and before long the young couple is head over heels. Strangely, for a play which begins as a comedy, there is a rather melancholy ending. I won’t say more, lest I spoil it completely, but I did end up feeling a little disappointed.
Still, Cyrano is an excellent character – funny, intelligent, and brave – and I couldn’t help feeling it would be a very enjoyable role to play. I actually watched the 1990 adaptation of the play, starring Gérard Depardieu (let’s face it, who else could possibly play Cyrano?), before I read the play. It’s an incredible production, and one I stumbled across completely by accident.
The opening premise may not sound particularly exciting – French soldier with big nose tries to win love of his life – but Rostand’s play is a mixture of humour and melancholy which makes for a great story. I’d love to read the play in the original French someday, but even in translation the play is full of excitement and energy.
Rating: 4.5 Stars
*All quotations are from the Gladys Thomas and Mary F. Guillemard translation.