A review of Cyrano de Bergerac
by Dr. Alvin Burstein
The French poet, Edmond Rostand, published a play, Cyrano de Bergerac, in 1897. Rostand’s hero had a real life counterpart who railed against the church and state -a gallant soldier, a duelist, a poet and a political dissident.
The protagonist in the play is a super-hero who is all of these things, but the fictional person is even larger than life, especially around the nose. And he is in love with a woman from whom, because of his grotesque appearance, he not only hides his love but whose relationship to another person he facilitates: a variation on the Beauty and the Beast theme. Very much a product of its romantic context, the plot has a strong appeal evidenced in its re-creation in a dozen films, as well as in plays and operas.
Another example of its appeal is Anna Freud’s mention of it as one of her favorites, saying that at one time she had memorized the script. She regarded Cyrano’s behavior as a special kind of altruism, one that reflects identification with another. Seeking that person’s gratification brings gratification to the altruist. Perhaps the kind of selfless love that Anna felt for her father.
My favorite movie version of Rostand’s play is the 1950 film starring José Ferrar. It follows Rostand’s script closely, with two related plot lines. The first highlights Cyrano’s proud independence—his refusal to be patronized or to curry favor. “Would you have me make friends everywhere as a dog makes friends? I observe the manner of the canine courtesies, and I despise them.”
The second develops Cyrano’s love for his beautiful cousin, Roxanne. His hopes are dashed when, at the moment he believes she might declare return his love, he finds she is infatuated with Christian, a handsome young guardsman in Cyrano’s company of musketeers. She asks Cyrano to be her lover’s protector. Not only does he agree to do that, but he goes on to help Christian to court Roxanne in a selfless effort to fulfill her romantic desires.
When Christian is killed on the battlefield, and Roxanne is mourning her lost love, Cyrano still cannot bring himself to disillusion Roxanne by revealing that a letter to her found on Christian’s body had, in fact been written by Cyrano. Roxanne consigns herself to a convent, where for the next fifteen years, Cyrano visits her regularly, never revealing his passionate attachment, playing the role of the clever courtier bringing a cloistered friend the news of royal goings-on.
When Cyrano is badly injured in a scurrilous attack, he insists keeping his regular commitment to visit Roxanne. Knowing that he is at death’s door, Cyrano asks Roxanne if she would permit him to read what she believes to be Christian’s last letter to her. As the shadows fall in the courtyard, Cyrano reads the letter, which speaks of the writer’s love for Roxanne, aloud.
Roxanne realizes that it is too dark for him to be reading—that he must be the writer and that Cyrano has always loved her, and, more, that the Christian that she thought she loved was Cyrano’s creation. As she confronts him with her realization, Cyrano begins to hallucinate, and struggles to his feet to do battle with death and all his old enemies.
His final words are the climax of the play and of the movie, “You have riven away my laurels and my roses, but there is one thing that I take with me, one thing, in spite of all my own, and that is (as he falls into Roxanne’s arms)…my white plume.”
Deciphering the symbolism of the white plume is critical. When I first saw the film, I took it to represent Cyrano’s fierce independence. But when I read the French version of the play, the final words were “…mon panache.” “Panache” in French has many meanings: a white plume on a hat, style, masquerade, pose. That suggested an alternative to me.
There is an important focus on acting in Rostand’s play and in Ferrer’s movie. The play begins with Cyrano’s vendetta against a bad actor, Montfleury, a ham actor. Christian, who complains that he does not know how to woo a woman, cannot read the lines that Cyrano composes for him well.
Cyrano, on the other hand, never abandons his pose of being, not a lover, but a loyal friend. That is the role he chooses to play.
Is that choice, his adherence to it, a form of integrity that he owns and cannot be deprived of? Is his insistence on choosing that role a flaw in his altruism, or is it is a final gift to Roxanne?