by Alvin G. Burstein, PhD
The heroic comedy Cyrano de Bergerac, written by Edmond Rostand in 1897, has had a remarkable impact. Coquelin starred in the original 1897 stage version at Theatre de la Port Saint-Martin in Paris. His performance was a triumph; the audience applauded for over an hour after the final curtain. The enthusiasm led to a yearlong run for the play, and then beginning in 1900, ten subsequent movie versions, the first of which also starred Coquelin.
Anna Freud has been quoted as saying that, because of its focus on altruism, selfless devotion to others, the play was her favorite drama. I don’t have any knowledge of her father’s view of Rostand’s play, but the phenomenon of altruism got its first formal study in psychoanalytic circles in a 1912 paper by Sabina Spielrein, one of the first women psychoanalysts; her view was that love of another, because it is not self-centered, has a masochistic element. Freud acknowledged that Spielrein’s paper led him to a major revision of his theories: the introduction of a death instinct in balance with the life instinct of Eros.
The most recent version of Rostand’s play is the 2021 musical romantic drama film, Cyrano, directed by Joe Wright and adapted from Rostand’s play by Erica Schmidt. Cyrano is played by Peter Drinklage and his beloved Roxanne by Haley Bennett.
The basic plot echoes its original. The beautiful Roxanne is loved from afar by a Cyrano who is a gifted author and a swordsman to be feared but who sees himself as too ugly to be loveable. Roxanne falls in love with Christian de Neuvillette, handsome but inarticulate, on the eve of his joining Cyrano’s troop of musketeers. Roxanne, who has known Cyrano from childhood, begs Cyrano to be Christian’s mentor and protector.
Cyrano stage manages Christian’s courtship, arranging a hasty marriage that frustrates the effort of the regiment’s commander to win Roxanne. The enraged commander orders his men to the front in an ongoing war. On the eve of a final battle, Cyrano ghost-writes a farewell to Roxanne. When Christian dies in the battle, Cyrano leaves the letter on his compatriot’s body and it finds its way to his widow, Roxanne. Grief stricken, she consigns herself to a convent, where for three years, Cyrano pays her a weekly visit. Fatally injured in an assassination attempt, Cyrano makes a final visit to Roxanne, reminding her of her promise to let him read the farewell purportedly written by Christian. When as night falls, he continues to read the letter aloud in darkness, Roxanne realizes he, not Christian is its author, and, as Cyrano dies, she announces her love for him: “I have loved but one man in my life, and I have lost him twice.”
This latest revision of the story is recast as a musical, complete with intricate and complex song and dance scenes. Though they provide a gauzy, surreal element, they also blunt the intensity of the story’s tragic elements. The film also seems to be a response to the movie industry’s current concerns about lack of inclusivenesss. The members of Cyrano’s troop are racially diverse. And two of the central characters, Christian and Le Bret, Cyrano’s boon companion, are persons of color. Drinklage, who plays Cyrano, is a dwarf. His achondroplasia replaces the focus on the large nose sported by Cyrano’s real life original and represented, sometimes exaggerated, in all the preceding versions of Rostand’s play. I found myself wondering whether Anna Freud’s focus on altruism might be blurred by a secondary focus on wokeness.
Previous versions focused on Cyrano’s white plume. In Rostand’s original French, the word for white plume is panache. Panache has multiple meanings in French: in addition to referring to a feathered adornment, it can mean style, referring to clothing or modes of behavior. So in his dying words in earlier versions, Cyrano’s focus on his white plume can be a reference to the role he chose to play. Drinklage’s dying Cyrano talks about pride, not about his white plume.
Nevertheless, in those final moments, as Cyrano died and Roxanne’s loss was doubled, tears came to my eyes.