Review: Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand

Cyrano deBergerac - Edmond Rostand, Brian Hooker

Because my family has always had loads of books, we have a special closet that contains all the ones that won't fit in the bookshelves. Unlike places I live - which I've always crammed full of bookshelves - my mother likes to have books kept in certain areas. So there are very nice looking old books here and there, and books that are currently being read on various tables - but if you want to find the books to dig through, it's in the book closet. I assume it was once a linen closet, but it's better for books because it has a light inside so you can actually see what you're looking for. And because its shelves are deep there are two rows of books on each shelf - thus the need for keeping it tidy since books are easily hidden in there.


Anyway, we were doing some cleaning, which basically meant trying to put the books in some sort of order so that you might actually find things. And because I always say "but I haven't read that yet!" we didn't purge many. But I did notice this book from high school and thought about how it'd been a long time since I read it, and so I glanced inside.


wikipedia: Cyrano de Bergerac

wikipedia: Edmond Rostand


I ended up rereading it - though I started out by bouncing around to my favorite scenes. And I had to skip over parts where Cyrano has hopes that he might be loved in spite of his nose - I always have problems with "hopes disappointed" scenes, because I do like the character so much. And as melodramatic and theatrical as the final scene is -

Cyrano dies

(show spoiler)

- it made me tear up a bit. Because, ok, honestly I do love this character.


Much of the play's emotions you read into the scene - at some parts there are few words and it's up to the actor to express the feelings behind them. Which is why this is a play actors still enjoy performing.


Version I read was translated by: Brian Hooker (Amazon link here for more detail)


I've said this before about translators - SO much about whether you will love a book can depend on how well they do their job. To discount this is to miss both the difficulty of translating from another language and how much small word choices and phrases can matter.


Here, I'll give you an example with something you'd think wouldn't be noticable - the stage directions. One example will read like typical stage instructions, the other - well, I'll let you read for yourself. I'm not saying that one is a bad translation - just that it's a very different piece of writing even if it does convey the same information. Paragraph breaks are the same as they were in each version.


[Note: stage directions can be terse and informational, but in many many plays they're often very readable and literary. There's a long history in playwriting of plays that were written only to be read, and perhaps even only read aloud amongst a small group of people as entertainment. So having stage directions that are readable rather than just instructional isn't uncommon.]


The Gutenberg edition:


Cyrano de Bergerac

Translators: Mary F Guillemard and Gladys Thomas

Act II. The Poet's Eating-House.


Ragueneau's cook and pastry-shop. A large kitchen at the corner of the Rue St. Honore and the Rue de l'Arbre Sec, which are seen in the background through the glass door, in the gray dawn.


On the left, in the foreground, a counter, surmounted by a stand in forged iron, on which are hung geese, ducks, and water peacocks. In great china vases are tall bouquets of simple flowers, principally yellow sunflowers.


On the same side, farther back, an immense open fireplace, in front of which, between monster firedogs, on each of which hangs a little saucepan; the roasts are dripping into the pans.


On the right, foreground with door.


Farther back, staircase leading to a little room under the roof, the entrance of which is visible through the open shutter. In this room a table is laid. A small Flemish luster is alight. It is a place for eating and drinking. A wooden gallery, continuing the staircase, apparently leads to other similar little rooms.


In the middle of the shop an iron hoop is suspended from the ceiling by a string with which it can be drawn up and down, and big game is hung around it.


The ovens in the darkness under the stairs give forth a red glow. The copper pans shine. The spits are turning. Heaps of food formed into pyramids. Hams suspended. It is the busy hour of the morning. Bustle and hurry of scullions, fat cooks, and diminutive apprentices, their caps profusely decorated with cock's feathers and wings of guinea-fowl.


On metal and wicker plates they are bringing in piles of cakes and tarts.


Tables laden with rolls and dishes of food. Other tables surrounded with chairs are ready for the consumers.


And the Brian Hooker version:


The Second Act. The Bakery of the Poets


The Shop of Ragueneau, Baker and Pastrycook: a spacious affair at the corner of the Rue de l'Arbre Sec. The street, seen vaguely through the glass panes in the door at the back, is grey in the first light of dawn.


In the foreground, at the Left, a Counter is surmounted by a Canopy of wrought iron from which are hanging ducks, geese, and white peacocks. Great crockery jars hold bouquets of common flowers, yellow sunflowers in particular. On the same side farther back, a huge fireplace; in front of it, between great andirons, of which each one supports a little saucepan, roast fowls revolve and weep into their dripping-pans. To the Right at the First Entrance, a door. Beyond it, Second Entrance, a staircase leads up to a little dining-room under the eaves, its interior visible through open shutters. A table is set there and a tiny Flemish candlestick is lighted; there one may retire to eat and drink in private. A wooden gallery, extending from the head of the stairway, seems to lead to other little dining-rooms.


In the center of the shop, an iron ring hangs by a rope over a pulley so that it can be raised or lowered; adorned with game of various kinds hung from it by hooks, it has the appearance of a sort of gastronomic chandelier.


In the shadow under the staircase, ovens are glowing. The spits revolve; the copper pots and pans gleam ruddily. Pastries in pyramids. Hams hanging from the rafters. The morning baking is in  progress: a bustle of tall cooks and timid scullions and scurrying apprentices; a blossoming of white caps adorned with cock's feathers or the wings of guinea fowl. On wicker trays or on great metal platters they bring in rows of pastries and fancy dishes of various kinds.


Tables are covered with trays of cakes and rolls; others with chairs placed about them are set for guests.


Same content, different results. Or at least I visualize slightly different settings in each.


When I try to decide what it is that draws me back to the play I keep coming back to the words and the character of Cyrano. The love story/love triangle thing between Christian, Roxane and Cyrano never interested me as much as Cyrano's witty speeches. Roxane and Christian are both rather shallow in their own ways, and self absorbed. Roxane is supposedly intelligent yet it takes her a decade - and basically having it tossed in her face - to realize

that Cyrano is the author of the letters Christian supposedly wrote, despite being witness to Cyrano's many speeches, learning, and dialog. Granted he's worked at hiding from her and at the end she gets it, but it took a ridiculously long time, and Cyrano was faithfully visiting her the entire time.

(show spoiler)

I find Christian less annoying in that he is honest about being a "fool" - not good with words or writing. This doesn't mean he's unintelligent, and in fact he sees the truth about Cyrano and Roxane before either of them do. Cyrano is the only character that seems to see life for what it is, and it's brevity - but he's perhaps living too much in those ideals to see that Roxanne could love him. Christian also has a 4th Act realization and noble gesture -

wanting to tell Roxanne Cyrano wrote the letters, knowing the person she loves is really Cyrano

(show spoiler)

- so that both he and Cyrano live up to the ideal of heroic honor (in love and war).


Modern readers tend to find the idea of not telling someone that you love them after the first love is dead almost incomprehensible - but this is a play all about ideals, and wanting to have them. Roxane's ideals are fabricated (partly Cyrano's fault too) - but Cyrano lives for ideals, and it's really all he has. So upholding them - even the idea of the dead, poetic husband with the great soul - truth or not - well, that seems very Cyrano-like.

Not to mention in that dead ideal Cyrano knows that Roxane's actually mourning him and his words: p170,  "...For I am dead and my love mourns for me, and does not know..."

(show spoiler)

It's more telling that though Cyrano makes many grand, theatrical gestures, he's the one that suffers for them, and without many people knowing. He tosses money to pay for something - now he's broke and starves for a month. And then allows no one to pay for him. He does things in the moment, and for the spirit of the thing - and believes in the ideal (honor, poetry, etc.) - and accepts the suffering as part of that gesture. It's stubbornness, but for a purpose and for a principal he believes in. Honor and idealism are somewhat laughed at - then and now - but there is something admirable in it, especially as we see many examples of Cyrano's kindness to others.


Also the man composes poetry while he swordfights. How can I not love that?!





Act 1, p 30 - someone insults Cyrano and he proceeds to explain to them how completely inept at it they are (long and famous bit):


...You are too simple. Why, you might have said -

Oh a great many things! Mon dieu, why waste

Your opportunity? For example, thus: -

Aggressive: I, sir, if that nose were mine,

I'd have it amputated  - on the spot!

Friendly: How do you drink with such a nose?

You ought to have a cup made specially.

Descriptive: 'Tis a rock - a crag - a cape-

A cape? say rather, a peninsula!

Inquisitive: What is that receptacle -

A razor-case or a portfolio?

Kindly: Ah, do you love the little birds

So much that when they come and sing to you,

You give them this to perch on?


Point against cavalry! Practical: Why not

A lottery with this for the grand prize?

Or - parodying Faustus in the play -

"Was this the nose that launched a thousand ships

And burned the topless towers of Ilium?"

These my dear sir, are things you might have said

Had you some tinge of letters, or 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.


Needless to say, this speech results in a duel. Well, eventually, not immediately.


Act 1, p 31, because I'd forgotten this part - check out who pops into the story briefly, post duel:


A Musketeer:

(Advances quickly to Cyrano, with outstretched hands)

Monsieur, will you

Permit me? - It was altogether fine!

I think I may appreciate these things -

Moreover, I have been stamping for pure joy!

(He retires quickly.)



(To Cuigy)

What was that gentleman's name?





Yes, the one in The Three Musketeers. Nothing more is said of it, so I'm writing that off as some fanservice for the Dumas fans. (I'm one too.)


Act 1, p 47 - Cyrano speaking, a bit I like just because of the poetry:


(The Porter flings wide open the great doors. We see in the dim moonlight a corner of old Paris, purple and picturesque.)


Look - Paris dreams - nocturnal, nebulous,

Under blue moonbeams hung from wall to wall -

Nature's own setting for the scene we play! -

Yonder, behind her veil of mist, the Seine,

Like a mysterious and magic mirror



And off he goes to thwart an ambush of a hundred men against one poet.



Act 2, p 76 - Cyrano in a long exchange with Le Bret on why he won't have a patron or be beholden to others:


...To sing, to laugh, to dream,

To walk in my own way and be alone,

Free, with an eye to see things as they are,

A voice that means manhood - to cock my hat

Where I choose - At a word, a Yes or No,

To fight - or write. To travel any road

Under the sun, under the stars, nor doubt

If fame or fortune lie beyond the bourne -

Never to make a line I have not heard

In my own heart; yet, with all modesty

To say: "My soul, be satisfied with flowers,

With fruit, with weeds even; but gather them

In the one garden you may call your own."

So when I win some triumph, by some chance,

Render no share to Caesar - in a word,

I am too proud to be a parasite,

And if my nature wants the germ that grows

Towering to heaven like the mountain pine,

Or like the oak, sheltering multitudes -

I stand, not high it may be - but alone!


Act 2, p 77 - after much talk on the same lines, then this short bit, immediately interrupted. An example of where actors get to show emotion rather than speak it:


Le Bret:


(After a silence, draws Cyrano's arm through his own.)

Tell this to all the world - And then to me

Say very softly that...She loves you not.






Act 3, p 122, Cyrano is attempting to keep another character from entering a house and so pretends to have fallen from the moon, and then makes astronomy/constellation jokes:


...Curious place up there -

Did you know Sirius wore a nightcap? True!


The Little Bear is still too young to bite.


My foot caught in the Lyre, and broke a string.


Well - when I write my book, and tell the tale

Of my adventures - all these little stars

That shake out of my cloak - I must save those

To use for asterisks!


Act 4, p 185 - Cyrano and Roxane visit:



(Raises her head and looks away through the trees.)

What color -

Perfect Venetian red. Look at them fall.



Yes - they know how to die. A little way

From the branch to the earth, a little fear

Of mingling with the common dust - and yet

They go down gracefully - a fall that seems

Like flying!



I should also add here that while I've seen the Jose Ferrer film, I've never seen the Steve Martin retake on it. (Read loads about it, seen clips, just not bothered to see it because it's just not my thing.) I'd happily watch any live theatrical version (or filmed version), but it's really the language of the original that I like so much. (Also the swordfighting to be honest - I'm always gonna love that stuff.) I'm ok leaving it at that, for this play anyway - modernization isn't going to give me the same feel as those big speeches of Cyrano. And I say that as someone who's normally just fine watching any adaptation of plays/books/movies, because to me that's material meant to be adapted. (This is completely the norm with all live theatre because you have to cut things for time, and for jokes which the audience just won't understand for various reasons.)


Rereading the play reminded me why I prefer to read the words rather than just watch a film of them - I like this version, and after reading parts of the Gutenberg option I realize that I specifically like this particular translation.


For fun check out the Movies and Other Adaptations section on wikipedia. Loads of things in there I haven't seen or heard. For instance:


"Kenneth Branagh starred as Cyrano, Jodhi May as Roxanne, and Tom Hiddleston as Christian, in a 2008 BBC Radio 3 production using the Anthony Burgess translation and directed by David Timson. This production was re-broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 4 April 2010."


And there's another translation I should probably check out, someday.