Cyrano de Bergerac

Rivendell Theatre Ensemble

at the Viaduct Theatre

by Justin Hayford

Edmond Rostand, author of the 1897 “heroic comedy” Cyrano de Bergerac, was in a sense the Ronald Reagan of fin de siecle France. Like many Americans of the 1980s, the French of the 1890s suffered from a kind of present shock and needed a hearty dose of nostalgia to recapture their national pride. Rostand gave it to them.

Reagan and Rostand achieved their success in similar moments of political and cultural upheaval. Where we experienced the Vietnam war, the French suffered the humiliating defeat of the Franco-Prussian War, out of which the Third Republic was born. Instead of student riots, they witnessed the attacks occasioned by the Paris Commune and the assassination of President Carnot in 1894 by an Italian anarchist. And in place of computer technology, the French saw the introduction of the telephone, the electric light, the telegraph, the elevator, and the metro. As Emile Zola wrote in 1896, “Modern society is endlessly racked by a nervous irritability. We are sick and tired of progress, industry, and science.”

Rostand sat down to write Cyrano de Bergerac with much the same nostalgia for “simpler” times that Reagan’s handlers must have felt when they composed his acceptance speech for the 1980 Republican National Convention–the one he concluded by asking the crazed delegates and media whores to join him in a moment of silent prayer, as though he were presiding over an elementary school assembly circa 1955. “I wrote Cyrano for pleasure, happily and with love,” Rostand said in 1913, “and also, I admit it, with the idea of fighting against the tendencies of the time. Tendencies which, to be truthful, infuriated me and revolted me.”

So in a day when the social realism of Ibsen, Strindberg, and Zola was mapping out the literary future, Rostand reached back a good 50 years to plumb the aesthetics of the romantic era. In doing so he turned an eccentric 17th-century libertine and literary iconoclast–the real Cyrano de Bergerac wrote an achingly explicit poem about his syphilis–into the perfect embodiment of the romantic hero. By trapping the soul of a poet in a man overnosed in the extreme, Rostand fulfilled Hugo’s dictum that classical tragedians be replaced by men equally sublime and grotesque. Cyrano is gallant, courageous, sensitive, florid, and pricklish in his sense of honor; when his friend accuses him of folly in paying his entire month’s pension to close up the theater where the overbearing Montfleury plies his hack acting, for example, Cyrano replies indignantly, “But what a gesture!” He is Frenchness personified, and he turned Rostand into one of the most revered men in France almost overnight.

But unlike the heroes of the Reagan era, Cyrano is an antiestablishment insurgent who consistently breaks the rules in order to live as nobly as possible. No one tells Cyrano what to do, and he delights in challenging the pretensions and authority of anyone who dares claim any superiority over him. Only love defeats his swagger; standing before his beloved Roxane, whose happiness he spends the entire play trying to protect, he is a moonstruck, hyperventilating adolescent. When he first appeared on a Parisian stage, this contradictory figure helped unite a nation coming apart at the seams. And he’s had a long life in the popular imagination ever since.

In short, Cyrano de Bergerac is a marvelously complex and engrossing piece of theater, as appealing to the starched conservative as the starry-eyed dreamer. Rivendell Theatre Ensemble’s staging, on the other hand, is not complex or engrossing. Somehow the play’s poetry got left out of this production. The rapturous spell that Rostand casts in his tale of unrequited love never materializes onstage. And without that resplendence, Cyrano seems positively inert.

A potentially exquisite scene midway through the first act exemplifies the problem. A foppish viscount, mustering every ounce of his intellect, insults Cyrano by saying, “Your…hm…your nose…your nose is large.” In response, Cyrano launches into a 45-line impromptu declamation–in alexandrine rhyming couplets, no less–of all the myriad insults the viscount could have offered if he had any imagination (“Is it the fashion to go about with that on? / So very convenient to hang your hat on”). The verse spills out of Cyrano in a perfect stream. But under Karen Kessler’s direction, Matt Kozlowski dashes around the stage delivering the poem in lots of funny character voices. He is snippy and pinched rather than grandiloquent. His speech is all effort, the lyricism vanishes, and we’re left with a smart aleck instead of a rhapsodist.

Lyricism is absent from almost every moment of this production, replaced by a jarring combination of psychological naturalism and bathetic indulgence. The uncredited translation is in prose rather than verse, as Rostand wrote it. And we’re given not the sweep of poetic passions but the weary stagnation of self-centered emotions. When Cyrano learns that Roxane loves his friend Christian, for example, he turns away and chokes back a sob, then shows a thinly veiled hostility toward her for much of the rest of the scene. After she exits, he’s left alone in a spotlight to shed a few tears while a melancholy drone plays in the background with Spielbergian subtlety.

Rostand takes pains to point out Cyrano’s extraordinary acting ability; after all, this is a man who maintains a gracious facade even as death approaches in the play’s final moments. But in scenes played like this, Cyrano simply disappears. His “acting” is so transparent, his emotions so prominently displayed on his sleeve, that Roxane would have to be an idiot not to see through him–and the play tells us she doesn’t realize he loves her for another 14 years. For Cyrano to behave so petulantly in Roxane’s presence not only cheapens the character but contradicts the code of honor that defines the man.

The giddy rhythms of Rostand’s galloping text have been expunged–more than once by lopping out a half dozen characters from a scene. We’re left with a bare-bones, prosaic evening that rarely jells and never swoons, a deadly combination for a play centrally concerned with unrequited love. Rivendell may be trying to humanize and demythologize Rostand’s play, but the text simply doesn’t support that treatment. After all, in Rostand’s outrageously romantic universe Roxane can pull up behind enemy lines in her carriage to deliver a home-cooked meal to her beloved Christian.

This production, by contrast, is outrageously American, so practical and straightforward that there’s little hope any romance will develop. As critic Nicholas Cronk wrote, “Cyrano in prose would be unthinkable.” Rivendell has done the unthinkable.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Suzanne Plunkett.