Cyrano de Bergerac | Study Guide

Edmond Rostand

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Cyrano de Bergerac | Act 1, Scenes 1–3 | Summary

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Summary

Act 1, Scene 1

The play opens on a set designed to resemble a 17th-century theater, which has been converted from an indoor tennis court. The set shows galleries divided into two levels; the upper level has box seats. The main entrance is under the galleries. In front of the stage is an area called the pit, where common people stand and watch the performance. Audience members begin to arrive in "dribs and drabs" before the lighting has been set for the play. The play to be performed is called La Clorise. Because they are early, some people pass the time with diversions, such as practicing fencing and playing cards. The audience reflects every stratum of society, from pickpockets to nobility. They gather around the chandeliers as they are lit.

Act 1, Scene 2

A young nobleman named Christian de Neuvillette enters the theater with his half-drunk friend, Ligniére. Ligniére introduces Christian to two noblemen, Cuigy and Brissaille. The group observes other nobles as they arrive at the theater. Then some literary ladies who belong to a group called the précieuses enter. These ladies use noms de plumes, or pen names. Ligniére has accompanied Christian in order to identify a lady his friend is infatuated with; because the lady is not present, Ligniére wants to leave, but Christian begs him to stay. A well-known pastry cook named Ragueneau arrives and talks to Ligniére. Ragueneau is an aspiring poet and a lover of the theater, who supports the arts by feeding writers with his baked goods. He fears that a person named Cyrano de Bergerac will try to prevent the lead actor, Montfleury, from performing.

Le Bret enters looking for his friend Cyrano but can't find him. Ragueneau, Le Bret, and some nobles talk about Cyrano's qualities, such as being a skilled swordsman and a poet. Ragueneau also implies that Cyrano has a monstrous nose, which he's proud of. Le Bret says, "He'll fight with anyone who comments on it." Christian tells Ligniére that the woman he is in love with has arrived. Ligniére says the woman's name is Madeleine Robin, but she is known as Roxane. When Christian learns that Roxane is a précieuse, he is devastated. The précieuses are clever, literate ladies, but Christian sees himself as a fighting man who has trouble expressing himself with words. The Count de Guiche talks with Roxane. Ligniére informs Christian that de Guiche is in love with Roxane. However, because his wife is the Cardinal's niece, de Guiche does not want to risk insulting the Cardinal by having an open affair with Roxane. So, de Guiche wants Roxane to marry a friend, the Viscount de Valvert, who will turn a blind eye to de Guiche's having a secret affair with Roxane. Christian wants to pick a fight with Valvert. However, when Roxane gazes at Christian, he gazes back "oblivious of everything else." Ligniére leaves to join friends at a tavern.

Act 1, Scene 3

Some nobles mention that de Guiche is a Gascon (a person from the Gascony region of France) and a "clever and cold" man. When Christian sees Valvert, he wants to fight him, but he is stopped when he catches a thief trying to pick his pocket. The pickpocket tells Christian that a lord has arranged for 100 men to ambush Ligniére. Torn between staying with Roxane and warning Ligniére, Christian decides to help his friend and exits. Soon the play, La Clorise, begins. The actor Montfleury enters and begins to recite his lines. However, he is soon interrupted by a voice from the pit commanding him to stop. Egged on by the audience, the frightened Montfleury continues to perform. The voice orders the actor to leave. Then Cyrano rises above the audience in the pit by standing on a chair and proudly displays his enormous nose.

Analysis

In the first three scenes of Cyrano de Bergerac, Rostand introduces the major themes of his play: beauty, pride, and deception. The opening scenes explore two forms of deception. The first is the deception involved when actors present a play for an audience. The second is the deception people practice on each other to gain their own ends. In Scene 1, Rostand emphasizes theatrical deception. Characters arrive at a theater to enjoy the performance of a play. The characters know what they are about to watch is a deception. The author describes various theatrical elements used to present the play, such as the stage, the musicians, and the lighting. The characters know that actors will be performing roles to convey a story that is not real life, but rather an imagined world that represents life. During the play, the audience will suspend their disbelief and thereby enter into this imagined world. For Rostand, theatrical deception, if used skillfully, can convey the truth. By watching a play, people can learn truths about their own lives.

By showing a fictitious stage, Rostand is encouraging members of the audience who have come to watch Cyrano de Bergerac to reflect on their own lives. They are people watching characters on stage watching a play. So, like the characters on stage, the people in the real audience could see themselves as characters performing in a play, specifically the play of their own lives. By presenting these multiple levels of reality and theatrical deception, Rostand seems to be conveying what Shakespeare states in As You Like It: "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players."

Just as in real life, the characters on stage playing the audience members represent the full strata of society. Rostand shows pickpockets, the working class (such as the guard and the orange girl), the middle class or bourgeoisie, and the upper-class nobility. The author even has the most powerful man in 17th-century French society at the fictitious play, namely Cardinal Richelieu. Again, Rostand emphasizes that what he is showing in his play reflects the society found in real life.

The author hints at the second type of deception through de Guiche in Scene 2. Because he cannot openly take Roxane as his lover, de Guiche devises a scheme that involves Roxane's marrying Valvert, who will allow de Guiche to make love with his wife. So, de Guiche plans to use a proper marriage as a smoke screen to get what he wants, namely Roxane.

In the first three scenes Rostand also begins to develop the theme of beauty. For the author, there is both inner and outer beauty and inner and outer ugliness, and early in the play Rostand emphasizes this distinction. He shows a marquis appreciating the physical attractiveness of Christian. And, for his part, Christian is dumbstruck by the external beauty of Roxane. However, Christian fears Roxane will not find his inner self beautiful. She is an intelligent woman who appreciates cleverness in men, and Christian sees himself as clumsy with words, therefore ugly to Roxane.

Rostand introduces external ugliness through Ragueneau's speech about Cyrano de Bergerac, in which he mentions Cyrano's huge nose. In this speech the author introduces the theme of pride for Cyrano. Cyrano takes great pride in his nose, despite its ugly appearance. This pride in his nose is of a piece with the pride in himself he takes generally, as he shows when he haughtily commands Montfleury to leave the stage.

Rostand contrasts beauty and ugliness by using dramatic irony. Dramatic irony results from the audience being aware of something that a character does not realize. As Christian adores Roxane from a distance, the audience realizes his pocket is being picked. So, the author is contrasting the beauty of Christian's sentiments with the ugliness of a theft. Eventually when Christian attempts to grab his glove, he catches the pickpocket's hand in his pocket. So, Rostand seems to be saying that beauty and ugliness exist side-by-side in life.

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