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Edmond Rostand | Biography

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Born in Marseille, France, on April 1, 1868, Edmond Rostand came from a wealthy family. His father, Eugene Rostand, was a poet who switched to a career as an economist, eventually heading a savings bank in Marseille. Edmond followed the educational path expected of children from affluent families. He studied in Paris and eventually received a degree in a respectable profession—the law. However, Rostand's passion lay with creative writing, especially poetry and playwriting. In fact, he began writing plays as a boy. During college, between his legal studies, he managed to take courses in French literature and so became familiar with the writings of classic French authors, such as Pierre Corneille (often considered the father of classical French tragedy) and his rival for popularity, Jean-Baptiste Racine.

Although his father gave up writing in favor of financial security, the younger Rostand doggedly pursued a career as a creative writer. In 1887 he won a prize from the Académie de Marseille for an essay about the writers Honoré d'Urfé, popular in the 17th century for his pastoral romances, and Émile Zola, the most significant French novelist in the late 19th century and the developer of literary naturalism. In 1890, at age 22, he published his first important work, a collection of poetry called Les Musardises (Daydreaming). During this year, he married the French poet and playwright Rosemonde Gérard; the next year, the couple had their first child. Three years later, Rostand presented his first important play, Les Romanesque (1894), which was produced at the Comedié-Française. This play proved to be a success, thereby giving the writer the courage to offer the lead for his next play, La Princesse Lointaine (1895), to the greatest actress of the day, Sarah Bernhardt. Bernhardt accepted the role, but the play was only a mild success.

In 1896 France was rocked by a controversial legal case called the Dreyfus affair, which involved a French officer named Alfred Dreyfus who was accused of selling military secrets to the Germans. Dreyfus was Jewish. Influenced by anti-Semitism, many French people eagerly believed Dreyfus was guilty. Indeed, Dreyfus was convicted at first. However, Rostand, along with other notable writers such as Émile Zola, took the side of Dreyfus and proclaimed his innocence. After years of legal and political conflict concerning the case, Dreyfus was acquitted of the charge.

During this time of political turmoil, Rostand worked on two plays: La Samaritaine (The Woman of Samaria) and Cyrano de Bergerac. La Samaritaine debuted in April 1897, starring Sarah Bernhardt, and became an instant success. However, the success of this play paled in comparison to the astounding triumph of Rostand's next play, Cyrano de Bergerac. The play, which premiered in December 1897, is based on the life of a real person named Savinien de Cyrano de Bergerac, a French soldier and author who lived in the 1600s. The play was produced in Paris at the large Theatre de la Porte Saint-Martin and ran for three years. Before long, Cyrano de Bergerac opened in cities throughout Europe and the United States. The play received effusive critical acclaim. However, after World War I, critical response became more lukewarm; some critics dismissed the play as lacking dramatic depth.

Cyrano de Bergerac differed significantly from many of the serious works being produced in the late 1800s and early 1900s. At that time, many playwrights used a naturalistic style, which emphasized realism and pessimism. In contrast, Cyrano de Bergerac is unabashedly romantic and uplifting, despite its tragic end. Also, even though almost all the plays at the time were written in prose, Rostand used the poetic form of alexandrine couplets for the dialogue. This style of writing, using pairs of lines of 12 syllables each that work together as a unit, was used by Corneille and Racine during the 1600s and, by Rostand's time, was considered old-fashioned. For all these reasons some critics view Cyrano de Bergerac as the last example of great French romantic drama.

Critical views on Cyrano de Bergerac continue to be mixed. Some critics claim the play lacks the unity needed for a great work of art. Cyrano de Bergerac is considered a heroic comedy, but it also contains elements of broad comedy, sentimental romance, and tragedy. As a result, the play seems like a hybrid that fails to develop any of its elements enough to be a great play. However, other critics counter that Rostand presents a fully developed tragic hero in Cyrano, who deeply moves audiences. Because of this, audience members and readers empathize with Cyrano's idealism, fears, and nobility.

Because of Cyrano de Bergerac, Rostand was made a Chevalier of the Légion d'honneur in 1898, which is an order of merit in France. Two years later, he won election into the Académie française. Rostand's popularity skyrocketed. He could not take a walk around Paris without being mobbed by adoring fans. Unfortunately, the author suffered from lung ailments; to escape his fans and to find a healthier climate, Rostand and his family moved to a villa in the Pyrenees region of southern France.

During the rest of his life, Rostand wrote only two more plays: L'Aiglon (1900) and Chantecler (1910). Although both plays were successful, neither of them approached the amazing success of Cyrano. When World War I began, Rostand volunteered for military service but was turned down because of poor health. Rostand died on December 2, 1918, weeks after the armistice, a victim of the Spanish flu epidemic.

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