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Cyrano de Bergerac | Context

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The Real-Life Cyrano de Bergerac

The character of Cyrano de Bergerac is based on a real person, the debonair soldier and writer named Savinien de Cyrano de Bergerac, who lived during the 1600s. Other characters in the play also have real-life counterparts. For example, Cyrano really had a best friend named Le Bret, and there actually was a 17th-century French baker named Ragueneau who aspired to become a poet. For many of these characters, Rostand made few changes from the real people. However, for Cyrano and Roxane, the author made significant changes.

Savinien de Cyrano de Bergerac was a soldier who, along with his friend Le Bret, fought with the Carbon de Castel-Jaloux's company of guards at the battle of Arras. In the battle, Cyrano was severely wounded. Cyrano was known as a skilled swordsman and a talented writer. He often used his writings to satirize what he saw as the false and pompous aspects of society. In addition, Cyrano apparently did have a large nose, which he was not ashamed of. Indeed, writings from the time show that many of his friends joked affectionately about Cyrano's nose.

Beyond these facts, the real Cyrano differs greatly from the fictitious Cyrano. The real Cyrano was not from Gascony but rather was born in Paris; however, many of the guards he fought with at Arras were from Gascony. Also, Cyrano did not begin to pursue his writing seriously until after the battle of Arras, while in the play Cyrano is depicted as an accomplished writer before this battle.

However, by far the most significant difference concerns Cyrano's romantic relations. The real Cyrano was involved in the Libertins, a group that showed contempt for many traditional aspects of society, including organized religion. They also disliked the idealized love promoted by the refined, aristocratic French women of the era. Because of the transient nature of life, the Libertins believed in enjoying pleasures before they faded. So the historical Cyrano did not see himself as a romantic lover and, as a result, showed little romantic interest in women. He would never have pined away with a suppressed passion for an idealized love.

The Real-Life Roxane

Roxane is based on a combination of two people who lived in the 1600s. The first is Marie Robineau, an aristocrat who took part in the précieuses, intellectual and literary groups for women that are mentioned in the play. At that time, women did not partake in public discussions about serious topics and were not allowed to attend universities. During a précieuses gathering, women would talk about literature, art, manners, and morals. At first, the women in these groups were mostly from the upper class. As a result, wealthy women formed the précieuses to provide a forum for themselves and their female friends to express their opinions about intellectual issues. However, the groups became so popular that women from the prosperous middle class also formed them.

Members of the précieuses often created new names for themselves based on classical sources. In Cyrano de Bergerac the character Madeleine Robin belongs to a précieuses and, because of this, uses the self-created name Roxane. This name refers to the princess of classical antiquity who was romanced by Alexander the Great. The members of the précieuses often criticized arranged marriages and tended to idealize romance, thereby divorcing it from sexual desire. Because they encouraged women to think about serious issues and to be independent, these women often found themselves in conflict with people who supported traditional values, such as male leadership. As a result, many plays and writings poked fun at the précieuses.

The character of Roxane is also based on Madeleine Robineau, who was the cousin of Cyrano. Robineau married Baron de Neuvillette, who is the basis for the character of Christian.

Social Class

Most of Cyrano de Bergerac takes place in France in 1640 during the reign of the French king Louis XIII. The final act happens 15 years later during the rule of Louis XIV. Louis XIII benefited from an extensive bureaucracy, which was set up in the 1500s. To bring in more money for the French state, wealthy bourgeois were allowed to buy a prominent office in the administration. Along with these offices, the bourgeois were also allowed to buy titles of nobility and to make this nobility hereditary. As a result, France in the 16th and 17th centuries had many newly created nobles in positions of considerable power and less-wealthy nobles from old, aristocratic families with little or no power. Rostand clearly shows this division of the nobility in Cyrano de Bergerac. De Guiche comes from a wealthy family and so has gained significant power. In fact, de Guiche alludes to how he has played the political game to increase his influence. In contrast Cyrano's cadets are nobles with little money, so they have been relegated to serving in lower positions in the military.

In addition, from the early 1500s on, the number of people in the middle class in France and other areas of Europe skyrocketed. These bourgeois included merchants, artisans, and minor public officials. As businesses became more prosperous, merchants needed more and more workers, and peasants from rural areas moved to cities to fill the demand. As a result, the number of working-class laborers in cities also increased significantly. However, the movement from one social class to another was not always upward from middle class to nobility. The character of Ragueneau clearly shows this. Early in the play Ragueneau owns a pastry shop, which would be considered a middle-class position. However, he later falls on hard times and takes work as an actor, bath attendant, and music instructor, which would be considered working-class positions.

Rostand shows the spectrum of social classes in 1640 France at the theater in Act 1, starting at the top. He mentions that Cardinal Richelieu is attending the theatrical performance; Richelieu is the most powerful man in France after the king.

Rostand also describes members of the nobility, including Count de Guiche, Christian de Neuvillette, and Cyrano de Bergerac. In France, the particle de is used before the last name of people who belong to the nobility. The de means from and the last name refers to the land where the noble was born. So, the name Cyrano de Bergerac could be translated as Cyrano from the land of Bergerac.

In addition, Rostand presents a member of the wealthy middle class or bourgeois and people from the working class, including the theater doorman, the pages, and the flower girl. To complete the spectrum, the author even includes a member of the lowest class, specifically the pickpocket.

Nobles in the French Military

The French in the 17th century considered the practice of warfare a pursuit worthy of a noble. For nobles military service was considered a badge of honor and allegiance to one's roots. Many poor aristocrats were urged to volunteer for service in legions or companies that consisted of nobles from a particular region, such as the Breton Legion and the Norman Legion. For men from non-noble families, service was expected, with these soldiers forming the infantry arm of the military.

In Cyrano de Bergerac Cyrano's cadets are impoverished nobles from Gascony. Carbon de Castel-Jaloux is the captain in charge of this company, and Le Bret and Cyrano are lower-ranking officers.

During the reign of Louis XIII (1610–43), the companies of nobles often felt more allegiance to defending their region than to defending the monarch. Because of this, in the play Cyrano often inspires his cadets by referring to the region of Gascony rather than to the king. For example, Cyrano says, "Show them your mettle, Gascons," and "Let's give them a Gascon welcome." Through various reforms, Louis XIV during his reign (1643–1715) succeeded in shifting the allegiance of soldiers from regions to the king and thus the nation of France.

The Rise of Naturalism in French Literature

During the mid-1800s, the tone of French literature began to shift from romanticism (Victor Hugo) to realism (Gustave Flaubert). A key literary movement called naturalism developed during this period. According to the naturalists, an author should use scientific analysis in his or her depiction of reality. Most naturalists focused on a particular aspect of society and showed how that social environment influenced the characters. Also, naturalistic writers rejected any type of idealism, and, as a result, their work tended to be pessimistic. These writers included Émile Zola, Guy de Maupassant, and the playwright Henry-Francois Becque. Zola's novel Germinal emphasizes how industrialization can control and destroy individuals and communities. Maupassant's short stories often expose the hypocrisy of people. Becque's plays feature realistic dialogue and often made audiences of the day uncomfortable with their unflinching portrayals of unsavory situations.

Naturalism increased in influence to the mid 1900s. However, during this period, the French theater continued to produce light-hearted romantic comedies and operettas. Romanticism ceased to be a style used for serious theatrical dramas until Rostand's works, including Cyrano de Bergerac. Rostand was fully aware that his works went against the trend of naturalism and knew the risk he took. Critics and audiences might not accept an unabashedly romantic, idealist work that strove to be taken as serious literature. But Rostand did not care about this. He followed his own voice no matter what literary trend was in vogue, and his voice was purely romantic. As things turned out, audiences fell in love with Cyrano de Bergerac and turned out in droves. Many people enjoyed a serious work that dared to be inspiring and idealistic instead of pessimistic. Because Rostand opposed naturalism with his works, including Cyrano de Bergerac, they have become anomalies. Some critics predicted that Cyrano de Bergerac would start a revival of romanticism, but it did not.

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