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Cyrano de Bergerac | Study Guide

Edmond Rostand

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Cyrano de Bergerac | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Edmond Rostand's play Cyrano de Bergerac, written and first performed in 1897, tells a fictionalized account of a real 17th-century novelist and duelist. Rostand's play deviates heavily from the life of de Bergerac and casts him as a gifted yet insecure nobleman trying to win the heart of his true love, Roxane. The character of Cyrano is notable for his biting wit and talent with words, as he is shown to write the letters that cause Roxane to fall in love with another man, Christian de Neuvillette.

The famous balcony scene has Cyrano providing lines of dialogue from a hiding spot while Christian attempts to woo Roxane on the balcony—proving Cyrano to be the more intelligent and honorable of the two despite his unsightly appearance. Rostand portrays Cyrano as a sympathetic and noble character, whose inherent confidence outshines the source of his chronic insecurity: his large nose.

Cyrano de Bergerac has been considered a masterpiece of French theater since its first performance at the Théâtre de la Porte Saint-Martin in Paris, and it has spawned numerous translations, revivals, and film adaptations around the world.

1. The audience applauded for at least an hour after the curtain fell at the premiere of Cyrano de Bergerac.

Cyrano de Bergerac first premiered on December 28, 1897, at the Théâtre de la Porte Saint-Martin in Paris. The audience was reportedly enthralled by the performance and gave a lengthy ovation after the curtains were drawn. After this premiere, theaters overseas took note of the play's success, leading to numerous translations and performances across Europe and North America.

2. Cyrano de Bergerac is credited with introducing the word panache to the English language.

Although the word existed in French prior to the play, Rostand created the modern usage of the word panache to describe Cyrano's unique combination of wit, humor, nobility, and theatricality. As he dies, Cyrano himself proclaims, "My panache," as his final line. Discussing his use of the word, Rostand explained, "A little frivolous perhaps, most certainly a little theatrical, panache is nothing but a grace; but a grace which is so difficult to retain in the face of death, a grace which demands so much strength that, all the same, it is a grace ... which I wish for all of us."

3. Cyrano de Bergerac broke the rules of classical dramatic writing.

Cyrano de Bergerac harkens back to 17th-century works of theater. It features verse written in Alexandrine couplets, a metric structure named after the 1170 French poem Roman d'Alexandre, whereas most plays from the late 19th century were composed entirely in prose. However, Rostand deviated from the classical form by ignoring the established "rule of three unities," which also stipulates that a play's action must occur within 24 hours and feature only one setting. Cyrano de Bergerac spans over 15 years, and each scene is set in a different location.

4. The real Cyrano de Bergerac was proud of his large nose.

The historical figure Rostand based his character on, born in 1619, has been said to be similar to his onstage portrayal in wit and skill at arms but may have lacked the insecurities of the fictionalized character. Although he was injured twice in combat, his prowess at dueling may have been fabricated in the play. In reference to his large nose, he once wrote, "A great nose is the mark of a witty, courteous, affable, generous, and liberal man; and a little nose is a sign of the contrary."

5. Cyrano de Bergerac inspired a psychological term.

Cyrano de Bergerac gave rise to the psychological concept of a cyranoid. Cyranoids are used in experimental psychology to determine if "shadow speech" can be perceived by a subject. Much like in the balcony scene where Cyrano tells Christian how to speak to Roxane, the subjects of cyranoid experiments are tested as to whether or not they can perceive that another person is speaking for the individual with whom they're communicating.

6. The first actor to star as Cyrano onstage played the role hundreds of times at one theater alone.

Benoît-Constant Coquelin was a famous French actor chosen for the role of Cyrano when the play first premiered. Coquelin was popular as Cyrano and appeared in the role many times at the Théâtre de la Porte Saint-Martin in Paris. Afterward Coquelin continued to star as Cyrano in North American performances and made a short film of a dueling scene from the play in 1900.

7. Rostand was the youngest member elected to the Académie française.

The Académie française, founded in 1635, is the most honored society dedicated to the French language. Members can be elected for their outstanding contributions to French art, literature, and drama. Rostand was, at the time, the youngest member ever elected in 1901, at age 33.

8. The playwright George Bernard Shaw was a great fan of Cyrano de Bergerac.

Shaw, famous for his play Pygmalion that premiered in 1913, went so far as to help Rostand find an English translator for Cyrano de Bergerac. He thought the play was a masterpiece and joked in a letter that "Gilbert [of Gilbert and Sullivan, who together created numerous enduring comic operas] should translate it." Although Cyrano de Bergerac was not performed in London until 1900, three years after its French premiere, many English theatergoers ventured to Paris specifically to see the play beforehand.

9. An actor won both a Tony Award and an Oscar for his portrayals of Cyrano.

José Ferrer was renowned for his portrayals of Cyrano on both stage and screen. Ferrer received a Tony Award for Best Actor in a 1947 production and later won the Academy Award for Best Actor for a 1950 film adaptation. Ferrer's Oscar win also made him the first Hispanic actor to win an Academy Award.

10. Steve Martin and Daryl Hannah starred in a modernized film adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac.

The story of Cyrano de Bergerac was repopularized by a 1987 film adaptation titled Roxanne. Steve Martin plays the role of C.D. Bales (Cyrano) and attempts to win the heart of Roxanne, played by Daryl Hannah. Martin also wrote the screenplay for the film and noted that he loved Cyrano de Bergerac from age 12. He explained,

It seemed a perfect vehicle for me to update. But the play is very, very 11th century, especially in the joke department.

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