BORN: 1868, Marseilles, France
DIED: 1918, Paris, France
GENRE: Drama, poetry
The Romancers (1894)
Cyrano de Bergerac (1897)
Edmond Rostand. Branger / Roger Viollet / Getty Images
That Edmond Rostand is still known throughout the world today is due almost solely to his much-loved play Cyrano de Bergerac (1897). Since its first performance, Cyrano de Bergerac has been translated from its original French into many languages, including English, Spanish, Russian, and Hebrew, making its long-nosed title character beloved worldwide. Rostand wrote at the end of the nineteenth century and is credited with briefly reviving the popularity of romance and heroism on a turn-of-the- century French stage dominated by realism.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Stellar Student. Rostand was born in Marseilles, France, on April 1, 1868, to wealthy parents. His father was the prominent economist Eugene Rostand, a member of the Academy of Moral and Political Sciences of Marseilles and the Institut de France, who wrote poems and translated the works of the ancient Roman lyric poet Gaius Valerius Catullus. His aunt Victorine Rostand wrote poetry, and his uncle Alexis Rostand was a composer and music critic. Living with a literary and musical family, it is not surprising that Edmond was recognized for his talent as a translator and poet as early as the age of sixteen, while studying at the Lycee Marseilles. When he continued his studies at the College Stanislas in Paris from 1884 to 1886, he was considered the best student in French composition, history, and philosophy.
Following a brilliant academic career, Rostand made efforts to please his father by studying law in Paris for two years, but these attempts to prepare for the legal profession were secondary to his growing literary interests. During the time of his legal studies, Rostand won the 1887 literary essay competition held by the Marseilles Academy for an essay that he had written on Honore d’Urfe and Guy de Maupassant. In 1888 Rostand’s first play, Le Gant rough (The Red Glove), written in collaboration with Henry Lee, was performed at the Cluny Theater, but it did not meet with much success. Rostand also began to write a collection of poetry that he published in 1890 under the title Les Musardises (Daydreams).
Marriage, Success, and an Early Death. In 1890 Rostand married Rosemonde Gerard, to whom he dedicated Les Musardises. Rosemonde, herself a poet, was a great and harmonious influence on Rostand. Her collection of poems, Fibs, received special mention from the Academie Francaise. After the wedding, however, Rosemonde dedicated herself to her husband’s career and often helped him work through difficult passages, lending her poetic sensibilities to his. Many years after Rostand’s death, Rosemonde wrote a memoir-biography of her beloved husband, Edmond Rostand (1935).
The decade of the 1890s was a period of great success, both personal and professional, for Rostand. During a four-year period beginning in 1893, he wrote and produced an incredible succession of dramatic works: The Romancers (1894), The Princess Far-Away (1895), The Woman of Samaria (1897), and Cyrano de Bergerac.
He retired to his country estate, and in 1901 he was elected to the Academie Fran^aise, the youngest member ever inducted. Rostand published a third volume ofpoems, The Flight of the Marseillaise, in 1914, which has been dismissed by most as unredeemed sentimental patriotism. Rostand probably saw writing these poems as his duty because his health prevented him from serving France in World War I. He reportedly often visited the trenches, however, wanting to see the suffering and devastation, even though it distressed him greatly and added to his decline in health. He continued to write plays and poetry when his health permitted, leaving his final play, The Last Night of Don Juan, unfinished at the time of his death. Rostand died of pneumonia in Paris on December 2, 1918.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Rostand's famous contemporaries include:
Henry James (1843-1916): An American-born fiction writer who took British citizenship shortly before his death, James is considered by many to be the master of the novella and novel alike.
Benito Mussolini (1883-1945): Leader of the Italian Fascist party and primary European ally of Adolf Hitler's Germany during World War II.
George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950): An Irish playwright and literary critic working in England, he is the only person to have been awarded both a Nobel Prize in Literature (1925) and an Oscar (1938).
Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945): U.S. president for much of World War II, Roosevelt was the only U.S. president voted into office for four terms, serving from 1933 until his death in 1945.
Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (1870-1924): Russian revolutionary and theorist of revolution and communism, Lenin was a leader in the October Revolution and the first de facto head of state of the Soviet Union.
Works in Literary Context
When Rostand’s plays first appeared, some critics believed that they would inspire a return to verse drama and romanticism. However, his dramas merely stood in contrast to the naturalist and symbolist literary movements of his time, rather than causing them to be supplanted. Recent evaluators of Rostand’s work have praised his skillful verse and consummate theatricality but find that his plays lack the thematic complexity and depth necessary to be considered great. Nevertheless, his dramas, particularly Cyrano de Bergerac, have maintained their popularity and continue to be performed to enthusiastic reviews.
Romance and Courtly Love. In his first play, The Romancers, Rostand rejected the sordid realism of the naturalistic plays then in fashion, creating a lighthearted satire about two young lovers in search of romance and adventure who discover that romantic love can exist without the excitement of danger or obstacles to overcome. Rostand further developed the theme of courtly love in The Princess Far-Away, which relates the story of the troubadour Joffroy Rudel, Prince of Blaye, whose love for the Countess of Tripoli, whom he has never seen, inspires him to travel to see her before he dies. In this play, Rostand introduced the theme of tenacious adherence to unattainable ideals that would become characteristic of his works.
Rejection of Realism. Cyrano de Bergerac is considered Rostand’s dramatic masterpiece, successfully combining humor, romance, and heroic action in expert verse. Based on the life of the seventeenth-century soldier and author Savinien de Cyrano de Bergerac, the play recounts the hero’s faithfulness to his ideals despite his recognition that he will never be rewarded for them. For example, he upholds his artistic principles by refusing to bowdlerize, or modify, his plays to have them performed or to cater to a patron to live comfortably. Adhering to his principles of friendship, he refuses to compete with his friend Christian for the attention of Roxane, the woman they both love, and refrains from destroying Roxane’s false image of Christian when he dies, even though it means foregoing his own chance to achieve happiness with her. In its idealism and high romantic approach, Cyrano de Bergerac marked a departure from the realist style then en vogue in French theater. Sadly, perhaps, the play did not spark a larger trend, and Rostand’s own follow-up efforts never quite measured up to the promise that play contained.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
The protagonist of Cyrano de Bergerac is a man of the most consummate principle, though also a ridiculous man in certain ways. It is a credit to Rostand's artistry that he is able to portray the absurdity of idealism in such a way that the audience roots for him anyway. Here are a few other works with absurd but admirable protagonists:
Don Quixote (1605-1615), a novel by Miguel de Cervantes. This tale of a would-be knight errant, a dreamer with his head in the clouds dashing off to fight windmills, has been hailed by many as the first novel.
Candide, or Optimism (1759), a novel by Voltaire. This Enlightenment-era satire presents the haplessly and helplessly optimistic Candide.
The Adventures of Augie March (1953), a novel by Saul Bellow. This novel's eponymous protagonist is buffeted by seemingly random winds of chance as he strives mightily to prove to himself the validity of his own belief in the power and possibility of the individual.
Works in Critical Context
Significant for his revival of romantic verse drama at a time when naturalism and symbolism dominated the French stage, Rostand combined an excellent sense of theatrical effect with a keen wit. In The Romancers, Rostand delivers romantic verse on stage, while his optimistic idealism is best expressed in the comedy Cyrano de Bergerac.
The Romancers. Rostand’s first taste of popular success came with the 1894 production of The Romancers. Novelist Henry James commented that in The Romancers, the ‘‘action takes place in that happy land of nowhere—the land of poetry, comedy, drollery, delicacy, profuse literary association ... and if the whole thing is the frankest of fantasies ...it is the work of a man already conscious of all the values involved.’’ Though he complained that The Romancers is also ‘‘really too much made up of ribbons and flowers,’’ James concluded that ‘‘we note as its especial charm the ease with which the author’s fancy moves in his rococo world.’’ Similarly, in the Tortnightly Review, G. Jean-Aubry saw The Romancers as a balanced example of both Rostand’s writing talents and his deficiencies. There is in the play, he claimed, ‘‘the germ of all that is best and least good in Rostand; a very great technical cleverness, a facility for making his personages live and move, a tendency to complicate the simplest situations by play of words, and a real charm ...in making his rhymes ‘sing.’... Already he writes verses that are supple, natural, unforced, and others that are tortured and wrung out with difficulty.’’
While most critics have concluded that The Romancers, as a comedic satire on love, is lighter than Rostand’s later plays, Alba della Fazia Amoia asserted that it ‘‘contain[s] a moral also: we must have faith in what we are doing and we must remain faithful to love.’’ Rostand received the Toirac prize from the Academie Franyaise for the play at the time. And, indeed, The Romancers continues to be performed in its 1960 adaptation as a popular Off-Broadway musical, ‘‘The Fantasticks.’’
Cyrano de Bergerac. By the end of 1897, the curtain had risen on the drama that most critics agree eclipses the rest of Rostand’s oeuvre: Cyrano de Bergerac. Though Cyrano de Bergerac was to be Rostand’s greatest success and was to win him lasting fame, before its debut the theater community had serious doubts about its value. Rostand had to pay for the play’s costumes himself, and a few minutes before the curtain rose on Cyrano for the first time, he was begging forgiveness of its star, Constant Coquelin, for having involved him in such a fiasco. But when the curtain had fallen, Amoia reports, there was ‘‘overwhelming applause ... for the poet who finally had dissipated the atmosphere of sadness and futility with which young Frenchmen had lived for so long. ...Cyrano marked a complete reaction against the Realism of the problem plays then in vogue. It was a new and fresh Romantic poem, with a folk hero ... whose identity was shared by all.’’
Not all critics agreed, however, on the importance or even on the theme of Cyrano. Virginia M. Crawford felt that while nothing ‘‘could be more noble and beautiful... than Cyrano’s love for his cousin Roxane ... the whole motif of the play is ... radically false, and consequently lacking in any permanent interest.’’ A contemporary Poet Lore reviewer did not take the play’s idealism seriously and saw it as a ‘‘satirical extravaganza,’’ saying that it would be ‘‘naive ...to take such double-edged fooling as all this for unvarnished tenderness and fresh- born romance.’’ The critic also claimed that to do so would leave the work ‘‘bare of any literary distinction worth mentioning. If it is to be considered as a serious dramatic or poetic work, it must be perceived that its structure is of the slightest and most casual.’’
This point was challenged by Hugh Allison Smith in his 1925 Main Currents of Modern French Drama. There, he argues that Cyrano should not ‘‘be judged ...by realistic criterions. It is more proper to ask if it is artistic, beautiful, noble or poetic than it is to determine if it is practical, probable, typical or informative.’’ Similarly, an Edinburgh Review critic found the play large enough to successfully explore many themes, declaring that to ‘‘say of Cyrano that it is too elaborate is like objecting to some vigorous forest tree that its leafage is confusing. And the comparison holds good on this point—that Cyrano de Bergerac is as structural and organic as a noble tree.’’ This reviewer concluded, ‘‘In France, it is necessary to go back to Moliere and to [Pierre Augustin Caron de] Beaumarchais to find anything of equal dramatic fullness of conception, of equal reach and lightness of touch.’’
Responses to Literature
1. Define honor from the point of view of Cyrano de Bergerac. Is this sort of honor valuable in the world today? Explain your definition with detailed reference to the play.
2. Research and explain the system of patronage that Rostand despised and discredited. In considering one of his plays, would you say he was effective in discrediting this system? Why or why not?
3. Consider the figure of Cyrano de Bergerac as a representative of the flawed romantic ideal. Physically ‘‘imperfect,’’ he is spiritually or morally almost without defect. Write an essay in which you compare Cyrano with two to three other figures from world literature who suffer conflicts between physical appearance and inner reality. What do the authors seem to be suggesting about the relationship between external appearances and inner realities?
4. Rostand is particularly admired for his humor, for the joyous laughter that seems to stand ready in the wings throughout his work, waiting to burst out. Using your library and the Internet, research at least one major theory of humor—what it is, how it works—and determine the extent to which that theory seems to be valid. Support your thesis using one of Rostand’s plays as a model.
Amoia, Alba della Fazia. Edmond Rostand. Boston: Twayne, 1978.
Grieve, J. W. L’Oeuvre dramatique d’Edmond Rostand. Paris: Les Oeuvres Representatives, 1931.
Haugmard, Louis. Edmond Rostand. Paris: E. Sansot, 1910.
Lautier, Andre and Keller, Fernand. Edmond Rostand: son oeuvre. Paris: La Nouvelle revue critique, 1924.
Leuven, Adolphede, de Livrey, Charles, and Lherie, L. L. Roquelaure ou l’homme le plus laid de France. Paris: Magasin Theatral, 1836.
Malecot, Gaston-Louis. Les Sources de 'l’Aiglon.’’Paris: Bureau General de Traductions et de Recherches Documentaires, 1927.
Page, Dorothy. Edmond Rostand et la legend napoleonienne dans “l’Aiglon.”Paris: H. Champion, 1928.
Ryland, Hobart. The Sources of the Play Cyrano de Bergerac. New York: Institute of French Studies, 1936.
Spiers, A. G. H. ‘‘Introduction,’’ in Cyrano de Bergerac, by Rostand. New York: Oxford University Press, 1938, pp. vii-xxvi.
Wooden, C. G. ‘‘Introduction,’’ in Cyrano de Bergerac, by Rostand. London: Bristol Classical Press, 1994.