Cyrano de Bergerac was a historical character. He lived in the seventeenth century. After serving as a soldier, he engaged in intellectual pursuits and did some writing.. I once ran across an English translation of his imaginary journey to the moon, which proved to be interesting.
Rostand was born more than two centuries after the death of Cyrano. His “Cyrano de Bergerac” is a five-act drama in which Cyrano is the chief character. It is an imaginative work that does not restrict itself to the biographical details of Cyrano’s life. However, some of Rostand’s details are historical, such as the year when he received the wound that ended his military career and the date of his death.
The action begins in the year 1640. The first act takes place in a large area of a hotel which has been adapted to the performance of dramatic works. The scheduled drama is entitled “La Clorise.” The spectators begin to trickle in. They amuse themselves while waiting for the play to begin.
One of the spectators is a girl named Roxane. Christian de Neuvillette, her shy admirer, is also in the audience. The powerful Comte de Guiche and Vicomte de Valvert, his crony, have also come to see the play. The count and viscount have dubious designs concerning the future of Roxane.
Cyrano de Bergerac is apparently absent. This puzzles a chef and pastry cook named Ragueneau, because an actor named Montfleury is scheduled to play in the drama. Cyrano hates Montfleury and has forbidden him to appear on stage for a whole month.
The play begins and Montfleury appears on stage. Cyrano immediately makes his presence known. He commands the actor to leave immediately. Some people in the audience express indignation. However, when Cyrano offers to fight a duel with each of them one by one, no one accepts his challenge.
Montfleury makes a timid attempt to continue playing his role, but he eventually is intimidated and leaves the scene.
The reaction of the audience is mixed. Even Bellerose and Jodelet, who are in charge of the play, do not agree. Bellerose is critical of Cyrano, while Jodelet seems to favor him. When Bellerose points out that the admission fees of the spectators must be refunded, Cyrano gives them the necessary money.
As the people begin to leave, their attention is arrested by further activity on Cyrano’s part. A meddlesome busybody annoys Cyrano, who retaliates by making him feel uncomfortable. Cyrano has a large nose, and it is well known that he fights a duel with anyone who disparages it. Cyrano suggests that the unfortunate busybody is hovering around him so that he might gaze at his nose. When the meddler assures Cyrano that he deliberately avoided looking at it, Cyrano replies: “Then it displeases you?” In this way, Cyrano adroitly construes everything that the unfortunate meddler says into an occasion to continue quarreling. Even when the meddler says that he thinks Cyrano’s nose is small, Cyrano treats it as an insult. He praises his enormous nose at length.
Comte de Guiche is disgusted. He wishes that someone would stand up to him. The obsequious Vicomte de Valvert grants his wish. He goes up to Cyrano and comments on the size of his nose.
In the ensuing swordplay, Cyrano recites an impromptu French ballade while fighting with his antagonist. When he finishes the last part of his ballade, which is called the envoi, he strikes home with the sword. The wounded viscount leaves the scene with the help of some friends.
After the excitement has subsided, Cyrano tells le Bret, his friend, that he loves the beautiful Roxane, but it is his conviction that he can never win her heart because of his large nose.
While Cyrano is making this confession, the governess of Roxane enters the scene. Roxane wants to speak with Cyrano, so an interview is arranged for the following day. Cyrano and Roxane are to meet at 7 o’clock. at Ragueneau’s place. Needless to say, Cyrano begins to cherish some fond hopes.
A drunken friend named Lignière enters and asks Cyrano if he can spend the night under his roof. He cannot go home because 100 men threaten him. Cyrano tells his friend that he will spend the night under his own roof. As the first act draws to a close, Cyrano leaves the scene to face the 100 men, so that Lignière can return home in safety.
The setting of the second act is Ragueneau’s place of business. Cyrano enters at 6 o’clock. He is excited about his impending meeting with Roxane. He keeps asking Ragueneau to tell him what time it is. Some poets arrive, and some scintillating conversation ensues.
When Roxane arrives, Cyrano asks Ragueneau to remove everyone from the room. He also manages to conduct Roxane’s governess outside the room.
Roxane tells Cyrano that she looks upon him almost as a brother. (They are actually cousins.) They reminisce about the past, when Roxane was accustomed to visit Bergerac each summer.
Roxane tells Cyrano that she is in love with a young cadet in his company. They have never spoken together, except with their eyes. His name is Baron Christian de Neuvillette. Cyrano does not recognize his name because he is a brand new cadet.
Roxane is worried about Christian. She asks Cyrano to take him under his wing and defend him. Cyrano promises that he will do so.
It is with difficulty that Cyrano manages to hide the strong emotions he feels when he learns that Roxane is in love with someone else, but he bravely conceals his heartache until she leaves.
Cyrano’s captain then enters the scene, followed by his cadets. They are all Gascons.
Le Bret enters and tells Cyrano that a crowd of admirers are looking for him. Soon the shop of Ragueneau is filled to overflowing.
Comte de Guiche enters. Cyrano introduces his fellow cadets to Comte de Guiche in an impromptu poem. The count expresses interest Cyrano’s poetry. He wants to obtain Cyrano’s services as poet for himself and for the Cardinal Richelieu, his uncle. However, when the count makes it clear that the poetry would be edited, an argument ensues.
A cadet enters. He has suffered mistreatment by people who acted under the orders of Comte de Guiche. Cyrano sends a challenge to those who did the deed. The count compares Cyrano to Don Quixote, who fought with a windmill. He suggests that the windmill would toss Cyrano down into the mud. Cyrano objects that it might toss him up to the stars. The count leaves in anger.
Le Bret is alarmed by Cyrano’s action. He thinks that Cyrano is isolated and needs a protector. Cyrano does not want to grovel before a powerful protector. He likes it when people hate him.
Christian enters. Some of the cadets warn their new companion not to mention Cyrano’s nose. Christian will forfeit his life if he makes the slightest reference to it.
Christian does not heed the warning. While Cyrano tells the cadets about his exploit, Christian repeatedly completes Cyrano’s sentences with references to his nose. For example, Cyrano says that it was so dark that a person could not see farther (than his nose.). The words in parentheses are a phrase that Christian inserted into Cyrano’s narration.
Cyrano cannot react because he has promised Roxane that he would protect Christian. However, when Christian persists in his insulting comments, Cyrano tells everyone to leave the room.
When they are alone, Cyrano tells Christian that he is Roxane’s cousin. Christian suddenly becomes very friendly with Cyrano. He apologizes and retracts his remarks.
Christian confesses that he is hopelessly afraid to talk to Roxane. He does not have the ability to talk to women. Cyrano promises to help him. He gives Christian a letter that he has written. He tells Christian to pass it off as his own composition and to send it to Roxane.
When the cadets reenter, they are astonished to see that Christian and Cyrano are on friendly terms with one another. The captain calls Cyrano an apostle. When someone strikes him on one nostril, he turns the other. Cyrano ignores his remarks and other insults. The curtain falls as the second act comes to an end. (In a television presentation that I once saw, the reaction was different. Both Christian and Cyrano drew their swords when the cadets entered and started joking about the nose. The cadets quickly stopped joking.)
The scene of the third act is a garden outside the house of Roxane. Cyrano visits Roxane, and the two talk about Christian. Roxane considers Christian slow of speech but praises a letter that Christian has sent to her. This pleases Cyrano, since he is the real author of the letter.
After Cyrano enters the house, Comte de Guiche appears on the scene and converses with Roxane. He tells her that he is about to leave for war. He is going to take part in a siege of the city of Arras. He tells her that he has a position of leadership. The cadets are under his command, and he is going to use his position to take vengeance on her cousin Cyrano.
Roxane tells the count that he won’t be taking vengeance on Cyrano if he exposes him to danger, since Cyrano loves to fight. The best way to take vengeance on him is to keep his cadets in Paris so that Cyrano will be deprived of the joy of battle.
By being a little nice to the count, Roxane induces him not to send Cyrano’s cadets to war.
The count says that he is only pretending to go that evening. He is actually going to disguise himself and go to the convent of the Capuchins, which is under the jurisdiction of Cardinal Richelieu, his uncle. The count wishes to spend a day with Roxane before he leaves.
Roxane poses a couple objections. She tells the count that she wants him to be heroic. The count happily kisses her hand and leaves.
While Roxane briefly enters the neighboring house of Clomire, Cyrano suggests that they leave so he can teach Christian what to say to Roxane. Christian wants to talk to her himself. So Cyrano ducks behind the wall when Roxane leaves the house of Clomire.
Christian’s attempt to speak with Roxane is so clumsy that she becomes disgusted and enters her house.
Cyrano reappears. Christian asks for help. Christian calls Roxane while Cyrano hides under the balcony. With Cyrano prompting, Christian speaks romantically to Roxane.
Roxane is pleased, but she wonders why Christian speaks so slowly. So Cyrano, pretending to be Christian, addresses Roxane himself.
They have some bad moments. Roxane notices that Christian’s voice is different. Moreover, she wants to come down. When Cyrano objects, she suggests that he come up. Cyrano manages to persuade her that it is more romantic to speak without seeing each other.
After Roxane confesses her love for Christian, Christian blurts out that he would like to kiss her. Cyrano warns Christian not to be too hasty. Then Cyrano, again pretending to be Christian, repairs the damage, and wins for Christian the right to kiss her. Cyrano has to prod the timid Christian to climb up to the balcony and give her a kiss.
When the lovers have kissed, Cyrano calls Roxane in his own person. Roxane and Christian come down into the garden. A Capuchin monk, who is looking for Roxane, appears on the scene. He delivers a letter from the count.
She reads the letter in a low voice so that the monk cannot hear. The count says that he has not obeyed her wishes. His men have left, and people think that he left with them. However, he is at the convent and is coming to see her. He warns her that the simple Capuchin monk should not know his plans.
She then pretends to read the letter aloud to the monk. However, she does not read the count’s message, but composes one of her own. In this pretended letter, the count commands Roxane to marry Christian, even though it displeases her. She pretends reluctance, but resigns herself to the proposed marriage.
The monk leads Christian and Roxane into the house to get married. Cyrano remains outside to delay Comte de Guiche until the ceremony is completed. He must detain the count for a quarter hour.
Cyrano climbs into the balcony, removes his sword, hides his face with his fedora and his cape as well as he can, pulls down the branch of a nearby tree, hangs onto the branch, and gets ready to fall to the ground. When the count comes, Cyrano falls between the count and the door of the house. He lies flat on the ground, pretending to be stunned.
Since the tree branch has rebounded upward, the count sees only sky above the prostrate figure and wonders from where he has fallen. Disguising his voice, Cyrano tells the count that he fell from the moon. He asks the count what time it is and what country he is in. With such questions and with clever comments, he manages to detain the count for a quarter of an hour.
When a quarter hour has elapsed, he speaks with his natural voice and tells the count that the marriage ceremony is finished. Christian and Roxane emerge from the house hand in hand.
The count recognizes Cyrano and compliments the stratagem that he employed. Then he tells Christian to say goodbye to his wife and set out for Arras. He has changed his mind about allowing the cadets to remain in Paris. The third act comes to an end as farewells are spoken and Roxane asks Cyrano to watch over Christian.
Act four takes place at the camp of the Gascon cadets at the siege of Arras. The war is not going well. An enemy army is besieging the besiegers, and the cadets are hungry. Nevertheless, Cyrano has been writing faithfully to Roxane in the name of Christian, and risks his life daily to send the letters.
As the camp prepares for an enemy attack, Roxane arrives at the camp. The Spanish have gallantly allowed her to pass because she said she was going to visit her lover. She brought food from Ragueneau’s shop in her horse-drawn carriage, and Ragueneau himself was hiding in the carriage.
Christian learns that Roxane has ventured to come to the camp because of the letters that he has supposedly written. Christian concludes that it is Cyrano’s soul that Roxane really loves. He has also guessed that Cyrano loves Roxane. He wants Cyrano to tell her the truth and allow her to choose between them. (Perhaps some would praise Christian for his attitude, but he actually shows a callous disregard for the sanctity of the marriage bond. By the will of God, marriage is a lifelong union.)
Christian calls Roxane and tells her that Cyrano has something important to tell her. Cyrano hesitantly approaches the subject. However, while he is still hemming and hawing around, he receives the news that Christian has been mortally wounded. As Christian lay dying, Cyrano whispers to him that he has told her everything. He tells the dying man: “It is you that she loves.” Christian dies in Roxane’s arms.
Cyrano and his fellow cadets fight the enemy. Many cadets die. The curtain falls as the battle rages.
Act five takes place fifteen years later, in 1655. The scene is a park that belongs to a convent. Several sisters are conversing with one another. From their conversation, we learn that Roxane entered the convent fourteen years ago and that Cyrano visits her every Saturday and tells her the news. Roxane is still in mourning and wears black.
The Duke of Grammont visits the convent park and converses with Roxane. The aged Comte de Guiche and le Bret are also present. Roxane tells the duke of her continuing love for Christian.
From le Bret, we learn further information about Cyrano. He has won the animosity of many powerful people because of his satires. However, Roxane points out that he is respected because of his sword. The duke admires him. He would gladly clasp Cyrano’s hand, even though Cyrano is poor. Before leaving, the duke warns le Bret of a possible plot to kill Cyrano.
While Roxane is accompanying the duke to the entrance of the cloister, Ragueneau enters and tells le Bret that he saw a lackey drop a piece of wood on Cyrano’s head. As a result, Cyrano had a hole in his skull. Ragueneau took him home and called a doctor. They decide not to tell Roxane.
It is Saturday, and Roxane expects Cyrano to come. When he arrives, he looks pale. For the first time in fourteen years, he is late. He sits in an armchair, and they converse.
Cyrano is Roxane’s weekly newspaper. He begins to tell her the news, but temporarily faints before he finishes. When he revives, he says that it is due to the wound that he received at Arras.
Roxane says she also has a wound. She takes out of her bosom the last letter that Christian supposedly wrote to her. It is smudged with tears and blood. Cyrano tells her that he would like to read it.
He reads it with such profound emotion that Roxane is amazed. It is night, and Roxane suddenly realizes that Cyrano cannot possibly see the words. She now knows that it was Cyrano who composed all the romantic words that Christian supposedly addressed to her. Cyrano vainly tries to deny it.
Ragueneau and le Bret enter, and Roxane learns that Cyrano is dying. She says that she has loved only one man and that she has lost him twice.
Cyrano does not want to die in an arm chair. He rises, draws his sword, and fights imaginary enemies until his life ebbs away.
Gutenberg: Cyrano de Bergerac