JAN / FEB 2013: BY GINA DALFONZO
Of all the great literary romances, the one between Cyrano and Roxane, in Edmond Rostand’s 1897 play Cyrano de Bergerac, may be the most frustrating.
The hero, though he pours out his feelings to his beloved, is afraid to tell her who he really is. The heroine doesn’t know that he loves her until the end… and by then it’s too late. So why is this tragic romance so perennially popular? It’s been filmed numerous times and still plays on stages all over the world. (In the last five years, it’s been revived on Broadway twice.) The story has been updated for modern audiences, most notably in the Steve Martin film Roxanne. And many people who’ve never seen or read any version still have some idea of who Cyrano was and what he did.
There’s something about Cyrano de Bergerac, dashing poet and soldier, that seizes the imagination. Witty, gallant, loyal, and generous, Cyrano has everything to make him the perfect romantic hero—except good looks. His nose, to put it bluntly, is quite simply enormous. The character Ragueneau sums it up thus: “My lords, there is no such nose as that nose.”
Cyrano handles his deformity with a curious mixture of bravado and vulnerability. In one scene he delivers a hilarious monologue about his nose; in the next, he quietly tells his best friend, Le Bret, “My friend, I have my bitter days, knowing myself so ugly, so alone.” There’s no middle ground with Cyrano. At any given moment, he’s either making you laugh or wringing your heart.
The woman Cyrano loves, Roxane, is beautiful and intelligent, and a lover of brilliant conversation. Her fatal flaw is her assumption that a handsome man must necessarily also be a smart one. When she falls for the good-natured but empty-headed Christian de Neuvillette, Roxane insists to Cyrano that she can read the man’s soul in his eyes, even though she’s never yet spoken to him.
Cyrano, who had just begun to hope that Roxane might love him despite his appearance, is heartbroken by this development. It brings out his own fatal flaw: he can’t bear to let her be disillusioned. And so he makes an arrangement with Christian. He writes letters to Roxane on Christian’s behalf—beautiful, poetic letters that secure her affection for the young man and finally lead her to marry him.
It may seem that Cyrano takes his subterfuge a little too far. His deception hurts not only himself but also Roxane. If Christian hadn’t been killed in battle soon after the wedding, she soon would have discovered that she’d married the wrong man. And yet, after Christian’s death, Cyrano still hides the truth for 14 years, not wanting to ruin Roxane’s memory of her husband.
Like a very different character, Shakespeare’s Othello, Cyrano loves “not wisely, but too well.” And yet, his love is so pure and selfless that it redeems him. Convinced that Roxane couldn’t love him, Cyrano nevertheless wants her to have a chance for happiness. So he throws everything he has into providing that chance for her.
When Christian kisses Roxane for the first
time, it is after Cyrano, under cover of darkness, has wooed her for him with a passionate speech. As they kiss on her balcony, Cyrano, hiding in the shadows below, consoles himself, “I have something here that is mine now and was not mine before I spoke the words that won her—not for me! … Kissing my words, my words, upon your lips!” Knowing that Roxane hears and responds to his deepest emotions brings him joy; he asks nothing more.
The sad irony of the tale is Cyrano becomes more focused on looks than Roxane ever was. The letters supposedly written by Christian teach her so much about love that she comes to realize she has been shallow, and that she could love the writer of those words even if he were ugly. But when she finally discovers that Cyrano wrote them, he can’t believe her declaration:
ROXANE: You shall not die! I love you!—
CYRANO: No—that is not in the story! You remember when Beauty said “I love you” to the Beast that was a fairy prince, his ugliness changed and dissolved like magic… But you see I am still the same.
If one was frustrated with Cyrano before, now one almost wants to shake him, and to weep for him at the same time. After all, Cyrano has spent a lifetime hiding his pain and loneliness behind a merry façade. When he dared to hope for love, his hope was snatched away. Yet he’s lived a noble and courageous life, refusing to wallow in bitterness, and loving wholeheartedly. He has given Roxane everything he could, without counting the cost.
No woman wants to be deceived by a man. There is genuine poignancy in Roxane’s lament as Cyrano is dying: “I never loved but one man in my life, and I have lost him—twice…” And yet there’s hardly a woman alive who wouldn’t want a man so dedicated to putting her happiness first. That, I believe, is why audiences will always forgive and love Cyrano de Bergerac, and why his romance that wasn’t will be remembered as one of the greatest love stories of all time. ■
All quotations taken from the Brian Hooker translation of Rostand’s play.