I’m a long time, unabashed fan of Edmund Rostand’s 1897 play Cyrano de Bergerac. The play introduced the word “panache” to the English language, and that’s appropriate, because nowhere else is the concept more fully brought to life.
Cyrano is a soldier, a poet, a duelist, a musician, and even a theater critic in the course of the play. He loves the beautiful Roxanne, but she can’t see past Cyrano’s famous nose, instead she has a crush on the handsome but tongue-tied Christian. Christian is a newcomer and outsider in his predominantly Gascon regiment, and Roxanne makes Cyrano promise to protect him. In one of the best scenes in the play, Christian is foolhardy and brave enough to insult Cyrano’s nose. Cyrano responds with a litany of more clever ways Christian could ridicule his nose, but ultimately holds his temper because of his oath and gains respect for Christian, the first man in a long time to stand up to him directly. He agrees to help Christian woo Roxanne, using his own words of love to win her. Roxanne believes the ruse at first, but then becomes confused when she realizes that Christian is not as eloquent as the man she has come to love. Just as things look up for Cyrano, his rival De Guiche sends his regiment into the heart of a hopeless battle. That’s enough plot. If you haven’t seen or read this wonderful play, I won’t sp0il the ending.
There are two English translations of Cyrano that I recommend over others on the market. Brian Hooker’s predominated until the 1980s, but I prefer the Anthony Burgess (of Clockwork Orange fame) translation, which first appeared in the 70s, then was updated in the mid-80s. It retains Rostand’s rhyme scheme (Hooker uses metered free verse) and has more humor at the start, more drama at the finish.
Cyrano still makes a wonderful choice for a book group, with so much vigor and style packed into a quick read. If you have a robust reader in your group, spend the evening reading the play, or at least some of its best scenes, aloud. Or pair it with viewings of any of several marvelous filmed versions: Jose Ferrer’s 1950 film is still a great choice, or to experience the original French, Gerard Depardieu’s 1990 film can’t be beat. Steve Martin reset the part in the modern day for his 1987 comedy Roxanne. Good versions with Kevin Kline and Derek Jacobi are also available.
Everything about Cyrano is big, not just his famous nose. In wit, in bravado, in romanticism, he just can’t be surpassed.Let this classic work its magic again for a memorable book discussion.