Almost everything most of us think we know about Cyrano de Bergerac was made up by the nineteenth-century French dramatist Edmond Rostand (1868–1918). The title role in his 1897 drama is that of a brilliant swordsman, and a poet and epigrammatist of dazzling versatility. He has an enormous nose, about which he is a good deal funnier than those who seek to mock him for it. This sense of humour owes much to the fact that he is a Gascon, who rouses the spirits of his beleaguered fellow soldiers, the alliteratively named cadets du Carbon de Castel-Jaloux, during the siege of Arras with a sentimental appeal to the beauties of the Dordogne. He falls hopelessly in love with his enchanting cousin Roxane, herself captivated by the younger and physically more prepossessing Baron Christian de Neuvillette. The tongue-tied Christian gets Cyrano to do his wooing and write his love letters for him, but is killed before Roxane can discover the truth. In the play’s final act the now elderly hero falls victim to a cowardly ambush and dies after confessing to her that the eloquent soul she worshipped as a result of Christian’s courtship was that of his long-nosed surrogate all along.
The spectacular success of Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac was not merely due to its swashbuckling plot, its mellifluous alexandrines or the way in which the part of Cyrano himself seemed to fit the actor Benoît-Constant Coquelin like a glove. For the play is just as much about late nineteenth-century France