Rostand’s classic tale, retold in various permutations on stage and film, is a play of romantic love, wit, and sacrifice. The brilliant poet Cyrano loves and adores the beautiful Roxane, who loves and adores the handsome, dull-witted Christian. The backdrop for the story is the reign of Louis XIII, and most of the central characters did exist: the self-effacing Cyrano was born in Paris and wrote plays in the 1640s; Roxane is a blend of two women,Cyrano’s cousin and an intellectual woman of the day; a baker called Ragueneau aspired to be a poet and became a candleman for Moliere’s theatrical company; and so forth.
Everyone is vulnerable when they are in love; we are afraid that our mostly imagined or exaggerated physical characteristics fall short of the necessary model that deserves true love. Cyrano epitomizes this; his large nose is such a sore spot with him that his most intimate comrade in arms dare not comment on it. He fights duels over passing comments about his proboscis, and it is only Roxane’s feelings for Christian that keeps him safe from Cyrano’s sword when Christian comments on it.
Christian is tongue-tied and stupid when Roxane is present. Taking pity on him, Cyrano begins to be his voice, literally and in letters, helping Christian woo his lady. Roxane falls in love with the author of the love letters, never knowing it is Cyrano until too late. Ironically, Cyrano’s regard for Christian grows until he is as cherished as a brother. When Cyrano and Christian are sent to fight in Napoleon’s war, Roxane presses Cyrano to look after her love. He complies and still continues to write love letters to Roxane on Christian’s account, risking his life to get them to her. His love for the lady and affection for the dull-witted suitor cause him to pass over several chances to reveal his love for Roxane, thinking it better she cherishes the false memory of a man she loved.
The beautiful language of the play is amplified by Carol Clark’s translation. Her historical notes put in perspective the difficulty of staging this intricate piece. A delight to read again, the story is the ultimate example of panache.