I was first captivated by the story of Cyrano de Bergerac when I had a bit part in a college production of Edmund Rostand’s famous play. For those who are unfamiliar, Cyrano de Bergerac is a swashbuckling poet with a monstrous nose—a character who makes more enemies than friends and who practices swordplay and wordplay at the same time, composing poems against pride and puncturing pomposity with a pun. A tragic character with a rubber nose—more a Touchstone than a Hamlet—Cyrano takes the stage in big boots and a broad-brimmed hat to swagger over his inferiors and swoon over his lady.
Cyrano’s nose is his red badge of courage and the symbol of his nobility, but it is also the red nose of the clown and the sign of his absurdity. This is why Cyrano is the quintessential romantic hero—not only because he is intelligent, courteous, courageous, and true, but because he is absurd. He is a swashbuckling fool, a hilarious hero; a cross between d’Artagnan and Jimmy Durante. His nobility, like his nose, is both admirable and laughable. As the romantic, foolish knight errant, Cyrano is comrade to Don Quixote who wears a saucepan for a helmet, rescues not so fair damsels in distress and jousts with gigantic windmills.
Until recently I did not know that the knight with the nose was a real person. Rostand based his amusing musketeer on a genuine character from seventeenth century France. Hercule-Savinien Cyrano de Bergerac, who died in 1655, was a dramatist and duelist. A dashing soldier, he dashed off poetry and plays like Rostand’s hero.
Most biographers believe Cyrano de Bergerac was born into a Gascon family of minor nobility. Educated at home and then by a tutor in Paris, he joined the military in 1638 at the age of nineteen, and after his service returned to Paris to embark on a career as a dramatist and controversialist. As in the play, Cyrano sported a large nose for which he was famous. He made enemies, fought duels, and battled in the siege of Arras. The model for Roxanne was his beautiful cousin, who in real life married Cyrano’s fellow soldier Baron Christian de Neuvillette. The plot line however, in which Roxanne is ignorant of Cyrano’s passion, only to be wooed by Cyrano through the handsome dullard Christian, is pure fiction.
The real Cyrano died, like his dramatic counterpart, in what may have been a tragic accident or a botched assassination attempt. In the play a beam is dropped on his head and he arrives at the convent where the widowed Roxanne has retired. Rostand’s play is a re-working of that other classic French tale, Beauty and the Beast. The beautiful Roxanne falling in love with the beastly looking Cyrano in the last scene of the play. Only then does she realize that the heart and mind of Christian, who died in the wars, really belonged to the unsightly Cyrano. As he dies she mourns, “I have only loved one man, but I have lost him twice.”
In a memorable scene from Rostand’s play, Cyrano engages in badinage pretending to be a visitor from the moon to divert the enemy, the Comte De Guiche. It is Rostand’s hat tip to the fact that Cyrano was not only a playwright and poet, but a science fiction pioneer. In A Comical History of the States and Empires of the Moon, Cyrano travels to the moon using rockets powered by firecrackers and meets the moon men who have four legs, musical voices, and who go hunting with muskets. His lunacy inspired Jules Verne, Jonathan Swift and set the stage for the development of the science fiction genre.
The chevalier with the schnoz has been played most notably by José Ferrer, who won an Oscar for the role, and by Gerard Depardieu who was born to play the part. Comedian Steve Martin transported the story to suburban America and took the title role in his own version of the story in the film Roxanne.
Cyrano remains an inspiration for all who are romantics in our cynical and utilitarian age. In a world in which truth is “what works for you,” the fool who proposes that truth is objective will seem as laughable as Cyrano with his rubber nose. In an age in which romance is reduced to one-night stands, Cyrano’s chaste and faithful love of Roxanne stands true. Where courage is corrupted by cowardice, Cyrano’s fighting spirit calls for cheerful confidence in battle, and in an egalitarian age where no one dare stand out, Cyrano’s jaunty pose and noble nose remind us that those who have their noses stuck up in the air may not be snobs…they may simply be gazing at the stars.
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