The nostalgia with which Rostand hearkens back to Cyrano’s moment is not arbitrary. He hasn’t simply picked some generic past to glorify in days-gone-by reminiscence. The social milieu of the France in which Cyrano lived was truly graced. The country in general, and Paris in particular, flourished in a golden age. Art and thought saturated the air as groups of philosophers, writers and artists adopted the city as their laboratory. The social order was stable, isolated from the throes of Revolution’s advance or war’s far-reaching shadow. It was, as the author himself notes, the age of The Three Musketeers, brimming with swashbuckling grandeur.
This high-water mark was in no small part the result of the French crown’s generous patronage throughout the century. Henri IV’s investments in the capital laid the groundwork for its cultural preeminence decades later. A ruler with particular interest in city planning, he had reorganized and underwritten the reconstruction of Paris, turning it from a haphazard medieval settlement into an organized, early modern city. Nobles and the cultural elite flooded the city in new numbers, formalizing their institutions to ensure continued positions of influence. Cardinal Richelieu, the king’s chief minister, endowed men of letters with new social importance by establishing L'Académie and furnished himself a magnificent palace brimming with fine art of all sorts. He was even a dependable patron of the then-suspect world of theater.
French culture reached its apex under the reign of the Sun King, Louis XIV, as he consolidated power internally and jockeyed for greater influence abroad. In branding his reign, Louis associated himself with the Greek sun-god Apollo, patron of peace and the arts. His self-identification was not undeserved—it was Louis who installed the French crown at the lavishly constructed palace at Versailles. There, theater became a central institution of the court and the genius of Molière was one of many who found ample audience under royal patronage. Critical thought flourished too; it was under Louis XIV that Descartes and Pascal began laying the groundwork for the fast-approaching days of Enlightenment. The accomplishments of the era mark France’s seventeenth century as one of the most dynamic periods in world history, providing a fitting stage for Cyrano’s larger-than-life character.
—Samuel Evola, a student at University of Notre Dame, researched and wrote this essay as an intern with CST’s Education Department.