The success of Cyrano de Bergerac is at once puzzling and unsurprising. The politics and style of turn-of-the-century France almost preclude the play’s existence. The political system was paralyzed by infighting, France’s international preeminence had been recklessly forfeited, and the popular disposition was to mire in the social ills of the day. Onto this scene, in which heroism is apparently dead, Cyrano enters to fanfare and acclaim. A greater juxtaposition would be hard to imagine, but his celebrity is all the more notable because of it.
Literary convention at the end of the nineteenth century was deeply naturalistic. Following the realistic tradition, naturalists opposed the worldview and aesthetic framework of early-eighteenth-century romanticism. Realists dedicated themselves to representing the world as it really is, without the idealization their predecessors had entertained. An emphasis on the mundane and commonplace was communicated by their direct, matter-of-fact style. Their philosophy was perpetuated by the late-century naturalists, refining realism to something still more objective, detached and inanimate. Realism focused attention on the individual; naturalism deprived the individual of agency and efficacy. Man became a beast, answerable to scientific study and explanation, uncontrollable external forces determining his lot in life. Humanity had become a symptom and victim of circumstance.
Analyzing the national moment, it’s not hard to imagine the adoption of such a bleak, grim outlook. French continental hegemony had been lost in 1871 with the nation’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian war. Under Napoleon III, again prompted by questions of royal succession and alignment between Spain and Germany, the French proudly undertook a sure-victory campaign against the north-German Prussians. A year later, French surrender had brought about the unification of Germany, the loss of the Papal States to a newly unified Italy, and the dismantling of the Second Empire. Following the war-ending treaty, political instability persevered: the Germans invaded France again to fulfill the terms of their armistice and unseat a proletariat commune, cabinets changed more frequently than did the years, and the rise of a coup d’état was narrowly avoided.
Into this bleak landscape, Cyrano de Bergerac made its debut. Before and during opening night, the probability of the work’s rejection caused Rostand great consternation. His piece had little to do with the downfall of France and was a flagrant rebuke of naturalistic style; it seemed an out-of-place, fanciful oddity in a uniformly pessimistic world. As it turned out, it was this juxtaposition that made Cyrano such a roaring success—its exception became its exceptionality. Cyrano, the character, re-founded the idealistic, romantic French hero and asserted that the era of negativity had ended, if only during the hours spent at the theater. The play captured a lost moment, effused hope, and silenced the more cacophonous voices of its present. The public-at-large, long tired of the prescription of ill, seized upon Rostand’s protagonist and celebrated his bravado.
Upon his death, an American magazine eulogized Rostand, claiming that his verses upheld France throughout WWI, that his success was the most complete the French stage had seen, and that he was sublimely ignorant of the troubles of his age. The New York Times, for a piece on the one-hundredth anniversary of the play, quoted the French director Jerome Savary saying, “Everyone can claim Cyrano because he is totally French… The right, because he defends the country right or wrong; the left, because Cyrano defends the poor; anarchists because he is one of them; the proper, because he is chaste; romantics, because he makes them cry and the sarcastic, because he attacks hypocrisy.” Even if the praise be a bit overblown, it captures the devotion with which the French regard their dramatic hero. In the midst of toil, Cyrano broke the mold, giving the nation someone to believe in again.
—Samuel Evola, a student at University of Notre Dame, researched and wrote this essay as an intern with CST’s Education Department.