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Anthony Burgess was born as John Burgess Wilson in 1917 near Manchester, England. A year later, his mother and sister died during the Spanish flu pandemic. After living with his aunt for a period, five-year-old Burgess in 1922 settled with his father and new stepmother. Both his parents were performers and he absorbed a passion for music at an early age. Poor academic performance kept him from studying music at university, so he opted instead for English studies, graduating in 1940.
World War II well underway, Burgess enlisted in the Army Medical Corp before a transfer sent him off to the Educational Corp. After the war ended, he continued teaching, joining the British Colonial Service in 1954 and moving to Malaya and Brunei. Five years later, while serving in Brunei, he collapsed in class and was discharged to return to England after diagnosis of a brain tumor. There, he dedicated himself full-time to writing, having composed music and literature for years now on the side, in the hopes of leaving his soon-to-be-widowed wife with a sufficient livelihood. But instead, misdiagnosed and free from extraordinary bodily afflictions, Burgess outlived her.
Six months after his first wife’s 1968 death, he re-married and began the barnstorming latter period of his life. He and his new bride (with their four-year-old son) traveled throughout Europe. They lived in Malta, Italy and Monaco, maintained residences in several countries, and undertook frequent stays in the United States while he served as visiting professor to American universities. Never wholly abandoning this whirlwind lifestyle, they “settled” in Monaco in the mid-1970s until Burgess’s death in 1993. His living legacy—including a number of odd jobs (like our translation of Cyrano de Bergerac)—is made up of thirty-three novels, twenty-five non-fictional works, and nearly 200 musical pieces.
Burgess’s relationship with Rostand’s play was an extensive one. He undertook two translations of the classic—one for The Guthrie Theater’s 1971 production and one for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 1983 production—along with writing the lyrics for the Broadway musical, Cyrano. In the introduction for the RSC-commissioned version, he reflects on the challenges of “musicalizing” for the Broadway stage a work that’s already so lyrical, and of conforming to a director’s vision when the play itself is such an imposing presence. He walks readers through his process, reflecting on prior adaptations and effusing more confidence and comfort in his second (or third) take on Rostand’s masterpiece. More than anything, Burgess says, his task was to find a way to retain the bite and heroism of the French original in a new medium—a task requiring an artist with his own healthy dose of panache.
—Samuel Evola, a student at University of Notre Dame, researched and wrote this essay as an intern with CST’s Education Department.