Though the product of Edmond Rostand’s own creative genius, Cyrano has always eclipsed the artist that brought him to life. The play and its success became such important fixtures in the French, indeed global, imagination that the man who engendered both suffered under their weight. It was not until 2003 that a complete Rostand biography was even available in English, almost a century after his death, and English-speaking audiences are possibly more aware of a particular production’s translator than its author. The father of such a landmark work, though, surely merits our attention.
The son of a well-to-do and cultured family, Rostand was born in Marseille in 1868. Like many young men of his stature and period, he studied law though his long-abiding passion for literature remained. Upon completing his studies, he fully dedicated himself to creative work. His first notable piece, Les Romanesques, a variation on the themes of Romeo and Juliet, was produced in 1894. (It was later adapted into the musical The Fantasticks.)
Not long after, the most significant event of Rostand’s life came to pass: the writing and production of Cyrano de Bergerac. When the play opened in 1897, the author was twenty-nine years old. Practically overnight, this young Parisian found his name included on lists of literature’s greats: Shakespeare, Hugo, Dante—and Rostand. The success of the work led to his 1901 election to the Académie française, becoming the youngest member ever elected to an institution that was first founded in Cyrano’s day.
The burden of Rostand’s fame and his fragile physical constitution proved too taxing. Although he continued to write, none of his later plays enjoyed a zenith as marked as Cyrano. The public’s expectations would often outshine the more modest reality of Rostand’s subsequent works. He withdrew to an estate in the French Basque country, struggled with marital instability, and disappeared into a quiet retirement. He died of pneumonia at the age of fifty, a victim of the 1918 flu pandemic.
—Samuel Evola, a student at University of Notre Dame, researched and wrote this essay as an intern with CST’s Education Department.