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By Mary T. Christel
“Tragedy is easy, comedy is hard.” Or so many actors and directors believe. Some teachers must believe that as well. Consider that we teach Romeo and Juliet more regularly than any of Shakespeare’s comedies--or any comedies in any genre. We fret that students won’t “get” comedy. Cyrano de Bergerac provides an opportunity to explore themes that are just as accessible, perhaps more so, than the tragic tale of Romeo and Juliet. Who hasn’t felt the sting of unrequited love or has been quite unable to express their passion with “panache”?
The opportunity to explore the conventions of comedy is often in short supply in English/Language Arts curricula. Periodically the AP Literature and Composition exam features a prose passage that confronts students with identifying its humor and analyzing the techniques that develop a comic tone and its satiric targets, a task that many students are underprepared to shoulder. Addressing what makes a text “funny” can be a daunting task since our students usually favor film comedies that rely on broad slapstick, physical and blunt, R-rated verbal humor. Students might dismiss the value of comedies that don’t strike their sense of humor on an immediate, superficial level. Once students understand that all forms of comedy rely on recognizable conventions and techniques, it is easier for them to discern how the humor and wit come to life. The characters and the complications they face might not always elicit the belly laughs of low, crude comedy but might prompt a smile from wittier, subtler humor.
Students familiar with the structure and tropes of tragedy can certainly learn the conventions of comedy. Rules are rules: students just need to know how the comedy game is played. Once students understand that comedy, in any form and to any degree, relies on a discrete pool of techniques, they can tease out the comic intentions of a text like Cyrano to embrace its gentle satire, verbal wit, slapstick humor, and poignant pathos. Yes, even comedy needs moments of fleeting or profound sadness! Pairing Cyrano de Bergerac with a curriculum staple like Romeo and Juliet can provide opportunities to examine the perils and delights of romantic love in both comic and tragic keys.
Rostand’s play Cyrano de Bergerac defines romantic situations and feelings that we have all experienced or observed. Finding the right words to express our affection so often remain tantalizingly beyond one’s reach. Strong emotions translated into language too often sounds like the residue of trite greeting card sentiments. It would be magical to have a Cyrano to make our passion sing.
Cyrano’s story addresses the feelings of “otherness” and inadequacy when we find ourselves falling in love. Strong feelings of infatuation can lead to strong feelings of insecurity, even self-loathing. We become self-conscious about everything from physical appearance, socio-economic status, and personal reputation, to tastes in friends, music, books or fashion. Usually that sense of otherness is more an internal projection than a physical reality. And since Rostand situates his play in a largely comedic world, Cyrano’s emotional otherness is manifested by the exaggeration of his physical difference. The use of hyperbole is a staple of comedy. As the humor and pathos whirl around Cyrano’s efforts to aid his rival, Christian, in wooing the lovely Roxane, Cyrano’s predicament relies on contrast and incongruity on several levels as the physically grotesque Cyrano’s elegant words replace the vapid sentiments of the conventionally handsome Christian.
The study of Cyrano de Bergerac also affords another opportunity: how comedy is further illuminated by pathos. The importance of that “touch of sadness” combined with physical comedy was understood and presented with virtuosity by silent film comedian Charlie Chaplin, whose film City Lights echoes Cyrano.
There may or may not be dusty, underused copies of Rostand’s play in your school’s book inventory, but affordable translations are available in paperback or e-book form. In the absence of having copies of the play, consider using a film version of Cyrano de Bergerac: there are three appealing English language versions (1950’s Hollywood film starring Jose Ferrer, RSC production with Derek Jacobi, and Great Performances telecast with Kevin Kline and Jennifer Garner) and one Oscar-winning French language version featuring Gerard Depardieu. Examining different performances and production treatments (camerawork, setting/décor, costumes, casting) would satisfy CCSS 9/10.RL.7.
Now some might be wondering how Cyrano de Bergerac can fit into an existing curriculum already brimming with required standards, skills and texts. First, consider how this play can partner with a text like Romeo and Juliet, a staple of many high school courses. The obvious connection hinges on both plays’ use of the declaration of love in stolen romantic moments cloaked in darkness and on a noble house’s balcony. Roxanne and Christian are a slightly older (and maybe more “mature”) pair of youthful lovers compared with Romeo and Juliet, but Rostand’s couple must overcome their own set of societal and personal obstacles, which students can explore in comparing the two plays.
Canonical texts can better live for students when they see how plotlines and characters persist and develop over various time periods and cultures. It is best if a unit of study can bring a text right up to contemporary culture with a print, film or television adaptation, which the study of Rostand’s play can facilitate as a stand-alone reading experience or paired with another canonical text like Romeo and Juliet as well as with a contemporary film (screened in its entirety or in excerpt form). If you need to support your selection of texts by tying them to a Common Core Standard, this pairing would satisfy CCSS 9/10.RL.8.
Pairing Romeo and Juliet with Cyrano de Bergerac offers students the opportunity to imagine a dialogue between characters drawn from each play. What advice would Roxane give to Juliet? How might Mercutio become an interesting substitute for Cyrano as Christian’s “ghost writer”? How would the Nurse assess the trials and tribulations of Roxane and Christian? Examining the two plays also provides the opportunity to compare how tragedy and comedy develop using distinct sets of conventions and expectations, as well as how tragedy is heightened by the inclusion of comic relief—and how comedy is illuminated by moments of intense pathos. These strategies involving characterization and using writing to analyze characterization address CCSS 9/10.RL.3.
Mary T. Christel taught AP Literature and Composition as well as media and film studies courses at Adlai E.Stevenson High School from 1979 to 2012. She has published several works on media literacy including Seeing and Believing: How to Teach Media Literacy in the English Classroom with Ellen Krueger (Heinemann) as well as contributing articles to Teaching Shakespeare Today (NCTE), Teaching Shakespeare into the Twenty-First Century (U of Ohio), For All Time: Critical Issues in Shakespeare Studies (Wakefield Press). Ms. Christel has been recognized by the Midwest Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences for promoting media literacy education.