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Cyrano
de Bergerac

September 24

November 10, 2013

in CST's Courtyard Theater

by Edmond Rostand
translated and adapted for the stage
by Anthony Burgess
directed by Penny Metropulos

A Scholar's Perspective

Body and Soul
by Stuart Sherman

We hear Cyrano before we see him. He shouts in outrage from somewhere in the darkness of the auditorium, then swiftly makes his way onto the stage. Or rather, onto two: the twenty-first-century stage, and the seventeenth-century playhouse where Cyrano promptly shuts down the premiere of a play whose star he despises.

And then, prodigiously, supplants it. By the time this first scene is over, he will have performed such wonders of voice and body, word- and swordplay, as to provide his Parisian audience with much more than their money’s-worth. Nothing they’d come to see could possibly have proven as spellbinding as he.

The same holds true for us. The scene is an opening masterstroke in a play wholly focused on the elusive interplay between hearing and seeing, voices and bodies. Rostand will prove phenomenally adept in the wonders that theater can work with both.

The play’s well-known premise distributes these elements rather plainly, as a kind of quid pro quo: Cyrano, convinced of his own ugliness but achingly in love with his word-drunk cousin Roxane, helps the handsome, inarticulate Christian to woo and win her, in what both men initially perceive as a perfect fusion of voice and body: “If only,” laments Christian, “I had the words.” “I have the words,” Cyrano answers. “All I lack is looks … You plus I equal one hero of the story books.” The play’s multiple amazements arise from the ways Rostand will melt this plain arithmetic into poetry, remaking it into a map, readily recognizable by every mortal watching, of the human propensities for passion, performance, and inhibiting self-scorn.

For we see from the start that Cyrano’s voice, and his body too, are layered things, compounded out of preternatural virtuosity (those words, that sword) and private pain. When Cyrano, informed by an idiot that his nose is big, proceeds to improvise the dazzling sequence of insults with which his hapless interlocutor might have assailed his problematic proboscis, we hear in the very prolificity of his wit—the creative energy devoted by his own fertile brain to the topic of his flawed body—the sorrow that his speech at once conceals and confesses: this thing hurts me; this thing haunts me. We hear the one thing that he strives to leave unvoiced.

Each successive scene in the play will ramp up this tension between hypnotic speech and agonized silence. Cyrano will put himself through a sequence of astonishing performances, each of which entails an ordeal of self-containment, as he chooses, again and again but for ever more pressing reasons, not to confess his love to his cousin.

Only once, at the play’s deeply moving midpoint, does Rostand briefly release the tension between speech and silence, before ratcheting it up to new heights. At night, under Roxane’s balcony, Cyrano seizes the chance to speak in his own voice of his love for her; he can do so precisely because she continues to think she’s listening to Christian. (Lovers and a balcony: Cyrano reworks Shakespeare everywhere, in ways worth listening for.) At the play’s start, Cyrano speaks out of the darkness. But this time we see him (as Roxane does not), and we hear in his speech the heart-swelling fullness of self-revelation, freed by invisibility, unencumbered by the need for surrogation.

And then, with harsh immediacy, comes the play’s most sustained instance of speech as self-suppression. To distract a nobleman who would interfere with Roxane’s and Christian’s coupling, Cyrano must improvise a new role--as a garrulous, obstructive lunatic just fallen from the moon and intent on rising back again. (Another echo: Edgar feigning madness as poor Tom in King Lear.) And he must do this knowing all the while that he is indispensably helping to make possible the thing that he least wants to happen: the union of his beloved with another man.

“Your soul arose,” Roxane will later say to Christian, recollecting this pivotal night,

In perfume to my window, the true you
Made itself known in a voice.

She is speaking still to the wrong man, but she could not be more right. Moments earlier, we heard Cyrano speak of his panache—the white plume he proudly wears in his hat—as his “visible soul.” (It is this metaphorical connotation of panache—as grace, virtuosity, heroic self-possession—that Rostand’s play permanently bequeathed to our language.) Roxane’s words confirm what we already know: that Cyrano’s passionate voice is his plume’s audible equivalent, the medium in which his soul most lives. Its sound, rising in the night to the balcony where its speaker most longed to be (but where his body, unlike Romeo’s, could not follow), delivered his true soul, made him known though still unknown to his longed-for listener. Only at play’s end will Roxane complete the path from hearing to seeing that we traversed in its first moments, when our hero spoke in darkness en route to center stage. Having heard Cyrano’s voice for many years, Roxane at long last sees him whole.

In that final scene, rise and fall become all in all. Cyrano, visiting Roxane in early autumn, remarks that the leaves “fall well. With a sort of panache …They go in grace, making their fall appear like flying.” A little later, he returns to the fantasy of flying to the moon—this time not as lunatic but as lifelong lover. In real life, Cyrano de Bergerac (1619-1655), poet, playwright, soldier, was also one of the first creators of science fiction; his novel L’Autre Monde (The Other World) recounted, as if autobiographically, his rocket voyage to the moon. Rostand deepens the lunar connection; Cyrano’s closing fantasy of flight becomes the play’s last manifestation of his visible, audible soul, as though the moon itself were the apt and final stage for his loquacious, silent, fabulously theatrical journey.

 

Stuart Sherman, Associate Professor of English at Fordham University, is a specialist in eighteenth-century literature and the author of Telling Time: Clocks, Diaries and English Diurnal Form, 1660–1785.

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