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by Bamber Gascoigne

Edmond (Eugège Joseph Alexis) Rostand (1868-1918)


French poet and dramatist, best-known from his play Cyrano de Bergerac, about the heroic individualist, who has an outsized nose. The connection between the true Cyrano, the 17th century French soldier, dramatist, and soldier, is nominal. Rostand's plays were romantic and entertaining, providing an alternative both to the naturalistic theatre of Henrik Ibsen and the symbolist theatre of Maurice Maeterlinck.

'Tis enormous! Old Flathead, empty-headed meddler, know
That I am proud possessing such appendice.
'Tis well known, a big nose is indicative
Of a soul affable, and kind, and courteous,
Liberal, brave, just like myself, and such
As you can never dare to dream yourself,
Rascal contemptible! For that witless face
That my hand soon will come to cuff--is all As empty. . .

Edmond Rostand was born in Marseille into a wealthy and cultured Provençal family. His father, Eugène Rostand, was an economist and a poet, a member of the Marseille Academy and the Institute de France. Eugène's brother Alexis was a  successful financier, who had a passion for music. The oratorio of the two brothers, Ruth, was a great success in Marseilles. Angèle-Justine Julie, Rostand's mother, was a strict Catholic. She ensued that her son was brought up in the Catholic tradition. Though Rostand never became an orthodox Christian, religious themes and symbols often surfaced in his work.

While attending Collège Stanislas in Paris, Rostand studied literature, history, and philosophy. In the 1880s he published poems and essays in the literary review Mireille. Rostand's first play, Le Gant Rouge, was produced at the Théâtre Cluny with little success, but the lighthearted Les Deux Pierrots, Ou Le Souper Blanc (1891) attracted the attention of the Comédie Française.

Rostand abandoned his law studies after publishing his first book of poems, Les Musardises (1890). He gave the work to the poet Rosemonde Gérard, a granddaughter of one of Napoleon's marshals, whom he married in the same year. Their two sons, Jean and Maurice, also became writers. Maurice Rostand (1891-1968) wrote poems, plays (Le procès d'Oscar Wilde, 1935), and novels. His memoirs, Confession d'un demi-siècle, came out in 1948. Jean Rostand was a biologist, who published essays and manuals and treatises on various aspects of biology. The satiric portrait, Ignace, ou l'écrivain (1923), was about a hypersensitive writer, partly based on his father and brother.

Rostand's first successful play was Les Romanesques (1894, The Romantics / The Fantasticks). It was produced at the Comédie Française and was based on Shakespeare's play Romeo and Juliet. Three years later produced Cyrano de Bergerac became his most popular and enduring work – at that time he was 29-year-old.

Another triumph was L'Aiglon (1900, The Eaglet). This tragedy was based on the life of Napoleon Bonaparte's only son, nicknamed the Eaglet, who died at the age of 21. During its first run in 1900, the famous actress Sarah Bernhardt played the title role. Thousands bought the picture postcards of Bernhardt in her stage costume, a white uniform, knee high boots, and her hair cropped. "A good actress, with the appearance befitting the part and the intelligence to comprehend it, can play the man as well as the woman," she explained. (Sarah Bernhardt: The Divine and Dazzling Life of the World's First Superstar by Catherine Reef, 2020, p. 122) Bernhardt starred in several of Rostand's plays, but the Eaglet remained one of most famous performances. She played the part well into her sixties, even after her leg was amputated.

Bernhardt acted in La Samaritaine (1897), drawing from the biblical story, and La Princesse Lointaine (1895, Princess Faraway), about an unattainable princess and a troubadour, who dies in her arms. "The dream, alone, is of interest. What is life, without a dream." The character of the hero was based on life of the medieval troubadour Jaufre Rudel. Le Bargy interpreted Les Romanesques, and Coquelin headed the cast of Cyrano de Bergerac. With these works Rostand revitalized the old romantic drama in verse. Naturalism was the major movement in literature – it was the time of Zola – but Rostand took up old themes and followed the Romantic tradition of Victor Hugo. When Cyrano was performed, the enthusiasm at the premiere was unexpected  – people wept and it is told that the author was pelted with ladies' gloves and fans.

Cyrano de Bergerac is poetic, five-act romantic drama in verse, set in the reign of Louis XIII. The central character, Cyrano, is a famous swordsman, and an aspiring poet-lover. "A great nose indicates a great man  – / Genial, courteous, intellectual, / Virile, courageous." Because of his grotesquely large nose "that marches on / before me by a quarter of an hour," he is convinced that he is too ugly to deserve his adored Roxane. Cyrano helps his inarticulate rival, Christian, win her heart by allowing him to present Cyrano's love poems, speeches, and letters as his own work. Soon the romance starts, Christian whispers his own love from the shadows in glorious words that Roxane believes are his. But Christian realizes that it was not his own good looks but Cyrano's letters that won Roxanne. Before his death on the battlefield, Christian asks Cyrano to confess their plot to Roxane. Cyrano keeps their secret for fourteen years. As he is dying years later, he visits Roxane and reveals her the truth. "That night when 'neath your window Christian spoke / --Under your balcony, you remember? Well! / There was the allegory of my whole life: / I, in the shadow, at the ladder's foot, / While others lightly mount to Love and Fame!"  The play opened at the Porte Saint-Martin Theater in December 1897. Cyrano's gallantry was seen as the reincarnation of the true Gallic spirit and Rostand became a national hero.

Rostand's private life was not very happy, and like many other people in the theatre world, he took mistresses. His close friends included Anna de Noailles, a poet, who spent most of her free time in her bedroom. In 1901, at the age of thirty-three, Rostand was elected to the Académie Française. However, he found his fame and unwanted publicity hard to bear. Suffering from poor health, he retired to his family's country estate at Cambo-les-Bains in the Basque county. To be away from Parisian frenzy was a relief for him and his wife. Every morning he went for a walk, carrying with him a small notebook in which he noted ideas and lines of poetry. Rostand continued to write plays and poetry, but his subsequent works did not gain the popularity of Cyrano de Bergerac. When visiting Paris, he used disguises to escape crowds of fans and publicity. Jean Rostand said that his father was "horrified by theatre directors, cabotins [third-rate actors or those who prefer celebrity tom their craft], and journalist. I knew him to be solitary, fond of the countryside, badly shaven." ('Heroes, Celebrity, and the Theater in Fin-de-Siècle France: Cyrano de Bergerac' by Venita Datta, in Constructing Charisma: Celebrity, Fame, and Power in Nineteenth-Century Europe, edited by Edward Berenson and Eva Giloi, 2013, p. 162) France:

Chantecler (1910), perhaps Rostand's greatest verse drama, was pronounced a failure. An allegory from the animal world of La Fontaine, it told about a barnyard rooster who believes that his song makes the sun rise. In her commentary on the play, Emma Goldman saw in the figure of the blackbird "the embodiment of a shallow, superficial modernity, a modernity barren of all poetic vision, which aims only at material success and tinseled display, without regard for worth, harmony or peace." (Emma Goldman: Political Thinking in the Streets by Kathy E. Ferguson, 2011, p. 192)

Rostand started his retirement at the luxurious castle-like villa Arnaga, which he had designed with the architect Albert Tournaire. While directing rehearsals for L'Aiglon at the Théâtre Sarah Berhhardt, Rostand contracted influenza, which quickly turned into double pneumonia. He had great difficulty in breathing, but when an oxygen cylinder was brought in, he said "It's a little soon." Rostand died in Paris on December 2, 1918. Early in 1919, his body was moved to Marseilles, where it lay in the public library for some days, and after a farewell service, the poet was buried at the Cimetière de Saint Pierre beside his father and mother. Rostand's last dramatic poem was about Don Juan. The posthumously performed play failed totally.

"The success of Cyrano de Bergerac was a turning-point in Rostand's life," writes Sue Lloyd in her biography on Rostand. "His future was assured but he had to live up to the expectations of the French people... the fame he had set out to achieve from his very first book of poems turned into a crushing burden from which only death released him." (The Man Who Was Cyrano: A Life of Edmond Rostand, Creator of Cyrano de Bergerac by Sue Lloyd, 2003, pp. xi-xii) Sue Lloyd's work is the first full-length biography of the author in English. It gives also much new information about the background of Rostand's most famous play. A Broadway musical version, called Cyrano and composed by Michael Lewis, was produced in 1972 to make the play more acceptable to American theatre audiences.

For further reading: Edmond Rostand: son théâtre, son œuvre posthume by J. Suberville (1921); Edmond Rostand by A. Lautier and F. Keller (1924); Vingt ans d'intimité avec Edmund Rostand by P. Faure (1928); La Vie profonde de Edmond Rostand by Pierre Apestéguy (1929); Edmond Rostand by M.J. Premsela (1933); Edmond Rostand by R. Gérard (1935); Le double visage de Cyrano de Bergerac by Ch. Pujos (1951); De père en fils Edmond et Jean Rostand by O. Lutgen (1965); Edmond Rostand by E. Ripert (1968); Cyrano De Bergerac Notes by Estelle Dubose, et al. (1971); Les Rostand by M. Migeo (1973); Edmond Rostand by A. Amoia (1978); Edmond Rostand: le panache et la gloire by Marc Andry (1986); Edmond Rostand ou Le baiser de la gloire by Caroline de Margerie (1997); The Man Who Was Cyrano: A Life of Edmond Rostand, Creator of Cyrano de Bergerac by Sue Lloyd (2003); Chantecler: un rêve d'Edmond Rostand by Michel Forrier (2010); Edmond Rostand dans la Grande Guerre: 1914-1918 by Michel Forrier (2014); Les Rostand by Philippe Séguy (2015); Cyrano de Bergerac d'Edmond Rostand by Jeanyves Guérin (2018)

Selected works:

  • Le Gant Rouge, 1888
  • Les Musardises, 1890
  • Les Deux Pierrots, Ou Le Souper Blanc, 1891
    - The Two Pierrots (tr. Edith Lyttleton, 1931) / The Two Pierrots or The White Supper (tr. Frank Vernon and Virginia Vernon, 1933; Thom Christoph, 2007)
  • Les Romanesques: comédie en trois actes en vers, 1894
    - The Fantasticks (tr. George Fleming, 1900) / The Romancers (tr. M. Hendee, 1899; B. Clark, 1915, in The Genius of the French Theater, ed. A. Bermel, 1961)
    - Fantasticks: pienoismusikaali (suom. Esko Elstelä, 1988)
  • La Princesse Lointaine, 1895
    - The Princess Far-Away (tr. C. Renauld, 1899; A.E. Bagstad, 1921) / The Lady of Dreams (tr. L.N. Parker, 1912) / The Far Princess (tr. John Heard, Jr., 1925)
  • La Samaritaine: évangile en trois tableaux, en vers, 1897
    - The Woman of Samaria (tr. H.D. Norman, 1921)
  • Cyrano de Bergerac: comédie héroïque en cinq actes en vers, 1897
    - Cyrano de Bergerac (translated into English by H.T. Kingsbury, 1898; G. Hall, 1898; G. Thomas and M.F. Guillemard, 1898; H.B. Dole, 1899; C. Renauld, 1899; Brian Hooker, 1904; E. Kruckemeyer, 1934; H. Wolfe, 1937; L. Untermeyer, 1954; J. Forsyth, 1968; A. Burgess, 1971; L. Blair, 1972; Christopher Fry, 1975;  E. Morgan, 1992; C. Marowitz, 1994)
    - Cyrano de Bergerac: viisinäytöksinen runomittainen sankarinäytelmä (suom. Aukusti Simelius, 1918) / Cyrano de Bergerac: viisinäytöksinen sankarinäytelmä runomuotoon (suom. Pekka Lintu, 1993)
    - several screen adaptations: 1900, dir. Clément Maurice, starring Benoit Constant Coquelin; 1909, dir. Ernesto Maria Pasquali; 1909, dir. Jean Durand; 1925, dir. Augusto Genina, starring Pierre Magnier, Alex Bernard, Linda Moglia, Angelo Ferrari; 1938, starring Leslie Banks, Constance Cummings, James Mason; 1945, dir. Fernand Rivers, starring Claude Dauphin, llen Bernsen, Pierre Bertin, Christian Bertola; 1950: dir. by Michael Gordon, starring Jose Ferrer, Mala Powers, William Prince; 1959: Akuru kengo no shogai / Samurai Saga, dir. by Hiroshi Inagaki, starring Toshiro Mifune, Yoko Tsukasa, Akira Takarada, Keiko Awaji; 1960, TV drama, dir. Claude Barma, starring Daniel Sorano, Françoise Christophe, Michel Le Royer; 1972, TV drama, starring Peter Donat, Marsha Mason; 1975, TV drama, dir. Frits Butzelaar, starring Guus Hermus, Lies Franken, Jeroen Krabbé; 1978, TV drama, dir. Dirk Sanders, starring Denis Ganio, Evelyne Desutter, Pierre Boisserie; 1987, under the title Roxanne, dir. by Fred Schepi, written by Steve Martin and Daryl Hannah; 1990, dir. Jean-Paul Rappeneau, starring Gerard Depardieu, Anne Brochet, Vincent Perez; 2000, TV drama, dir. Sven Eric Bechtolf, starring Klaus Maria Brandauer, Barbara Auer, Alexander Simon; 2001, Kiss My Act, dir. Duane Clark, starring Dabney Coleman, Scott Cohen, Camryn Manheim, Alexondra Lee; 2005, dir. George Blume, starring Roberto Alagna, Nathalie Manfrino, Richard Troxell, Marc Barrard; 2007, TV drama, dir, Andy Sommer, starring Michel Vuillermoz, Françoise Gillard, Eric Ruf; 2008, TV drama, dir. David Leveaux, starring Kevin Kline, Jennifer Garner, Daniel Sunjata, Max Baker. - Opera composed by Eino Tamberg, libretto by Jaan Kross.
  • L'Aiglon: drame en six actes en vers, 1900
    - L'Aiglon: A Play in Six Acts (tr. Louis N. Parker, 1900; B. Davenport, 1927; C. Dane, 1934)
    - films: 1913, dir. Emile Chautard, starring Emile Chautard; 1931, dir. Viktor Tourjansky, starring Jean Weber, Victor Francen, Henri Desfontaines; 1931, Der Herzog von Reichstadt, dir. Viktor Tourjansky, starring Walter Edthofer, Lien Deyers, Grete Natzler
  • Chantecler: pièce en quatre actes, 1910
    - Chantecler: Play in Four Acts (tr. G. Hall, 1910; J.S. Newberry, 1911; L.N. Parker, 1911; Kay Nolte Smith, 1987) / Chanticleer (tr. H. Chafetz, 1968)
  • Œuvres Complètes, 1910-11 (7 vols., tr. H.D. Norman)
  • Œuvres Complètes illustrées, 1911 (5 vols.; ed. Pierre Lafitte)
  • Les Musardises, édition nouvelle, 1887-1892, 1911
  • La Derniere Nuit de Don Juan: poème dramatique en deux parties et un prologue, 1921
    - The Last Night of Don Juan, in Poetic Drama (tr. T. Riggs, 1941)
  • Plays of Edmond Rostand 1-2, 1921 (tr. H.D. Norman; Volume 1: Romantics, The Princess Faraway, The Woman of Samaria, Cyrano de Bergerac; Volume 2: The Eaglet, Chanticleer)
  • Théâtre, 1921-29 (6 vols.)
  • Le Cantique de L'Aile, 1922
  • Le Vol de la Marseillaise, 1922
  • Œuvres Complètes, 1911-1926 (10 vols.)
  • Choix de poésies, 1925
  • Cyrano de Bergerac, 1983 (edited by J. Truchet)
  • Lettres à sa fiancée: correspondance avec Rosemonde Gérard (1888); Le gant rouge: pièce inèdite, 2009 (edited by Michel Forrier & Olivier Goetz)
  • La maison des amants: une pièce inachevée: livre en trois actes, 2018  (édition d'Olivier Goetz)

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