Home > 19th Century, Classics, French Literature, Made into a film, Rostand, Theatre > ‘Tis a rock!…a peak!…a cape! A cape forsooth! ‘Tis a peninsular!

‘Tis a rock!…a peak!…a cape! A cape forsooth! ‘Tis a peninsular!

Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand 1897.

Cyrano de Bergerac is a historical play by Edmond Rostand, loosely based upon the real Cyrano de Bergerac. It is set in the 17th century, in France, in the musketeer’s era. Cyrano is a proud, quarrelsome soldier from Gascogne, like d’Artagnan. He’s loud, brave, and loyal to his friends. He lives upon a strong code of honour. He doesn’t like to compromise, always speaks his mind even if it will only gain him enemies. Cyrano is a poet and a swordsman; he handles words and swords with elegance and success. But Cyrano is ugly, a big nose disfigures his face. He has a complex about it and while nobody dares to mention his nose, he chooses to make fun of it. This is one of the most famous lines in the French theatre, and even if it’s long, I can’t resist the pleasure to share it with you:

Cyrano_Nez.emfCyrano is in love with Roxane and Roxane is in love with gorgeous Christian. She fell for his pretty face but she has a passion for poetry and fine lines, which was fashionable in the 17thC. She wants her lover to be witty and wax poetic. Poor Christian can’t write a line and poor Cyrano isn’t handsome enough to attract her. Roxane confides in Cyrano and tells him about her love for Christian. Both men are in the same regiment and Roxane asks Cyrano to protect Christian. Cyrano loves her enough to only want her happiness and promises to take care of Christian. Meanwhile, Cyrano discusses Roxane with Christian and offers his help with writing love letters. Cyrano is adamant that Christian can win her heart if Cyrano writes the lines and Christian delivers them. This leads to another extremely famous scene: Roxane is on a balcony and Cyrano is in the shadows, murmuring lines to Christian so that he can repeat them. Roxane notices something is wrong in Christian’s rhythm of speech and Cyrano takes over, taking the opportunity to reveal his feelings. Roxane never guessed that it wasn’t Christian speaking.

Cyrano_TorretonI have seen a surprising version of Cyrano directed by Dominique Pitoiset, starring Philippe Torreton in the role of Cyrano. The first scenes were a bit awkward. The setting looked like a psychiatric hospital, with crude white lights, white plastic furniture. The characters were dressed in sweat pants, snickers and undershirts. They looked like lunatics indeed. A juke-box coming from the 1960s in America was set along a wall and used from time to time to broadcast music. (I’d never thought I’d hear Queen along with Rostand’s verses). In the play, this is set in soldiers’ quarters. Cyrano was bald, with a mustachio and of course a big nose. Some spectators left after twenty minutes and they should have been a tiny more patient because the oddity vanished after a while and the beauty of the text just swept us along.


Pitoiset managed to give back the power of the text, the sheer energy of the words. This play is simply beautiful, mixing irony, comedy, sentiment, war and love. The direction was innovative and even if it was sometimes offbeat because of the difference between the language and the setting, I thought it worked well. As you can read it in the quotes, the play is in alexandrins and mentions things that don’t belong to the 21thC (swords, battle of Arras…) It lasted two and a half hours and I never got bored a minute. The balcony scene I mentioned earlier was replaced by an internet scene. A huge screen went down on the scene and Christian and Cyrano were at a laptop, dialling to have an internet phone call with Roxane. It was an excellent find for two main reasons. The obvious one is that it showed how modern this scene was. Just as Roxane couldn’t know that Cyrano was prompting Christian’s answers with the darkness surrounding her balcony, she couldn’t know that there was someone else near the computer. It made me smile because when I read A Virtual Love by Andrew Blackman, which is, among other things, about impersonating someone else to conquer a woman, I thought about Cyrano, Christian and Roxane. And then I saw that I wasn’t the only one to link the anonymity of the internet with this. The other reason is that the screen showed Roxane’s face in close-up. This scene is very moving, Cyrano pours his heart out and wins her with his words. She doesn’t know she’s falling for Cyrano and not Christian. We could witness all the emotions on the face of the actress, which couldn’t have been possible without the screen. The emotion was palpable and it brought an incredible force to the moment. Brilliant idea, brilliant acting also.

Torreton is an amazing actor. He’s totally at ease on stage, you’d think he was chatting in his living room. His diction is perfect without any hesitation in the text. He never stumbles upon a word or yells when it’s unnecessary. He has the right tone at the right moment and he does justice to the beauty of Rostand’s style and to the panache of Cyrano as a character. I had already seen him in Uncle Vania by Chekov and I’d been impressed. Great performance.

If you don’t know Cyrano de Bergerac, it’s worth discovering and here is another quote to hear his wonderful prose:

Cyrano_baiserThere’s a film version with Depardieu playing Cyrano; I remember I liked it. I enjoyed the modernised version I saw and that’s something only the theatre can do. When I read a novel, although I often feel that what the novelist wrote reaches out to me across the centuries, I remain rooted in the century it was written. When I read Money by Zola, I recognise patterns that exist in my century because human traits remain the same but I still see images of the 19thC. When I watch a play that has been relocated from its century to ours, I may forget about the original century. It’s set here and now and this liberty offered to the director gives a new dimension to the text.

PS: the quotes come from the English version available on Projet Gutenberg. It was translated from the French by Gladys Thomas and Mary F. Guillemard.

  1. June 2, 2013 at 3:41 pm

    Wonderful review, Emma! I haven’t read ‘Cyrano de Bergerac’ and so I really enjoyed reading your review. I also liked both the passages you have quoted. The play version you have watched looks quite fascinating. Thanks for posting pictures of it. Philippe Torreton as Cyrano looks perfect – I really admire his nose 🙂 I didn’t know that there is a movie version too with Depardieu starring as Cyrano. I would love to watch it some time. I think ‘Cyrano de Bergerac’ must have inspired a lot of novels and movies. Two of them come to my mind straightaway. There is a novel by Anthony Capella called ‘The Food of Love’ which has a similar theme and there is an old movie in my own language (Tamil) called ‘Next door girl’ which also had the same theme. That movie was quite famous when my parents were younger. Thanks for this wonderful review!


    • June 2, 2013 at 6:25 pm

      Thanks Vishy.
      He really looks the part, doesn’t he? Nice nose!
      Very interesting what you say about Capella and the Indian movie. I didn’t know it inspired other writers.


  2. June 2, 2013 at 4:20 pm

    Great commentary Emma. I generally disapprove of setting these plays out of the correct time. Last year I saw a production of Macbeth set in a 22nd century post apocalyptic Scotland. With that said if the acting is good, it usually transcends these poor choices of setting.


    • June 2, 2013 at 6:30 pm

      This version of Macbeth sounds like something else.
      It can be very well done. I’ve seen a modern version of ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore and it was excellent. It allows the director to renew the way to direct the play and it points out the universality of the text.


  3. June 2, 2013 at 5:21 pm

    I haven’t read this but I’ve seen a couple of film versions (as you probably guessed). There’s something about the Cyrano story that borders on the mythological–perhaps it even has fairy tale qualities to it in some ways.


    • June 2, 2013 at 6:39 pm

      Given the ending, I’m not sure about the fairytale quality.

      For me, it’s an heir of French literary tradition:
      – Alexandrins, first of all
      – Cyrano has something of Alceste (The Misanthropist by Molière) as he refuses to abide by social rules, shut his mouth when it would be preferable and safer. He loathes hypocrisy and claims to be a free man;
      – There’s something of Madame de Lafayette in the selfless love Cyrano has for Roxane. That’s the true romantic aspect of the play. He’s so in love with her that he’d rather have her happy with Christian than unhappy without him.
      – There’s also these verbal duels which are, in my opinion, a French tradition. You know, these witty conversations where witty remarks are expected, puns exchanged.
      – The setting with “musketeers” and the Gascons links the play to Dumas.


  4. June 2, 2013 at 9:00 pm

    yes but then you think about how many times the story appears in its various manifestations and there is something grander about Cyrano, I think, than transcends the plot.


    • June 2, 2013 at 9:01 pm

      I think my fairytales are darker than yours.


      • June 2, 2013 at 9:06 pm

        Too much Disney in my childhood? 🙂


    • June 2, 2013 at 9:05 pm

      Can you give me examples?
      Is it the theme of being loved for who you are and not what you look like? Being a man, Cyrano had more chance to conquer Roxane’s heart than if the situation had been reversed. I mean, you see more often beautiful women with average looking men than a gorgeous men with a plain women.


  5. June 3, 2013 at 2:30 am

    Yes that’s the theme–get past the looks–in this case the big nose and look at what’s underneath.

    There’s the Steve Martin remake. I can think of that right off the top of my head. Others will come to me in due course. Of course the entire internet romance phenomenon opens up lots of opportunities.

    Cheating: looked at Wikipedia and there’s quite a list including a 1930 entry in Gangster Stories, “Serrano of the Stockyards,”


    • June 3, 2013 at 8:59 pm

      Do you think Cyrano started this tradition? I’d think it came more from fairy tales, like The Beauty and the Beast.


  6. June 3, 2013 at 12:48 pm

    Wonderful post, and another French writer to add to my list. I’m glad you couldn’t hear me stumbling over reading the French version aloud, *blush*, but I liked having it there, it’s good practice:)


    • June 3, 2013 at 9:01 pm

      Thanks Lisa, it’s good to know the quotes in French are appreciated.
      I suppose you need to be careful about the translation you choose when you read this play. I picked the free translation I found online and I think it’s good. It keeps the verses and still gives back the text.


      • June 4, 2013 at 10:31 am

        I usually scout around at GoodReads to find someone who’s commented on which versions are the best in translation. Often the free ones are excellent, it’s just a matter of finding out which ones to choose.


        • June 4, 2013 at 7:46 pm

          Sure Goodreads is a good place to find comments about this.
          Translating Cyrano isn’t an easy job: lots of puns. I think the translator found an inventive way to translate the part of the “point rose qu’on met sur le i du verbe aimer”


  7. June 4, 2013 at 10:22 am

    I think, I know what Guy means but I wouldn’t call it fairy tale, I’d say it has a mythological dimension. Or is a form of archetype.
    I experineced the power of the written word a few weeks ago. A friend of mine met someone online and somehow the exchage went wrong and since he was very interested he asked me whether I could write for him (I know him very well) – still we were both amazed what an effect it had. It was exactly what he would have written if he had manged to stay poised…. Anyhow the power of words.
    That said, I’ve only seen the Depardieu version which I did like. I’ve got the book though. I don’t know about setting it at another time. Usually I don’t like that but it depends.


    • June 4, 2013 at 7:38 pm

      The fact that it does not have a Hollywood ending puts it out of the fairy tale department.
      Anyway. It’s not easy to transpose a play in another time and yet there’s something about the internet relationships that relates to this. Like you just mentioned, someone else could be writing instead of the person you think you’re writing to.

      I stand with Christian on this one. Roxane is a bit of a snob. What if he can’t express his feelings like a poet? His affection is as real as Cyrano’s. He can’t help it if he’s not good with words just like Cyrano isn’t responsible for his big nose.


  8. June 11, 2013 at 8:47 pm

    I actually rather like the Steve Martin version, which is surprisingly faithful.

    Roxanne is flawed, but then so are most of the characters, with perhaps Cyrano’s flaw being the only truly cruel one as it’s purely superficial.

    It sounds like an excellent production, innovative yet still faithful.


    • June 11, 2013 at 9:48 pm

      Roxane is flawed but improves.

      Physical flaws are unfair because you can’t do anything about it (well except plastic surgery) and superficial. That’s why the reader/spectator’s heart goes to Cyrano. Don’t we all have something in our appearance that we don’t like?
      Rostand plays with the idea of being known for your mind without letting your body get in the way of other people’s perception. That’s why I think the parallel with internet relationship is relevant.

      The production was unsettling at first but then it proved excellent.


  1. December 1, 2019 at 11:24 am

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