Growing up, I was similar to Matilda: I always had my nose in a book. I loved being taken away to magical lands that authors created. My favorite time of year at school was when the book orders came out — that way I could read even more during the summer. However, when I got to high school, the feeling of loving to read wasn’t the same. I wasn’t a fan of “required reading.” Although many of the novels I had to read were considered classics, such as Shakespeare, Faulkner, Vonnegut or even Shelley, their archaic vocabulary made it almost impossible to enjoy the stories these novels had to share.
This hatred of being told what to read and when to read it all changed when one of the many novels (rather, play) I had to read was Edmond Rostand’s most famous, Cyrano de Bergerac. Who? What play? You’re making that up! These are a lot of responses I get when bringing up Rostand’s play. But when I mention Steve Martin staring in Roxanne, the response seems to be mutual: That was based off a 19th century play?
But back to the point. The play opens in Hotel Burgundy in Paris. The year: 1640. France is in the midst of the Thirty Year War. We find our protagonist (and title character) Cyrano de Bergerac doing what he does best, causing a scene. Cyrano is disrupting a play and challenges the lead actor to a duel. The loser must leave town for good. Within the first act, Cyrano reveals his intellect and his cunning swordsman skills. He seems to be the man all the ladies swoon over, right? Not until the end of the act does the reader learn about his one shortcoming: Cyrano’s nose is stupendously large. Not only this, the eloquent swordsman is very sensitive about the size of his honker. The reader learns this monstrous schnoz lowers Cyrano’s confidence and he won’t even confess his feelings to his love, Roxane.
The play goes on to unfold Roxane has stolen another man’s heart. The dim-witted, but strikingly beautiful Christian admits to Cyrano his feelings for the woman. Conflicted between what would make him happy and what would make Roxane happy, Cyrano helps Christian win over Roxane.
Although it is entirely written in verse, Cyrano is not as difficult to understand as a Shakespeare play. Rostand’s simple, poetic verse is exemplified best when Cyrano speaks. When Christian is trying to win over Roxane, the scene is similar to the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet; Roxane awaits her lover on a balcony. While Roxane is contemplating her relationship with Christian, he is below, bellowing his love to her, and Cyrano is hiding in a nearby shrub coaching Christian on what to say. Cyrano’s love for Roxane, and Rostand’s writing style is best illustrated during this scene:
A kiss, when all is said, is—what?
A compact sealed, a promise carried out.
An oath accomplished and a vow confirmed.
The rosy dot upon the “i” in “loving.”
A secret for no ear, but for the lips.
The velvet humming of an amorous bee:
The endless moment of infinity.
The heart’s communion cup that tastes of flowers.
The breathing in a little of the soul
When the pure spirit rises to the lips.
(Cyrano, page 72)
I’m not one to give away endings, though. If you want to know what happens among this complicated love triangle, you’ll have to read the play yourself.
There are multiple reasons why I love Cyrano. This was one of the first plays I read that I thoroughly enjoyed, and didn’t question for a minute what was happening. But one of the main reasons I love Cyrano is the message behind it: Rostand had the courage to write about this brave, bold character, and give him some imperfections. The schnoz Cyrano sports knocks him off his pedestal, making him more relatable to the common man. I fell in love with this motif, and although I was considerably young when I read the play, I felt it helped me grow into the person I am today. As humans, we aren’t perfect. No one is. But with Rostand’s work, I was able to learn we need to embrace our flaws. It is not physical characteristics that make us who we are; it is your personality and what you stand for that defines you. You don’t need to rely on the thoughts or permission of others to stand up and accept who you are; the only person you need permission from is yourself.
As cliché as this motif may seem, it works with Cyrano. When Cyrano realizes people admire, accept and love him, despite his nose, he continues to be the brave, bold swordsman he is — just with more confidence. Cyrano understands that his nose is a part of him, and isn’t bothered by what others think of it. This mindset helped me grow into a person who knows not everything needs to be fixed; imperfections were created for a reason, whether they be physical or characteristics.
Now, as a college junior, I know to accept myself as who I am and accept others for who they are, idiosyncrasies and all. And although none of us have a playwright to transcribe how we overcome our shortcomings, readers of all ages will appreciate the tale Rostand shares in Cyrano de Bergerac.
As the summer quickly approaches, most of my days will be spent like Matilda’s. Reading the day away while lazily lying in a hammock. And while I have an extensive reading list I hope to get through, you can count Cyrano will be on that list, as what I consider, a classic.
Cyrano de Bergerac (unabridged)
Dover Publications, Inc. 2000
Paperback: $2.50 (or you could be an avid bibliophile such as myself and locate a copy at Half Price Books for a mere 50 cents.)